My pint comes to five quid, which is cheap considering I’m in The Empire Theatre, that houses a backroom of actors that hate, love and sleep with each other, in backstage rooms and hotels; playing with props and sucking pillow mints. I like the stress of it all, imagining the lead of a show ringing his nan before the big debut, his voice recently cracked, telling granny that he thrives off the nerves, a chorus girl kneeling in front of him, mouth full. That’s only sometimes, but when I’m a part of an audience, time takes me, the violin of a backing track tricking me into being fourteen again – asking a teaching assistant how people my age get into show-biz.
‘Rich parents,’ he shrugged, acne scars on his chin.
That was the end of my acting fantasy, deciding I’ll just be a spectator, because Mum and Dad worked in comprehensive schools. Hardly big money, but just enough for their son to get through uni, grab a pint before productions, and people watch in a garret bar. Normally, I show up in jeans and a shirt, but tonight I wear my graduation present: Italian V-shaped blazer, black with padded shoulders. Looks smart, but my Doc-Martins set me apart from those who spent more than twenty pounds for a ticket. I’m normally stingy, but a fair amount of money has been sitting in my bank account, slightly teasing, before I gave in to a ticket of Warhorse.
‘Everything alright?’ a barman asks, slightly scouse, probably from the Wirral.
‘Delicious,’ I say, then take the first sip, turning from bar to room, counting couples between sips.
Ten pairs, hooking arms, the closest whispering giggles to each other against the room’s stone pillar. The lad is short, built, and has a tattoo of black birds on his right arm. A regret, I’d think, if it weren’t for how that arm curved around the girl’s waist.
He’s never regretted much in his life.
‘Funny,’ I hear him say, laughing against her neck. She leads him toward the bar, casually determined, her other hand playing his arm like a flute.
‘Let’s get a pint, la,’ he announces, learning on the counter with all the gusto of showman. ‘You know when you just need a drink?’
She giggles again, nodding, her large brunette hair dominating a tiny frame, little lips grinning under dimples. His eyes are fixed just below her nose, his mouth slightly open as he leans in.
The sound their lips make, mushing together, reminds me of my ex-girlfriend, my only girlfriend, that I had when I was fifteen.
She never kissed me in public. It wasn’t the fact she didn’t like me, because she held my hand when we walked to the cinema, but she would squeeze my arm when dropping me off at the station, moving her head so my lips would hit her cheek before I stepped onto the carriage.
‘Mate,’ the lad says, leaning his head over her shoulder as she half turns. ‘We’ve got three bourbon shots for a tenner. We only need two, and you look like you need one.’ She cocks her head at him. ‘I mean, like, you’re here, and alone – not that you look lonely. You’re kinda handsome.’
She’s laughing now, pushing him lightly away from her. ‘Ignore him. He talks too much.’ She slides the shot into my hand. ‘In three,’ she says, staring me out, her legs tensed like a battle stance.
I hate whiskey.
I didn’t have to pay.
The taste is sweeter than I thought, like fiery honey, my padded shoulders rising due to my full lungs. My eyes moisten, as does theirs, this time his laugh comes out like coughs, spluttering into his left hand as he waves for the bartender with the other, asking for water.
‘You said you like bourbon?’ she teases, but her tone is serious, and I’m guessing people mistake her for angry.
‘I do,’ he counters, wounded.
Cradling his cheek with her fingers, she turns back to me. ‘What have you come to see?’
‘Us too! This one likes musicals,’ he answers, sipping his water. ‘You into them?’
‘I like puppets,’ I answer.
‘Puppets?’ he says, putting his arms around her.
‘Yes – they’re interesting. Don’t you think?’
‘I mean, not really.’ Tipping his glass from over her shoulder, he swigs. ‘But I’m into people who are into puppets, because I’ve never thought about it, and that’s cool.’
Her sigh is audible but she’s still smiling, sliding the drink from his hand, taking a little sip.
The bell rings.
‘That’ll be us,’ he says, nodding as if that includes me, along with them, his arms open as he stretches them away from her waist. ‘Name’s Lee.’
Hand on mine, he shakes from an inch below, with all the bravado of a six-foot man.
