Neutral Magazine

Fiction

Creative writing is a particularly expressive avenue and Neutral is devoted to transporting its readers to new worlds with the words and poetry of our contributors.

Neutral Magazine + Fiction

The Unsuspecting Victim

By Hannah Darley | hannah.darley@yorksj.ac.uk

At first, it was the secrecy that got me going. The thrill of lying became addictive. The exhilaration of potentially getting caught. In hindsight, my wife Marie handled it very well. She had so much faith in me - it was as if she wanted to believe there was still some good in me. It may have been because she had too much on her plate to care about what was going on behind closed doors, in my life.

I am unable to put into words how it all started with Ruth. It was like a snowball effect – it started off as a little flirt during the school run, then a secret kiss. Then, before I knew it, I was in love, or at least I thought I was. The thrill of a new romance, sexy texts, passion – all feelings Marie and I had been lacking for as long as I can remember. I suppose that’s what happens when you’ve been married for so many years. Ruth made me feel young again. She was a decade younger than Marie, yet her love hit me like a full-scale wind; all at once but slowly at the same time. I suddenly wanted to do well at work again, I wanted to be a better person.

Strangely, it benefitted my marriage. Suddenly, we didn’t argue as much, I was less cranky, I even helped around the house more. Realistically, it was the guilt, but I could see that Marie felt less alone and was happier now that the arguing had lessened.

Ruth has never been married, she doesn’t have children (whether that is out of choice I don’t know – she never told me, and I never asked). I should probably mention here that she is a teacher; my daughter's' chemistry teacher. I remember the first time I saw her; she was talking to another set of parents at the school gates. It was the last week of term before the summer holidays. She was wearing a skin-tight mid length black dress with a black blazer - both of which accentuated her hourglass figure. Her legs were toned, her stomach flat. I haven’t seen such a sight since Marie pre-motherhood. Her hair shaped around her face, making her eyes and neck stand out. She was naturally pretty; it was evident that she didn’t require much makeup. I am still attracted to my wife, but it’s nowhere near the extent I was when we first met thirty years ago. Marie’s love didn’t have me wanting; I knew my home was with her, and I knew that I would never be able to pluck up the courage and leave the family home – or Marie. She used to resemble Ruth – obsessed with the gym, obsessed with her appearance, a spontaneous, carefree woman. She looked good in everything – she was out of my league without a doubt; she saw something in me that I still am unable to point my finger to, but it made sense. At least I thought that at the time. However, two children and a number of miscarriages later, her body is nothing like it once was.

The miscarriages took a real toll on our marriage, Marie and I underwent a series of tests, numerous hospital appointments, a course of IVF, and plenty of heart ache finding out the same answer every time. Either the pregnancy test was negative, the ultrasound showed no heartbeat, or it was a phantom pregnancy, we endured the lot. I’m not very good with my emotions, and Marie often said I didn’t really want a child, but that was not the case. We were going to give up; Marie’s body was tired, and we couldn’t bear to keep looking at negative tests. There’s only so many times you can be told that there was nothing physically wrong that should prevent a natural pregnancy. Until one day, we got the answer we wanted. We had our son Harry nine months later, that was eighteen years ago. Marie was over the moon, as was I. But, when he came, Marie had no time for me. She was in a bubble, her and Harry, that I was not able to be a part of. The passion in our relationship gradually fizzled out for some time. Yet, somehow, a couple of years later, our relationship perked up and I thought I had my old Marie back. We found out we were pregnant again, with our daughter, Daisy. Marie was over the moon, not five years prior were we desperate for just one chance at parenthood, but now we had two. However, Daisy’s arrival caused even more distance between Marie and I, we had even less time for each other, we wouldn’t see each other all throughout the day, and barely spoke to each other at night. We had no time to even consider having sex as she was always exhausted, or, one of the children was having trouble settling down causing yet another sleepless night. Is it my fault that I don’t find her attractive anymore? She grew my children. But I watched her change from an independent, career – driven woman, full of energy and a real hunger for life - to a mother. I comforted her through sleepless nights. Marie’s life was engulfed by tending to our children - it was always a case of the children needing to be driven to their extracurricular activities, to see their friends, shopping. Her hunger for life and career driven mind turned into pouring endless, unconditional love onto our children. The children are the light of her life, the only thing that seemed to matter to her. Seeing her care for another human as much, or even more so than me, was a kick in the teeth. Everything she promised me had been stomped all over by our mud-covered, tantrum fuelled children. Whilst Marie was there changing nappies, helping with homework, and cooking nutritious meals, I was working. I was making ends meet. I couldn’t be the doting father I envisioned I would be on a 60-hour working week.

