“Did you get me my cabbage?”
Joan’s hands froze on a tin of chopped, plum tomatoes. After a moment’s hesitation, she breathed in.
“I’m not sure.”
Cabbage. Bloody cabbage. Just the word was enough to make her left eye twitch.
It began as a bit of a joke. A trivial request for an after-school snack.
“You know what I fancy?” Adam had said. “Cabbage.”
“Cabbage?” Joan had replied. “Really? Wouldn’t you rather have grapes? Or malt loaf?”
But his insistence was earnest, sweet, and she couldn’t deny that it was a healthy snack and unlikely to ruin his dinner. Before long this was a daily occurrence, and he seemed not to be able to satiate his appetite for it.
She would trim and shred and boil, before ladling platefuls out and depositing them into his waiting hands, as he hurried off upstairs to enjoy his snack and look through his telescope.
But, as time wore on, the unease started to settle on her heart like snow – delicate at first but then increasingly heavy and uncomfortable. Adam asked her to cook it less and less, and then not at all. Was this really an acceptable snack for an 8 year old? Should it be encouraged? What if he started asking for raw cabbage to take to school, to munch on in the playground? She pictured him on an isolated corner of tarmac, taking bites out of a whole cabbage as if it were an apple, the children around him sneering and taunting. Was it not her responsibility to protect him from such treatment?
She had tried to help him to grow out of the habit, buying smaller cabbages or, sometimes, ‘forgetting’ to buy any at all. But the look of disappointment, of hurt on his tiny, shining face was difficult to bear. On the third day of her ‘forgetting’ he broke down into panicked sobs and beat the kitchen floor with his fragile hands. She remembered the next day.
Steeling herself, she pulled the green ball out of the canvas bag, but knelt down to Adam’s level as she handed it over.
“Remember,” she said, looking into his relieved, thankful eyes, “there are other foods. You know?”
Taking his prize in both hands, he trotted up the stairs, two at a time, to his attic bedroom. After closing the door, he stepped gingerly towards the old, pale wooden wardrobe that stood in the corner. In one swift movement he twisted the bronze handle, opening the door with his right hand and flinging the cabbage into the gap with his left. Instantly, he slammed it shut, his expert fingers turning the tiny key in the lock.
The creature inside clicked with delight before the unmistakeable sounds of teeth tearing into vegetation, though muffled, filled the room. The hinges creaked and the wardrobe rocked slightly on its russet feet.
As the noise subsided, Adam exhaled shakily and sat on his bed. He hugged his knees.
Charlie Swailes is a secondary school English teacher living in West Yorkshire with her husband and two small sons. Her flash fiction has been in a variety of online publications including Reflex Fiction, Re-Side, Detritus and Paragraph Planet. She has stories appearing in this year’s National Flash Fiction Day Anthology.
I last visited Cape Town in 2009. I had gone down with my mother and sister, Cora. Our holiday was for just over a week, during which time we went to all the usual tourist attractions, such as the V&A Waterfront, and even managed to survive choppy waters on the ferry back from Robben Island.
My mother had soon got bored, though, and was looking forward to flying back to Johannesburg. So, it was no surprise when, just after a late breakfast on our final day, she packed our suitcases and stood them by the hotel room door, even though I had arranged for late checkout and our flight was only at four.
‘You know, we still have most of the day ahead of us,’ I told her.
‘No, we don’t,’ my mother replied. ‘We need to be at the airport by three, and that means leaving here about two, if not earlier – you never know what traffic will be like and you can’t take chances.’
‘It’s only about forty-five minutes to the airport,’ I reassured her, but she was having none of it.
‘You can’t take chances,’ Cora piped up, taking our mother’s side, which she always did. ‘Anything can happen. There can always be unforeseen delays.’
‘Listen to your sister if you won’t listen to me,’ my mother said haughtily.
‘You are both being neurotic!’ I told them. ‘You can sit here with your suitcases if you want, waiting for the taxi that is due to arrive only in about three hours!’
‘What are you planning to do?’ my mother asked.
‘I’m going out,’ I told them. ‘I’m going to visit a museum a friend told me about.’
‘He’s lying,’ Cora said dismissively. ‘He’s probably going to buy even more books to add to those he’s bought already. He will probably have to pay for excess weight as it is.’
