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: