All stories

A New Stepladder

by Russ

My job had been made clear. I was to form a cradle with my hands, stand straight, and 'not fucking move'. She, in turn, was to step into the cradle, dig her knees into my collarbone, lever her weight against my back, and finish painting the top of her... our, freshly created feature wall.

I manoeuvred my head, trying to find a comfortable position while its natural space was occupied by her thigh. Across the room I saw the graveyard of stuff we’d dragged from the cupboard which had rested against this wall: the turntable on which we’d spun our musical worlds together in my old attic flat; the headless plastic baby the dog used to play with when we first moved in here; and the stepladder, which had until recently fulfilled my current role, one of its legs now bent at a painful angle.

‘Stop bloody fidgeting!’

The irritated command spurred me to stiffen, causing a jolt to my passenger and pushing an under-the-breath insult from her mouth.

It was then it started, the inevitable tingling on the bridge of my nose. I held fast with the resolution I could ignore it, mind-over-matter, for the best part of five seconds before I started scrunching up the skin on my nose. An action which, if anything, only made it worse. I stuck out my tongue and tried to curl it up to the affected zone - not even close. It was apparent I was going to have to take more drastic action.

At a glacial pace, like some sort of yoga master, I subtly shifted my balance and position to begin releasing the burden on my right arm.

‘What the fuck are you doing?’ she massively overreacted.

Wordlessly, I resumed my original stance, refusing to look up and see the withering expression I knew would be on her face. Instead, I focussed on the cooling mug of tea which had been abandoned when my orders came in, sacrificed at the altar of love, service, and DIY.

Desperate for salvation, I noticed the stitching around the zip of her jeans, less than half an inch above my nose. It was subtle, machine-stitching, but surely enough texture to issue a decisive scratch? I moved my face slowly towards it, doing all I could to keep my action undetected. Having made contact, I paused, allowing her to get used to my closeness. The tension was overwhelming, if she rejected me at this point all was lost. Holding my breath, I angled my nose and quickly rubbed it twice along the ridges of her stitching. The relief was immediate.

‘Did...’ everything in me clamped as she began to speak. ‘Did you just sniff my crotch?’

‘No…’ my eyes darted side-to-side like a caught-out cartoon.

‘Put me down, you fucking weirdo.’

And that’s how I ended up at B&Q, buying a new step-ladder, in the middle of the England game.

‘That’s er… great, sir. Do you need help getting this to your car?’


by James

They had arrived at the portion of the evening Alison always dreaded. Leanne made that clicking noise in the back of her throat - as though Alison was a horse - and then she turned it into a throaty tiger sound, and this time combined it with the forefinger on her right hand repeatedly conquering the circle she made with the finger and thumb on her left hand. Alison could never lie about these kinds of things – she always found herself turning beetroot and choking over her wine.

Leanne sighed her exasperation. It had been eighteen months, and no amount of yoga or stiff cups of tea were a substitute for what she thought Alison needed. Leanne brightened, and picked up her phone.

‘You can borrow one of my young men,’ she said. ‘How about…Robbie? Thick as a plank, love him, but I never give him the chance to talk.’ She grinned lustfully. ‘These young lads, so quick off the mark, but that makes them so eager to please. What do you think?’

Alison inspected the picture, and tried not to look revolted. Yet another one of Leanne’s boy toys, and this one with the hairless torso plastic baby look done to perfection. She shook her head, and with a rueful smile, said, ‘The kind of itch I have, not even that could touch it.’

Her way home went the same as most days - out of her way to drive past the house that she and her ex had picked out. The perfect house on the perfect street running in a gentle slope down to the canal. Memories of childhood narrowboat holidays had given Alison a twenty-year dream of opening her bedroom window to the sight of barges slipping silently past. It had to be irony, that now he was shacked up with the bloody estate agent who found them the perfect house.

Alison’s heart fluttered as she sighted the upstairs windows of their perfect house. Her whole stomach flipped upside down and nearly jumped up her throat when she saw his BMW. It had finally happened, after eighteen months of driving past every other night. Alison parked her car in front of the BMW. She switched the engine off and then set there, hands still gripping the steering wheel.

Could she really do it?

There was no time to waste, because at any moment another car could pull up in front of hers. Resolve rose within. They had bought the sodding car together, but when he walked out suddenly it was his car. Alison slipped from her seat. She kept herself hunkered low as she walked back up the slope, unable to stop herself smirking. When was the last time he’d moaned that she still had the spare set of keys? She unlocked the BMW and slipped inside. No time to lose. She freed the handbrake, and stifled the squeal of exhilaration as the car rolled slowly forward, and then stopped, bumper to bumper with her own car in front.

She pressed the lock button on the fob three times to be sure, and then paused for a moment back behind the wheel of her own car. Below, the gentle slope of the hill swept invitingly down to the canal.

