2013 Short Story Competition
2013 STORGY SHORT STORY COMPETITION SHORTLIST
WE ARE PLEASED TO ANNOUNCE THAT THE WINNER OF THE 2013 STORGY SHORT STORY COMPETITION IS…
BROKEN ENGLISH by E. P. HENDERSON
THE TWO RUNNERS UP ARE…
TONIGHT’S DREAM by RUTH BRANDT
MISSING PIECES by HARRY GALLON
We would like to congratulate all the shortlisted authors for their hard work and dedication to the written word. It was a real honour to read the variety of submissions which we received for our first ever short story competition and we are already looking forward to doing it all again in 2014. It was truly inspiring to discover such wonderful writing. Thank you for submitting and giving us the chance to read your work.
We would also like to thank everyone who took the time to support and share the fantastic writing which was showcased during the competition, without your help the writers would not have experienced the exposure of a dedicated readership.
Thank you to all who continue to read short stories.
Enter stage left. Consider the audience. Check one’s hands. Move to centre stage with a hop and a skip, a whoop maybe. Then fling arms open, showering confetti, the mock rose-petal type, across the stage. Smile. This will be tonight’s dream.
Enter stage left. Consider the audience. Check one’s hands. Check one’s hands again.
Enter stage. The auditorium is full, no spare seats in the Stalls, or the Royal Circle, or the Upper Circle. Check again. The auditorium lights are low; it’s not easy to see. There. Stalls row N, or M perhaps, a seat tipped up. Someone has left; a trip to the toilet? That will be it. Check one’s hands. Move to centre stage.
Enter stage. One’s eyes are drawn to the Stalls, row M, M23 to be exact. The seat is tipped up. The ticket holder has not yet arrived. On their way here, no doubt; delayed somewhere. Check one’s hands are clean, thoroughly clean; washed, dried and washed again, so as not to taint the confetti in one’s pockets. The seats to both sides of M23 are occupied; one by a man, his elbow on the communal arm rest; the other by a girl, no, a young woman, but so slight she could be a girl. She sits upright as though balancing a book on her head, her left hand clutching her ponytail at the back of her head.
The stage. The almost full auditorium. The empty seat. Check one’s hands. A fleck of brown. Mud perhaps, but just a fleck, on the end of the forefinger of the right hand. The thumb nail pick, picks; the mud needs to be gone. Pick.
Tickets M22 and M23 had been bought as a pair. A young woman had reserved them; a teenager with a tight-back ponytail who had come in to the theatre.
“Two tickets for Journey’s End, please,” she had said. “The Thursday evening performance. In the Upper Circle, please.”
She held her purse in both hands upright on the counter. The man in the box office pulled round a monitor and tapped away.
“We only have Stalls tickets left for that night.” He glanced up at her.
“Only Stalls? How much are they?” the young woman asked.
“Sixty-eight pounds for the two. And actually,” he clicked away at the keyboard, eyes scanning he screen, “there’s only the one pair in the Stalls. Otherwise it’s just a few odd seats on their own here and there. You wanted Upper Circle, did you?”
“Would you like me to see if there’s anything for another evening?”
“No. It needs to be Thursday.” The girl reached back for her ponytail and held it tight. “Sixty-eight pounds?” she checked.
She let go of her hair, glanced at her purse.
“OK,” she said.
The almost full auditorium with the empty seat, and on the stage three men in uniform sit at a trestle table while bass notes vibrate the theatre walls. Kaboom, crash. They speak of dispatches being sent up the line, of old school days. They drink, and a young lad full of excitement and derring-do has his spirits crushed by his former idol who has grown weary and cynical. It’s hopeless. A shell explodes. The audience knows that for these men on stage there is no future, that this story is full of dramatic irony.
“Oh darling, what a nice idea,” the young woman’s mother had said.
“You said you studied it at school.”
“I did. That’s right. Long time ago now.”
“Not that long, Mum.”
“Seems like an age.”
“We can get a taxi there.”
“Travel in style. Better than the bus.”
“That’ll be nice, darling.”
