FICTION: Stakes by Rob McInroy

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…President Morrison said today that peace talks had broken down and the international situation was as grave as at any time since the Second World War…

David grimaced at the noise of his feet on the gravel. It was the sound of childhood, a memory come to life for the first time in twenty years. He looked up at the granite facade of The Stakes, took a breath and climbed the stairway to the great front door.

An hour later, he was followed by Janet.

And the family was complete.


…missile strikes have been reported across large areas of America, from Florida to New Jersey on the east, and across urban centres in California. It is not yet known how many casualties there are…

“Why do you dislike me so much?” said Janet.

“I don’t dislike you.”

“You don’t like me, though.” There was silence. “You see, you can’t even bring yourself to lie about it.”

“What’s the point? After all these years.”

“So why?”

“No reason. We’re just different. We like different things, think in different ways. I can’t do anything about the fact you’re my sister, it’s just a freak of nature. I’d never do anything to hurt you, but I don’t particularly want to spend time with you.”

“You don’t even want to know me.”

“Probably not, no.”

“And you think that doesn’t hurt me?”

“Does it?”

“Being told my brother doesn’t care if I’m alive or dead? What do you think?”

“I didn’t say that.”

“More or less.”

Janet turned to the window and watched the wind toying with the beech hedge at the bottom of the garden, plucking it back and forward, whipping it into agitation. When she turned back, David had gone.


… the Eiffel Tower has been destroyed by an explosion which has left a one hundred metres wide crater in the Champs de Mars. There are reports of serious unrest in London, Tokyo, Pretoria and Melbourne. Prime Minister Brogan has warned of global catastrophe…

Families reunite in birth or death. Stilted and awkward, they affect an intimacy which doesn’t exist, assume a mantle of detached deference. It is difficult to know how much the participants believe their own evasions. David made breakfast for his sister and mother, setting the table with a flourish which suggested he saw it as an act of atonement.

He had awoken dissatisfied. The discussion with his sister the previous afternoon had unsettled him. When Janet came down for supper afterwards, her eyes had been red and she seemed more strained than normal. David resolved then to make a greater effort for the remainder of the week. He knew it wouldn’t last, but at least he would be seen to be doing the right thing.

The funeral cortege wound on to the drive at two o’clock. Stiffly, the family settled themselves into the Bentley and steeled themselves.

“It’ll be over soon,” said David.

“Sensitive as ever,” replied his sister.

“Sorry, I didn’t mean… Sorry mum.”

“You’ve said and done much worse.” Marjory Booth did not cry on the day they buried her husband, but that moment – with David dissembling and Janet feigning disinterest – was the closest she came. Instead, she watched the gaggle of elms at the bottom of her drive bending in the wind as though in tribute. She could remember when her husband planted them, the day they moved into The Stakes thirty years before.

Thirty years.



… a coordinated series of explosions has destroyed large areas of San Francisco, Berlin, Delhi and Istanbul. Many hundreds of thousands are feared dead. President Morrison has issued an ultimatum…

“I remember when you were a communist.”

David laughed. “I never was.”

“You were. Used to sell Socialist Worker on the High Street.”

“That’s because I fancied Mandy Atkin. She was a member, so I joined up.”

Janet was silent for a moment. “That was your only reason?”


“I never knew that.”

“Not something to boast about, is it?”

“No. Not even for you.”

“What do you mean by that, exactly?” Janet was giving him that stare again. He’d forgotten how much he hated it. It was a sort of blank reproach, nothing as definite as disapproval. It made her look like a cow waiting for slaughter.

Janet sat back. “Come off it. You were never exactly romantic were you? Are you, in fact?. Tell me, have you cheated on your wife recently?”

Marjory Booth stood up and rested her hands on the backs of their chairs. “I think we’ll go for a stroll now, before supper. Daddy always used to like that.” She walked out of the room with an elegant flourish.


… a state of emergency has been declared in the United States, following outbreaks of anthrax in over thirty cities. Scenes of mass panic have been reported and the Army has opened fire on the populace in an attempt to maintain order. Meanwhile, there has been no response to President Morrison’s ultimatum…

“I’ve only had two affairs.”


“And how many have you had?” David enjoyed the frisson which flickered through the room as Janet tried to blink away his words. “Hmm? Nothing to say? There’s certainly been one. There may be more. Are there, Janet?”


“Aha, but the blessed Janet has finally admitted a failing.”

“How did you know?”

“John told me.”

“John? I didn’t know you two ever spoke.”

“We don’t. Just then. He phoned me one evening to tell me what my baby sister was doing.”

“What on earth for?”

“That’s what I asked him. He wanted me to intervene. Tell you to stop.”

“Doesn’t know you very well.”

“Who does, Janet?”

“You’ve made sure of that.”

“And don’t you hate it? Half a lifetime, and still it cuts you up. It always did, all the way back. I mean, following me around, snooping, reading my diary. Why? Why did you always feel you had to know everything about me?”

“Because I knew that one thing about you. And I needed to know… Needed to know you weren’t doing it again.”

David paused. “But you knew I wouldn’t.”

“No, I didn’t, David. I didn’t know anything. You kept everything a secret. You always have.”

