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Friday, June 29, 2018

The Devil Wears a Dressing Gown

I've recently released a collection of short stories called The Devil Wears a Dressing Gown. It features both previously published and unpublished stories.

To celebrate its release, and to entice you to buy the collection, I thought I would share some of the stories here.

Gravel Rash

‘Don’t fall and get gravel rash.’
     The voice was unfamiliar, maybe imaginary, but the message was well known to him. From the first day he had pedalled free of the training wheels attached to his new bike, Brendon’s mum had warned him and worried for him, with those words. All kids crash their bikes and rip up their knees. Brendon had the scars to prove his childhood bravado just like most of his friends. No big deal. He always replied to his mum that he would be fine and usually he was.
     Did he really hear someone say that to him just now? He was alone, wasn’t he? Gravel crunched and jostled beneath the tyres as he rode through Lakeside Park on his way home from work. Had he started the trip after dark, he would have ridden the long way home but an extra fifteen minutes to avoid the park was fifteen minutes he wasn’t willing to give up tonight. He had a date. Samantha Ewells had finally said yes.
     Daylight was being folded away like a piece of paper soon to be imprisoned in the darkness of an envelope. Brendon pedalled harder. He would probably make it through the park and reach the freeway before the black night began to reign but he maintained his pace, even ramped it up a little. There was no way he was going to be late home tonight. He had to make up time. That truck was to blame. The one which arrived late at the Toyota dealership, around the corner from the depot, to unload its cargo of new Camrys. The whole road was blocked for ten minutes as the driver made numerous attempts to reverse the truck into the lot. Brendon had sat there staring at it and tapping anxiously on the steering wheel. Wondering why him, why tonight and trying to not to think of having to make Samantha wait. She might not wait. He had cursed under his breath as he waited impatiently. Must have been a new driver. Inexperienced.
     Now he was running late. Running out of time. This was an experience that Brendon could have done without. He had heard stories about people going missing in Lakeside Park. Everyone said it was no place to be after the sun had gone down. The only ones to disregard the danger were the drunken fools and deviates who frequented the park in order to debauch and destroy themselves under the cover of darkness. Brendon would have happily avoided them for the rest of his life.
     In the quiet of the dusk, the only sounds were Brendon’s heavy breathing, a squeak from the pedals on each revolution, and the chuckle of the gravel underneath his tyres.
     ‘Be careful of gravel rash.’
     Brendon’s first instinct was to stop and listen closely without audible interference but fear kicked in and pushed him on. Was he hearing things? The gravel seemed looser, less willing to support and carry his weight, and he struggled at times to control the handlebars and stay on course. The night was black and heavy now. The acacias which lined the track leaned in closer to him, whispering seditiously. He flicked on his night light which was perched in the centre of the handlebars, but the battery was so low it barely reached the spinning tip of his front tyre. Hot, sweaty and panicking he wondered how much farther to the freeway? He looked up for a moment but could not see through the opaque gloom. Suffocating gloom. That was what he felt. This was bad. Very bad.
     ‘Don’t fall. You’ll get gravel rash.’
     ‘Shut up!’ yelled Brendon frantically at his invisible taunter. ‘Shut up!’
     Forcing himself to concentrate on controlling the bike, afforded Brendon some peace from the persistent paranoia, but some one was watching him. He knew it. Somehow keeping up with him. One of those perverted pariahs who lived in the park was teasing him, tormenting him.
     He felt the front of the bike dip suddenly and then rise again as though he had ridden through a pothole. His left hand was jolted free of the handlebar grip but he quickly re established a firm hold. The knowlegde that he must be nearing the edge of the park, encouraged Brendon and strengthened his aching legs. He imagined he could now see the headlights of vehicles flickering through the trees as they roared southbound along the F6. Then he realised he was sinking.
     A violent and immediate stop catapulted Brendon over the handlebars and onto the gravel path. Having somehow managed to maintain a one handed grip on the handlebar, he pulled the bike down on top of him as he fell and it landed pedal first against his chest.
     Too stunned to move initially, Brendon just lay there. Insistent and angry pain advised him that he was still alive. A gush of air left his lungs as he exhaled, then he coughed for a minute or two, wincing with each contraction of his diaphragm. As he pushed the bike off himself, he felt the rough gravel nibbling at the skin around the back of his neck and calves. A strong sucking sensation against his right knee caused a new burst of pain as the sharp edges of the gravel cut his skin. He heard a sound close to him. Very close. A murmur. Low and indistinct. Garbled as though someone was talking with a mouthful of food.
     No longer pinned by his bike, Brendon tried to wrest himself free of the disturbingly soft gravel but the more he twisted the tighter he was held. If he could have he would have screamed for help but the only sound to escape his mouth was a pathetic mumble. If he could have he would have kept fighting his unseen enemy but fear immobilised him. His very last thought as the gravel swallowed him alive and crushed him, was that if only that truck had not blocked the road, he would have been home now getting ready for his date with Samantha instead of dying alone in Lakeside Park.
     Just before his head disappeared beneath the rippling surface of the gravel track, he heard the voice again, ‘I warned you about gravel rash, didn’t I?’