Except, that is not the complete truth – this is where the lying became uncontrollable. Once I started lying to my wife, I couldn’t stop. I work a standard 9-5 job in an office and see Ruth for a few hours before embarking home on my advert friendly family where I would have dinner waiting on the table, a home-cooked apple pie and custard for afters.

I saw Ruth most days on the school run, I saw her greeting Daisy, and the other students. One day I had been called in to the school, for a meeting with Ruth regarding Daisy’s progress. Marie wasn’t able to attend due to work commitments. Daisy needed extra help, especially with science. Ruth and I had a one-on-one parent meeting, which ended up finishing with a drink in a pub in the next town along.

Neutral Magazine + Fiction

The Factory of Misfortune

By Indee Watson | independence.watso@yorksj.ac.uk

Before I tell you this story, there’s one thing you should know; Alex didn’t mean for things to turn out the way they did. He was only a child, and he only wanted to find out what happened to his mother. You must believe me.

It had been 21 days since Alex had seen the sun. The City was always bustling with people even in the light-droughts, so the world was accustomed to it. The faint glowing of candles and torches were peppered throughout the darkness, their glow illuminating desperate faces, as workers scrambled through the rain to get home. Alex, rebelling against his father’s instructions, always stopped at The City on his way home from the factory, just in time for the old man in the market to give him his last bag of chips before closing, the smell of vinegar overpowering the stale smell that accumulated there. Taking a spot on the bench, he waited for his brother to finish working, occupying himself by observing anyone and everyone. That evening, he watched as a shiny-eyed man handed over money to the girl on the corner, before she led him into an old brick building with a big black door. The men always came out smiling, and Alex was happy to know she was spreading joy. He thought she was probably a pianist or something. After all, he’d overheard mummy telling his father that it was her fingers that made the men smile. Alex liked to think of himself as a detective, and nodded to himself in satisfaction, knowing another mystery had been solved. As he bit into his last chip, the taste of potatoes and salt eradicating his hunger, his brother emerged from the smoke. Adriel was almost 17, 8 years older than Alex, and was an aspiring historian. He always told Alex never to stay in The City for longer than 20 minutes, as the smog was always the worst at the end of the day. Buildings were coated by thick layers of dirt, his skin would become 3 shades greyer than it should be, and he had to cover his mouth whilst he was there, else the smog would choke him, and he’d be coughing up dust throughout the night. All that said, he’d grown used to it.

As they wandered out of The City, desperate to get home before the dark hours, they could hear Jerome Gent preaching to a small crowd about The End. “Let your soul save you! Hold it close and be free in The End!” he cried out. Alex craned his neck to hear, his body following suit as he planted himself amongst the growing crowd. “Do you want death to bring enrichment or damnation? The choice is yours to make, let your soul be your ticket there!” Astonished eyes widened; the message clearly being understood. “You,” the speaker’s bony finger stretched out towards Alex. “Do you want to be damned for etern…” The words trailed off as Adriel dragged Alex away, snippets of other nearby conversations clouding his mind instead. With his head down, Alex held tightly onto his brother’s coat, rain pattering against his back and dripping through his tattered shoes. He couldn’t wait to get away from The City and the rainclouds watching overhead.

They called it ‘The City’ but it wasn’t really a city at all. Alex always thought the name was silly, but his father said it’s because it’s the only place the war left behind. Alex found that even more ridiculous. After all, there were tiny homes and factories all over! It wasn’t the only place. Despite this, their walk home was always quieter than The City, which was even noisy in the dark hours. As they walked, they passed the dried-out rivers that they say used to run free with fresh water, and even fish! But all they’d ever known were barren riverbeds, spread over the land like a cobweb. Adriel told stories of the lakes and rivers that used to encompass the country. He expressed his wild tales about the aliens who roamed the land, and the mermaids who would wave to passers-by from the lakes, and Alex smiled, believing every word.

“They had spaceship shaped homes and would fly to work in rockets! And if the humans were lucky, they’d be allowed a ride too!” Alex’s eyes widened in awe.

“How jealous the people would get! That’s why you don’t see aliens around anymore; they had to leave so the humans wouldn’t go mad.”