The safety curtain falls. The audience claps. Lights up in the auditorium and couples exit leaving coats crumpled on chairs and tonight’s newspaper crushed with plastic wine glasses on the floor beneath. Everyone has left apart from the woman in M22 who stays staring at the stage.
“I’ll wear my purple dress, darling.”
“That one suits you.”
“My purple dress and black shoes.”
“You’ll look lovely, Mum.”
“Thank you, darling.”
Enter stage. The set remains as it was left after the second act; the enamel mug lies on its side, the flask hangs from the hook. Nothing has changed. Consider the audience. Check one’s hands. Move to centre stage. Check one’s hands again. The fleck of mud has moved; it has smudged down onto the palm. Wipe it off on the opposite palm; rub, rub. The mud will soil the confetti. Rub, rub. Apart from the tipped up seat in row M, the auditorium has refilled. Someone coughs. Someone cracks an ice cream spoon. A shh.
“Tonight, darling? Is it tonight?”
“Yes, Mum. It’s your birthday, remember. Happy birthday.”
“I hadn’t put two and two together, that’s all.”
“The taxi’s booked for quarter to seven. I told you that.”
“I’ll help you dress when I get home from school.”
“That’ll be nice.”
“Make sure you eat your lunch. It’s on the tray in the kitchen.”
“Don’t fuss, darling.”
“And we’ll have tea when I get in. A birthday tea.”
“I’ve put a tea towel over your lunch, Mum. Make sure the dog doesn’t go in there.”
“He’ll stay with me, won’t you, Dennis.”
“You will eat?”
The mud won’t budge. Fingers pick, fingers scratch with satisfying pain. Harder and harder but all that happens is the mud spreads over the back of the hands, up the arms. One touches one’s hair, grabs hold of the ponytail hanging down one’s back, and in doing so dusts the forearm against the nose. And now this isn’t mud at all, it’s shit; stinking watery shit that runs over the top lip and seeps into the mouth, finding the gaps between one’s teeth, pouring down one’s throat.
“You didn’t eat.”
It’s the afternoon and the tray is as it was left on the side in the kitchen that morning.
“I wasn’t hungry, darling.”
“You need to eat. You won’t be up to the theatre tonight if you don’t eat anything.”
“Is it tonight?”
“Yes. I reminded you this morning. And you didn’t put Dennis out.”
“He didn’t want to go.”
“He needs to be put out, Mum. He’s piddled in the hallway. I’ll put him out now.”
“He doesn’t like going out.”
Enter stage left. Consider the audience; blink through the shit that’s pouring down one’s face. Place one’s hands over one’s groin and arse just in case anyone thinks one has shat oneself, that this whole stinking mess is one’s own fault.
“Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you, happy birthday dear Mu-um, happy birthday to you. Blow. Big breath. Shall I do it for you? There now, wish.” The young woman angles the knife. “A big slice of cake for you.”
“What about you, darling?”
“I’m OK, I had lunch at school.”
“Are you sure; you’re getting very skinny?”
“There you go.” The young woman places a slice of chocolate cake on a plate.
“Eat up and then we’ll get you dressed.”
“For the theatre.”
“Is that tonight?”
“Yes, Mum. I did tell you.”
“I’m not so sure.”
“Journey’s End. You studied it at school. You told me all about it. I’ve bought the tickets, booked a taxi.”
“You are good.”
“You’ll feel better after cake.”
Enter stage left. Consider the audience. The auditorium is full, completely full, every last seat occupied. Check one’s hands; shiny clean, not a speck of dust. Move to centre stage with a hop and a skip, a whoop maybe. Then fling arms open, showering confetti, the circular, mock rose petal type, across the stage. Smile. This will be tonight’s dream.
When I was a child I broke my legs, and now my skeleton hates me.
I’m all healed up and the years have gone by, but it doesn’t matter: skeletons don’t forgive.
I have a recurring dream where my skeleton dances with me. We quickstep and waltz, everything is pleasant. Until my partner lowers his bony hand to my side, and starts tugging at a zip in my flesh. I try to fight him, but he is stronger than me, driven with desperate need and hate. This is all he has ever wanted. He rips and tears at me until I am shreds of skin, discarded on the floor.