‘What friend? What museum?’ my mother asked, ignoring Cora.
‘Well, not really a friend, more of an acquaintance, someone I got talking to the other day.’
‘Who?’ my mother asked again.
‘Probably some drunk,’ Cora said.
‘He is not a drunk!’ I almost yelled at her. ‘He’s an artist, and it’s a museum devoted to Pessoa.’
Neither my mother nor Cora knew who Pessoa was – they probably thought he was an artist too. But I had also been puzzled when I heard the news of this museum. Why there would be a museum – even if only a small one – devoted to Pessoa in Cape Town was beyond me. In Durban, where he had gone to school, yes, but surely not in Cape Town. Still, I was curious and with some time to kill before going to the airport, I was determined to pay this museum a visit.
‘Sounds like something mad to me,’ my mother said, sitting down. ‘Where is this place? How are you going to get there?’
‘It’s not that far – only about twenty minutes by bus, and the bus stops right outside this hotel,’ I said. ‘When I arrive at the stop where I need to be, the museum is about two minutes’ walk away.’
I picked up my jacket. ‘I really won’t be that long. I will be back long before three – probably at about two. The museum is quite small, I believe. I won’t take that long to go through it.’
‘Well, it’s your disaster if we miss our flight,’ my mother said, judgementally.
‘We will not miss our flight!’ I insisted, and walked out the hotel room door, leaving them behind. I could see Cora was about to add something, but I managed to close the door before I could hear her words.
I was glad to be out of the hotel and in the street. I always liked being on my own. I always liked going on holiday alone. It was a mistake to allow my mother and Cora to come with me. A lesson learnt, never to be repeated.
After a few minutes’ wait a bus arrived, and when I asked the driver if he could let me know when to get off, he said, ‘Sure thing, it isn’t that far.’
Indeed, it wasn’t that long before I was getting off at the respective stop. I thanked the driver as the bus drove off and I took quick stroll in the direction of where I was told the museum would be.
Sure enough, a short while later I came across a small house with a sign reading ‘Fernando Pessoa Museum’ above it. I was flabbergasted. So, this museum did exist, after all! A celebration of the man with nearly eighty literary alter egos!
I walked inside. The interior of the museum consisted of one large room with framed photos on the walls and several display cases. The exhibits were manuscripts of letters and poems, including translations of Tennyson, Poe, Wordsworth and Whitman, whose work had had a strong influence on Pessoa’s own poetry, notably those written under the heteronym of Álvaro de Campos. There was also a first edition of Mensagem (Messages), the only poetry collection of his to appear in his lifetime, and of course there were some early editions of his posthumously published masterpiece, The Book of Disquiet.
I also spotted some examples of Pessoa’s handwritten horoscopes, charts that he had drawn up for various people, including one for Aleister Crowley. Pessoa and Crowley had met up in Lisbon, and Pessoa had even translated Crowley’s ‘Hymn to Pan’. I was hoping that a copy of that translation might be on exhibit, but I was out of luck on that item. He had also translated some of the leading theosophists, such as Blavatsky, Leadbetter and Besant, but these works were, likewise, not on exhibit.
The photos on the walls were of Pessoa at various ages, plus, of course, street scenes of Durban, where he had attended school and published his first poems, and Lisbon, where he had lived from 1905 until his death, reputedly from alcoholism, in 1935.There was, not surprisingly, also the well-known photo of Pessoa drinking wine at a Lisbon bar.
What caught my attention particularly, though, was a small portrait photo of a young woman. I looked closely at the photo as there was something that intrigued me about it. Firstly, the young woman’s clothing looked almost contemporary – not from Pessoa’s era at all. Secondly, and stranger still, the young woman also looked familiar to me, as if she was someone I knew.
‘Who is this woman?’ I asked out loud.
‘Oh, that is Pessoa’s sister,’ a voice said suddenly. I turned around and saw an old man in dark suit, probably the curator, standing close to me.
‘His sister? I didn’t know he had a sister,’ I said, then added hastily: ‘Not that I know that much about him – I have never read a full biography of him. I’ve read his poems in English translation, and The Book of Disquiet.’
‘Oh yes, he had a sister,’ the old man said. ’She was a medium. She introduced him to seances.’
‘Hang on – I read somewhere that it was an aunt that introduced him to seances, not a sister!’
