open pen magazine

Twenty-Three and Me.

“Queen Histrionic (as you have dubbed her) makes you angry, but there are 6906 reasons not to tweet about it. 6906 devotees that have favourited her first tweet; god knows how many more the others. So instead, you throw your rucksack down and slouch against the wall to roll a cigarette. It is dusk in April and you are outside your mother’s block on a council estate in central Bristol, not pressing the buzzer. Feeding Queen Histrionic’s name into Twitter’s search box instead. Anata Lowell-Townsend.”

Is how we kick off Issue Twenty-Three. It’s the opening paragraph to This Is What You’re Not Tweeting About by Bonny Brooks, an absolute stonker piece of fiction, the sort of fiction we’re drawn to, the sort of fiction that can call Open Pen home. Brooks has been awarded the Arts & Humanities Research Council Award for her (just-completed) novel, Names Have Been Changed. So if you enjoy the short story as much as we have, look out for that.

The short fiction continues with The Devil and My Dad by Liverpool’s Michael Holloway, Ball & Chain Thing Going Around in My Head by Californian Dan Cardoza, London’s Anna Orhanen’s The Night Tube Has Come and flash piece Gwen by Helen Merrick of Wales.

As usual resident fictioneer N Quentin Woolf leaves us tapping the page and saying, “Yes, yes, yes.” Treat yourself to his novel “Death of a Poet”, which only disappoints in not being about the execution of Scott Manley Hadley (yeah sure buy his book too).

This will be Sean Preston’s last issue as editor. Sean will be 35 in tomorrow and feels the magazine is better served in being run by someone younger. Sean started Open Pen in 2010 and will be concentrating on the book side of Open Pen (those novelettes that are gonna take over the world).

The younger person is Joe Johnston. He is approx ten year younger. Joe has been working on the magazine for several years and retains tight skin and nauseating enthusiasm. You can follow occasional tweetinger Joe here.

Our guest editorial this issue comes from C.C. O’Hanlon, new editor of The Island Review. Do check out The Island Review here, there’s loads of great writing on the theme of islands there.

You may note that our cover illustration is a deviation from the usual style, the style we can thank Josh Neal for. Josh put his last Open Pen cover together for us last year. Massive thanks to Josh, his covers really became a part of the Open Pen identity. The menacing Issue Twenty-Three cover is provided by Sofia Lucarelli.

What else? Nothing else. Oh, our colour scheme (beige avec dull rose) is Photoshop eyedropped from the garb of Peter Falk’s wonderful Columbo.

To all the writers that didn’t make it in. Keep reading. Keep submitting. Look out for news on our new submissions process soon. Look out for some short stories we couldn’t quite fit into the mag, they’ll be hitting this website soon. But for now, please do pick up a free copy of Open Pen from one of our stockists when it hits shops January 26, or subscribe, and enjoy your Open Pen Issue Twenty-Three.

ISSUE SIXTEEN

OP16_COVERWe’re delighted to be getting back to our raison d’être – your free copy of Open Pen Issue Sixteen will be hitting bookshops Saturday, 28th May.

INSIDE: ‘Invisible Monsters’ is a deeply touching fictional account of dealing with a lifelong condition. Congratulations to Bangor University’s DeAnn Bell for that story, which receives the full cover treatment from illustrator Josh Neal. Bell’s short piece is joined by Falkirk’s Andrew Newall with his claustrophobic ‘Writer’s Block’, Dubliner Emmet Vincent’s short and sharp flash piece ‘The John Lewis Christmas Ad’, as well as a return to the pages of Open Pen for co-Dubliner (and London resident) David McGrath with his eye-watering short story, ‘Naked’, which is the kind of story that gets us banned from shops. Thanks, David.

Guest editorial is provided by award-winning playwright Barney Norris, whose debut novel ‘Five Rivers Met on a Wooded Plain is out now. N Quentin Woolf’s latest outing for Open Pen trumps all other dissections of Trump you’ve read. ‘Bookshop Focus’ comes courtesy of Joe Johnston who writes enthusiastically about Hackney’s Burley Fisher Books.

Open Pen Issue Sixteen is a sort of majestic fishy gold, coloured thus.

Finally, you can now subscribe to Open Pen Magazine if you can’t get to one of our stockists. Details here.

In What Capacity

By Mazin Saleem

So it was towards the end of the party and there was just me and this older girl left in the living room, pretty well out of it, so I got on the settee close to her and we started chatting, and I fiddled about on the laptop so we’d have the right kind of music playing in the background. I’m asking her how long it’s been since she moved to the city, how she’s finding it, who she lives with etc., when she jumps back but from the laptop. She’s raising her head to look over the top of it like when you’ve walked in on someone naked, and she even starts shooing at it and asking me to close it. The laptop’s on screensaver: a slideshow of space photographs.

