On a hilltop in what would become known to some as the Holy Land, two shepherds lift their eyes into a clear night sky, and it is a shockingly clear night sky, for before all the cars and planes and factories began clogging up the space we breathe and all the lights we leave on began dulling the darkness, you could really see the stars, I mean really see the stars, but then I write stars again, mainly because they’re sparkly, and it’s exactly this kind of slip, this kind of slide from the clearly demarcated ski-slope of my prospective narrative that has the illusory magic these words should be engendering within your synapses pop like a balloon at a child’s birthday party, and then, as happens, one kid starts bawling, and that sets the rest off, tears running down their little ice-cream-smeared cheeks, the game of musical statues we were half-way through pretty much forgotten about, and by now no amount of jolly, happy faces you, me and the other adults try to make will snap them out of it, as thank God, at least as grown-ups, we can all be snapped out of it, and at least sometimes find within ourselves the ability at the root of our being to stop, take a breath and bring ourselves back outside the room to creep around the door and catch me in the act of trying to write this, say, or back at the sink, the pansies blooming in the garden through the window but you can’t get this stain off of the saucepan, or back behind the wheel of the car I’m driving, a gas-guzzling four-wheel-drive monster, as it happens, and easily capable of mowing down this little old lady dragging her tartan shopping trolley toward those trendy lads in their slicked-on trousers and these lasses here in their fashion tracksuits and that young mother persuading her charge that it really was a good idea to have left the party as they congregate at that bus stop just in front of us there as I reach over to prod at my iPhone in an attempt to stop Tori Amos blaring from the speakers and embarrassing me in front of the person in the passenger seat, whom it turns out I do fancy a bit, and I know what you’re wondering, but I can’t go and describe, exactly, what this person looks like without disclosing my sexual preferences, which I don’t want to, frankly, as it’s none of your business, so I won’t, suffice to say they are looking pretty hot right now, sitting in the passenger seat smiling and laughing at all my silliest jokes, and seeming to be really interested in me as well, like really, really interested in me and not just feigning interest so that they can climb inside my underwear, though it’s reasonably clear that they want for the two of us to get it on, that is so obviously mixed up in there, but they’re also interested in me as a person, as a complete human being, but you know, what really sets my fancying them in an amber created from the tree-sap of my desire is the fact as they lean over to say something to me, lean over and ‘accidentally’ brush the outside of my thigh with their hand, I can smell their breath and it smells minty fresh but not so minty fresh that it seems like they’ve put any effort into it, an effortless minty freshness, and their hair is clean, so there’s that, but then there’s also a thud as the car mounts the kerb and smacks into the bus stop, and as I stagger from the car, screams mixing with the ringing in my ears, I can see parts of what were once living entities, real people that just a moment ago were grumbling and moaning along with the rest of us but now lay broken on the pavement: an unattended and blood-splattered tartan trolley, an arm still sleeved in its track-suit’s three-stripes, a bent leg, skinny-jeaned, and the person, that special person I’d thought might just be the one, the one so vivaciously in the passenger seat of my motor just a moment ago, is now resting on the car bonnet, having been thrown through the windscreen in the crash, the contents of their head spread over said car bonnet as if I could just scoop up the sludge of their subconscious and pick our shared dream from it, as yes, now they seem like they are snoozing, waiting for me to arouse them with a gentle word in their lughole, or a kiss like in a fairy tale, and then I feel a small child, down by my left, gently slip a hand into mine and asks where its mummy might be, and oh dear, it would seem its mummy is one of the mushy, squidgy blobs of an ex-person that are currently staining the bonnet and undersides of my Land Rover, but I don’t say so to the child, not yet, and I realise then this is what we all are, really, blobs of mush, like frozen raspberries accidentally left out of the freezer, or, more likely, the egg-shells and onion leavings and banana skins that sit and rot in the food waste box of our corporeality, underneath the slowly defrosting raspberries of all our hopes and dreams, all held together by the compostable liner of our skin, a jumble of hard bits and sloppy flesh wrapped up in next week’s laundry, ambling about, thinking ourselves and our experience unique until