The dance, an imitation of civility and acceptance, has ended.
The dreams are warnings.
I look at my hand sometimes, and find it has curled into a fist. I stare at my wife, and see in her panic that I have been shouting.
It isn’t me, it’s the skeleton, but no one listens.
I tell doctors and they don’t know what to say. They suggest that my problems are psychological, but their skeletons smile at me, leer at me, I can see it.
I forgot about my broken legs for years, blocked it out. It was only recently that I began to understand. It was when Judy left me. When she took the kids.
She knew there was a monster inside me. Of course. It hit her, not me.
That was when I knew for sure. Not me. Something inside of me, but what? And then I remembered.
My skeleton. My broken legs.
My grandfather had told me, on one of those nights in the ward. I was ten, my legs were in plaster. Everything was so sterile and cold. He told me stories to keep me from crying. Once, with a smile on his face, he told me how angry my skeleton was with me.
At the time I had thought he was making a little joke. As you do.
But it was a warning. Like the dreams that would one day come, a warning that skeletons don’t forget.
I don’t know what to do. I pace the house. I daren’t go out. I can’t sleep. I can’t shave, I daren’t pick up a knife. It wants to do away with me.
How do you escape your skeleton?
I leave the house only to seek out doctors. They quickly dispatch me to various specialists who give me prescriptions I tear up.
My wife calls me one night. I try to tell her how much I miss her, the warmth of her smile, the love of her eyes. I want to tell her I forgive her for seeing Jim behind my back… (What did they talk about? What did they do? What did they talk about?) …but instead I find myself shouting, it is the skeleton again, my hating, vengeful, skeleton.
I slam the phone down. I pick it up, I try to think of someone I can call. Anyone.
I stand there for hours. Eventually I pick up the phonebook and start calling random numbers. I ask for help. I give them my symptoms and my address, and I wait for mercy.
No one comes.
The next day I venture out, I steal as many anatomy books as I can from the library. I sit in my study, poring over the pages. Looking for clues, looking for answers.
All I see is bone becoming bolder and bolder with each passing chapter. The books are thrown at the wall in disgust.
One day, my brother comes to the door. He looks so concerned, it’s as if he already knows my situation. And yet, when I let him in, talk to him, it’s obvious he’s confused. He can’t understand me. Maybe my lips are framing one set of words, and my teeth are saying another.
It is flesh versus bone.
I scream at my brother. Get out! Get out! He cannot save me, so I at least save him. His own bones must be docile, his skeleton as complicit as his shadow.
Sleepwalkers are victims of their skeletons. The skeletons want freedom, or feeding, and sleep is when they exert their control. This sort of thing happens. I read about it in a dream so it must be true.
I keep a journal, I write my dreams. It is a fever diary of shock and revelation. I am on to something new, I feel. The anger of the skeleton does not seem to have been recorded much. If only I dared go out more, I might find a computer, use the internet for research – then everything would be made clear.
But I can’t go out. It’s raining. My flesh might melt, and then my skeleton could just skip off into the night. It could desert me, and get away with it. Oh, it would like that.
Each night I handcuff myself to the bed, so it can’t escape, each morning I thrash around, trying to knock the key off the bedside cabinet.
The little victories add up and keep me going.
Sitting naked in the bathtub, rocking back and forth, I whisper apologies for cracked bones through cracked lips.
I am so tired. So hungry. So thirsty.
Again, my wife calls. Again, the skeleton makes her cry.
I hate it, now, as much as it hates me.
Why can’t it forgive? What’s wrong with it? It was so long ago.
The end, when it comes to me, seems quite obvious. There’s only one way to strike at your skeleton. If I had acid I would bathe in it, alas. No, there’s only one way out.
On a cold, black, night, after the birds fall silent, and the roads clear of traffic; I drive to the tallest building I know. I take the stairs to the roof, force the door, and emerge to the scene of my own revenge.
I will break more than legs.
I can hear its voice in the back of my head – no – no – no!
I strike at that which would strike me. I protect my family, my friends. I end this life intact.
I remember, when in hospital, I had a complete x-ray done. Though I was a child, I vividly recall the leering skull, the splintered bones.