Obviously I thought this was a bit weird and awkward. Plus if I closed the laptop it’d switch off and the music with it, but she looked scared, like she was going to cry even, and she kept saying ‘please’ in that firm tone of voice that when it comes from someone you don’t know too well it always comes across as a little bit rude. I didn’t want her to get stressed out though, so I compromised and turned the laptop round to face the other way. When she saw me looking at her she must have thought I wanted her to explain.

“When I was a girl, my parents made me and my sisters go to sports camp, and you’d have to do different sports or exercises each week, and one week it was swimming. But because the camp had been really popular that summer, with parents at least, the pool had two classes running at once, one going widthways, the other going lengthways. Our class was on widths, doing lifesaving practice. I was on my back, with someone’s hand under my chin pulling me as if I’d been drowning. Except the teachers had messed up and our group ended up getting crashed into by the other one. In all the mess, I went under the water and kept getting kicked under. I think I must have nearly drowned, or had a panic attack or something, because I remember afterwards I couldn’t explain to the teacher what had happened because my breath was so short. What I wanted to explain was this: when I was drowning, I did not see a light. I saw a hole. Through the hole was deep space.”

I didn’t reply straight off, though I wondered whether I should shake my head and whistle. In the end, I went with, “Is that where you think we go?”

“That’s where I think we go back.”

Given her state and the whole situation, I said a fib about this guy who’d been hypnotised and reckoned he could remember being born, and how when he was looking back, past the umbilical cord, he’d seen the dark – maybe even space.

She said: “Yes.”

Too bad this gave her the go ahead to really go off-road. I managed to make out something about heaven and hell not being made up but coming from your memories and premonitions. Heaven comes from the memory of floating up to the stars. Hell comes from the fear of being stuck in a black void where you go mad from doing the only thing you can do: think about your life and everything you did wrong. I tried my best to look understanding.

Staring hard at the back of the laptop, she went, “I can’t help it but I imagine myself as an astronaut sometimes, on a mission in deep space. And I get cut from my cord and I start drifting out, and you don’t know what a fear of heights is till you’ve looked down during a space walk. There’s no bottom, or top for that matter. I can’t tell whether I’m completely still or flying at high speed. Weeks go by until I notice even a speck of light; then I realise it’s not a star, it’s not the nearest solar system – it’s the nearest galaxy. What’s more, with my suit being futuristic, with batteries and air tanks and nutrient tanks, I’m going to keep going for some time. I could just pop open my helmet. But I can’t build up the courage. But neither can I stand to carry on drifting. Out there.”

She pointed at the laptop, which, to be fair, with its back turned, did look like it was up to something. But there were other photos on it I wanted to show her, ones of Earth. I got closer and reached for the screen, telling her, “When you see it from space, aw: it’s so small and fragile-looking, but despite that – or because of it? – so precious and, you know, beautiful.”

Didn’t work though. Before I even got to the part about our island home, she’d caught my wrist. Her hands were all sweaty.

“Don’t you get it? The difference with Earth is it’s so full of things that when you’re surrounded by them it feels like they are the universe. But when you’re surrounded by deep space, when you see what space you’re in… Against that, before that – forget actions, how can even our words mean anything? Not mean as in matter, I mean mean? What are verbs even doing in the middle of all that darkness and silence? Darkness and silence, for millions of light years, till you reach one measly dot, where there’s arguments and minicabs and the royal We and nose hair removal and and fucking party snacks; then darkness and silence again for millions more light years. So how the fuck can anyone believe in connection, in love, in understanding-”

Things, it seemed, were getting properly flaky. I jumped in to try talk her down: “But since when does the fact that you’re small and space is big make you and what you do not mean anything? That’s like saying if I kill someone in a small room, it’s bad, but if I killed them in a big room, it’d be less bad. While if I killed them inside a room as big as the universe, it’d be meaningless.”

She said: “Yes.”

“But size doesn’t matter! Age isn’t the standard. The universe isn’t like this giant set of scales, with you as a bit of fluff that skims off it. It’s not something you’re up against – it’s not even something you’re in or on. You’re a part of the universe, aren’t you?”

“I suppose.”

“And you’re conscious, aren’t you?”

“I suppose.”

“Then you are the conscious part of the universe. The universe is conscious: through you.”

“I… Yes.”

Finally.

