short fiction


Short Story of the Month:

‘A Voice Spoke To Me At Night’

by Helen McClory

‘Loneliness is a terrible thing, wherever you are. I think it’s a stronger force than love, because it’s a kind of love for everyone that is never returned.’

In the spirit of honesty, let’s lay some truths on the table: ‘loneliness’ is cool. Sort of.. That compulsion which pulls one away from the madding crowd, and yet draws the breath of sadness. Even a mild and ephemeral depression carries a quixotic sense of adventure.

When I was a lad, a piquant exoticism decorated the auras of those preferring The Cure, to say S Club 7. (That’s probably not the best pairing to illustrate with, but still…)

In this vein, a dedication to a book of short fiction reading ‘For the lonely’, is for some (me) invitation enough. Like a bee to nectar ( / a fly to shit). And in this same spirit I began reading Mayhem & Death, by the Scottish writer Helen McClory (404 Ink, March 2018) – a smorgasbord of stories concerning lore and hinterlands, both geographic and of the mind. A meditation on loneliness, or perhaps ennui, that nevertheless oozes…cool. So how do ennui and loneliness differ, and where do they overlap? That’s another essay, but for this one, let’s record that Mayhem & Death bathes in this twilight. 

As an arrangement, the collection is unorthodox – crammed full of flash fiction, a couple of regular-length short stories, before ending with the first part of a novella. One can’t imagine a traditional publishing house running with such a project, so kudos to the independent 404 Ink for giving it the green-light. 

The opener is a perfect mood-setter – the story of a woman, once a mother, revisiting the life and death of her daughter. Both natural-born outsiders, isolation hangs like a pall without explicit reference – only implicitly, with McClory giving us a taste of her descriptive prowess: ‘…Madeleine was like that, like a storm cloud poured into the shape of a girl, able to make a whole room feel … the tortured static of her moods.’ And the flash fiction runs with the tone set – death and the ghosts of the dead, but with a further step taken – into the unseen. McClory presents fantasy in such an everyday way, that these worlds seem less like the product of imagination / more like an alternate-reality – one which our myopic vision and faith only in our senses, prevents us from seeing. Put another way, it’s our failing that we are blind to what we inflict on the loved-ones of animals we kill – be that for meat, hide or pleasure. That we don’t see the angels of death, coming to collect what we owe them – our final breath.

And buried within the collection is A Voice Spoke To Me At Night, one of the few regular-length stories, within a work dominated by flash. 

From the first sentence, the protagonist is drawn in feather-light touches. The portrait is intimate, despite revealing nothing concrete – the character’s name, her age, where she lives,… And yet we are pulled into her world, with its small and innocuous dimensions. Here is a young woman whose life holds no rush of blood; indeed, it barely registers a pulse. And despite the absence of even a single Ugly Sister, her lonely state is compelling: takes the shape of a modern-day Cinderella. As she slopes from bedroom to kitchen to 9-5 to bedroom, we understand completely who this girl is, her physical, emotional and material circumstance. And the complete absence of any plan, a vision for her life beyond the day to come – it all makes perfect sense, despite McClory serving up no backstory. Importantly, none of this is ‘heavy’, either for the girl herself, or the reader: the author imposes no emotional tax. It simply is what it is.

And then… Then we are blindsided by a fantastical turn, lifting the story clean off firm ground. Our wan and simple girl finds a twin, a kindred spirit. Not a friend of a friend or someone at work or a twinkle-eyed stranger on the train home, but a man living in…her wardrobe mirror. And the meshing of these two worlds – spanning time and place, age, gender, language, Biblical plague and post-modern immunity – it’s all perfectly done. The portal between these atomised souls is sustained by one thing – their shared loneliness. 

Love, lust, hate, envy,… the ‘big’ emotions grant the writer some licence: they can ‘go large’, get a little bombastic, even. Because that, Ladies & Gents, is entertainment. But ennui and loneliness…just a story of girl, serving up ketchup-on-toast for one. How does that fly? Well, just read A Voice Spoke To Me At Night, and it’ll all become clear.

o          o          o

Reviewed and recommended by Tamim Sadikali

Mayhem & Death (404 Inkby Helen McClory was release in October 2017. Buy now.



Tamim Sadikali is the author of Dear Infidel (Hansib, 2014), and has recently completed a short story collection. Twitter: @TamimSadikali.


The world is at sea, and there are tales to wail, we say. And here they are, they are the stories of

Open Pen Issue Twenty-Two.

Our cover is blue and amber and on closer inspection you’ll see the land mammal; a leopard. It is most likely Josh Neal’s final illustration for Open Pen before he goes off to conquer the world as the finest living, breathing illustrator colour has known. We thank him for his wonderful illustrations over the years that have become synonymous with Open Pen. Where do we go from here?

Fortunately we’re just as into the fiction in our pages as ever. The leopard you see is the visual interpretation of our cover short story, ‘Margot and the Leopard’ by London based Nicole Adams.

N Quentin Woolf returns after a short hiatus with ‘Independent Thought’, and Limehouse Books editor Bobby Nayyar provides the guest editorial.

The fiction continues with shorts from Anita Goveas with “Undercurrents”, Simon Marshland with “The Anniversary”, “Barcodes” by Gene Farmer and Open Pen guilty pleasure Mat Woolfenden closes the edition with “Deathbed”.

Look out for Open Pen Issue Twenty-Two, it’s free and it’s hitting your indie bookshop September 29.

Also worth keeping an eye on is our online presence. We’re keen to put out as many short stories we believe in and enjoyed as possible, so as has been the case over the last few issues, we’ll be extending the issue across our website, giving you more scowling, frowning, naughty clowning fiction than ever. More, more, more.

If you can’t hit one of our stockists, consider subscribing to Open Pen.


By Ellie Broughton

It started small, at first. The bed was a bit crunchier than before. There was sometimes wet sawdust, like a porridge, in the shower tray. She had a few splinters in a row. I thought nothing of it. You know how it is: even the most paranoid people struggle to see what’s going on in their own back garden. She used to cry sometimes. She kept these wood shavings the size of ringlets in her bag, and I thought they were just rubbish. 

She was out a lot. She’d done this BTEC, you see, to give herself something practical to make some money on the side. At first it was useful. She straightened bits of furniture. She’d fashion supports for the back of a bookcase to sober up its drunken lean. She stabilised a desk that shook when you sat down to it, varnished chairs and hushed whinging hinges. 

But after a while, it was hard for her to hide how much the carpentry course was taking over her life. She used to sing ‘Knock On Wood’ so often I had to ask her to stop. And the wood shavings were everywhere now – and I mean everywhere. I would wake up in the night with a dry mouth, coughing, and on sunny afternoons the air between us was so thick with dust motes I could hardly bring myself to reach across it, or speak. We never slept together any more. She’d stay up late doing her coursework. What is it, I’d ask sometimes. Nothing, she’d reply, in varying degrees of nonchalance, grief, defiance, insecurity and fury.

I wouldn’t have said anything, but it was getting in the food. She’s a smashing cook, my girlfriend, but dinners were coming coated in wood dust. Eat something like a lasagne and a bit of dust in the bechamel doesn’t bother you, but it wasn’t just that. Cups of tea had particles floating in them like old biscuit crumbs. There were woodchips in the pesto. I found offcuts in sandwiches. In a matter of weeks I was raking through curries, checking for rawlplugs.

I started to date a girl from work with big pale blue eyes. She had a sand timer on her desk. I walked over most days, and one day I began to play with it. She fixed me for a minute with those eyes of her, then giggled. After work she took me to the pub.

Everything alright at home, she asked.

Fine, I said. She took me back to hers and made me toast. She burned it but handed it to me anyway, thinking I was too drunk to notice. Oh, I noticed. I felt sorry for myself, then, tucking into that toast: one in a series of ruined meals in my life. 

With a friend, I texted my girlfriend. 

I thought maybe my girlfriend would let it slide. No. It all came to a head when I found a nail in my birthday cake.

When my teeth hit metal I immediately opened my mouth. I heard the spit-wet sponge clatter onto the plate. My head hung there for a moment and her eyes swivelled to the glistening mouthful.

Was that a nail? she asked.

I think so, I replied.

We sat there in silence for a while as she felt for something to say.

I’m sorry, she whispered.

There shouldn’t be a nail in the cake, I pointed out.

I know that, she replied.

I could have impaled myself on that, I shouted.

I know, she said, I’m mortified. 

After a moment, she said: You know I never wanted to hurt you?

Then there were tears welling in her eyes. Rivulets ran new tracks down her cheeks and her skin shone through a layer of dust. 

I’ve been building, she gulped, a cabin. 

It was a shock. She let the words sink in.

Ah, I replied. That’s where all the sawdust came from.

She nodded.

I think I should move in.

Out? I asked.

Yes, she replied, out. Into the house. 

Cabin, I corrected. 

She looked at me like she was waiting for something, then got up and went to the back door, and looked at me again. I got up and went over to her.

It’s in the garden, I realised.

It’s in the garden, she explained, and opened the back door. I could smell, faintly, the musk of cut timber.

I could see it already, out of focus, its warmth flooding my gaze.

But actually I heard it before I saw it. Before it came into focus I heard a deep, towering creaking, and I could hear a picture of it clearer than an image.

It’s not a cabin, I realised, sinking.  

She walked over to the house, and put her hand on its flank like it was a wild animal she’d tamed.

Still touching it, she turned back to me.

I’m sorry, she said, in a voice like an exhalation.

It’s OK, I replied. 

Behind her, the house sighed and settled, creaked and cracked, and stood.

o         o         o

Ellie Broughton
is a writer and journalist from London. Short stories that she has written have been published by The Cadaverine, The Learned Pig, and Queen Mob’s Teahouse, and she has also had non-fiction published in Elsewhere Journal.


By Eddie Willson

From the beginning, Patrick disliked making home visits. The estate depressed him. It didn’t surprise him that it was to be demolished, and replaced by a low-rise development. Glum-faced towers loured over waste ground speckled with fly-tipped junk.

Most tenants wouldn’t let him into their homes. He’d breathlessly explain that he’d been hired as the estate’s writer in residence, and was gathering material for an anthology of tenants’ reminiscences. This information was usually greeted by silence and a closing door. Patrick partly blamed the ID card he’d been issued, which made him look like Sir Laurence Olivier playing Richard III. But what depressed him most was what he encountered on the rare occasions when he was invited inside. In his journal he wrote, I used to be so impressed by Greene’s facility at revealing character through the details of inhabited space. These flats reveal nothing. The same Argos sofa in front of the same Argos television, tuned to the same daytime pap. The people seem to have no stories. I plonk the Dictaphone in front of them and get next to nothing; no plot, no punchline, no point. Only one useable bit so far. One Barbadian old dear, on arriving here and being appalled that white people had their bread delivered unwrapped, left on the doorstep for any passing dog to Christen. Sort of stuff they’re after, if I can get the voice right. Would variant spelling be alright? Got lost again today. This place is worse than the Barbican.

His duties were listed in a glossy folder which bore the slogan, ‘Valuing yesterday, today and tomorrow.’ He would run fortnightly drop-in sessions for tenants. Two days a week he’d make home visits, collecting reminiscences. And he’d submit regular reports to a woman from the council who wore Doctor Marten shoes and had a job title that sounded to Patrick like some Burroughsian cut-up. In his first report he wrote that there was a clear need to be proactive in involving tenants. He’d be emphasising outreach work initially. He felt confident the tenants had a capacity for storytelling, but it needed exercise, like an underused muscle.

Then he met Rex. He was sitting on a deck chair on the top landing of Mallard Tower, a frail-looking man in a blazer. Patrick gave his foot-in-the-door spiel. The man stood shakily, folded the chair and, smiling, said ‘You’d best come in.’

Patrick looked around the living room as the man made tea in a brown pot. A curtain of coloured plastic strips hung at the kitchen door. On the wall was a painting of a bottle green woman in a bottle green forest. There were antimacassars on the armchairs and a chrome ashtray on a stand by the fireplace. Later, Patrick wrote in his journal. Rex’s place is like some museum of retro kitsch. Does it count as retro if you’re not doing it deliberately? No television! I sneaked a look at the kitchen. He’s got a larder! With tinned peas in!

With the strong sweet tea poured and the Dictaphone in place, Rex settled himself. ‘I hope you’ve got plenty of tape.’

Patrick sighed. Gently but clearly he said, ‘You know, I don’t want to take up too much of your time.’

Then Rex began. About his time in music hall, working with the Crazy Gang and others. ‘Not much of an act to be honest. I’d come on dressed like Widow Twankey, do five minutes of gags. Then I’d sing ‘Rule Britannia’ and flash my drawers. They had God Save the King embroidered on them.’

He talked about the end of the halls and his move into working as a film extra. ‘If you ever see that film Brighton Rock, look out for the bit on the pier just before Kolley Kibber gets killed. You can just make me out, walking past the amusements; grey jacket, black trilby.’

That evening Patrick made it to the video shop in Blackheath just before it closed. At home, he paused the videotape over and over at the shot Rex had described. He peered at the slanted, flickering scene. There was a man there of roughly the right build, with a similar profile to Rex. It could be him. Quite possibly.

On the next visit, Rex was wearing a tie and a newer cardigan. The living room looked different, as if tidied for visitors. This time, there were fig rolls with the tea. ‘Help yourself. I’ll only have the one. They give me wind if I’m not careful.’

Above the fireplace was a painting that Patrick hadn’t noticed before. It showed a middle-aged woman, naked except for a towel, reclining on a sofa. In one corner, the lines of an initial sketch were visible, where painting had apparently been abandoned.

Rex pointed at it. ‘I did that. That’s my girlfriend. My daughter Helen don’t approve of her.’


‘Don’t see much of Helen. Too busy. She’s an actress. When she can get the work.’