‘Matilda,’ she says, eyes a squint, smile hearty.
‘Thomas, like the tank engine.’
Lee considers this, but Matilda’s finger is already on his lips, pressing as he swallows a lungful of air. ‘Join us here after the show. I want to know more about puppets.’
With them gone, I let the crowd rush in, taking my time as I’m at the very edge, by the door, yet the view is only slightly restricted. The seat squeaks, and the old man next to me is skinny, his veiny hands fingering a pair of binoculars.
‘Me and my boyfriend used to come here,’ he says, looking at me through the binoculars, then at the stage. The lights dim, the whispers stop, and a prop lowers, pausing in the sky: a wide, empty cloud. The old man rests his hand on the seat in front of him, slaps his lips together, and a horse trots on stage, raises its head to the audience – and breathes.
The tail swishes like the paper strands of an oracles door, the body brown and held together by pole, chest rising, and the head twitches in tune to the recording of a sneeze.
‘Bravo!’ shouts the old man, the audience raising along with him, a field of squeaking seats and applause. More horses appear, guided by men, and the stage is covered with puppeteers.
After being told that I couldn’t be on TV, I went home and cried on Mum. She made me Angel Delight, I eat it using two spoons, and she tickled my hair and said I could be whatever I wanted to be. Even then, I knew it was a lie, and her fingers felt good on the back of my neck, scratching away with the pink acrylics she wore every Monday.
‘My boss told me that organised nails make for a great teacher, so now it’s pink every start of the week,’ she nodded, face serious, then she took away my empty bowl.
Mum and Dad were loving, but never knew how to deal with me. Mum didn’t realise I was depressed, and talked to me like an adult, letting me decide things on my own when I wanted her to choose for me. Dad focussed on being the best teacher he could be, ironing the suits he bought from Italy, going on about the students like he personally conceived them.
‘Teenagers are complicated,’ he’d say, running the iron down a crease, ignoring me as I used the kettle at eight years old, listening to him describe how a freshly pressed shirt made a man feel.
They never did give me the answers to the complexities of youth, and I grew up feeling like I inherited nothing: not their quirks, their sense for adventure, not even their taste for music; 70’s pop, covering the flat most evenings while they graded papers. I was left to develop, making only one friend at the age of thirteen, called Izaak, who talked about puppets and walked like someone twice his age.
‘Joey!’ shouts an actor, scratching the rump of the horse. ‘I’ll never let them take you Joey!’ The horse nuzzles his nose into the actor’s face, cold and made of leather, and a recording sniffs, feeling wet and alone as the puppeteers inside trot the animal away, and off to war. The cloud on stage illuminates the trenches, horses line up one by one, and their papery tails shake, ready to gallop over barbed wire. The lights of the theatre rise – everyone breaths.
‘Just wonderful, ey?’ the old man says, slowly clapping, his tears nestling into the wrinkles of his face. ‘I’ll wait here, until the intermission is over,’ he says to no one. ‘I won’t miss a thing.’
The garret bar is busier now. Parties of one have become couples, couples have become groups, and Matilda stands in the middle of the room, swishing the back of her dress as Lee poorly imitates the sound of a horse.
‘Tommy!’ she shouts, letting go of her dress and waving at me with both arms.
‘It’s actually Thomas,’ I say, getting closer, already kicking myself for the correction.
‘Tommy sounds more of a mate,’ Lee says. ‘Not that Thomas isn’t a matey name, but you know, erm – did you like the puppets?’
‘They were wonderful,’ I say, rubbing my hands together. ‘The horses breathed so naturally that I lost track of time. I couldn’t tell you much about the plot, because I find it hard to concentrate, yet-’ I falter, but Lee nods, ‘there’s something about how puppeteers move. I can’t explain it exactly, but it’s like I was given permission to daydream, to focus on something real.’
‘That’s deep, man,’ Lee laughs.
‘I thought it was beautiful,’ Matilda says, cupping my hand in hers. ‘You’re a bit dramatic, but it’s cool. As soon as the play ends though, I know I’ll cry.’