Friday, February 23, 2018

Guinea Pig

Guinea Pig was first published in The Cynic Online in 2012, and is a look at the possible future of medical practice.

Guinea Pig by D.A.Cairns

‘How long have you had this pain?’

Strom tilted his head slowly and stared at the ceiling for a moment.
‘A few weeks I guess.’
‘A few weeks?’
Strom nodded, unfazed by the Doctor’s incredulous tone of voice.
‘A few weeks of severe pain. Debilitating pain. And you’re only coming to see me now?’

This wasn’t the first time Strom had heard such words from the doctor, but this time he was almost certain it would be the last. He had beaten the old mongrel cancer three times already even as his comrades fell all around him. Somehow he kept dodging the bullets of death, just like the third Gulf War where his brothers in arms had been cut down, left, right and centre. Strom had no idea why he had been so lucky, and sometimes even the question frightened him.

‘Hey, sorry doc. I drifted away for a bit.’
The doctor leaned forward. ‘Have you been drifting away, as you say, a lot recently?’
‘Probably. It’s hard to say. I mean I might not always know when I’m gone, so I don’t know when I come back either and I don’t think about it.’

The two men exchanged looks which said that Strom’s statement was a little confusing and they silently agreed to move on.
‘Tell me about your general health.’
‘Good as gold. You know how much trouble I’ve had over the years, but every time those bloody clever surgeons fix me up, I end up better than ever.’
‘It’s a miracle, isn’t it?’
‘What’s that?’
‘Modern medicine. I mean previous generations were dying in their millions from the kinds of cancers you’ve had, Strom. Thanks to your bravery…’
‘It wasn’t just me, Doc,’ said Strom humbly.
‘Anyway, you played a huge part, but let’s get back to your headaches. What pain relief have you been taking? Anything?’
‘Some pills with heaps of Codeine, and marijuana.’

The doctor stood and motioned for Strom to join him as he walked across the room. ‘Let’s rule out the obvious first, okay. Sit down here please.’

Strom sat in the wide leather seat which immediately began to recline as it simultaneously elevated. The chair noiselessly unfolded and slid close to the portable MRI machine.
‘Lie still, Strom. This will only take a few minutes.’
As he slid inside the white cylinder, he listened for familiar sounds. His own breathing, a faint humming from the scanner, and rapid thumping sounds as the MRI captured digital images from inside Strom’s head.
I’ve lived too long, thought Strom. I’ve done so much, it feels as though there’s nothing left to do, no new adventures to be had, no new thrills to be experienced. I hope they can’t fix me this time.

‘Strom? Are you all right. Open your eyes for me.’
Slowly, Strom’s wrinkly eyelids, darkened as they were from sleep deprivation, opened to take in the sight of the doctor’s concerned face hovering over his.
‘What happened? Do you feel all right?’
Strom smiled. ‘Apart from the reason I came here you mean?’
The chair quietly and smoothly folded and descended to its original position and Strom immediately stood and walked over to the chair beside the doctor’s desk. He sat and watched the doctor studying images on his computer screen, presumably the pictures of Strom’s brain.

Apparently reluctant to speak, the doctor allowed an uncomfortable silence to fall over them, and Strom begin to fidget nervously. He stared at the images on the screen but they meant nothing to him.
Finally, the doctor turned to face Strom, who swallowed hard in anticipation of very bad news. He didn’t really want to die despite his recent wish. It was just that sometimes he became bored with life.
‘Has that leg they gave you ever given you any trouble?’
Strom was aware the doctor was avoiding the issue, but decided to go with him for the moment.  ‘Never. In fact it’s stronger than the one I was born with ever was. Bloody marvellous.’
‘That was bone cancer, wasn’t it?’
‘So it’s the big C again is it?’
‘How about your arm, and your hand?’
‘Doc? Come on.’
‘Bear with me Strom. Your arm was damaged in the war, right?’
‘That’s putting it mildy. Destroyed more like it. But yeah the replacement’s been incredible. I can crush a golf ball in my hands without even trying.’