You could feel the animosity.
Standing on the roof, I hold my hand up to the moon and stare. I can almost see the bone beneath. How it would like to claw at me, shred me from its frame. I hear laughter, and realise it is my own. Soon the skeleton will be broken again, and there’s nothing it can do! Across London, skeletons will be grinding their teeth in fury.
The moon bathes me, it is my second, final, x-ray. For one last moment I am whole.
And then I jump.
And what is not already broken, breaks.
Whilst wildly incapable of putting my own thoughts into comprehensible words, or actions, I opted to exhale a combination of things I’d wanted to say for a considerable amount of time. I imagine it went something like
Something like that. I clutched for your hand and upon finding it outlined every detail of your fingertips, palms, knuckles, nails, wrists until I heard the drop in your breathing: an indication that consciousness was no longer a priority for you. It occurred to me that you were too far into the falling-asleep process to have even heard a word that I’d said, but I knew better than to fool myself with that thinking. Honesty was a key premise of ours, yet the possibility that you’d chosen to ignore wasn’t entirely unfeasible.
Needless to say, the conversation I’d imagined several times before the real one had gone far better.
And although somewhat cheesy, it was perfect. Of course it was! My imagination had the proficiency to plan a wedding, the names of our children and even what I’d cook you for tea every Wednesday evening on your return to our seaside household. The cruel, sadistic portion of my Thoughts And Feelings told me that – should I possess enough stupidity (which clearly, I did) to actually speak said Thoughts And Feelings aloud – the response would be an earth-shatteringly clichéd, faux-sincerity-laced speech that you’d probably been practising since the first time you kissed me. As if you knew I’d fall into that crazy kind of love, but couldn’t stop yourself from enjoying the physical pleasure of my existence.
All the while, the reality was that you’d started to snore and a little dribble was coming out of the corner of your mouth. I had to make a choice. This is one of those moments I look back on and wonder what if I’d followed a different path, how would things be now?
1) I could slap you. Hopefully the sting would get you deep down.
2) I could fall asleep beside you, blissfully ignorant of what your words – or lack thereof – were symbolising; waking up a few hours later and reconvening the art of our sexual appetites.
3) I could get up, get out, get over it.
There were more than these three possibilities, but at the time I was so busy trying to think that the thoughts didn’t come. I chose to fall asleep. This reminded me how scary loving somebody could be: risking your own happiness to, ironically, get a chance at being happy. Did you ever consider leaving me? Or slapping me? Or was falling asleep beside me always your option too? But that begs the question, did you do it because you loved me, or because I was a shot at being happy? We both knew how much you wanted to be happy.
Closing my eyes, I shuffled towards your body until I could feel the rise and fall of your chest. And although you were absent in sleep, you draped your arm around me and kissed the top of my head: actions that could wipe a slate clean. It was almost as if I didn’t have a choice in forgiving you, because even when you disappointed me I found some part of you to adore. I fell asleep adoring your lips, still fixed in the slight pout that you’d kissed me with.
We woke up at 3:34am and for a little while we spoke about things that could only be discussed in the middle of the night.
“What is the one thing in the universe that makes you happiest?” You were silent for a minute, maybe two.
“Sex.” You concluded with a cheeky grin. I laughed, having expected the answer.
“Ok, now what is it really?” You were silent for another minute, maybe more than two.
“I don’t know. There are things in the world that make me happy, like sleeping after being tired for ages or seeing your face after weeks without it, but there’s never a constant Happy Thing. That’s too expectant. And too human.” You never did like being a human being, either.
“So, I don’t always make you happy?”
“No,” the answer came back almost immediately and for a moment my heart felt as though it had dropped out of my body entirely. “Sometimes I’m very sad about you. I think about you alone in your own bed, or with your friends just hanging out even though you don’t feel like you belong, or crying because someone’s been a dick to you…and those things make me sad, because I can’t be there for you.”
“You heard what I said earlier, didn’t you?”
“And you don’t know what to say, because you don’t love me.”
“Quite the contrary, my petal. I love you in a way that words will never suffice to elucidate. But the love will never be as good as it deserves to be.” I searched your eyes for deeper explanation, but they seemed to suddenly lose focus. “And what makes you happiest?” The subject was changed and I had neither the strength nor the knowledge to bring it back.
