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TWO STORIES

ONE

Sighing and staring off into the distance, Howard heard the familiar click, click whir of the Polaroid camera. Posing was so forced and he was out of practise. People didn’t want to take his photo very often and he was glad, but this was a special occasion and if Heather didn’t get a photo or two he’d never hear the end of it. It’d been like this for a long time, on special occasions. He couldn’t see the appeal himself, it’s not like there wouldn’t be other birthdays but if it pleased her, he guessed he’d go along with it.

The meal was a birthday present, paid for by his daughter, Susan, but mostly her lawyer husband, Mike. He’d be lying if he said he wasn’t touched. He wasn’t the type to accept handouts but it would have been rude not to and when he saw Heather’s eyes light up, well, that settled it.

She’d asked him to step outside, to look out at the ocean, and he’d obliged. He needed the fresh air.

It was odd, socialising with these familiar faces, acquaintances, all of a certain age. He was suddenly very aware of his own mortality, not that he needed reminding, his creaking joints were proof enough of that. Getting old was all he thought about these days.

Secretly, he resented the polite conversation. It was all a little too comfortable, all a little too safe. It was like everyone was just going through the motions. Somewhere along the line they’d forgotten to live.

Sometimes, he’d think back, to that other life, the one that had been his before getting married to Heather, the mortgage and the kids. He still thought about her sometimes but the memories had started to fade years ago, now he could barely see her face. Still, it didn’t do much good to reminisce. Those choices were made a long time ago.

For now he had the view, Heather and Susan and all he had to do was smile.

Story by Kat Ward

TWO

I remember thinking he looked far away that day.

“No more than usual,” Ann muttered through a mouthful of jam sandwich (white, crustless). I always hated the way they spoke about him.

I glanced around, mid-conversation, fully-bored, and caught him propped up against the railings, frozen like a mannequin.

I remember thinking about Elvis, and the time I saw him at Madame Tussaud’s, mid-thrust, chin titled to the ceiling. I remembered wanting to grab both of his lifeless wrists and twist together, to push my stubby fingers into his parted pearly whites and pull out a little more conversation.

“Smile, Granddad!” squeaked someone small.

For a second, I could’ve sworn he was readying himself for a jump, his spine curled, frame yearning for the horizon. We all watched. Maybe he changed his mind.

“He can’t hear you, love.”

Flash.

I pulled up next to him, pointlessly slapping my shoes against the stone-slabbed promenade so as not to startle him. The tide was going out as the sea reclined back into the sky and, with our faces to the wind, the party sounded like a muffled sitcom through a plasterboard wall. We stood for a minute or two, me flicking an orange balloon from side to side with my thumb and forefinger.

I could hear him gulping down the North Sea air like a hungry baby. I listened, grateful.

“So beautiful…”

Startled, I turned to catch his words, but by the time I’d got there, they had gone. He had gone; his blank, lipless mouth a curved crack in a distant desert where no light fell.

But I heard him. I was sure I heard him…

Everyone said it was probably just the gulls.

Story by Jennifer K. McGowan

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