Taking the Dictaphone from his pocket, Patrick headed Rex off. And that would always be the pattern. Patrick began to have more success with the other tenants, but still he returned to Rex like he was an unfinished story. He’d sit transfixed by Rex’s tales of National Service and concert parties, of a full life. He’d been scared half to death fighting unremembered battles, he’d whitewashed coal, and he’d queued in back-street brothels. He’d taught himself the piano and recited Shakespeare to squaddies miles from home. The tales ran on and the light of the tape recorder would seem to grow brighter as daylight faded in the room.

Occasionally Rex would sigh and say, ‘Got nothing to show for it now of course.’

And Patrick would say, ‘You had those experiences though. Nobody can take that from you.’

The second drop-in session went much like the first. Nobody disturbed Patrick for a solid two hours. Happily, he tapped away on his laptop, sketching ideas for a soap opera set on a run-down housing estate. He’d just run out of steam and begun playing solitaire when a skinny woman with gold earrings poked her head round the door.

She introduced herself as Doreen and said she wanted to get involved in the reminiscence project. She said the word involved as if there was no l in it. Patrick gestured to her to sit at his desk. They chatted for several minutes, then she took a scrunched fistful of paper from the pocket of her puffer jacket. She flattened the old envelopes and takeaway fliers and laid them out in order. She began to read. ‘One year me and my girl Lindsey went this caravan place in Dartmoor. There wasn’t hardly any shops or people round there. Lindsey was good as gold all week. She liked the ponies.’

Patrick listened. He thought of his job interview, where he’d waxed lyrical about making the out-of-the ordinary out of the ordinary. He’d enthused about the project’s potential for healing and empowerment at a time of upheaval. He found himself wondering what to cook for supper.

Doreen’s piece ended with a flat, ‘Then we went home. That was the best holiday we had.’

Carefully Patrick said, ‘I’m not getting much sense from this of why the holiday was special.’

Doreen glared at him. She pursed her lips. ‘It’s all in there if you know what’s what.’

Patrick’s back straightened. ‘Well, please trust me that as regards writing, I do know what’s what.’ He shuffled the scraps of her story into a pile. Looking at it he said, ‘Please don’t be offended if I say that as it stands, this piece doesn’t warrant inclusion in the anthology.’

Doreen pulled a face as if she didn’t care.

Patrick grimaced and said, ‘I suppose some people’s lives are more eventful than others. I met this fascinating older guy, Rex, in Mallard block, who just had so many stories.’

Doreen’s face tightened into a sneer. ‘Rex? What, Rex on the top floor?’

‘That’s right. Used to be in showbiz. Travelled a lot. Got a daughter who acts.’

She laughed out loud now. ‘Travel? I doubt he’s ever been further than the Isle of Wight. He used to work at Citibank as a messenger with me dad. And I went school with his daughter. Last I heard she was working in a bar in Shoreditch. She couldn’t stand him.’

Patrick leaned back in his chair. ‘What about his time in music hall?’

Doreen inspected her nails, triumphant. ‘First I’ve heard of it.’

Patrick walked home through the market as it was closing. The man from the junk stall was tossing an old painting into a green wheelie bin. Patrick remembered Rex’s painting of his girlfriend. If, of course, it was his painting and she was his girlfriend. Perhaps Rex, like some dorky teenager, had invented a girlfriend to make himself seem cooler and more attractive.

Near his bed-sit Patrick bought biscuits. He curled up on the sofa, wrapped himself in a duvet, ate digestives and drank pot after pot of tea. It was Doreen’s fault. Later he wrote in his journal, I can imagine her at Tenant’s Association meetings, pointing and shouting, her face bulging with petty resentment. If a word’s got more syllables than she can be bothered with, she leaves some out. Kept going on about Vietmese people. She likes Danielle Steele. I asked what she liked about her. She said, ‘The way she uses language.’ As if she’s going to like her for her punctuation.

He thought of Rex. He’d developed an image of him, and now that image was wobbling and shimmering like the freeze-framed figure on the tape of Brighton Rock. Who knew how much truth there was in what he’d told him? There may have been some exaggeration involved, but surely it was natural for somebody to present themselves in the best possible light. There was always a story behind the story.

He remembered his job interview again. He’d talked the panel through his CV. He mentioned his time at Middlesex University but didn’t mention he’d failed to complete his degree in Writing and Publishing. After all, he’d reasoned, F. Scott Fitzgerald dropped out of college. He realised however that he was being selective in choosing his role models. He wouldn’t have dreamed of going to work in a bank on the basis that if it was good enough for T.S. Eliot it was good enough for anyone.

His account of his editorship of Another Story Altogether, the magazine he’d launched after Uni, was similarly slanted. He chose not to reveal that the magazine had hit the buffers when the temp job he was in had ended, terminating his access to free photocopying. And he’d felt it unnecessary to admit that his list of publishing credits largely derived from a kind of literary pyramid selling where other writers running similar magazines returned publishing favours.