‘It was his sister who did it,’ the old man said quietly. ‘Let me assure you, I know.’
‘What was his sister’s name?’ I asked, out to test him.
‘Cora’, he said.
‘What? That’s my sister’s name!’ I blurted out.
‘His sister’s name was Cora,’ the old man said.
‘But it’s not even Portuguese,’ I protested.
‘His sister’s name was Cora,’ the old man repeated. ‘Cora was his sister.’
I suddenly felt dizzy. The room started spinning and I could smell something like burning incense. The old man just looked blank at me, not saying anything further. Dark spots were beginning to appear before my eyes. My mouth went dry and my tongue started to feel numb. I needed to get out of the museum and back to the street. I pushed past the old man, muttered ‘Sorry, I …’ and rushed to the door. I could sense him standing behind me, silently, watching me, saying and doing nothing. Once outside, I took deep breaths and tried to regain my equilibrium.
I looked back at the museum entrance, but I didn’t want to go inside again. The old man hadn’t even followed me outside to check if I was okay. I was sweating. It had been such an unnerving and unsettling experience. I was sure the old man had his facts wrong. When I got back to Johannesburg I would do some research and clear things up. That would put me at ease.
I wanted to get back to the hotel. Something made me feel that my mother had been right. I need to be with her and Cora and we needed to wait patiently for the taxi and then get to the airport in plenty of time. I looked at my watch: it was quarter to one.
I walked back to the bus stop, still wondering about the strange woman in the photo and was even more perplexed that this supposed sister had the same name as Cora. It was weird. I would tell Cora about it and wished I had brought my camera along, so that I could have taken a photo. ‘A photo of a photo,’ I laughed aloud. It struck me as funny for some reason.
The bus arrived. I jumped on, relieved that it wouldn’t be long before I was back at the hotel. I never thought I would feel happy to be back with my mother and Cora.
The bus had been on its way for about fifteen minutes when traffic became congested. It didn’t worry me at first, until I realised that twenty minutes had gone by and the bus had barely moved. Some of the other passengers were getting restless.
‘What’s the problem?’ I asked the driver.
‘Haven’t a clue,’ he said. ‘Could be an accident or anything.’ He didn’t appear to be worried about the delay.
‘Do you think we will be stuck here long?’ I asked.
‘How should I know?’ he responded cheekily.
‘Well, so long as it clears soon,’ I muttered and went back to my seat.
Ten more minutes passed and still the bus hadn’t moved. Some of the passengers started getting off the bus. ‘We’ll be quicker walking’, one of them complained.
The bus started moving again but after a short distance came to a halt again. Now I could hear sirens.
‘Here come the cops,’ yelled the bus driver.
A police car came to a halt alongside the bus. A police officer stuck his head out the car window and yelled up to the bus driver: ‘There’s been an armed robbery – a big shootout. The whole area has been cordoned off. You can’t go much further along this road. Take a detour at the next intersection.’ And with that he drove off again.
‘What now?’ I asked the driver.
‘You heard the man,’ he replied. ‘We need to take a detour.’
‘Bloody hell!’ I said.’ You mean you won’t be continuing on your route?’
‘Well, I need to get back on my route,’ the driver said, ‘but I’m just a stand-in driver and I don’t know these roads that well.’
I looked at my watch: it was already almost two o’clock! We must have been stuck in traffic for much longer than I had thought. Either that, or I had been in the museum for much longer and had misread my watch when I got out. I had felt disoriented, yes, but surely I could not have lost my sense of time when in the museum?
‘I need to get to the Agency Hotel,’ I said. ‘Which is the quickest way there?’
‘Haven’t a clue,’ the driver said, turning right and off the bus route. ‘I don’t know where that hotel is.’
‘What do you mean you don’t know?’ I asked him.
‘Have never heard of that hotel. Do you know what street it’s in?’
I started to say: ‘It’s in ...’ when I stopped: I couldn’t remember the name of the street the hotel was in!
‘Well, what street’s it in?’ the driver asked. ‘If I know the street, I might suggest you would be better off walking.’
‘I can’t remember the name of the street,’ I mumbled. ‘But I am staying at the Agency Hotel. My mother and sister are waiting for me there. We need to be at the airport by four. We are catching a plane back to Johannesburg.’