“We didn’t have secrets. We just didn’t tell each other anything.”

“For heaven’s sake, stop hiding in semantics.”

“Janet, this family has been hiding for thirty years.” He got up and walked to the door. “Probably longer. Daddy was no saint either, after all. Which is how we could afford all this.” He pulled the door behind him and walked to the woods at the rear of the house.

A tense stillness overtook them that night. No-one spoke, but each knew the other wanted to. As he went to bed, David couldn’t help feeling a moment had passed.


… the world waits on the brink of total warfare. President Morrison’s ultimatum was rejected this morning, with a warning of dire consequences if America did not back down. President Morrison has dismissed this as grandstanding, and has vowed to continue with his plans…

The lawn was sheeting over with water. A black sky crowded The Stakes and rain assailed its south-facing windows. The family remained inside, strangers cocooned by silence, snared by time and its memories.

“Have you ever liked me?” David asked.

“Of course I have. Always. Didn’t it show?”

“Frankly, no.”

“Oh for goodness sake. You must have known I idolised you. I followed you everywhere. I wanted to do everything you did. I wanted to be with you. I hated it when you turned me away.”

“But I did that because you were spying on me.”

“No, David! That’s not it at all. Later, yes, I’ve already admitted that. But not then. I was too young. I followed you because I wanted to be with you. I loved you more than anything in the world. Surely you knew that?”

David shook his head. “No.”

“No. You probably didn’t. I’m sorry to say this. It may sound cruel, but perhaps if you crawled out of your own self-pity once in a while you could see the world for what it is.”

David wanted to reply, but didn’t want to agree. Finally, he spoke. “Self-preservation, not self-pity.”

“That’s nonsense and you know it. You don’t need preservation: we saw to that years ago.“

“Preservation from that, yes…” He stopped and looked away.

“So,” Janet said. “There we are. More skeletons, after all.”

“That’s not what I meant.”

“Don’t fucking bullshit me.”

“That’s the first time I’ve ever heard you swear.”

“And don’t patronise me either. And stop changing the subject. I’m sick of your sophistry, David. I’ve had enough of it for a fucking lifetime.”

David laughed. “Please, I’m sorry. I’m not being rude, honestly. I’ve just never seen you this animated. It’s like seeing a new person.”

She stared at him coolly. “David, I’m the same person I always was. Are you?”

“No,” he replied. “And I’ll tell you what, dear sister, you’re not the same, either. Whatever you may think.”


…citizens of the world, it is my grave duty to warn you to expect the worst. All negotations have now broken down. Contact has been lost. We have been advised that global nuclear and chemical warfare is imminent. I ask you to pray with me now…

“What time are you leaving tomorrow?”

“Six-thirty. It’ll take me about four hours. Time for a shower and lunch, then I have a meeting at one.”

“Pity you can’t get out of it.”

“Actually, I agree.”

“Really?” Janet cursed herself for allowing surprise to register in her voice.

David cursed himself for his excitation. “Well, I certainly thought a week was going to be enough. More than enough.” They both laughed. “And it’s been difficult. Even more difficult than I thought.”


“But, I’ve rather enjoyed the last two days.”

“Amazing what you can achieve if you try.”

“I’m not sure I have.”

“Not much. But some. It’s more than you ever have before.”

“So do you understand me better?”

“I’ll never understand you. I doubt anyone can. But that’s not the point. The point is, I think you understand me a bit better.”


“And you don’t know how big an achievement that is.”


“Because to understand something you have to care enough to find out.”

David smiled. “I hate to say this. And you know I really, really mean that. I hate to say it, but I think you’re right.”

Marjory Booth walked into the room to find her two children laughing. She doubted she had ever heard that before. “I’ve brought some tea,” she said. “Goodness me, what’s that?”

Over the wood on the horizon of Callerfountain Hill, a luminescent haze emerged. It was pink and yellow and purple and it had a noise, the faintest hiss like a steam engine at rest. Marjory watched in bemusement as it seemed to obliterate the wood and the orange-brown patchwork of fields beneath it. Her children turned to watch as a cloud broke down the north slope of the Strathearn valley, at first purple, then pink, then gold, then white. It sloped round the contours of the land, engulfing everything in its way. Each of them thought it the most beautiful thing they had ever seen.

“What?” said Janet.

“I don’t know.”

The rush continued, faster and faster down the valley until it reached the River Earn, which disappeared into white. The noise, too, was increasing, becoming a whoosh and then a drone, an endless sound of struggle. Only now did the family begin to feel alarmed. The cloud began to rise up the valley, showing no signs of slowing. It reached the elms at the bottom of the drive and kept going. By the time it reached the beech hedge it was uncontrollable, massive. In all, it took fewer than thirty seconds.

The three looked from one to the other. There was no emotion in their eyes. That wasn’t unusual.

But, today, there had simply been no time.


Rob McInroy


Rob McInroy is a writer from Scotland, now living in England. He has written one novel and is completing a second. He has won three short story competitions in the past year and been placed in a further four. He has an MA in Creative Writing and a PhD in American literature.
If you enjoyed ‘Stakes’ leave a comment and let Rob know.



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