He hadn’t even lied exactly. Not even when asked what he did at the publishers where he was then working part-time. Breezily he said, ‘I read novels all day! And they pay me!’ Actually he was paid to sit at reception, sign for the odd parcel, and greet people arriving for appointments. But that left plenty of time to read, and nobody complained.

On landings and walkways, in the launderette and the off-licence, the estate’s bush telegraph was buzzing with spite. People who’d previously been indifferent to the reminiscence project, now stirred like wasps in winter. Nodding vigorously above their folded arms they agreed it shouldn’t be allowed. Something should be done. The poison seeped down to the infants and toddlers. They poked their heads out of the stairwell on Rex’s landing and sang ‘Liar, liar, pants on fire!’ Rex stopped sitting out in his deckchair.

Patrick’s drop-in sessions and home visits continued. Perversely, the gossip was generating more interest in the project than any amount of fliers and posters could. Soon there was enough material and the editing could begin.

At the final drop-in session, he sat proof-reading copy for the anthology. There was a knock at the door. Doreen jutted her face into the room. She sat opposite him, placing a blue carrier bag on the desk. She said, ‘I know you don’t want to put the thing I wrote about the holiday into your book, but I want you to know something.’ She took an exercise book from the bag and pushed it towards him.

He read. There in block capitals was the story of Doreen’s daughter, her descent into addiction and her death, alone in a squat in Dalston. The last few sentences froze him. ‘I blame myself. I spoilt her rotten from day one. Never taught her to do without.’

Patrick laid his hands either side of the writing, stared at it as if some words to say about the piece might float up from the page.

‘It’s very powerful, moving. I’m sorry. About it all.’

They sat in silence for a time. Eventually he said, ‘Would you want this in the anthology?’

Doreen made the familiar jutting motion with her chin. ‘Course I fucking don’t. I don’t want everybody knowing my business. Not everybody’s like that; all the lights on, no curtains.’

‘It throws another light on the holiday piece you read to me. Perhaps we could include that if there was some way of giving a bit of context.’

Doreen looked doubtful. She pulled a piece of paper from the bag. ‘There’s something else you need to see.’

He only needed to scan it quickly to know what it was, even though she’d spelt the word petition with an ‘a’. On the paper were the signatures of about half the contributors to the anthology. And at the top was the polite threat that they would withdraw their contributions if the anthology contained anything that wasn’t ‘real memories about real things that happened.’

Patrick shook his head. ‘I’m not sure I can agree to that.’

‘Nobody’s asking you to agree to anything. It’s just telling you what’s going to happen.’

Patrick tilted his head on one side. ‘Why does it bother you so much?’

She paused as if considering the question for the first time. ‘Because you’re asking us to share something. And he’s getting a free ride. He gets the attention and it hasn’t cost him anything.’

Patrick managed to wrap up the conversation with a vague promise to ‘think of something’. He felt like a victim of the school bully, promising to bring in all their pocket money the following lunchtime. In his next report to his employer he wrote that after some initial hesitancy many tenants had become quite passionate about the project.

The lift was broken. He was glad, because it allowed him to delay further the thing he was dreading. Even as he reached Rex’s flat he hadn’t finally decided what to say. He’d rehearsed a few opening lines but each one tripped and fell before it went anywhere. The language wasn’t the problem; the problem was deciding the right thing to do.

A woman answered the door. Patrick peered at her. She was too young to be the woman in the painting. He introduced himself.

The woman nodded. ‘Thought so. He’s always going on about you.’

‘Are you Rex’s daughter?’

‘His daughter? No, love. I’m the home help. I’m just packing a few things for him.’

Patrick frowned. ‘Why?’

‘He’s had a fall and cracked his hip. He’s up St Thomas’s. He said to let you know.’

‘That’s a shame. I hope he’s okay’

The woman leaned against the door jamb, weighing him up. ‘You are going to visit him, aren’t you?’

Patrick nodded. ‘Of course. Yeah.’

For a time, it felt like proper work. He’d wake early and spend a few hours on his own writing. Then he’d settle to editing and proofing the anthology, tweaking and tightening, forcing himself not to regularise the grammar. He’d then phone or visit the contributors to okay any changes. And then, in the evenings he’d see Rex. He’d listen to him talk until Rex grew tired, then he’d listen to his breathing as he slept.

Patrick stood by the fire exit of the library, smoking a last cigarette before going into the function room. He thought of what Rex had said when he asked how he felt about going into sheltered housing. He’d shrugged and said, ‘I could do with looking after.’