The doctor turned back to his computer monitor and with a few stabs of his index finger on the screen, he brought up Strom’s medical file.

‘Artificial heart and lungs installed two days before your seventy fifth birthday, and a complete reconstruction of you bowel at age ninety two.’

‘Thanks for the recap doc, but could we get back to my head. I mean if you’ve found a tumour just come out and tell me will you. I know they can’t rebuild a brain or pop an artificial one inside my head so this could be the end, right?’
Swivelling his chair away from the desk, the doctor folded his arms across his chest and looked directly at Strom.
‘You’re dead right, Strom. It’s a very big tumour and they won’t be able to cut it out. Its wicked tentacles are spread widely through the brain tissue. I am amazed that you aren’t dead already.’

Strom smiled. He was almost relieved.

‘Medical researchers have searched for decades and decades for some sort of medicinal cure for cancer, or at least an effective treatment to ease suffering and prolong life, but advances in surgical technology and breakthroughs in cybernetics grabbed a greater share of the limelight and a greater share of the available research dollars as well.’

Strom was getting bored again. A lecture seemed totally inappropriate at this point. His eyes began to roam, looking for something interesting in the bland sterile environment of the doctor’s consulting room.

‘The reason I’m telling you all this Strom is because there is another experimental drug trial currently underway.’

‘They need guinea pigs again do they?’
‘They are looking for terminally ill patients to join the trial and receive an injection of this new drug.’
‘What’s it called?’
‘It doesn’t have a user friendly name yet, and I can’t even pronounce its scientific handle.’
‘It’s risky I suppose.’
‘Strom, I’ll be straight with you. There’s a only a twenty five percent chance this drug will kill the tumour, and new side effects are still being recorded, some of which are awful including skin discoloration and severe nausea, but the tumour will kill you and it won’t take long.’
‘How long?’
‘Like I said, I’m amazed you’re still with us.’
‘I’m 101 years old. Apart from this headache I don’t feel sick. I can’t remember the last time I was unwell, and I don’t get tired, but I’ve been around a long time. Some days I reckon I’ve been around too long. I don’t know why I’m still here, but maybe it’s about helping others. Being a guinea pig.  Taking risks for the sake
of others.’

Strom stood up, straight and tall and looked at himself in the full length mirror on the wall. There was no risk involved here except the possibility of more life. He had never been afraid of death and had come to believe over his century of years on the planet that death was probably scared of him. But did he want to go on living? That was the choice before him and it was a more serious dichotomy than any man should ever have to face. He turned slowly to face the doctor.

‘I could live forever at this rate, said Strom confidently. ‘Sign me up, doc. Let’s give it a whirl!’

The air was fresh and cool on his skin and it smelled clean and fragrant, like lavender. Strom was lying on his back in a vast meadow of knee high grass, and he felt completely at peace. A sense of well being stronger than he had ever experienced pervaded his body and his mind. He smiled.

‘You never mentioned a hallucinogenic effect from this drug, doc.’

A whisper in the broad green leaves of a nearby Maple tree was the only reply.

Strom sat up slowly, still feeling calm, and realised he must have been dreaming. Suddenly a large hand landed softly on his shoulder from behind, and even this unexpected event failed to disturb Strom.
‘Welcome,’ said the voice. ‘Welcome to the life you’ve been trying to avoid for thirty years. Welcome home. Welcome to Eternity.’

Friday, January 19, 2018


This is the third of three flash fiction pieces by Mitchell Grabois.


I have a fifty-pound bag of Arsenic and DDT, and a round metal canister filled with mercury infused grain, and 55-gallon drums full of mystery liquids left by my grandpa. I am as intimate with chemicals as I am with my wife, and don’t understand either. The mysteries of sex, of emotion, the mysteries of molecules combining: I’m clueless.

The chemicals are mute, secretive. Once released, they do what they must without my permission. If they want to go against my wishes, they do. My wife’s the same way. They can both be caustic. I’ve taken chemicals into the very marrow of my bones, yet despite all my experience, and that of the generations before me, I really know nothing of their nature.