A frown found its way onto Alex’s face. “They’ll come to visit one day, won’t they? I’ve never met an alien before. Do you think mummy and father have?” In happier times, the brothers would go home a warm fire and Alex would recite Adriel’s wild stories to their parents. They wouldn’t be in the factories every day, and Alex would even get to go to school. But the war of 2129 eliminated any chance of that happening. Adriel attended school until it was bombed during the war, causing everyone to flee the town. As well as his outlandish stories, he told Alex about the wars before they were born; The Techno War of 2099, The British European War of 2025, and even The Cold War of the 1970s. The Techno War had been the worst of them all, sending the world back into times long forgotten. ‘The industrial devolution’ Adriel always called it.

Adriel didn’t get chance to answer Alex’s question before their father came rushing towards them. His face was old, but not wise, and black dust had gathered in all his wrinkles. His eyes were always obscured with anger, too intense to even let him sleep. Though encompassed by a weak frame, he stood tall above both his children, always looming and intimidating. His thin arms unfolded as he placed a large, weathered hand onto Alex’s shoulder, the weight sending a chill down his spine. He knew something was wrong; his father never showed affection.

To be continued…

Neutral Magazine + Fiction

Payback

By Hannah Darley | hannah.darley@yorksj.ac.uk

CHAPTER ONE: Coming to terms with it all

Most of my friends are settled into their careers, married or engaged, pregnant or are parents. And me? I’m sat here on the sofa, writing to you, whoever you are. I’m desperate to relieve myself, but I’m currently suffering with such significant physical trauma that I can’t even go for a p**s unaided.

Welcome to my life, dear reader.

***

LORNA:

I have been told by my psychopathologist (aka a higher end of the scale middle-aged, upper class snob named Julia. Obviously paid for by my well-to-do parents who don’t know how to deal with their overly emotional and physically damaged daughter), that if I can’t speak my trauma out aloud, I should try noting it down: how I’m feeling, that I’m taking my medication (yes, mother). I feel like even Bertie down the road can hear this sertraline taking hold of my body…and my sexual desires.

I mean, how is writing to myself, reliving my own emotional trauma, going to help anything? I look at all the ridiculously strong pain killers I have and just think maybe it would be better to end it all. I shouldn’t have to put up with this. Trouble is, I have regular phone calls and home visits from doctors, so it would be hard to find the time. I have already tried once. In fact, right now is the first time I have been in my flat alone for the first time since I escaped. I have no idea why people think I can’t cope. But then, who would be able to bloody cope? I say alone, I have my chocolate Labrador, Polly, to keep me company. That, and my mother and father letting themselves in every other hour on the dot; they must have cut themselves a key to the flat when I was in the hospital.

***

“Lorna Hedgerow? The Doctor’s ready for you now.”

F**k.

“Good morning, Lorna. My name is Dr. Hilgard, I am a psychopathologist. I have more than twenty-five years’ experience in mental, physical and emotional trauma. How are you feeling today?”

She looks like a doctor. A short, brunette bob (obviously dyed), round glasses, and a grey skirt suit, brown smudged eyeliner and a neutral coloured lipstick.

The pattern on the wallpaper is disgusting. A p**s-yellow colour.

She is looking at me intensely.

Like she wants something from me.

She wants me to explain what happened to me, but I can’t. I cannot bring myself to say it aloud.

What am I doing here?

The room is spinning. I’m going to be sick.
My mouth is so dry I can barely swallow.
I can feel my heart beating ten times faster than it should be.
My palms are sweaty.

“I…I…I don’t know how..”

“You are not expected to come to terms with this straight away, Lorna. Take your time. I find the best way to settle your thoughts is with a nice cup of tea. How do you take it?”
I have to go.
I have to get out of here.
Fast.

“…Lorna? If you come back, we can take this as slowly as you wish.”

I had two full bottles of wine to myself again last night.
I really should stop that.
***

Who is that knocking on the door? It’s an early Sunday morning.
Is it?
I think I must’ve blacked out.
“Lorna, babe? It’s your mum?”

Oh. F**k.

Lord, give me strength.

***

We’re sat on the sofa together. Correction, opposite sides of the sofa. I can’t bear to be near other people at the minute.

Well actually, for a long time.

“Are you cold, love?”
“No.”

“You have a jumper and a blanket on. It’s the middle of June. Let me put the heating on. Do you want a cuddle with your old mum?”

“NO!”

I flinched more than she probably expected. A lot more.
I wish she would listen to me first time, rather than pushing me over the edge.
I feel bad for snapping now.