He imagined him now, arranging the ephemera of a life in his room, then going into the dining room for his first meal in the new place. He would eat with a fork in one hand and the anthology in the other, waiting for someone to ask him. And when they did, he’d explain and say, ‘Yes, I am actually. Borrow it if you like.’ He would present to them his written self, a Rex that suited him, fitted him. Or was that it? Still Patrick hadn’t established the truth of Rex’s life. But if everything he’d told him was just a story, he wasn’t sure it mattered. He couldn’t blame him for wanting to be remembered as something other than a solitary old man with sad eyes and bad breath, who’d spent his life aiming at himself and missing. And who really would have been made happier by the truth?

This thought turned his attention to the task at hand. He stubbed out his cigarette, shut the fire exit and straightened his tie. He would have to go in now.

In the function room were local councillors, the Doctor Martens woman and her colleagues, contributors and other tenants from the estate. And, on a table was a pile of copies of the book, as yet untouched. Patrick walked steadily down the corridor to the room. He knew the shit was about to hit the fan, and he felt proud of himself for the first time in ages.

 *          *          *

Eddie Willson is alive and well and living in Deptford, England. In real life he’s a library assistant as well as doing voluntary advice work. His short stories have appeared in numerous magazines in the UK and the USA. ‘Stories’ has been long-listed for the Bridport Prize.


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.”


“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?”


“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.


By Lisa Fontaine

Phase six. I skipped phase five.

A letter was delivered to me today. Wrong address. Stranger things have happened. Yusuf Patel: that’s who it’s for. I know vaguely where the house is, somewhere near the big Tesco I think. The envelope is pastel blue, address handwritten. Birthday card perhaps. I hold it up to the light, and, yes, it is. Outlines of cartoon animals, a badge: the number 8. Some glitter sparkles in the palm of my hand. Phase six: I think. After that, phase seven. Then. Nothing. The card is heavy and it must be because of the badge, oversized, inside. The other post: a court order over some woman I may or may not have assaulted, Chinese takeaway menus and a yellow envelope with the hospital logo on it. Knowing what the letter says I just chuck it in the trash. What good will reminding myself do me? I ask. I’m still fingering the other envelope, pastel blue, the number 8. Eight – I wonder if he’s turned eight yet. Perhaps it’s his birthday today. I make a mental note to put it on my to-do list and then remember I don’t have one: I have nothing to do.

Phase six. The world is now liquid and a kind of sea sickness keeps taking hold of me. Vision in and out of focus – nauseating. But the envelope is solid. It is in my hands, solid: pastel blue, the number 8. It is the only thing with gravity. Near the big Tesco Yusuf Patel is turning eight. A fifteen minute walk away. He is real to me. I pass the bin men as I go out, the letter from the hospital tipping into half eaten processed mulch that men who sell The Big Issue will finish later. Young with smokers coughs, both bin men are stocky. Recycling first, then landfill stuff. Lining the wheelie bins back up, one tumbles, knocking over a small gnome. Junk someone gave me. It shatters. Pieces of it scatter, shiny in the light. I reach down to collect the pieces, I feel them solid in my hand. Broken and solid. I smile at the bin men as I do so. He bends, grabs the bin handle and I place my hand on his with gentle touch. He flinches, like my hand is red hot, wipes it on his overalls and looks to his friend. They both walk on. Still smiling I press my hand to my forehead, feeling the temperature of them both. I guess they are both feverish. They don’t look back, just carry on walking.

Kids’ toys are messy in the gardens and the plants are being watered because it’s spring again. I’m walking through the streets thinking how unnecessary and sober it all is. And how much I feel like those acts: unnecessary and sober. Phase 6. I’m frantic: the nausea coming. My body. Ughh. That knot in my stomach again. I think of the boy: he is solid. I concentrate on his face, or, at least how I envision it, and forget about how the world is liquid. The envelope. I walk down the street, turn left. Pass a post box, I could post it, I look down at the envelope. But then I remember it is pastel blue, the number 8. 8 today? Yesterday? Tomorrow? I recall the to-do list. I will deliver it personally. Pigeons. Rats with wings. I’m passing where the park merges with the pavement and there’s an overflowing bin at its exit and they’re eating chips and other fat in food form, the polystyrene containers pecked half-open. I wish I had some bread to give them. Adjacent to me, a kid runs over to the swarm, kicks at them. They flap and then are in the air. One shits on me. The kid laughs hysterically. Shit runs white and brown down my shoulder. Splats onto my shoe. I look at the child, his big moon-face red and real in front of me. I smile at it. It is real and I offer a smile, but it is a liquid smile. On seeing the smile, all liquid, he scampers off, darting into the bushes. Looking down at the pigeon shit on my shoulder I watch it run for an uncanny moment. The colours are running into each other: white and brown and yellow. I touch it with my fingers, rub my fingers together and feel it moist between them. I’m rolling it around on their tips, then lift them to my nose and inhale. Smell. It has a scent. The liquid world doesn’t have smells, just sickness. I look at the creatures. They have returned, pecking at the polystyrene containers, processed and artificial treasures inside. They ignore me. The pigeons and the polystyrene containers. Two real things. I watch them interact. I bend, slowly open the container for them. All of them gather around the same one. I take one of the chips inside, hold it out to them. They take it. I repeat the motion. And I do so until the leftovers are all but one. This last chip: I shall try it. I sniff it, hold it to my bottom lip. Feel its texture. It is cold, I can feel that much. Cold like metal, a solid metal. It brings with it balance. I roll it across the length of my lip. After that I take a bite, cold in my mouth, a metal-like cold and I chew it. I can’t taste it but I chew it anyway and then swallow. I give the rest of it to a pigeon by my foot. It takes it and leaves. I exit the scene, walk on. And in doing so that balance sinks under that liquidity, that seasickness. I look at the bin: the pigeons and polystyrene real around it. It is an island. My head spins again. I finger the envelope in my hand: pastel blue, the number 8. Solace comes like a chemical and I can walk on, forward. This is a one-way street.