At work, I find Dexter Troutman playing air guitar in the middle of the Day Room. He asks: Remember when we had groupies? Remember when thousands screamed to see us, to touch us? He strums a ripe chord, throws back his head, and sings: See me, feel me, touch me, heal me!

Remember the hotel suites, thousands of square feet of penthouse, each of us floating through our own psychedelic space, the sitarist sitting on the floor in his hairy chest and BVD’s, playing ragas that lasted for days?

I remember, Dexter, I sigh.

Dexter launches into a wild air solo, windmills his strum arm as if he’s morphed from the fab four to the guitar-bashing Who, but he slips on a gob of phlegm Walter Mac Henry has left. (Walter Mac Henry, shirt over his head like an Arab headdress, always hacking and spitting when he’s not pissing into the Day Room heater)

Dexter Troutman slips and goes down, hits his head on the linoleum-covered cement. Out cold. I gently take his guitar from where it lays across his body and play a few bars of Let It Be before I rush to the Chart Room for help.


Mitchell Krockmalnik Grabois has had over twelve-hundred of his poems and fictions appear in literary magazines in the U.S. and abroad. He has been nominated for numerous prizes.  His novel, Two-Headed Dog, based on his work as a clinical psychologist in a state hospital, is available for Kindle and Nook, or as a print edition. To see more of his work, google Mitchell Krockmalnik Grabois. He lives in Denver.

Friday, August 25, 2017


This is the second of three short flash fiction pieces by Mitchell Grabois.

Mitchell Grabois

Ansel Adams awoke in a black and white room. He’d bled the world of color as effectively as a 1947 Zenith console TV. He’d fallen asleep on the couch, and when he opened his eyes, the screen was static, pulsating flecks of Yosemite.

Noise was white.

His wife had fallen asleep on the other side of the couch wearing a white apron tied tightly around her Midwestern middle. His black and white cat rubbed against his legs. When images become inadequate, I shall be content with silence, he said to the cat.  

Outside, a city bus rumbles by, accelerating loudly to make the hill. Jesus the Messiah is on the corner, shining shoes, a modern version of washing feet. He has to get some cash to make His nut, paying taxes to corrupt conquerors. His brother is a bourbon salesman, Hecho en Mexico, rotgut, not the good stuff from Kentucky, but he keeps Jesus well supplied. He’s always been amazed that he’s the brother of the Son of God, and wants to do what he can to make Jesus’s life better, until Jesus has to run through the Stations of the Cross, and then it’s all over.

Then it’s no more brother. He’ll have to drink all the samples himself and sit in the corner of the Mercado, depressed and alone, and worry about his mother, now entirely his obligation. Mary is a sword swallower on the street. Her partner is a flamenco guitarist. When Mary gets excited by dramatic strums, her feet start to jitterbug and she cuts her esophagus and spits red blood, which disgusts and excites the members of the audience, who know she always puts on a good show.

Jesus and His brother say: Mom, you’ve got to stop this. We will support you. But She’s independent and never listens. It is as if they are speaking another language, like English. She asks the mirror every day: Why is my life so complex? Why did I have to suffer from mental illness? Not everyone suffers like this.


Mitchell Krockmalnik Grabois has had over twelve-hundred of his poems and fictions appear in literary magazines in the U.S. and abroad. He has been nominated for numerous prizes.  His novel, Two-Headed Dog, based on his work as a clinical psychologist in a state hospital, is available for Kindle and Nook, or as a print edition. To see more of his work, google Mitchell Krockmalnik Grabois. He lives in Denver.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Army Brat

This is the first of three short flash fiction pieces by Mitchell Grabois.

Army Brat
Mitchell Grabois

When I was an army brat, we used food stamps to get by. Whether my father was with us or gone, my mother felt the weight on her shoulders.

He was in an M-48 Patton tank when it was blown up, fulfilling its fate. The only objects left intact were him and a Bible. He sat in the dirt among twisted wreckage and reached for the Bible, but couldn’t extend his arm that far. He thought he’d be frozen in that reaching position forever, that he had left Temporary Hell for the Permanent One.

There were many ways to interpret this event. Most soldiers probably would have decided that God had saved him for a purpose--to serve Him, that once he left the Army, he should be a minister or a missionary. My father became a gambler. We never had to use food stamps again. His luck held for a long time.