you find yourself pulling once, twice, three times on the emergency parachute cord but nothing is released and you’re still spinning head-over-heels toward the cold, hard earth as fast as you always were or you’re sat in your GP’s surgery paying more attention to the picture of the flowers on the wall behind the doctor’s head until the doctor clears their throat and says, ‘I’m afraid it’s…’ or you’re stood at a bus stop, waiting for the 23 bus to come and pick you up and trundle you onward on your journey, past all the stops that you thought were already all planned out when BAM, upon you falls a great darkness, a darkness like the night sky, though without all the light pollution, so more like the night sky if looked at with your eyes closed, like standing out in the high street with your head tilted back and your eyes closed but without the noise of the traffic, or the smell of the kebab shop, so not really like standing out on the high street at all, but then ‘Up there!’ cries the child, pointing into the heavens, and up there I can see a twinkling lambency sparkling in the evening gloom, getting brighter and brighter as the day fades, much like the bright light that is glowing in the sky that is being gazed into by the two shepherds, neither locally nor contemporaneously of course, as has already been inferred they were sat on their hillside some way away both chronologically and geographically from the sight of my bus-stop carnage (which, incidentally, will also be the headline in tomorrow’s local newspaper), but they too are staring at a luminescence high above their heads and are filled with this same teary-eyed and mysterious sense of something as I am and the child is, too, a down-home and warmly sense, a sensation like a Christmas afternoon, a let’s just watch ’Enders like always cause I can’t be faffed not to feeling of peace.
o o o
lives in London with his wife, his two young sons, and the feeling he’s left it a bit too late to be starting a literary career. You can follow his band’s tour dates @bugeyeband and his lazy poetry-based retweets @jackmhouston
Jack’s Christmas song for Open Pen:
Gary Budden is one half – often cited as the better half – of Influx Press. He is also short storying his way through fiction currently, with a good few neat short stories in the last couple of years, including the Galley Beggar Single ‘Knotweed‘ which we cannot recommend enough.
Not to be weighed down with the shame brought upon Influx House through his business partner’s heavy-footed movements in the world of carpet lit, Budden has been hard at it flying the flag for short stories with something to say, and the excellent Dead Ink have taken notice. The short story collection ‘Hollow Shores‘ hits stores in October, but you can crowdfund it now. Not sure yet? Don’t worry, we’ve got you covered because he’s reading at our Open Pen Summer Party. Make your mind up then, London. Join us for our 80% booze 20% live fiction night, cheap tickets and info here.
Ah, the shorty story! To paraphrase the fantastically terrible or terribly fantastic Blood Diamond (2006), We here long before novel came – long after novel gone.
That there Open Pen Summer Party is just under two weeks away (Wed, Aug 16, 7pm!) and we’re several kinds of chuffed that the magnetic Ireneson Okojie is reading from one of our favourite short story collections going, the acclaimed Speak Gigantular (Jacaranda). The Guardian said that it “delves into the painful, the unsayable, the unknowable. Her prose is precise and illuminating: love and loneliness are recurrent themes.” We agree. Obviously.
Okojie is also the author of novel Butterfly Fish, released last year, also on Jacaranda. She has worked with the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Southbank Centre, and the Caine Prize.
Her short stories have been published internationally, including the Kwani 07 and Phatitude, and this year in Salt’s Best British Short Stories 2017.
Tickets and info for the party are available here, and all proceeds go to keeping the writers and performers boozed up for the night. Anything leftover, as ever, goes to keeping our scrawny little fiction journal in print. You can also buy both of Okojie’s books on the night. I’m sure she’d be so kind as to sign your copy, she signed ours after all.
And it’s brown. Yes, brown. Poo coloured.
But also chocolate.
In Issue Nineteen you’ll find cover author Rob True, Holly Watson, Craig Ledoux, Siobhan Denton, Susannah Heffernan, a guest editorial from Farhana Shaikh, and of course N Quentin Woolf is on duty too, ever the nightwatchman of Open Pen’s pages.
Congratulation to those writers, and thanks to everyone that submitted. The shortlist ain’t so short these days, it takes some really gut-churning calls to leave out so many interesting pieces every issue. Please do keep submitting. (Maybe we should do something worthwhile like double our page count for Issue Twenty.)
More soon on when to expect Open Pen Issue Nineteen to hit shops. Until then, Charlie Brown being sad.