With the rise of the sun, we too rose. I showered first, you sitting on the toilet seat justwatching me. It never occurred to you to join me on those days because I was leaving and neither of us wanted to spend our last hours together doing anything but co-existing. We worked around each other so fluently. The conversation that bled through breakfast consisted only of words ambiguous enough to have been to oneself. “It was fun.”
“I had a lovely weekend.”
“Next time, it should be longer.”
Then I packed my bag whilst you washed up. I kissed you briefly as if I’d be back later that day and left through the front door. The routine was painful but necessary. The only difference on this day was the conversation that had gone on in the night. As a rule, the things we said to each other under the cover of darkness had to remain just that. There was a thick, unbearable tension. As the architects of its existence, we possessed the power to break it, but instead we did nothing. On the train home I felt the familiar emptiness of our goodbye.-
I was no stranger to your drunken text messages, though I never replied and you either didn’t remember sending them or were too afraid to seek out my response. Over time, I was able to figure out what you’d been drinking. Nothing made you confess love more than a few glasses of red wine; Vodka had the power to weed out the things you didn’t like about me. Being woken up to ‘I hate that you pick at your food’ was delightfully crushing. Adjusting my eyes to the light of ‘I’m so lucky to have you in my life, I wish I knew how to treat you better’ was slightly more endearing. Perhaps my biggest concern should have been that you sent me an awful lot of those messages over the years, but being the love-sick puppy that I was, my worry was more to do with how I’d fix my faults and encourage you to divulge your feelings unto me without the influence of alcohol. You got better at that, but you were never quite there.
Four days after my confession, you texted me. This was one of the last. Do you remember it? Did you even realise that’s why things went the way they did? I had no idea you were drunk, so I replied.
‘I can’t be there for you, not like that.’
‘I know. You’ve told me that already.’
‘I’m not trying to hurt you.’
‘I believe you.’
‘Then walk away so I don’t have to.’
When I did, I don’t think you even understood why. It was a cold weekend – I recall complaining that you still hadn’t bought a blanket – and it was almost time for me to leave. I felt so hollow knowing that I wouldn’t see you again. I wondered if you could tell something was wrong. You always had a knack for that, picking up on the smallest signs. Leaving you to sleep, I showered. When I stepped out you were standing in the doorway, drowsy and confused. “Why didn’t you wake me?”
“You looked happy.”
“I’d have been happier watching you shower.” I slipped out of the bathroom, making excuses about how it was icy and I needed to leave earlier than usual. There was no time for breakfast. Thank you for…everything. I said it just like that, didn’t I? Like I wasn’t entirely sure what I was thanking you for. After those four years, perhaps I wasn’t.
Did you notice the tears in my eyes as I turned to say goodbye at the front door? Did you even register that I hadn’t kissed you, or organised seeing you next, or even smiled?
He stands in the hallway, testing the air – smell of damp, dust, time forgotten.
He puts his suitcase down by an old umbrella leaning against the wall, rubs his hands together, thick veins, hard skin silky as though coated in powder.
Oh, he’s been here before, alright. Every house is the same.
He takes his time, leaves his shoes on the mat, bends down on one knee and opens the case. It’s light green, faded, almost blue. The buckles are tearing at the leather handle. Inside is a bottle of water, a pair of slippers and photographs.
He removes the slippers, slides them onto his feet and starts down the hallway but it’s narrow, cramped, floor tiled and cold, air too thick and not used to a stranger’s tongue.
He sifts through the letters kicked under the table by the door, lifts paper weights from obituary clippings folded and lined and discarded.
That name is familiar…
The stuffed alligator mounted on the wall seems to watch him. It has marbles for eyes but one lies on the floor by the skirting.
Now it sees from a different direction.
Today is a beautiful day. So many people are expected as guests, and beauty and uniqueness are coming together, arm in arm, in suite and tie and dress and scarf with clutch bag and pocket square to match.