He felt like he was ten feet tall. My mother was shrinking. Anxiety made her hair and teeth fall out. She was clearly approaching death. Have you made a pact with the Devil, I asked my father. He laughed at me. He lifted my mother onto his shoulders and rode her around the back yard, as if she were a disabled Girl Scout in uniform or a wax saint on a narrow street in Spain, or Queen for the Day.

He knocked over the barbeque grill. The coals glowed red. Before I asked him about the Devil, he was about to grill fish with their heads on and their eyes wide, like his were after that tank blew up. There in the backyard, he was barefoot. He was fooling around, trying to make my mother think that he was going to flip her off his shoulders, or just drop her. She shrieked in his ear.

I felt a whiff of melancholy. I wanted to punch someone in the face. I stood, deathly tired. My mother bit his ear, as if she were a chimpanzee. She would have torn his face off if it weren’t so tightly attached. He walked across the hot coals that spread out from the toppled barbeque. He didn’t plan it, he was just wheeling around like a crazy man. The barbeque was old and rusty and a wheel had fallen off. He was the first man in the modern West to walk across hot coals. I saw astonishment on his face--not pain, or not enough to concern him.

I grew up, became hyper-individualistic, detached, a person who takes his boots off and trims his toenails with a Leatherman when he gets nervous. My father couldn’t get blown up in a tank, couldn’t be burned by hot coals. No wonder he didn’t become a missionary. No wonder he felt more powerful than God, felt it more than thought it. God kept trying to screw him over, but he kept coming through everything unscathed. I would not be that lucky.


Mitchell Krockmalnik Grabois has had over twelve-hundred of his poems and fictions appear in literary magazines in the U.S. and abroad. He has been nominated for numerous prizes.  His novel, Two-Headed Dog, based on his work as a clinical psychologist in a state hospital, is available for Kindle and Nook, or as a print edition. To see more of his work, google Mitchell Krockmalnik Grabois. He lives in Denver.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Break Even Stan

 This is a very old story which I submitted only a couple of times without success. I never though much of it. It's a bit of a 'so what' story, but I thought I'd share it with you because reading it made me aware of how far I've come as a writer, and how I have changed. What do you think?

Break Even Stan
D.A. Cairns

Stan Ledlin stood staring in disbelief at the monitor.  The race was over.  Running a large hand through his thick brown hair, he trudged out the door of the Kirrawee TAB.  He tore up the tickets and threw them into a garbage bin.
‘Hey Stan!’
He stopped and turned, lifting his hand to greet his friend Theo.
‘Did you blow much mate?’
The two men shook hands and Stan looked at Theo’s face briefly before settling his gaze over his shoulder.
‘You win some, you lose some,’ said Stan with a shrug.  ‘I come out even in the end.’        Theo nodded and gave Stan a good natured punch on the arm.  ‘You always break even Stan.  I gotta go.  See you later.’
‘Yeah, see you,’ replied Stan with a smile.  He did usually break even and that was
good enough.  It was a bit of fun.  Something for a single man to do in his spare time.  Beat the hell out of staying home and watching the walls.  Eating alone.  Drinking alone.
His girlfriend Jean came over a few nights a week to cook for him but she never stayed the night, although he wished she would.
Stan tugged at his belt to lift his sagging trousers and made a feeble attempt to tuck his shirt in.  Then he shuffled across the quiet street and entered the take-away shop where he bought a hamburger.  Jean nagged him about his love for  junk food and the effect it was having on his waistline but he ate it anyway.  It was convenient and tasty. Years of bachelorhood had made Stan a competent cook but he could not be bothered.
He was aware of his spare tyre belly and he grew a bushy beard to hide his second chin but generally Stan was unconcerned about his appearance.
Sitting down at the bus stop outside the shop, Stan munched on his hamburger and contemplated  life.  A persistent restlessness plagued him.  He didn’t know why after so many years of happily rolling along with his simple life, he should begin to feel dissatisfied.  Stan was in a rut.  His comfortable routines were suffocating him.
After wiping barbecue sauce off his mouth and brushing crumbs out of his beard, Stan stood up and made his way to the train station.  His mates would be expecting him at the Gymea Hotel.