Peter Higgins is one of thirteen short story authors with fiction old and new that you’ll find in The Open Pen Anthology. His Issue Ten cover story “Smoking in the Library” is in there, as well as his new piece, “The Gloves”. But Higgins made his first appearance in Open Pen way back in September 2013 with “A Brief Guide to London’s Lost Cinemas”. The story went on to be long listed for the Galley Beggar Short Story Prize, and here it is online with Open Pen for the first time.
* * *
Make no mistake: yes, I was pleased to see him (of course I was). But that was as far as it went. I was perfectly content to keep my distance and sip my coffee and hide in my own shadow. I never asked him to come over and make conversation. He could have just gone away. He could have just left me alone. But no, he had to “come over”. He had to “make conversation”.
‘Patrick,’ he said. ‘Fancy meeting you here.’
Compelled by my own good nature to at least greet him in a civil manner, I stepped into the light and said, ‘Hello, David.’
‘Are you seeing La Blanc et le Noir as well?’ His charmingly clumsy pronunciation of the film’s title made me smile in spite of myself.
‘Yes,’ I said, ‘Yes, I am.’
‘Not really my thing,’ he said, ‘French films, subtitles.’
We were standing in the foyer of the Truffaut Cinema, Tavistock Square, London WC1. My second home. Repeat: my second home, which was now being invaded by this young ruffian with his estuary accent and his ridiculously short hair and his pale blue eyes. He worked in the maintenance division of the firm in which I was also gainfully employed. I had spotted him, once or twice, on the security gate, checking people’s passes, and once, one blinding summer afternoon, in the car park, he and a colleague had been admiring someone’s Aston Martin and had looked up and caught my eye as I looked down at him from my third floor office. I turned away, to my crowded in-tray, and the fat phone which squatted next to it, and which, happily, began to ring, and the rest of the afternoon was lost in some fiendishly intricate office politics far too boring to go into here.
‘You meeting someone?’ he asked.
‘No,’ I said (I always attend the cinema alone, and would not have it any other way) ‘Are you?’
He rubbed the top of his head (his hair really was tremendously short), and said, ‘Yeah, actually. My girlfriend.’
No, of course, David was not the solitary type. What type was he, then, if not the solitary type? Young, I suppose, brash, I suppose, handsome in a crude sort of way, I suppose, and slightly shorter than my six foot one, and slightly bulkier than my virtually fat-free frame.
I was feeling suddenly rather warm. I glanced at my watch – a slim gold analogue antique – and saw that it was almost twenty past six.
‘Well,’ I said, pulling my ticket from my wallet. ‘Time for me to go in.’
At which point the girlfriend appeared – a short, giggling creature who I could not have found more irritating even if I had tried (and I tried). Hurried introductions were made, and then the two of them entered the auditorium while I finished my coffee which I had completely forgotten about.
I placed my coffee cup in the bin and went inside, too. I spied them almost instantly, sitting halfway down, in the middle (I can see very well in the dark).
I placed myself in my favourite seat – dead centre, back row. I bent down, undid my laces, and took off my shoes, an old habit of mine.
The film began. I absolutely did my best to keep my gaze on the screen, but it would keep wandering off to the spot where, twelve rows ahead of me, he sat, with his girlfriend’s head on his right shoulder and with his head leaning against her head.
I was in a dilemma: after the film, should I “hang around” and “chat” with my colleague and his little pal, or should I just vanish into the night and let the two of them go to hell? Option (a) filled me with a nameless dread. Option (b) seemed infinitely better.
The film ended. The credits began to roll. I was putting my shoes back on while David and friend were already walking up the aisle towards me.
‘What did you think?’ he asked me. ‘I thought it was alright, actually. What you doing?’
I looked up from my laces, with which I was still struggling a little, damn them.
‘I did enjoy it,’ I said, ‘but only’ – I finished tying my laces – ‘only on a superficial level. Dumoir has done so much better. This, to me, lacked his usual vitality. Dumoir on auto-pilot, I suppose you could say.’
Girlfriend had no idea what to make of that, but merely turned away as if looking for something, or someone. Her shoulders shook slightly. Clearly she was in a hurry to leave. Well, goodbye, then.
‘She loved it,’ said David. ‘Didn’t you?’
She nodded and said something unintelligible while still looking away, before turning to face me, suddenly all serious and unsmiling.