I realised I was sat in the recovery position, curled in a ball surrounded by the safety walls of this blanket.

My brain hasn’t quite adjusted yet.
I am constantly on watch. For anyone. Or anything.
I don’t think I will never get over that.

Neutral Magazine + Fiction

Dog Fight

By Abi Whitaker | abigail.whitaker@yorksj.ac.uk

Heartbreak feels like a choke
Mourning someone that was never mine is a joke
And if I don’t laugh then I’ll cry

Love is a dog fight and I’m the scrawny one no one bets to win
One that survives, just barely, severe wounds to soft skin
And no one to whimper to now

Briefly a breaker
But more often broken
Now wondering which pieces I’ll give away again

Love is a dog fight and I was never good enough at maths to place a bet
But if I keep being the loser surely that leaves me with a debt
A little love to collect?

To be known is to be forever naked even when they dress
Wishing you could take back all those secrets you confessed
And feeling embarrassed for existing

Love is a dog fight and I wasn’t taught how to bare teeth
I’m belly-up in defeat and pinned beneath
He was a better opponent, more pedigree than me
Knew what he was doing
And I let him do it to me

Neutral Magazine + Fiction

Nourishment

By Abi Whitaker | abigail.whitaker@yorksj.ac.uk

Feed me
I can’t feed myself for I feel too guilty
Will you do it for me?

Feed me reassurance
Feed me neutrality
Feed me ‘oh f**k you look so sexy’

Feed me pasta and cuddles in front of the telly too
Feed me space and support
So I can learn to feed it to myself
And after that maybe I could feed myself some guilt free chocolate too

Neutral Magazine + Fiction

Too Much, Not Enough

By Abi Whitaker | abigail.whitaker@yorksj.ac.uk

If you don’t feel me even when you’re inside
Then I don’t know why I’m trying so hard to hide
If you don’t want all that is inside my head
Well then I guess I’ll fill myself up instead

If its too much to ask for you to spare me
Go ahead, shoot, but please don’t ask to share me
Please believe I’d love to love someone new
And I would if not for the haunting of you

And I know that really a ghost could never satisfy
An appetite for affection that growls as you let it cry
But it didn’t stop me chasing your breeze
Hoping for a hurricane love and receiving a wheeze

Neutral Magazine + Fiction

Oculus

By Hannah Cross | hannahcross026@gmail.com

Alice watched Frank struggle. His wrist was starting to turn a deep shade of delicious purple, the skin taut and bulging against the zip wires squeezing into his pudgy flesh. He had started filling out over the years. A full mop of hair had sat upon his head the day they’d met, and he’d possessed the kind of torso women lusted after. But now, as the years had rolled slowly by, the flesh around his belly had grown soft. The hair on his head becoming sparse.

‘Please, baby, let me go,’ he begged, looking up at her with watery blue eyes.
‘If you don’t shut the hell up, I’ll make you.’
‘Hunny,’ he whined, and she’d had enough. She picked up a haggard sock from the floor and shoved it forcefully into his mouth, making his eyes smart. That almost broke her resolve. The pathetic look of helplessness almost had her untying him and pulling him into her chest. She bit down on her lip before pulling his thin hair back and looking deep into haunted eyes. He was still good looking. He’d aged well despite the puppy fat and receding hairline. She traced the laughter lines by the corners of his mouth with a pointy red fingernail, her gaze lingered on the crinkles by his eyes.

She pulled out a roll of thick duct tape. The ripping sound that came as she pulled the first bit of tape from the roll was a deafening, bone-crunching sound that tore through the house, ricocheting off the walls. She covered his mouth with that first piece, wedging the fraying grey sock firmly in his mouth.

He whined and whinged in protest. Tears seeped from the corner of one eye and a dribble of snot ran down the tape. She tore her vision away from his sad gaze, ravaging more from the roll, and began a slow wind around his head. She covered his eyes first, so she couldn’t become weakened again by them. She wrapped slowly and methodically, leaving a tiny gap for his nose. Eventually his whole face was wrapped in the shiny black stuff, like a snake poised and ready to squeeze the life from its victim.

‘Bye baby,’ she murmured into his exposed ear.
With a feeble whimper from Frank, barely audible through a wall of cotton and thick tape, she was out of the door, leaving her husband naked and bound.