‘Ah, from Joburg’, he said. ‘That explains it. When you come down here on holiday you should take note of where you are staying.’
‘I do take note of where I am staying!’ I yelled at him.
‘Don’t’ shout at me,’ he snarled, ‘or else I will drop you off right here and you can find your own way back to your hotel. I don’t take nonsense from passengers!’
‘Look, please understand,’ I pleaded. ‘My mother and sister are waiting for me. They will be worried. The taxi to the airport will be arriving soon. They will load up our suitcases into the taxi, but I won’t be there!’
‘That’s not my problem,’ he said. ‘All I need to do is to get this bus back on the route!’
I wanted to swear at him, but there was no point. I was wondering what my mother and Cora would be thinking back at the hotel, when I heard a phone ringing very close to me. Of course, I had my cellphone in my pocket! I could simply call the hotel and let them know I had been delayed! Why hadn’t I thought it before? Perhaps I was within walking distance and they could give me directions.
I took out my phone and saw that it was the hotel calling me. I answered.
‘Geoff!’ Cora yelled at me. ‘Where are you? Mom and I have been so worried about you. Why aren’t you here with us?’
It was then that it struck me: this wasn’t 2009, it was 2016, and both my mother and Cora had been dead for five years.
Gary Cummiskey has published several poetry chapbooks, including In Naked Field (2019) and Don't Stop Until Incinerated (2016). In 2009 he co-edited Who was Sinclair Beiles?, a collection of writings about the South African Beat poet. He has also published a book of short stories, Off-ramp. He lives in Johannesburg.
Tooth and Claw
As Floraslid a tray of sandwiches into the fridge, shewondered if it was too early to open theWhispering Angel.She had picked uptwo bottles of the rosé fromWaitrose in the hope that the parents might lingerat pick-up time. More than once that morning Scarlethad asked why she couldn’t have a Sharkey and George party like Millie and Daisy. Shehad wanted to say that they had spent every last penny on this bloody house, and couldn’t afford entertainers,but instead, she had continuedBlu-tacking the tail-less donkey to their yet-to-be Farrow and Balled walls and forced a smile. ‘You don’twant to be like everybody else, Scarlet.A vintage party will be so cool. Musical statues, pass-the parcel:they’ll love it!Now, why don’t you go and check on the guinea-pigs.’ Scarlet had begged for a dog for her birthday, but they had compromised on Ginger-Snap and Chewy who were munching carrots in the garden.
It had only been a few months since the move to Surrey. When the baby arrived (not part of the plan) they had outgrown their three-bed-end-terrace in Clapham and moving out seemed like a good option, the only option, Rupert said, if they wanted more space. It would be an upheaval, yes, but Country Living had always been her magazine of choice and it would be worth it for the extra bedroom and village life. Or so they thought. Scarlet and her little brother Matt had made friends quickly, and there had been no shortage of play dates for them, but it was a dog eat dog world at the school-gates and Flora hadn’t quite figured out her place in the pecking order. The alpha parents were coming to the party and sheneededthis to be perfect.
When the invitations had gone out a flurry of mums had told her how brave she was to be doing the party at home, how clever to make the invitations herself. Shehad liked that. And she’d gone a bit overboard. She saw that now. But she’d had fun collecting mismatched tea-sets and sewing bunting from Scarlet’s old clothes. The cake- a teapot - was something of a triumph and Rupert said the tiny cupcakes with the edible glitter looked almost too good to eat. She had made a banner and a papier-mâché pinata and there was a flip chart with the timings of the games. Maybe the flip chart was too much. Upstairs the baby was sleeping, and Maisy, in her red polka-dot dress, was looking out over the back of the sofa when the first of the children knocked at the door.It was all going to be perfect.
Two hours later, Rupert put his arm round her shoulder, and they breathed a sigh of relief.‘Well done, superstar,’ he said, kissing her cheek, ‘She’s having a great time.’
Sure, there had been the usual argy-bargy during pass-the-parcel and a couple of wobbling statues had needed a Haribo to stave off the tears, but as the girls jostled to sit beside Scarlet,shesmiled, ‘Yes, I think we can call this a success.’
With just a few minutes to go before the parents arrivedRupert brought the Whispering Angel and the nibblesfrom the fridgeand she clapped her hands to get the girls’ attention.