‘Come on,’ she said, to him. ‘Nice to meet you,’ she said, to me.
‘Yeah, cheers,’ said David, and they were gone, she holding on to his arm with both her hands, and leaning against him for support (had she been drinking?).
After visiting the lavatory, where I micturated while staring at the ceramic-tiled wall with its constellations of dried snot, I left the cinema and strode the two hundred yards to the Zetland Arms, that splendid, always dark, always half-empty pub on Crossfire Street. There I ensconced myself in my favourite corner, with no-one and nothing to keep me company save for an ice-cold gin and tonic and two packets of peanuts (dry-roasted).
I had been hoping to get some work done on A Brief Guide to London’s Lost Cinemas. To this end I extracted notes and pen from my jacket pocket and laid them carefully on the table. I sipped and mused, and stared at my notes, clicking my ballpoint pen absent-mindedly, and getting nowhere. The title was giving me no end of trouble. A Brief Guide to London’s Lost Cinemas? Or, A Brief Guide to the Lost Cinemas Of London? And did I need that Brief at all? The Lost Cinemas of London? London’s Lost Cinemas? A Guide to the Lost Cinemas of London?
Time for a nut. I stabbed my pen (might as well make itself useful) into the shiny brown foil, which resisted maddeningly, and then gave, just as maddeningly, spilling several nuts onto the table and onto the floor.
I swore under my breath and a young woman standing at the bar turned away from her friend to look at me. Her friend looked at me, too. I felt foolish and old. They turned away again, their expressions unreadable. What, I asked myself, did they know of the Ladbroke Grove Phoenix, the Highbury Ritz, the Curzon, Camberwell Green? Nothing. They knew nothing, and they didn’t care.
I got up and stuffed my notes and my pen back into my pocket, along with one unopened bag of peanuts, and headed for the door, the street, the tube, and home.
The next week at work brought some refreshing challenges. I spent a weary Friday morning checking and re-checking the latest cinema listings to see if my Saturday could accommodate a repertory screening of Citizen Kane and a preview of some intriguing-sounding Italian thriller and an early dinner at a charming little café I know near the French Institute in South Ken.
Simon came into my office after lunch for a brief chat about some reports or other that still had not been done. While he looked with barely-disguised disdain at the mess all over my desk – papers, stapler, coffee cups, elegant silver letter-opener (a gift from someone I no longer think about) – I explained that I still was waiting for Susan to get the files to me. That being the case, I could not reasonably be expected to proceed with the creation of the reports. Simon, with that shyness of his that I used to find rather charming but which now tends to grate, if I’m perfectly honest, tried to claim that Susan had emailed me the files at least a week ago. I went through the rigmarole of searching my inbox, but, as I pointed out to Simon, there was nothing recent from Susan there.
The day ended with a frankly infuriating phone call from some brute in something called the “IT Department”. (Since when have we had one of those?) The IT Brute claimed that his records definitely showed that Susan had sent me an email, with the relevant attachments, on this or that date, at this or that time, and perhaps I had deleted it “by mistake”.
Trying not to laugh I checked my Deleted Items folder. Empty. The IT Brute then talked me through the hellishly convoluted procedure by which one can, apparently, recover deleted items. And there it was. Absent-mindedly slapping the silver letter-opener lightly against my thigh, I said, ‘Thank you. Thank you so much.’ I put the phone down, picked it up again, put it down again, picked it up again, and called Susan.
We had a good giggle about the entirely innocent mix-up and agreed that we must meet for lunch again, and soon, and she would call me, but she was rather busy at the moment (aren’t we all?) and that was that.
I worked on the data for the rest of the afternoon, pausing only now and then to glance out of my window to the car park below, to see if anything was happening. Nothing was.
Friday night brought its usual wealth of opportunity and choice, but I was tired, and I refuse to feel guilty for spending my time lying on the sofa, wrapped in a blanket, watching television and drinking wine.
Saturday afternoon: I boarded the tube and headed to the Truffaut. Question: is there anything better than Bloomsbury in the autumn? Answer: no. The sun shone, the air was crisp and cold, and the sky was as blue as those eyes, remember? Try to forget. I bought my ticket, and, with twenty minutes to spare, shot round the corner to the small bookshop nearby.