In her car, Alice applied a fresh layer of lipstick. Bright and red, to match her nails. She ran fingers through satin straight black hair. She opened her phone and pressed the call button.
‘Hello,’ the voice answered, turning her stomach to liquid.
‘It’s done, I’m on my way.’
Her hands shook.
She knocked on the door and he opened it in seconds. He was Frank’s opposite. Tall and unsmiling with thick stubble across his chin. A full head of dark hair that fell across black penetrating eyes. Not one wrinkle. He watched her, electric eyes boring into her. She fell into his arms.

***

Alice awoke with a start, bleary-eyed and dazed for a quick second before she jumped up.

‘That was amazing, babe,’ he breathed.
‘Yes, amazing,’ she agreed as she searched the floor for her clothes.
‘Do you have to go?’ he asked, dark eyes shooting into her like lasers. She looked away.
‘You know I do,’ she replied, pulling her trousers up.

Alice flew from his front door and into her car, dully aware of the uncomfortable damp patch in her knickers. She drove with hands that shook harder than before as she inhaled deeply on a cigarette, flicking ash onto the floor of the old Fiat.
What would she find when she walked through her door? And what would she do with him? Guilt abruptly gripped her in a vice, squeezing her lungs and clouding her vision. Her palms and forehead dripped with perspiration by the time she made it home.
She clutched her keys tightly, reaching out a trembling hand to unlock the front door. Darkness and deafening silence.
‘Frank?’ she whispered. She pushed open the door to the living room to find him in the same position she’d left him in. Only, his head lolled forward, and the room felt deathly cold.



***

‘Can you tell us what really happened that day?’ a woman in an expensive light green trouser suit sat opposite Alice in a tiny wine bar. She tapped her red nails against her glass of cabernet sauvignon. It was the first thing she’d done when she’d got out from that dreadful place, treated herself to a manicure.
‘I can, but I’m sure you already have your own ideas about what happened.’ Alice looked over her glass at the journalist, who’d introduced herself as Jasmine.
The woman nodded. ‘All I’m interested in is what really happened that day.’
‘Frank liked it rough,’ Alice began, taking a long sip from her wine. ‘We both did. I suppose it’s embarrassing. We’d planned that I’d tie him up, leave him for a few hours, and sleep with a lover. It was all a part of the game and I was supposed to come back and unbind him.’ An errant tear rolled down her cheek and she felt her lip quiver.
‘As you know, it all went wrong. I came home to find he’d suffocated while I was gone.’ Her hand began to tremble, and she gripped her glass. ‘I’d give anything to go back.’
Alice finished her wine, her high-heeled foot jiggling beneath the table.
‘What happened after that?’ Jasmine pushed.
‘I was arrested for his murder.’
‘But you only served eighteen months?’
‘The prosecution was negligent homicide. They changed it due to lack of evidence, because it wasn’t murder.’ Alice looked the journalist directly in the eye, her mouth set in a straight line. Amber with flecks of gold.
‘What is your response to the rumours that the death was intentional, and you had plans to run away with Frank’s money and your lover.’ ‘I won’t sit here and listen to you sully my pain with your preposterous imaginings.’ Alice stood up angrily, slamming down her glass so hard it splintered in her hand. She let go and it toppled to the floor, smashing into a thousand tiny diamonds. More tears flowed and she looked at Jasmine’s unapologetic face before turning and leaving with a loud clip-clop of her heels.
She stood outside in the crisp spring sunshine. Rummaging in her bag she found a cigarette and lit it before exhaling a long plume of smoke that mingled with her breath in the cold air. She thought of him, her hands shaking. Remembered the way his eyes looked when he was impassioned, breathless, filled with lust. The cloud of smoke dissipated and there they were, penetrating black eyes that bore through her skin and pierced her heart.
‘I thought you’d never come,’ Alice smiled, with shaky hands.

Neutral Magazine + Fiction

I have to be selfish

By Hannah Cross| hannahcross026@gmail.com

I have to be selfish this time,
she told him,
as she ended things,
without warning,
too much commitment, she said,

I have to be selfish this time,
she whispered,
as she turned her back,
to lick her wounds,
letting her friend bleed out,

I have to be selfish this time,
she warned her brother,
when he came for help,
but she’d done enough,
time to put herself first,

I have to be selfish this time,
she called to strangers,
as she walked through the silent streets,
abandoned to a disease,
that tore across the world,

I have to be selfish this time,
she said to the earth,
as she watched it burn,
because she’d needed things,
that poisoned the trees,

I have to be selfish this time,
I cried,
it echoed through the destruction,
drifting on the wind,
although there was nobody around to hear it.