We booked the church only a few months ago, and she’s been searching for the perfect dress – “elegant, hangs from the breast, hides the stomach” – since before I asked her father, who laughed and slapped my shoulder, said sit down, have a cup of tea.
No, thank you, I told him, I’m in a bit of a rush. It’s just that we’ve been together so long, and you and I get on, I know that, it’s true. But I wanted to ask you all the same, though I know you’re not a traditional man and I’m too young to have any traditions.
He called me son. It was only a matter of time.
His wife came in. She had been listening at the door. I asked her as well, or tried to, but could only manage a few strange sounds, awkward hand movements, meet the eye, not the bridge of the nose, back straight –she smothered me in her cleavage and said it’s true, you are a son, the son we never had, been around so long, a piece of furniture.
I met you on a doorstep. I was wet from the rain and wet from my tears which mixed and ran black mascara streams down my cheeks; turned my hair into strands of rope you said you could climb, later, just climb up and crawl behind my ears and fall asleep there.
You were warm.
I had been nursing all day at St Thomas’, and spent that morning waiting outside the Medical Director’s office, trying to enrol as a doctor. A real doctor.
‘But women don’t make good doctors,’ he said. ‘Better stick to nursing.’
I sat in the toilets and cried in anger. And pain – a child I’d been caring for had died. She had Polio. I told her parents myself because the doctors were having their tea. They thanked me but I don’t know why. They looked as though they were drained of life, breath, desire and reason. I left them. I went home.
And there you found me, on our doorstep, sitting in the wet next to my bicycle which I’d pushed all the way and dropped where it lay on its side until you arrived – a stranger I asked for help.
‘It has a puncture. Can you mend it?’
‘Of course I can.’
I know you spied me through your door, in the hallway that we shared in our building near Kennington Park. I know you heard me get home late, swearing, or get out early, swearing still, buttoning up my uniform, fob watch, low-heeled shoes wearing out on the sole because I never had time to mend them.
I knew, and it was all for you, sitting as you did with all the time in the world; in the worlds you were writing in stories, trying to scrape a living selling to magazines, journals, publishers.
But that world was a land of mist being washed by a sea of rejections, calm, foreboding, nonchalant, only interfered with by occasional whirlpools of success.
And there was me, wet still, drowning almost and wanting so much to be rescued by you.
He picks up the marble eye and puts it on the table. It follows his feet and turns by itself, never blinking, never breaking its gaze. He leaves the hallway and tries the living room: wallpaper green and outdated, chairs for him and her with stains at the head, clock on the mantle not ticking (needs winding), and amateur paintings of sunflowers in vases and owls on branches and chimneys stacking higher than sand dunes and clouds being pushed closer by sea.
In the corner is a bureau – a good place to start.
Gently, he opens it. The writing desk sticks halfway, takes a bit of force to push it down on its rests, but it goes. Inside are papers tied together with string and elastic bands, an old fountain pen dried up, a small drawer holding nothing but pennies, a discoloured silver charm bracelet and an order of service from a funeral decades old.
On the front is a man’s face black and white.
Seen better days.
He smiles, hasn’t seen Martin since – well, anyway. He trails off, finds the same face smiling on the mantle, only older, worn out, showing cheekbones and scalp with thin strands of hair like silk, sitting in a pub or restaurant beside a woman who is equally frail, but smiling, holding hands.
So she did marry him.
He turns back, closes the bureau, holds a hand to his chest and sighs. Nothing of importance there. The solicitor took everything he needed – birth certificates, marriage certificates, documents of ownership, deeds.
That’s disposable, anyway, he thinks.
Forget the tea, open the Bollinger. There’re nine cases of it, after all, thanks to her father. Christ, how will I ever pay him back? Better open the whisky. God, I need a drink. Calm my nerves. Settle my stomach.
The barman raises an eyebrow, offers a grin, sympathetic. He’s seen this before, don’t worry, you’ll be fine. He’s waiting for the day when the groom backs out or the bride fails to show.
‘How old are you?’ I ask.
‘Eighteen,’ he says.
‘Got a girl?’
You walked me inside and said, ‘You’re back earlier today.’ I told you I’d swapped a shift, need some time to recover.
‘From what?’ you asked.