‘What you doing here?’ said an all-too familiar voice.
I said hello to David, and then to his girlfriend. They were “killing time” before the movie. ‘He’s never even seen Citizen Kane,’ she said.
‘Well,’ I said, ‘fancy that.’
Time duly killed, we entered the cinema together, and sat together, and watched the film, together. I kept my shoes on.
Afterwards I excused myself and went to the lavatory. When I emerged, I found the two of them, David and his little friend, sitting in a leather sofa, laughing hysterically about whatever it is people laugh about.
‘Well,’ I said. ‘I must be going.’ And it was true. By my calculations I had half an hour to get from Russell Square to South Ken in time for my next assignation.
‘Do you,’ enquired the girl, ‘usually to go the cinema alone?’
‘Yes,’ I replied. ‘Usually.’
Few understand the sheer pleasure of solitary cinema-going. Now and again I will spy a similar figure, alone in the dark, waiting for the film to start, checking his watch, perhaps sipping a coffee, perhaps bending over to do something with his shoes, perhaps, and I will give a little smile and say to myself, It’s not just me. There are others in the same club, others who relish this experience just as much as I do. There have been times, post-screening, when I have been tempted to introduce myself as we shuffle down the aisle in the slowly gathering light, but I have always resisted. It would be a mistake. No contact is required. The occasional glance, the occasional half-smile, perhaps, but nothing more. We need our solitude, we cinema-ghosts.
Monday came along, as Mondays always do, and I was confronted with a veritable barrage of emails about the reports of the previous week. There were, apparently, “concerns” about conversions and formulae. I sighed. No doubt Susan’s data had been produced in a hurry and were riddled with inaccuracies. I began the tedious task of sorting everything out, and resolved yet again to find a much better job, with much better conditions, and a much better salary.
The rest of the week went as follows: on Monday night I attended a screening in the blue dusk of Hammersmith. On Tuesday I was in the boarded-up, slightly alarming night of Kentish Town. On Wednesday I braved the charmingly muscular heat of Brixton. And then, on Thursday, I dashed up Southampton Row to Tavistock Square and the Truffaut, for the five-thirty showing.
I asked for my ticket (‘One, please’) and then stood there like a cretin, patting my pockets, becoming faintly aware of small sounds of dissent in the queue behind me (the film was about to start). I had left my wallet at work.
‘I’ve left my wallet at home. At work. Somewhere.’
This was, surely, the moment when David was supposed to come to my rescue – This one’s on me, mate.
I patted my pockets again. Nothing.
‘Why don’t I pay you next time?’
The box office man uttered a sound that combined a disbelieving laugh and the word what? into one short perfect burst.
‘Why can’t I pay you next time?’
‘Can’t do that, mate.’
Don’t you mate me, young man. ‘But I come here constantly,’ I said. ‘I practically live here.’
‘Oh. Then you’ll want to sign our petition’ he said, and handed me a flyer.
Stunned, I stuffed this into a pocket while one half of a very annoying couple behind me pushed past and said, ‘Two, please. Thank you.’
Ignoring the queue’s blazing eyes, I scuttled away and burst into the open air. Take me to The Zetland Arms, feed me gin and salty snacks. But, no, the Zetland Arms tonight was all screeching women in high heels and short skirts, leaning on braying be-suited yobs with eyes that never blinked.
I sat in the tube – hot, slow, reeking of abandoned fast food – and read the flyer. Save Our Cinema. Yes, it was all true: this cinema, like so many others, was destined to become one of London’s Lost. Landlords, leases, purchase of entire site for redevelopment by something or someone called LA Fitness. Already I was writing, in my head, the notes for the chapter devoted to the Truffaut, Tavistock Square, WC1. Screen one: two hundred and twelve seats. Screen two: ninety nine. Digital projection and digital Dolby sound in both. Opened in nineteen sixty one, as the Euston ABC. First showing: Please, Not Now, starring Bridget Bardot.
