Max Sydney Smith


Max Sydney Smith was born in 1986 in London. His short stories have been published in Structo, Open Pen and Quick Fictions.He is currently working on a short novel detailing the life and opinions of a Greek communist.




View as PDF: Max Sydney Smith - My Fear and I

My Fear and I, and other small stories 

My Fear and I 


I do not remember when the fear appeared on my tongue for the first time. It seems it has always been there, eating my words. Cat got your tongue? That’s what people said to me. But it is the fear that has got my tongue.

When it was young, it fed on hard consonants. It scooped the hardness out as they went past and left them limpid and humiliated. Ball to pall. Dick to tick. God to cod. Soon, the hard consonants refused to be spoken. Other words had to be used instead. Great and disastrous were out. Okay and problematic were in.

Sometimes, however, there were no alternatives. Bob Dylan is Bob Dylan. A new strategy was needed. I learnt that I could hide wanted words beneath unwanted words, and the fear would let them pass. Dylan beneath Bob beneath Mr. Mr-Bob-Dylan.

Then one day it rumbled the ruse. It was maddened at the deception. It strangled soft consonants. It feasted on vowels. It devoured whole sentences. The more words it ate, the larger it grew. And the larger it grew, the more words it ate. It spread the fear of cod in them. Soon, no word was safe.

Now it was king of the roost, it began to be noticed in the world. Children mocked it. Women pitied it. Men were disgusted by it. No one said anything, but I could see them thinking it. I wished I could not see so much in other people’s eyes because the fear fed off what it found there. It fed and swelled on my tongue.

The cognitive speech therapists explained it. They drew flow charts and spider diagrams to rationalise it. They used tally counters to measure it and Tictaphones to record it. They played it back to me and I hated it. 


Now, it is the morning rush hour; faces mottled from lack of sleep queue for the ticket pox. The fear is more at home here than me, amidst the hustle and pustle. We stand in line, my fear and I, five from the front. The self-service machine is out of order. As soon as it saw the yellow tape across the screen, it unfurled fat on my tongue, wet with anticipation. It is hard to swallow, the fear has crown so pig. Single to Bethnal Green. It will have every letter of every last one of them. Three people in front now and I can hardly breathe.

I know how this will play out. I will step forward, look the man in the blue uniform in the eye, and open my mouth to speak. I will try to say, single. But the fear will snap it and trap it and sap it of strength, and all that will come out is a hiss, like a snake. For a moment the man’s eyes will be loud as words. “This fellow is not normal,” they will say. “Twitching and hissing, like a snake. It's weird is what it is. Scary.” This will only be for a splinter of an instant, and then they will glaze over. They will hide behind the silent blankness we all wear among strangers. I used to wish I too could hide my fear. I am at the front now. We step forward, my fear and I, to break the silence together.

Real Fur


“Do you like it?” the mother said to the room.

      She put her hands in the pockets of her new fur coat and, holding the pockets away from her body, she executed a little pirouette.

      The father frowned into his beard. He did not approve of fur.

      “You know I do not approve of fur,” he said.

      She turned to the boy and the girl sitting deeply and sullenly on the sofa, clutching their phones.

      “And you two?” she said brightly.

      The children did not speak. She stepped closer, holding her arm out for them to feel the softness of the sleeve. The cat, sitting between the children, stood, flicked its tail and leapt lightly to the floor.

      Upon seeing the cat leave, the girl said, “We think it is disgusting” and looked stubbornly back at her phone.

      The mother retracted her hand and moved away from them, coming to stand before the dressing table mirror at the far end of the room. She stood sideways before the mirror, doing coy half turns and looking back over her shoulder so as to take in the image of herself in her coat.

      “Well,” she said eventually, “I think you are all quite terrible hypocrites.”



The following day, the mother became ill. The father took her to see the doctor, who referred her immediately to a specialist ward in the local hospital. The diagnosis was not good.

      That evening, over dinner, the mother told the children she had an advanced cancerous tumour inside her left breast. She believed it was important to be open and honest with her children.

      The children knew that cancer was bad. They knew it was bad because they heard the word in the news, and because they could see their mother was anxious, and because, although he did not say anything at all, there was water in their father’s eyes. They knew it was bad but they did not know, then, exactly what it was.