“See? So the universe can’t be empty or heartless.” She’d stopped staring at the laptop. I went for broke. “In fact, everything means something. Understanding has to happen! Connection is real! Love exists! And why?”

“Um.”

“Because you do. You’re the universe’s opening eye. You’re the-”

“Um, can you not do that please?”

“What? Oh, that.”

“That makes me feel really uncomfortable.”

“Sorry. But I thought. Sorry.”

*          *          *

Mazin Saleem’s fiction has appeared both online and in print in Litro MagazineThe Literateur, as well as The May Anthologies. He has also written non-fiction for Little Atoms and Medium.

A new flash fiction piece from Mazin Saleen appears in The Open Pen Anthology, available for purchase here.

Birdwatching

By Anton Rose

The body falls towards the river, cutting a pattern through the rain. It hits the water, and I shiver. I wipe the raindrops off my binoculars, and focus on the spray. The entry was messy, with no great shape to the dive. A six, perhaps. And that’s being generous. More like a five and half, now I think about it. As it fell, the arms began to flail, as if in a tragic moment of doubt. Too late.

I didn’t get a look at its face. Judging by the shape, I’d guess it was a girl, but it’s difficult to tell in these conditions. Questions like that don’t seem to matter now, anyway. Now the body is one with the water. The height of the drop from the bridge is enough to ensure there will be no thrashing underneath, no final, desperate fight as bodily instincts take over. Several broken bones, yes. Often a severed spine. From that high up, even the smoothest-looking water is like concrete.

In a few hours, someone will begin to worry. That’s if there’s anyone to worry, of course. But most people have at least one other person who might notice their absence. Then there will be telephone calls to waterlogged phones with no answer, attempts at contact over email or social media. There will be wild swings between doubt and reassurance, of thinking the worst, and holding onto hope. Eventually there will be calls to relatives, to colleagues, and finally to the police. Then search parties, and posters on lampposts, occasionally even an appeal in the local news. Depending on the weather, the body might turn up downstream, but most will be swept out into the estuary, and beyond.

Today is the fourteenth of February. My favourite day of the year. Christmas is a good one too, and New Year’s Eve is usually reliable, but there’s nothing quite so powerful as loneliness magnified by a day of cards, flowers, and displays of affection, all partaken in by other people.

Lost in my appreciation of the performance, I have failed to notice a man walking towards me. I’m standing next to a large iron girder, at the point at which several struts intersect. I thought I was well out of sight. Apparently not.

The man looks at me suspiciously, but there’s nothing in his eyes to indicate that he saw what I just did. He must have missed her go. He’s wearing a high-visibility jacket over some dark blue overalls. The rain splatters against his hood, which he lifts slightly to get a good look at me.

“Can I ask what you’re doing here?” he says, raising his voice to compete with the weather.

“Birdwatching.” I reply.

“You what?”

“Birdwatching. Looking out for rare birds.”

“I know what birdwatching is.” He says. He narrows his eyes.

I reach into my pocket and pull out a small, well-worn book. Scotland’s Best Birds. I open it at a page where the corner is turned in, and I hand it to him.

He holds it in his right hand, his thumb pressed up against the inner spine. With his left, he tries to shield the pages.

“White-throated Needletail,” I say. “This is the best time of year to see them. And they love this kind of weather.”

He stares at the book for another minute, and then hands it back to me.

“Well it isn’t really safe to be out here in these conditions.”

“Noted,” I say. “I was planning to be on my way soon anyway.”

He studies me again for a few more seconds, and gives half a shrug. He turns and begins to walk towards a van parked only a few metres away. How didn’t I hear a van approaching? And why did he park so close to me? I suppose he could have seen a reflection from the binoculars

I wait for him to leave.

When he’s gone, I put the book back in my pocket. I’ve never seen a Needletail in my life. Not that I would be able to recognise one if I did.

I make my way towards the edge of the bridge, climbing over the railings.

As I stand peering over, my body and my mind engage in a familiar dance. My knees tense and loosen; my toes grip the fabric of my socks. Another time, perhaps, but not today. I glance to my left. A hundred metres down the bridge, there’s another figure. Tonight really is the night. They teeter on the precipice. I wipe the raindrops from my binoculars.

*          *          *

Anton Rose lives in Durham, U.K., with his wife, Beth, and their dog, Rosie. He writes fiction and poetry while working on a PhD in Theology. His work has appeared in a number of print and online journals, including Structo, theNewerYork, and Jersey Devil Press.

@antonjrose

FALL BLUE

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.

Jamie Collinson

Jamie Collinson, author of ‘The Shields’

‘…ttham’

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.’

‘What birdsong?’

‘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:

OP15_PACKSHOT