Phase six. Eight. The number: 8, glittery and solid in the card. Eight years old. Ten or eleven minutes’ walk away now. Above, the sky is an unnatural blue. I think of it, all the water vapours and particles – unsolid. My stomach turns. Peering down at the letter in my hands I make sure it’s still there, tightening my grip. Badges and birthday candles. Eight. I remember when I was a boy. The choices I made, why do we make the choices we make – what makes us, chose them? I try to understand it for a while. High concept stuff, and I try to think of when I used to be a young boy. Can’t imagine him. Was I ever young? I can only remember being alone. Much is learnt in your own private loneliness. Much ages in your time of learning. I remember him, smile at him. All the years taste bitter in my mouth. I swallow them, the back of my throat burns. I concentrate on less nauseating ventures. That kid now: eight. A birthday card. Other people in the world sending cards. Less lonely.

A queue at the bus stop as I go by, the bus has pulled up, taking fare charges. Last on the bus: straining to lift the Zimmer frame from kerb to bus. I find myself reaching for her arm to stable the movement. The woman grabs her purse, shifts it to the other side of her body and continues to struggle. She is at the summit, pays – the bus door shuts. Drives away. I watch the wheels turn, they are circles, the same motion. They cannot move any other way, it is certain they will move as they do now. Even when they turn onto the next road, they shall move the same way. I always thought a circle less solid than a rectangle or a square but now I’m staring at the movement, round and round against the black and solid road and I begin to reconsider that conclusion.

I walk along the road now after seeing its black and solid. Above the sky is unnaturally blue. Traffics coming in the opposite direction, not much of it, narrow road: one-way street.

Phase six. I can feel that I am separated from the road, slick, like oil on water. My body. I feel disassociated with it yet I’m am very aware of it and this withdrawal from it. Blood from the street rolls over my foot and then back off as I step through the crimson streets and I am aware of the action as this solid thing washing over my foot with its solidity. The solidity of permanent jobs and mortgage plans and child trust funds. It’s all very stable and I take each step slowly, feeling the stability and letting it ground me. But it doesn’t. it makes me feel like I’m a great distance from it, more like those particles in the unnaturally blue sky, all liquid, instead of solid. Some cars are beeping. I drift in and out of the middle of the road. They come head on. The tide also against me, gentle as it is.

Six: I think. Phase six. Then seven. After that, well, after isn’t the right preposition. I am moving forward, towards my destination, a real person: eight. Numbers and calendar months and dates of birth, things that can be counted and put in records and on certificates – things that define solid things. Code and data in the computer, things that define what is real. Eight: a measure, definition – his face will add shape to it. I imagine it is big and round, like all children’s faces on their birthday. I’m walking downhill, deeper into the blood. Leaden against my foot, I bump into something submerged beneath the crimson. I fish for it, almost dropping the envelope in doing so. My heart races fierce. But it is still in my left hand, prints of pigeon muck on it. With my fingers I can feel its shape beneath the blood, I lift it partially out of the crimson, and it’s heavy. A burn barrel. Rusted and thin. With some effort I turn the cumbersome thing upside-down, pouring the crimson out. Sounds like a fountain. I study it, feel the dents, the rough edges, the formations of rust and charring. Digging my hand in there I’m fishing for something in the bottom but there is nothing – anything must have been washed away. I hold the burn barrel to my chest, the object calming my heart rate. Hoping it will help nullify the sickness. Dizziness persists, but in a manageable dose. Sticking out my tongue, now against rust of the burn barrel, I try to channel a sensation through my taste buds. Nothing. Then I’m trying to replicate a taste in my imagination, on the organ of my tongue – nothing. My tongue is red now, the red tasteless. Scentless too. The red tasteless, scentless substance red and real on my clothes, the stain the formation of what you could almost make out to be letters, and if you could take these patterns for letters then they could only spell: ERROR.