All mapped out

by Jenny

She remembered the weight of it, the smell of it, the blues and greens and browns of the atlas’s enormous pages spreading out in front of her on the living room carpet, pooling the world quite literally at her feet.

Even at five years old, the world seemed like one great big adventure and Sally had always, always wanted to travel. She read books and books about different countries, imagining how the teas and spices in the markets of India might smell, or how altitude sickness in the Andes might feel, or the sensation of the midday sun in the outbacks of Australia.

She pictured herself in sturdy boots, camera at the ready and a notebook and pencil in her hand. Ready for anything.

As a teenager she kept journals of her plans; where she would go first, what she would do when she got there, foods she would taste, photographs she would capture. Her future seemed all mapped out and she couldn’t wait to get started on it.

But then Evie had come along and just like that, her future was tied to a crying, dependent bundle.

Evie had been a surprise and Mike hadn’t wanted to put his own travel plans on hold to look after a screaming infant. So Sally found herself at home, holding the baby.

These days her dreams of exploring the world seemed impossibly distant. The closest Sally would ever come to India was the weekly Mum and Toddler yoga class at the church hall. The teacher used to burn incense and Sally had enjoyed that, but Bethany Driscoll had complained that it made her Alicia cough, so she had had to stop.

So Sally shelved her dreams and tried to push them to the back of her mind and tried not to hate Evie for it. It wasn't her fault. But every now and then, when she sat watching David Attenborough documentaries, or read an item in the newspaper about India or Australia she would feel them creep up on her and spark her imagination like they used to in the old days.

But that hurt too much. She pushed them back down again and buried them under Evie’s dirty nappies. The atlas she had shoved out of sight under the bookcase in her living room. Sometimes she could see the cracked brown leather of its spine peeking out and staring at her reproachfully.

One day it all just felt too much. She left work, picked Evie up from the childminder’s and came home to a small, dark, messy house on a small, dark, boring street just a block away from where she grew up. She stood there, surrounded by Evie’s clothes and toys and mess and felt utterly hopeless.

“I wish you’d never been born” she whispered inaudibly to the small girl, who was playing with her plastic baby on the floor and Sally immediately felt a wash of guilt mix in with all her other wretched feelings.

But then Evie leaned over and peered underneath the bookcase at something that caught her eye. She reached out a tiny pudgy hand and, with a huge effort pulled out the old brown atlas from its burrow. It was thick with dust and stiff with neglect, but Sally watched, breathless, as Evie grasped the front cover and reopened her world on the living room floor.

She makes me itch

by Lewis

He looked down at the rotten remnants of the loofa Emma had given him. It was thoughtful, but sadly not durable. And that damn itch was back. He arched his back trying desperately to press it into the musty wood. To no avail. There weren’t many good points about living in a grave and lack of wriggle room was right up there with the god damn worms. He’s invented his own form of coffin yoga, but it’s not the most effective. But none of that mattered when he thought about Emma and last halloween. He smiled and for a moment the itch seemed to fade.

She had been sat there waiting. The first wave of fresh wind on his body always felt incredible, but it was forgotten in an instant when he saw her sat there. That instant of joy was forgotten in the next instant when he realised how he must look.

“Oh god, I’m so sorry. I. Um. I was going to change…” he stammered embarrassingly. She stared at him for a moment and then dissolved into quiet laughter.

“You look, just as I remembered.” Emma said. “Sorry if I startled you. It just seemed that, well time is short. I hope that’s ok?”

“No of course.” He said. There was an awkward pause.

In ‘the cabin’ as he ironically called it, he had plenty of time to think. He’d always been warned about witches. Back when he was alive. They were not to be trusted, wicked women. They took your soul and used their womanly ways for nefarious means. It had stuck with him. Even in his after life. So when they’d first met. He knew he should stay away. But the moment he saw her he knew he couldn’t.

“I can’t believe you're here.” He said, and with that the awkwardness disappeared. He walked over to her and with a tenderness that comes from an eternity of waiting, gently kissed her on the cheek. Her cheeks flushed and he saw a wetness in her coal dark eyes.

“Are you ok?” He asked nervously.

“I’m sorry” she said. “It’s just...I’m so happy to see you.”

The rest of the night was like a dream. He missed dreaming. Especially ones like that one. They had wandered freely hand in hand. Bought hot tea from a stall, and as always people marvelled at their costumes. There was only one moment when they had bumbled into some kids running down a street and one of them had dropped a terrifying looking baby doll, which had smashed. The young boy was mortified and had burst into tears. He didn’t see what Emma did, but she had turned away and a moment later the doll was whole again. The kid had started on shock and then sprinted away in fear. Leaving the doll behind. That was when he knew he should have left. Witches were trouble. But he didn’t, and knew he never would.

The incessant itch brought him back to ground, or under it. But then he smiled again as he squirmed, realising that every time he couldn’t reach that itch, it would remind him of her, and life in the cabin would get a little better.