I stare at her, stunned, and Lee leans in, his eyes blue with specks of green. He looks a little older than her, but he gazes at us now like a child.
‘Then let’s skip the end,’ he says, sucking in a smirk, his hands on our shoulders.
‘I mean, we could?’ Matilda squeezes my hand with her left, his arm with her right. ‘I want to talk more.’
‘Me too,’ Lee agrees.
I’ve got an early start in work tomorrow, but already my dimples have risen. ‘Fine. Where are we going?’
‘Just follow my lead,’ Lee Laughs.
He grabs Matilda’s hand, who keeps a hold of mine, and all three of us leave in a chain through the theatre’s exit.
Izaak came over for dinner once, in my tiny home, and whistled approvingly as we walked through the living room.
‘Big this,’ he said, circling from wall to wall. ‘You got a kitchen as well?’
‘Of course, don’t you?’
‘Yeah, but we’re in an apartment. Two bedrooms, and one main room, where ya watch TV and keep ya fridge.’
Izaak looked through the glass sliding doors, scratched his dark red hair, and kept nodding, saying ‘uh huh’ with every flick of his chin.
‘Tidy back garden,’ he said, staring back at me. ‘Shows ya got a secure family, that does, Lee.’
I nodded back, unsure of what I had, but I admired his surety, especially as he went straight in with a handshake when Mum and Dad came home.
‘Name’s Izaak. Lovely to meet ya!’
It wasn’t long before Dad started praising his manners, and we sat around the kitchen table, eating lasagne.
‘What are you going to be when you’re older, Izaak?’ Dad asked as he stabbed into a pile of side salad.
‘I’m going to make puppets. Ones as big as you, sir!’
Mum laughed with a mouth full of cheese, and Dad swiped his cutlery together, like he was about to carve up a roast.
‘Engineer,’ Dad stated, pointing his knife at Izaak, before chewing through a tomato.
Dad did that, to everyone, suggesting the next step of a career before one even started.
‘They’ve got skilful hands, carvers of wood, and then you can move onto the harder stuff. Liverpool University run a spiffy Mechanical Engineering degree.’
‘He’s thirteen,’ mum giggled behind her fingers.
‘Then he has plenty of time to prepare.’ Dad winked, pocketed a gooey square of lasagne into his mouth, then talked about the cognitive memory of the hands until Izaak offered to clean the dishes.
Mum faked a protest, but readily accepted after two seconds, her and Dad leaving us at the kitchen sink.
‘Sorry,’ I mumbled, handing Izaak a plate to dry.
‘Don’t be,’ he said, smiling at his reflection in the sink’s water. ‘Your dad just gets excited, and I’m still gonna build my puppets.’
We became good friends, and he came over once a week. He explained how wood can breathe, that puppets are an extension of the maker, like extra limbs, and that puppetry had more career paths than you’d think.
‘It can be used on stage like any other artform,’ he said, sitting at my dinner table, after another one of Dad’s rants about careers verses hobbies. But soon Izaak’s answers became quieter, directed more towards his lap with every meal, until he eventually stopped coming over. We made it to year ten, became passive friends that said hello in maths, but we no longer talked outside of the classroom. My fourteenth birthday came with the cold of December, and I hadn’t seen Izaak in school for a week.
‘His mum was having a difficult time, so they moved,’ Mr Grue said, after I cornered him one time in class. ‘But that’s none of your concern, not with your GCSE’s just around the corner.’
I walked home that day, thinking of nothing, and just got on with what was expected of me. School was a bore, and I lived at home during university, studying at Liverpool: Mathematics with English – Dad’s idea, because I didn’t know what I wanted to be.
Moving forward by myself was easy, just lonely – and something, I found, I never got used to.
‘Izaak sounds right up my street,’ Lee says after I finish talking.
‘That’s because he seems just like you,’ Matilda says, twirling her straw in a cup of warm milk.
‘Kind of, maybe, but I don’t have beautiful ginger hair.’ Lee blushes and looks around at the walls. We’ve came to a café called Cow and Co, what should be closed, but it’s close to Christmas and everywhere stays open late. We’re bunched together around a wooden table, warm cups in our hands, with a salt and pepper shaker shaped like calves, that sit in the gap between our drinks.