Early in the afternoon the pub had only a handful of patrons.  Stan saw John Miles standing at the bar so he strode over and offered to shout the next round.
John was mildly surprised.  ‘Did you have a win this arvo?’
‘No,’ replied Stan. ‘I came out even.’
‘I thought you must’ve hit the big time.  You never offer to pay.’
Stan was happy to pay his share but he always waited his turn and if his turn never came that was okay by him.  Whenever he stood in the TAB, tickets in hand and heart in mouth, he imagined how good it would be to win big and shout not only his mates but everyone else in the pub.  The man who chases fantasies lacks judgment. Which wise man smart arse said that? Bloody horses were always spoiling his dreams.
‘Even Stan!’ yelled one of the blokes at the table, ‘What’s wrong?  Not like you to be so quiet.’
His mate John could read him like a book, unfortunately. ‘Nothing,’ he lied before taking another mouthful of beer from his half empty schooner.
‘Seen Jean lately Stan?’ John asked.
‘Yeah she was over last night.’
‘When you gonna marry her?’ asked another bloke.
‘Pull your head in Chris,’ said John as Stan retreated to his now near empty glass.
‘Your shout Chris,’ ordered Stan while giving Chris a mind-your-own-business look.                       If there was a good reason for Stan not asking Jean to marry him he wished someone would tell him.  She would definitely say yes.  He did love her.  They had been together for three years and everyone said they were right for each other.  At forty two years of age maybe he was afraid. His head hurt when he thought of how much his life would change if he married her.  He didn’t really understand what Jean saw in a stubborn slob like himself.  And he was worried that living together would ruin their relationship.  Was there a chance though, of losing her if he didn’t propose?  Possibly.
As the minutes passed the picture became clearer.  Stan downed his beer in one go then said goodbye to his mates and left.
Exhilarated by the prospect of breaking out of his shell and taking a chance, Stan went to the payphone outside the hotel and called Jean.  He asked her to come over that night because he had something important to say.

 Feeling like his luck was about to change, Stan called in to the TAB on his way home for one last bet.  An omen bet.  A nag called My Bonnie Bride was running in the last at long odds.  Stan laid his money down and waited for the starters gun.

Jean was very pleased with the wonderful dinner Stan had prepared for her and completely overwhelmed when he popped the question.  Naturally she said yes and when they finished kissing and hugging, Stan announced that he would have two pieces of good news for the boys tomorrow.
‘What’s the other one?’ asked Jean.

‘I backed a horse called My Bonnie Bride.  She came in first at 50 to 1.  I won ten thousand dollars!’

Sunday, February 12, 2017

A Sympathetic Interlocutor

A Sympathetic Interlocutor


D.A. Cairns

Decorated was the word that first came to mind when he noticed her cheeks. Breaking eye contact only very briefly because he wanted to hold her gaze as long as possible, the strange patterns on her cheeks caught his attention. They might have been scars, burn scars or, had they been located somewhere else on her body, the kind of scars left after a surgical attempt to remove tattoos. The thought intrigued him for a moment and suspended the moment of greeting in time.

Suddenly aware of her soft hand inside his, he let go and stepped back gesturing for her to take a seat. When he had settled himself opposite her, he saw that she was watching him and he instinctively stiffened. Her eyes were huge, round and dark chocolate. Adorned with lid liner and shadow, her lashes were spruced and unnaturally thick, and she would have elicited a comment in his mind about her being overdone had she been someone else. Had they been somewhere else. Everything seemed different. He felt different. She shifted her weight slightly and tilted her head to the right, apparently waiting for him to speak.

Embarrassed, he cleared his throat and summoned sufficient strength to concentrate on what he was supposed to be doing. But even as he spoke, those funny marks on her cheeks wrestled for his attention. They could have been freckles, although they were lightly coloured in contrast to her olive complexion, but not single freckles gathered together in clumps. More like thousands of them packed into adjacent rooms for all night dance parties. This thought amused him, and his accidental smile was returned warmly and sincerely. This woman was breathtaking. Not classically beautiful because of her cheeks and the way her thick black hair was held away from her face in a clumsy ponytail -she looked like she had spent all her preparation time on her face and not left enough to do her hair properly. She was indisputably stunning nevertheless.

‘Why are you here?’ he asked her. ‘Why have you come here today?’

‘Well,’ she began slowly, finally looking away and thus releasing him from the spell she was casting over him. ‘I think I need to improve my reading and writing.”
A perfectly constructed sentence delivered in a languid Middle Eastern accent. Improve, he thought, how could you improve on perfection?
‘Yes,’ he replied. ‘Is not being able to read and write as well as you would like to stopping you from doing something you want to do. Like further study, for example?’