      Over the next few months, they learnt the many small things that cancer was. It was stacks of white resealable pill pots in the toilet. It was the sound of her vomiting in the night – the terrifying sound, not of their mother, or even a woman, but of an animal retching and spitting and snorting. It was there being odd things in the fridge (their father did the shopping now) and the way he shouted when they corrected him on what brand of cereal they preferred. It was their mother being taken into hospital, leaving her room fresh and bright and empty. It was their mother sitting up in bed when their father took them to see her, pale and hairless.



It is Christmas Day. The father, the boy and the girl are sitting around their mother on the hospital bed. They have brought her a present, which the girl is holding. The present is small, maybe the size of a book and wrapped in gold paper.

But the mother is not looking at the present. She is looking from face to face in bewilderment. Because all three of them are bald. The girl’s long, blonde ponytail is gone, the boy’s sandy undercut is gone and the father’s brown side parting and beard are gone.

      “What happened to you hair?” she says.

      They smile, but do not answer.

      “Is it because -” she says, to the father, but he only inclines his head towards the present.

      “Open it,” the girl says, shaking it lightly.

      The mother takes the present, peels off the paper and slides her hand through to touch what is inside. It is soft. She takes it out. It is a fur hat. The fur is blonde, sandy and brown. She looks at the girl, the boy and the father. They look back, expectantly. She does not know what to say.

      “Put it on,” the boy says.

      She does. Still they are looking at her, waiting for her to speak. But she cannot. All the hard things inside her that order her mind into words and then into thoughts seem on the cusp of crumpling. She does not think she can bring herself to say anything. Thank you and I love you seem so insufficient.

      “Well,” she says eventually, “I think you are all quite terrible hypocrites.”

The boy who bit his nails


The boy sits at the table, biting his nails. They have finished dinner and his father is talking to his mother.

The boy moves his hand round to bite the side of his thumb and his mother glances over.

“Stop biting your nails,” she says.

“Are you listening?” His father doesn’t like being interrupted. She drags her eyes back to him.



Who are these people? Let me tell you a little about their lives. The kitchen is on the ground floor of a large, Victorian terraced house in an expensive part of North East London.

On the weekends, the boy's mother and father sit around tables in houses similar to their own, eat organic meat, drink moderately priced bottles of red wine and discuss politics. They discuss the electability of the Labour Party leader and catalogue all the things that are wrong with free schools.

The boy's father is something of a star at these events. He writes for a leading left-wing periodical and is a great talker. He is talking now about his recent article.

“The language of advertising is purely reflective,” he says.

He waves his hand lazily in the air, his plump belly rising and falling under his sweater.

"It reflects us back to ourselves as we would like to be. Such that, when we buy, we are buying an illusion of ourselves. And when we consume, we are consuming ourselves.”

The boy’s mother nods absently. She is thinking about the boy's nails.

The boy's mother is not a star at the long dinner parties of North East London. She is a social worker. Her job has not required her to cultivate grand narratives about the future of the Left. She has small stories. She has stories about bruised, pale mothers peering round door frames, about absent fathers and forgotten dirty nappies left on the boil. The people in her stories are nameless, because of client confidentiality.

People listen to her out of a sense of obligation. They know they are supposed to care about the people in her stories. They are the raison d'être of the Left. But they would rather talk about deconstruction, or what Morales has done for the pueblos of Bolivia. They cannot smell the shit under their noses.



The boy kisses his parents good night. Climbing into bed, he can hear the sound of raised voices: his mother’s high and fast, his father’s deep and slow. He stares into the darkness. He can taste the chalky dryness of his nails.

Don’t bite your nails, she said. She should have listened. If she listened, even pretended to listen, they would not be shouting now. Sometimes the boy tried to listen, but his father used words he didn’t understand. He never talked about real things, it was always ideas.

His fingers hurt, but he cannot move except to bite. The biting and thinking are locked into each other and he does not have the will to break out. He bites a bit more, and a bit more.



Later, the boy's mother comes to his room and sits on the side of the bed. In the dark, she cannot see what he has done. It is only when she reaches out to touch him that she realises the sheets are wet and something is wrong.

She stands quickly, steps across the room and turns on the light.

The boys head is buried in his shoulder. It is twitching. The sheets are dark red. She goes closer, peels back the sheet and screams. The boy's father is in the doorway now, holding his toothbrush, blinking, adjusting his spectacles.

“What’s the matter?”

The mother does not turn. She is looking at what is left of the boy's arm: the licked clean white of the humerus. She is holding her hand under her nose to hide the tangy copper smell of blood.

The words seem to the boy to come from far, far away.

“He is eating himself,” he hears his mother say.