‘I’ve never been to this part of Liverpool before,’ I say, looking outside at people’s coats being rustled by the wind.
They follow my stare through the glass, and Matilda sighs, circling her finger around Lee’s open palm. We’re here in one corner, and the only other customer sits by the till with a sausage dog on his lap, who then barks as the owner of the café walks towards it, carrying a plate of broken mince pie, and a small bowl of water.
‘Cheers, love,’ the man says, placing his pet on the tiled floor.
Matilda looks back, smiles at the animal, squeezes Lee’s hand, then looks at me as she stands up. ‘Toilet,’ she whispers, then tiptoes across the room, past the feeding dog, and down the only corridor.
‘Finally,’ Lee says, heavily breathing out the word. ‘What do you think?’
‘What?’ I mutter.
‘Matilda. Your new mate. The one who is having a wee.’
‘Just fine,’ I stutter. ‘Lovely even.’
Lee laughs, scratching the stubble on his chin. ‘Sorry, mate.’ He continues scratching. ‘I fumble my words sometimes, which is ironic, since it’s kind of my job. I organise events, introducing acts: poets, musicians, comedians. That sort of thing. Which is nice n’ all, I’ve got the character for it, but I just – drivel on a bit. Do a bit of photography too.’
I chuckle as he grins weakly, slurping his hot chocolate.
‘She’s nice though?’ he says, licking away his chocolate moustache.
‘Yes,’ I agree, ‘mate.’
A baby voice comes from across the room. Matilda is on her knees, tussling the head of the sausage dog, cooing as the animal licks crumbs from her hand. ‘You’re so good,’ she squeals, rubbing the under belly when he turns onto his back.
‘We barely know each other,’ Lee says, and I think he means me until he rests his chin on his forearms and stares at her. ‘We met two weeks ago, at one of my events.’
‘She perform?’ I ask, watching the dog’s tail batter the floor with every stroke.
‘No, but she was in the audience, with her friends, who panicked when she went missing. They eventually found her, after midnight, sitting on a kerb with me, sharing cheesy chips.’
Lee glances up, his grin a sour circle, like a child being caught eating sweets.
‘What story is he spinning to you?’ Matilda says, manoeuvring herself back into a chair.
‘Cheesy chips,’ Lee says.
‘A classic,’ she nods, like it was ten years ago. ‘We’ve told enough stories. Thomas, what do you do?’
‘Tommy,’ I correct, and they both grin. ‘I tutor English and maths.’
‘Teachers are sexy,’ Lee says, while Matilda nods, and I blush. ‘How did you swing that?’
‘I teach English internationally through a website my Dad runs, and I tutor maths to a few kids in my road. Nothing too hard. They’re easy jobs.’
‘Nothing easy about kids, Tommy. That’s hard shit.’
The word shit shoots from Matilda’s mouth, catching on the over-pronounced T – the first real hint of an accent.
‘Where are you from?’ I say, raising an eyebrow.
Lee starts to chuckle as Matilda stands up, curtseys, while saying ‘Ox-Ford’, then flips us off with both hands.
Paying the bill, Matilda then talks about why she’s in Liverpool, for a Marine Biology degree, and already she’s made more use of the university than I ever did: through societies, friends, and especially the city’s bars and clubs, that she describes as characters rather than places.
‘Heebie Jeebies is like a shit indie disco, but for punks. Lovely cocktails though,’ she says, letting us through the café door first.
We talk, making our way through the light frost of the city centre, and I hug my blazer like it’s a coat. Lee jogs ahead to see if he can take a picture of the heart tree in Liverpool One while it still snows, and Matilda links the sleeve of her yellow coat around my arm.
‘Funny, isn’t he?’ she says, watching his feet with each step.
I’m unsure what to say now. The wind is cold, but my arm is warm. Matilda’s hair is flatter, with specks of white. I’m teaching a lesson in the morning, but I don’t want to go home.
The city is slowly broken up around me as the snow falls heavier, voices echo from the bars we walk past, their lights more inviting than the train I’ll have to take home, and a man drunkenly waves at us from the outdoor seating area of a pub.