On Friday I arrived at the office hoping against hope for a bit of peace and quiet in order to restore my shattered nerves. Imagine my disappointment to find Simon and Susan waiting for me, the former looking at his watch, the latter avoiding my gaze. They were both, apparently, rather keen to “have it out” with me, “once and for all” about these “bloody reports.” I invited them to sit down, and even offered them tea. They didn’t want to sit down, and they didn’t want any tea. I made myself some tea. First thing in the morning, I told them, I have to have tea. I can’t function, first thing in the morning, without tea. Simon looked at his watch again, and then proceeded to inform me that I was behind, and that my lack of co-operation was hindering everyone else’s work and that I needed to “get a grip”.
I informed him, again (everything was happening again), of the perfectly valid reasons for the current unfortunate situation. I was not going to blame Susan, of course, not with her standing right there, but nor was I going to shoulder all the responsibility myself.
Poor old Susan exploded and said that she found it ‘very annoying, actually,’ that all I did, all day and every day, as far as she could tell, was mess about on the internet, and make cups of tea, and stare out of the window at [pause] people.
Simon interrupted her before she could go any further, thank god, and calmed her down as much as possible, and persuaded her to go away, just go away.
‘That’s better,’ I said. ‘A man-to-man chat. What exactly is it you want to get off your chest?’
That evening I was fit for nothing but a hot bath, a lot of whiskey and an early night. Saturday was a write-off: I could hardly get out of bed. And guess where I went on Sunday? I was desperate, and could not face a trip into town, so guess where I went? The local Odeon. The local fucking Odeon. I sat among the terror-children, trying to ignore their cries, and endured two entire hours of hyperactive violence and spirit-crushing comedy. Never again.
On Monday I stayed at home: I was ill. On Tuesday I sat in my office, ignoring the letter in my in-tray (Private and Confidential) and the emails from Simon (Reluctantly instigating… we await your response…) and trying to keep my mind on the figures on the screen in front of me. Come on, concentrate: if the doors open at five-twenty, that means the film starts at five-thirty-five, and if the film is 110 minutes long, when will it end?
I stared out of the window. David was sweeping leaves. How I envied him his simple existence. Sweep up those leaves. Yes, sir. Job done. Next? Clean that car, change that fluorescent lighting tube, fix that broken something or other, whatever it was he did all day. I could leave this stupid and pointless job and do something useful, something valuable, something practical. I could sweep leaves, be a postman, drive an ambulance. Yes, I could say goodbye to all this: all those things that people like David never had to think about or look at, and remember, and forget.
I emailed Simon to tell him I was still ill and I was taking the rest of the day off, starting now, and I didn’t care what he thought of that, or what he had to say. His reply, copied-in to his Line Manager, was, I had to admit, admirably succinct.
I found, in one of my drawers, an old carrier-bag, and swept some of the things on my desk into it: stapler, silver letter-opener, two coffee cups. The bag was flimsy and pathetic and the stupid cups went straight through the bottom and landed on the floor, where the handle of one of them, the better one, came off with a sad little snap. Cursing and sweating, I bundled the other cup and the other things together in the rags of the bag and shoved that into another bag I’d found. What a mess it all was.
I swept down the stairs, and almost fell, and then I thought I could hear Simon behind me, saying something, so I walked faster, faster, until I was at the double doors that led outside. These I banged open so vigorously that one of them swung back and almost hit me in the face.
But the car park was shining in the brief slot of sunlight it was allocated each day, if the sun came out at all, and my spirits lifted, a little. And who was this, striding purposefully away from the yellow skip that was always there, gently banging an almost comically-dented toolbox against his leg as he walked towards me?
Smiling wildly I gestured in greeting, and he stopped, a charming, confused look on his face, and the sun was in his eyes and he held a hand to his forehead and that is how I shall always remember him.
Cut, please cut, now, to the next scene: Interior. Cinema foyer. Day.
Why is the thing you want always in the wrong pocket? Sort of clutching my scrappy plastic bag to my stomach with my left hand, and bent over somewhat because of it, I took my wallet out of my left pocket with my right hand, extracted (somehow) a twenty pound note from it, and gasped quietly and said, ‘One, please.’
‘Oh, hello,’ he said, ‘you’ve remembered your money this time.’
Don’t recognise me now, you dolt. Not now. It’s no use to me now. I smiled, which seemed to scare him, so I stopped smiling. He handed me my change and my ticket. I went down to Screen Two: ninety nine seats, all of them empty.
I sat in the back row and let my flotsam and jetsam fall to the floor (oh, who cares?).