There are some people on the pavements, with sounds coming out of their mouths. My mouth, mute. The sickness has liquefied my tongue, the organ now soft inside me and melting into my throat. Obstructed. Air scarce. These people, people with voices, have watched the scene unfold. I try to signal to them and there are those voices again, from their mouths. Concentrate hard. I’m trying to make out what they’re saying, the formation of letters I can ascertain from studying their mouths. Nothing. But then I remember that I have never really heard a person speak, not ever really speak. Perhaps their tongues have dissolved too. I smile to them. One of them is holding a child in its arms. I think it’s a woman as through a dim and wobbling vision I can decipher a blurred apron, tight around her bosom. It is though I’m under water. I can feel the water inside of me, swelling and swishing, it keeps dipping above my throat and entering my mouth. The blurred woman shields the child, turns and disappears into her house. I am smiling and they vanish. Little splashes can be heard across the expanse of crimson.

Alone again. Phase six. A foam fills my mouth. Clinging onto the envelope tighter, pastel blue, 8, solid, a badge inside. The foam slides back down my throat and is gone. Almost there. A centre of gravity around the envelope, pastel blue. Soon I will be at source of all this solidity: 105, Richmond Road East.

I’m passing everything, looking at all the houses on the road, my steps zigzagged. Odd houses are on the left. Two minutes. A big round face of a child, his birthday today, yesterday, tomorrow: someday, any day. Regardless, the envelope is still pastel blue and solid in my hand, 8 inside. A child is eight, a fact a number: balance. I’m hauling my liquid self along and the street is barren. 103. The next house will be his. There is no effort in my steps now, the pull of the house strong. 105. Birthday. I’m going up some steps and am all a sudden at the door. I lift my fist and go to knock, bring it back again. The thing fidgets about in my pocket before repeating the process. It wipes itself on my jackets, it is damp, and it falls back to my side. Both hands: I’m holding the envelope with both hands now. Handwritten. I study the scrawls for some time and go to knock again. I clutch it tighter and feel it solid in my hands. What happens when it is no longer there, solid in my hands? Phase six I think. Shake my head. Eight I think, ‘eight’ muttering it aloud. That’s why I came here. Before I know it my hand is reaching for the letter-flap of its own accord. Push, the fingers push it in, I feel it go, the balance of it all. Seasickness cripples my body and I grab on to a garden gate, nauseated and my vision failed. Through the sound of it all, ten feet underwater, I hear a door open somewhere and the liquid of my body swells again, lapping father and father over my tongue and I open my mouth, the liquid of my body emptying onto the lawn as the boy steps out smiling, card in hand: cartoon animals, the badge: 8.

 *          *          *

Lisa Fontaine is a writer living in Greenwich, London. This story was first published in Open Pen Issue Eleven. Lisa’ flash fiction appears in The Open Pen Anthology, available to buy here.


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.


The Open Pen Anthology – Out March 10th

Published by Limehouse Books, The Open Pen Anthology is out March 10th. You can pre-order here:

A celebration of five years of Open Pen, the book contains the fiction of thirteen Open Pen authors, and micro-fiction from twelve more, meaning that we’ve got a whopping twenty-five authors in its pages.

The Open Pen Anthology packshot front cover colour2

Edited and compiled by Sean Preston, the Anthology takes much the same shape as the fifteen issues of Open Pen. It feels like Open Pen. It looks like Open Pen (thanks to Josh Neal for that much). But we wanted our Anthology to be more than just a “Best Of”. So the exciting thing about this sizeable paperback is that it sets out to give the reader a unique insight into the creative minds of its contributors. It’s more than just an anthology. We’ve got a new piece of fiction from each of the Open Pen authors selected. In doing so, we’re able to present a story of the authors themselves. Where they’ve come from, where they are. How they’ve grown as writers and people is clear to see in each read. It’s the progression of these writers that provides the motivation for each issue of Open Pen. We’ll be releasing extracts from this rewarding collection of fiction in the lead up to publication.

Introduced by N Quentin Woolf, and with a foreword by Paul Ewen’s Francis Plug, The Open Pen Anthology feels like a worthy testament to Open Pen Magazine’s first five years of putting out short stories with something to say, giving it to you for free, and doing our best to support independent bookshops.

Stay tuned for launch nights around the country.


If you are a bookshop looking to stock The Open Pen Anthology, please contact our distributor, Turnaround.

For press enquires and reviews, please contact us at the normal address,