‘The most impressive thing, about puppets, is the choreography of the puppeteers,’ I say, letting my hand slide down to Matilda’s, whose fingers have started to turn pink. ‘Watching those horses earlier, it was foreign to me, as alien as when I watch people interact.’ Up ahead we see Lee, one leg against the ground, camera extended towards the tree of hearts, that towers forty foot above him. ‘Watching the play reminded me of that small amount of confidence I used to have, but that also gave me reason to be filled with regret.’ Matilda looks from my eyes to my fingers, that are now a similar shade to hers. ‘I’ve only done the bare minimum when looking after myself, avoiding anything complicated, which feels worse than doing anything at all.’ We’re a few feet away from the multicoloured hearts. Matilda takes her hand from mine, and gives me the same sour grin Lee gave earlier.
‘Try doing things you feel like,’ she says, before running in front of Lee’s camera, posing with one arm curved against her hip, the other straight in the air, with the wrist bent.
Lee looks over at me, nods towards her, and I trot until I have my arm around Matilda’s shoulder.
‘Ok,’ she says, ‘so put your hand in the air and bend your wrist, like you’re campily saying BYE FOREVER to a pigeon.’
We stand still for each ridiculous shot, until it doesn’t seem so ridiculous anymore. The air hurts my fingers as they both walk me to Lime Street station, and I can’t help but wish that I didn’t have to board the last train home.
‘Here’s my number, la.’ Lee says, handing me a torn rail ticket. ‘From tomorrow, we’ll be away for two weeks, but text us when we’re back.’
‘Where are you going?’
‘Haven’t even told my Mum that,’ Matilda says, then hugs me before I head through the terminal, my train only three minutes away. ‘And Tommy!’ she shouts as I reach the top of the escalator. ‘Have a great Christmas!’
I descend, thinking about all the time I’ve wasted every December.
Twitching awake, I look across my room at my wide-open window, snow blowing over the sill and onto my bedroom carpet. The clock that’s fell on the floor reads 8:55 AM.
Fumbling with the wire of my TurtleBeach headphones, I just about put on my shirt – ironed the night before, no creases.
My laptop hums as I reach the homepage for iTutorGroup, and I press ENTER SESSION seconds before my alarm starts beeping.
Nothing happens, not for a few minutes, and I’m left sitting in just a shirt and slippers, not even wearing any underwear.
‘Hello, teacher,’ the laptop beeps, and a Chinese teenager who has chosen the name HERO appears on camera.
His red shirt matches the colour of his sunglasses, that he seems to be wearing in his living room. Staring at him, someone moves in the background of his house, maybe a woman, but I’m unsure. He brushes back his mass of messy black hair and sighs before I find the words to start the lesson.
‘I don’t want to do this – I’m sorry,’ he says, then disconnects.
Staring at where my student was, I mumble ‘Me neither,’ aware of my cold balls as I close the screen. My next class is in half an hour, but I decide to get changed and go for a walk, feeling the wind whip against my fingernails as I stroll down the street.
Twenty-four short stories, exclusive afterwords, interviews, artwork, and more.
From Trumpocalypse to Brexit Britain, brick by brick the walls are closing in. But don’t despair. Bulldoze the borders. Conquer freedom, not fear. EXIT EARTH explores all life – past, present, or future – on, or off – this beautiful, yet fragile, world of ours. Final embraces beneath a sky of flames. Tears of joy aboard a sinking ship. Laughter in a lonely land. Dystopian or utopian, realist or fantasy, horror or sci-fi, EXIT EARTH is yours to conquer.
EXIT EARTH includes the short stories of all fourteen finalists of the STORGY EXIT EARTH Short Story Competition, as judged by critically acclaimed author Diane Cook (Man vs. Nature) and additional stories by award winning authors M R Cary (The Girl With All The Gifts), Toby Litt (Corpsing), James Miller (Lost Boys), Courttia Newland (A Book of Blues), and David James Poissant (The Heaven of Animals), and exclusive artwork by Amie Dearlove, HarlotVonCharlotte, CrapPanther, and cover design by Rob Pearce.
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