Work? They can stuff it. I wondered what would happen next, what depths of humiliation and awkwardness yet awaited me. I didn’t care. I did care. I didn’t care. And what about the Brief Guide? Well, what about it? I had hardly even started it, beyond scribbling a few desultory notes and marking some points on an old A-Z. And, anyway, who would have read it? A rhetorical question, of course, but nevertheless I had a sudden, terrible, pathetic vision of me presenting David, of all people, with, of all things, a signed copy.
Someone came in. He walked down the aisle and sat twelve rows in front of me.
I took off my shoes. Then I rummaged around on the floor amid my office supplies and my broken crockery – Christ, it was like a jumble sale down there. Had I been paying attention I would have seen the man twelve rows in front me turning around, no doubt wondering what all the noise was about.
Meanwhile, I had found it: the silver letter opener. I held it in my right hand, enjoying its satisfying heaviness and staring back at the sliver it contained of my own dark reflection.
* * *
Issue Fifteen of Open Pen is out this month and its cover adorned with Jamie Collinson’s The Shields. Collinson’s often grim, always eloquent tale feels relevant as we enter the midway point to another Autumn. Here’s an excerpt:
Human shapes move in the glass, as if trapped there. They cross the finger-smeared pane, and he presses at their ghostly heads, prodding them away. The glass is textureless, unpleasant. The owners of the shapes in the window move behind him, shuffling and jerking. Their mutters tug at his ears, and he twitches, but doesn’t turn. Instead he looks past the ghosts, through the glass. He looks at the shields.
They are bright and unblemished, fixed onto the railings only two days earlier by men in hi-vis Hackney vests. Coats of arms: a sudden excess of signals. He has been deciphering them ever since. They tug at his eyes like new pennies on a gum-scarred pavement. Behind them is a lonely patch of grass, and beyond that a tall grey tower block.
He presses the window again, covering the first shield from the left, pretending to touch now, not to push. The shield’s disappearance makes him anxious, and he moves his hand back to his knee. A fresh print blurs the cold glass, so he shifts his perspective, sliding along the bench.
The shield has a green background. A golden coloured tower rises from it, above which looms a large raptor. A voice from a radio replays in his head: How would you like something the size of a barn door flying over you? The tower at Dunwich, sinking until it was buried in golden sand. A new world growing over it, like skin over the gravel that got stuck in his brother’s palm.
A tap at his shoulder. He opens his eyes. A nurse is standing above him, bemused. Behind him is another, who holds a clipboard and watches.
He pulls the tissue paper from his ears.
‘Why have you done that?’ the nurse asks.
‘The birdsong was driving me nuts.’
‘This morning. Blackbirds.’
The nurse has lost interest. H holds out a small paper cup with two tablets inside it, and a larger cup of water. One tablet is pink and torpedo shaped, the other large, white and round. The nurse waits whilst Sam swallows them both, showing his empty mouth like a greedy nestling. As the men walk away, he puts the tissue back in his ears.
Four other patients watch him. He is one of three white men. The others are much worse than him, and thus have nothing to offer. Many of the rest are Somalis. Their foreheads are golden-black and domed, like beings from a higher order.
He turns back to the window. On the patch of grass below him is a robin. It hops, patting the ground, twitching its head to one side, listening for prey to stab. Its eye is as dead as a shark’s. ‘If we have nothing to fear in him, it’s only an accident of scale.’ Too late to illustrate his point, a male blackbird lands a little way from the robin, its absurd beak and sombre garb surely a cosmic joke.
On the second shield, a knight rides under an orange banner. William came to England and James ran away. Irishmen march through grim terraced streets. Something makes him turn, and a Somali is looking at him. The man puts a finger to his lips in warning. Sam turns back. Silence is golden. The secret is in the shields, and mustn’t be shared.
There’ll be more announcements about Issue Fifteen and its authors in the coming week, as well as when you’ll be able to pick up your FREE copy from a bookshop near you.
To find out more about Collinson, or to read some of his fiction, check out his tumblr.
Open Pen Issue Fifteen is a royal blue. Here’s what you’ll be looking for:
To celebrate five years of publishing up-and-coming writers, we are launching a Kickstarter campaign to fund ‘The Open Pen Anthology’. This anthology will be a collection of the very best short stories we have printed, plus a selection of new stories by the same authors, as well as some micro-fiction. You can pledge for one of our great rewards over at our Kickstarter campaign.
