On March 10th, Open Pen magazine launches The Open Pen Anthology, a 300 page paperback with a whopping 26 short stories (13 from the archive, 13 completely new) by some of Open Pen’s favourite authors from their first five years in print.
Jo Gatford is one of those writers. First published in Open Pen Issue Eight back in April, 2013, with If Then, and as is the case with many of Open Pens authors, Gatford has since published her debut novel – White Lies (Legend Press). It’s only fitting then that Gatford appears in the anthology and is in blistering form with the new short story Take Off Your Shoes, a fitting bedfellow for If, Then, published here exclusively for Shortstops as an excerpt to The Open Pen Anthology.
The road below looked more like an ejaculation of silly-string than ‘ribbons of light’ or whatever the guidebook said. The book called the cathedral towers ‘thrusting’ and the river ‘a meandering reflection of the hillside’. What he saw was black and grey and steep and dark. He left the book on a rock and the engine running, digging his hands into his pockets as though he were trying to burrow through to the other side of the world.
He began as long distance drivers do; pulling in at a dirt lay by, groaning at the aches in his lower back, taking two minutes to wander no further than it takes to find a good bush to pee behind. But after twenty steps the moist ground buoyed up his pedal-tired feet and told him to run. The hill dropped down past the gradient at which the highway agency had to stick up triangular signs to warn motorists. The hillside was punctured with rabbit warrens, clods to trip on, undiscovered burial mounds and overgrown fence posts. His ankles squealed in anticipation and dread as his jog-on-the-spot became a forward movement.
In the car, she leaned on the horn, flicked a cigarette butt onto the gravel and yelled something that ended in “-king hell!” but the momentum had taken him and he couldn’t stop. He heard other shouts but they were as indecipherable as most of what she said to him lately. He rarely understood what she wanted any more – everything carried some sort of clause or bargain – “If you would only do X then I would feel Y and when you say Z I just want to…” They skirted around each other in the hallway without acknowledgement. They synchronised their turning in bed so as to naturally avoid the drape of an arm or the nudge of a knee against a backside. On the drive back, if his hand brushed her thigh when he changed gear, he apologised rather than adapting it into a squeeze.
His arms stretched out either side of him and his legs moved simply to continue their own existence. He leaned back to try to stay vaguely vertical but the hill took him faster and further and the thuds of his heels resonated the little hammers in his inner ear, blasting his sinuses clear, filling his eyes with briney water until his left shin gave a shotgun rebound and he found himself lying still, face down, his eyelashes brushing blades of grass.
His lungs attempted only to breathe out for a few moments, perhaps with some innate knowledge that inhaling would be infinitely more painful. When he did finally take a breath in, he let it out again almost immediately with a cracked vowel somewhere between an A and an U. Maybe she heard – the horn sounded again. He looked down at his leg, which no longer had the straightness of a leg, and then back, upside down, up at the crest of the hill where she sat parked. She flashed the headlights twice but he had no way to reply aside from another howl.
He waited, trying not to move. The pulsing of his blood around his shin bone, forced through the skin, became the heartbeat of the world, turned the sky blue-pink, the grass into an ocean, the craggy rocks into ancient faces, the towers into jagged knives that sliced into the clouds and let through the glory of whatever lay above. He was unable to doubt anything as he lay there, not God, not her, not fate. The world was simplified into ifs and thens, and he understood her need for balance, for reason, for fairness. He listened for the next ‘if’. Either the death of the engine, her approaching feet, her sighing throat. Or the scraping of tyres on loose rock, the silence and the night. It was no longer up to him.
“Have another cigarette,” he told the hillside, “Think about it.”
* * *
Look out for Open Pen’s launch nights in London:
FRIDAY, 11TH MARCH
The Open Pen Anthology Launch – Brick Lane Bookshop, London
TUESDAY, 15TH MARCH
The Open Pen Anthology @ Yurt Salon – Yurt Cafe, St. Katharine’s Precinct, London.
WEDNESDAY, 6TH APRIL
The Open Pen Anthology South London Launch – Clapham Books, London.