She thought for a moment, averting her eyes and thus giving him the chance to study her more closely. From her full lips dressed in red, over her chin and down her slender neck, his eyes stopped when they reached a golden angel sitting astride her cleavage. The line of the thin chain which suspended the angel matched the low vee cut of her white dress.

‘I would like to go back to work now that my children are older.’

He loved the way information was revealed slowly during these interviews, morsel by juicy morsel, peeling away the layers of protection, the walls people built around their personal lives. Those walls invariably crashed to the floor as the interview progressed. Whether verbally, in their speech or their writing, or non verbally in their body language, they communicated their lives to him, their hearts and minds and he was an avid reader.

‘How old are your children?’

‘I have three. Thirteen, eleven, and nine. All girls.’

It was impossible not to stare as the enchantment grew, filling the room like fog. He had thought she was probably aged in her early thirties. It was hard to tell sometimes, especially with women who were able to hide their age so much more efficiently than men. However with children that age she was more likely to be in her late thirties, even early fortes though that was scarcely believable. Desperately curious to confirm his suspicions that she was older than she looked, he selected a piece of paper from the pile on the desk which filled the space between them and placed it in front of her.

‘Please fill in this form.’

Date of birth was the fourth question so he watched eagerly as she wrote, his eyes glancing occasionally past her hands with jewelled fingers, to her breasts which seemed to have risen higher, threatening to spill out of her dress. Maybe it was the way she was sitting, leaning forward with her arms pressed tight into her sides.

She wrote 11/9/64. He wanted to tell her how surprised he was that she was forty three and how beautiful she looked but he couldn’t. How could one compliment a woman without her thinking that you were a pervert at worst, or a sleaze at best? The words would always be construed as flattery with intent, no matter how politely you phrased them. How could one be sure in himself that the words were merely a genuine compliment and not expressions of desire, or worse: lust? How could he be sure? There was a place, an inside world where he could be alone with his thoughts and feelings, where he could sift through memories and adjust them as necessary and use them however he wished. A place to fantasize and twist reality to feed his insatiable lust.  It was a place of both refuge and repression. A haven and a hell.

The interview proceeded normally; she answered questions, did the tasks, the reading, the writing and the mathematics while he filled in forms, ticked boxes, interpreted and analysed both her and her work, made her laugh, made her blush, made himself blush with his boldness, noticed the delicate chain around her ankle and her painted toenails, and averted his eyes when she needed to adjust her clothing to recover what was being gradually, conspiratorially revealed. All the while he wondered whether the chemistry he felt between them was real or imagined, and whether the way she tilted her head and played with her hair was flirtatious or merely absent minded. He even went so far as to suggest they could go on talking for the rest of the day, and she had agreed, and although the exchange was light hearted he felt the words expressed genuine sentiment. He really did enjoy her company. This admission was followed by a fist of guilt jabbing him in the ribs a few times. He was married and so was she.

‘The interview is finished now. You can go and have a nice cup of coffee. Thanks for your time and good luck,’ he said, slowly standing up.

She smiled as he took her soft hand in his and he wished her well a second time.

They stood behind the door in the small interview room savouring a ridiculously long good-bye. The truth was he did not want her to go and she was in no hurry to leave. In the pregnant silence, he began to feel dizzy and was still holding her hand when he opened his mouth to speak. Nothing but air escaped his nervously dry lips, and soon he felt as though he was drowning, like he had fallen into the deep, deep pools of her eyes and they had magically stolen his ability to swim. Seconds passed recklessly into what felt like long minutes as they stood there. Still, no words were spoken and the door to the outside world remained firmly shut.

Finally he released her hand, more from the carelessness of drowsy enchantment than deliberate action, and she looked away. The moment was over. The spell, shattered.

‘Goodbye,’ she said quietly as she opened the door. ‘Thank you.’

He swallowed and managed a very faint, ‘You’re welcome. Good luck.’

Then she left the room and walked away down the corridor. Away from him, away from the mysterious connection they had just undoubtedly shared. He smiled. She was now a new resident in his inside world. A traveller who had landed on his planet and not been allowed to leave, despite wanting to. A fellow prisoner, though not consciously aware of the fact, or even vaguely impacted by the reality of her incarceration.

‘Liliane,’ he breathed wistfully. ‘Goodbye Liliane.’

He sat down, and when he had completed the paperwork and written in his comments and recommendations, he collected all her papers and placed them neatly together inside a red manila folder. He closed the folder and read her name one last time.