We’re as keen as ever to discover new talent, so (because we know our readers love flash fiction) we are also creating a unique, one-off, micro-fiction zine. This fifteen-story zine will be made up of the winning stories from our new micro-fiction competition, and be offered as part of the ‘rewards’ available to pledgers of the crowdfunding campaign.
Small Stories, Big Impact (this is where you come in)
This is your opportunity to get your micro-fiction (flash fiction) story published. We are looking for stories of under 150 words – you’ll know the sort of stuff we like if you read Open Pen. Our favourite fifteen stories will make up the content of the zine. We’re looking for fiction that’s willing to take a risk.
The fifteen winners will each receive a copy of the zine, which will go by the name of ONEOFFZINE. The top three stories will be published in the Open Pen Anthology and the authors will each receive a copy of the book.
To enter, submit your stories to firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject title “ONEOFFZINE”.
Submissions are now OPEN. As always, submissions are free. We want everyone to be able to submit to Open Pen, not just those that can afford it.
What is Micro-Fiction?
Micro-fiction is very similar to flash fiction; it’s all about creating stories within a very tight word limit. With so few allowed, each chosen word becomes an essential aid to the story. Micro-fiction tends to only focus on one scene, and doesn’t expend too many words on descriptions or scene setting. Despite their length, micro-fiction can be some of the hardest stories to write and have the strongest impact.
About Open Pen Magazine
Launched in early 2011, Open Pen is London’s first ‘Open Literature’ magazine, and is comprised entirely of reader-submitted short fiction.
Our aim is to create a FREE print publication that is interesting and relevant, and to encourage growth within our talented, fertile, literary underbelly, by providing up-and-coming writers with a place to have their prose published.
With issues published quarterly, Open Pen is available (again, for FREE) from independent bookshops, libraries, university campuses, writers’ centres, and even coffee shops and bars across the capital. With every issue we grow stronger, and so does our range of stockists. You can now pick up Open Pen Magazine in as far reaching places as Havana, Cuba.
You can also see Open Pen in the flesh at the live events that we run throughout the year. Our next event takes place in East London at the Jamboree, Limehouse, on the evening of Wednesday, 19th August. Come along and see what we’re about.
Keep a look out for us; we’re a must for any aspiring writer or fan of new literature. To find out more about Open Pen, how you can support us, to join our once-a-month mailing list, or for any other information, please contact us at: email@example.com
It is with great pleasure that we announce our intention to publish an Open Pen Anthology, celebrating five years of Open Pen Magazine. The book will be comprised of some of our favourite short stories from that time, by some of our favourite authors. Those authors will be contributing new stories. So the Anthology really will be a good mix of old and new.
As most of you will know, Open Pen is a not-for-profit magazine, and we’ve worked pretty hard to ensure that it stays free-to-all. That’s not easy, and without advertising and the live events we run, keeping Open Pen free would be impossible. That’s why we’ve decided that a crowdfunding campaign through Kickstarter is the right option for the Anthology book. Check out The Open Pen Anthology Kickstarter page. We’ve got some awesome packages to offer anyone looking to pledge, including a £10 pledge that will essentially work as a pre-order of the anthology. If you’re into what we do, believe that aspiring writers deserve a print platform, and believe that this sort of literary fiction is important, please do show your support over at our Kickstarter campaign. We’re pretty excited about the rewards we’re able to offer. Hopefully you are too. You may notice we’ve got a one-off zine planned as part of the reward packages. If you’re into microfiction, why not give it a go? More details on that soon.
We’ll be live at the Jamboree (Limehouse) tonight (August 19th) showcasing some of the fiction writers you’ll see in The Open Pen Anthology. The last event we did at the Jamboree in Limehouse was a blast. As usual, there’s a bar open from 7pm, and the show itself kicks off at about 8pm. Tickets are £5 on the door.
Like we said, if you like what we do, now’s the time to show your support. We think it’s important that up-and-coming fiction writers with something to say are given a platform for their talent. The Open Pen Anthology is a testament to that. We’d love for you to be a part of it. Pledge here, and help us put out fiction that is willing to take a risk.