‘Ok,everyone,’ she called, ‘Scarlet hasone last surprise for you.’ On cue, her children headed into thegarden. ‘Right, let’s make a big circle.’ The girls,used to following instructions, shuffled into formation.‘Great. Now sit down with your legs outstretched. That’s right. Touch feet with the person next door so that there are no gaps. Fabulous. You look just like a big star. And you are stars! Well done!’ The girls giggled with excitement, not sure what was coming next.
Scarlet and Mattappeared in the doorway each cradling a guinea-pig, nursing themlike babesin arms. The girls gasped and called to Scarlet all at once.
‘Quietly now, we don’t want to frighten them. Guys, why don’t you popGinger-Snap and Chewy into the circle and let them have a snuffle about.’
The girls twittered as the guinea-pigs shuffled around the ring,tiny claws scrabbling on the wooden floor, noses twitching. They stretched out their fingers, willing the creatures to choose them.
‘Looks like some of the parents are arriving,’ said Rupert, as a 4x4 pulled into the drive. ‘I’ll go and say hello.’
Outside,a tall man in a waxed jacket and raspberry cords opened the tail gate of his Range Rover. Rupertheard barking as he thrust out a hand to welcome his guest.Capitalising on the distraction, twoJack Russells,that had been restrained in the boot, leapt out, salivating, and tore a circle round the garden. They had caught the whiff of quarry.
The wax jacketed man, Daisy’s father as it turned out, lurched after theterriers, gasping, ‘Stop them!’And Rupert joined the chase.Like Popeye and the dog-catcher theygrabbed at the slippery beasts who shotoff like missiles, and the men’s arms caught air.
Through the front door, along the corridor and over thegirl-wall the dogs bolted. Into the arena. Where the killing commenced.An unfair contest some would say, but only later. Much later.
The carnage that followed was biblical. The screams.The scattering of little girls. The splattering of guinea-pigs.
The Whispering Angelwent unopened; the charcuterie was left untouched. In the days that followed there would be apologies.From Flora and Rupert. And from Daisy’s Dad, who understood how hard it must beforthose unused to country living. The parents were polite, and terribly English about it all.It was, they all agreed, terrible. Terrible for everyone. There were consolations. Though few invitations after that. And acard from a mother who offeredcold comfort. It was, she said, important, that children were not too shielded fromharsh reality, ‘Nature,’ after all, ‘Is red in tooth and claw.’
Kari Gillespie hails from Perthshire, Scotland. Two years ago she moved South and now lives in West Horsley, Surrey. After reading English at Oxford a short career in publishing was followed by a much longer career as an English teacher. She currently in the final semester of an MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Surrey.
I wish I could get a nine volt battery tattoo'd just above my clitoris.
R. Keith is the author of 20 coolections of poetry, fiction and vispo.
Latest books include Wild Rose Country (Cajun Mutt Press), Something about flies (Alien Buddha Press), FLOP (Rust Belt Press)
His visual art has been presented in galleries in Russia, Malta and Canada.
It was late in the night, we were at her kitchen table drinking coffee, talking about literature: we hadn't seen each other in over a year, she lost her job, which was later given to me, her husband had left and was suing her for custody of their son, who might have had a different father, I had gone on to a different and better job, she was trying to get back in school, three of my relatives had recently died, her typewriter had broke, I stopped smoking, my ex-girlfriend was becoming addicted to heroin, a friend's daughter was run over by a car, her son had just recovered from a bout of serious pneumonia, my mother was institutionalized, her mother would baby-sit while she worked, a mutual friend had blown his brains out, her lease was up, I had a friend staying with me who had been evicted, and there was a war starting which everyone thought the country would become involved in; we were at her kitchen table drinking coffee, talking about literature, it was late in the night
She speaks her native language
With a Berlitz accent
She can order drinks and find the museum
Her small talk covers the weather,
going shopping, and sites to see
She has five pages of discourse
For all her conversations
Yrik-Max Valentonis has been published in the anthologies: Animal Blessings, Divided Again, Heat the Grease We're Frying Up Some Poetry, Sinbad and the Winds of Destiny, and Zombie Nation: St. Pete. He earned a BA in Literature from University of South Florida and a MFA in Writing from Naropa University.