‘Life,’ I said. ‘It kicks and punches.’
‘And bites and pinches?’
‘I want to be a doctor.’
‘Are women allowed?’
You smiled. ‘Then you can mend the wounds it gives us,’ you said, and I laughed. You said, ‘I’ve some patches and glue upstairs, won’t you come in and dry off?’
So I sat on your floor while you were nervous. Your home was small but I told you it was enormous to me. And you put a shilling in the heater and handed me a cigarette and lit it with a very old lighter you said you needed to polish. I said why don’t you have one? And you said because that was your last. And I watched as you fumbled through drawers, lifted piles of papers onto the side which were too heavy to stand so they slid to the ground and I caught one and asked you, ‘What is this?’ It was a story called‘Missing Pieces.’
‘Nothing much,’ you said, ‘just something I’ve been working on.’
‘You’re a writer?’ I asked.
‘What’s it about?’
‘I don’t know yet.’
‘Well what happens?’
‘It starts with a man,’ you said, ‘an old man, who once had everything, but then threw it all away.’
‘How does it end?’
‘I haven’t got that far.’
‘Maybe I could help?’
‘Can I have it,’ I asked. ‘I mean I’ll buy it. You’re a professional, I suppose?’ You had both legs over my bike which was upside down, chain off, wheel coming loose. ‘Tell you what,’ you said. ‘You can have the story, free of charge, if you let me buy you a coffee.’
The kitchen smells like cigarettes and lager. The fridge is full of stink and rot. No power to the house since the bills stopped being paid. No power before then, even, since paying bills and using money and telephones and computers becomes so hard, the keys so large and infantilising.
Eyes not what they used to be, fingers swollen to twice the size, veins ready to burst. But all that’d come out is thick purple ooze, not blood. And it couldn’t flow like a river, like you thought it would forever. It’d move more like a glacier, and have the clues to your life frozen inside.
And only you will know them.
And only you will cry.
He opens the backdoor, key still in the lock. Overgrown lawn, borders covered in weeds consuming pet cemetery, tool shed unused, roof sinking in on cans of kerosene, paint, toolbox.
He closes the back door, makes a note of the animal graves on the back of his hand. The things people do, he thinks, and laughs a quiet laugh. The things people will do, just to characterise and write their plot, when only death is at the end.
He’s already feeling his own blood thicken, but he is the man with a thousand lives, and he knows he won’t be forgotten.
Whenever she mentioned marriage she spoke so excitedly, as though it were all she could live for. ‘Oh, it’s been so long,’ she’d say. ‘I thought you’d forgotten about it.’
But how could I forget?
‘Oh, I love you, and I want you,’ she’d say.
‘And I want you too,’ I’d tell her.
‘But not tonight darling, It’s been a long day.’
‘It’ll get longer still, if you’re to be a doctor, a real doctor. I may never get to see you.’
Then she’d sit up on an elbow and cry out, ‘Marry me,’ and I’d laugh and say, ‘Alright.’ Is that not the way to fix things? She blew up in the face of joy, but the force of the explosion wrenched us apart, and somehow gravity put us back together wrong. I thought she could sew me back together, stitch the wound, kiss it better.
I need another drink.
‘Where’s martin,’ I ask the barman.
‘Martin, my Best Man. Martin.’
‘Martin, thank God!’
‘You look like shit.’
‘Let’s get some air.’
‘I knew I could count on you.’
All stories start with questions. Can you fix my puncture? Can I write your story? Can I buy you a cup of coffee? Together we were an answer. It cried out. A year later we were on a boat, steaming to Brittany for the weekend, to lunch in Quimper and picnic on the beach with a sunset just for us, so like a picture, so like a painting and just as expensive, but money was not your concern that weekend.
A portrait of beauty, soft skin, pure like snow, you said.
And I blushed. ‘This is the hair of my father, nose of my mother,’ I said.
‘I know,’ you said, though you hadn’t met them yet.
And we strolled like Victorian lovers, secret, enamoured, lusting fiercely in public but only showing it with the touch of a fingertip, a look of sympathy and amusement when you tried to speak French but couldn’t
Oh, we were shy.
We’d spied each other so long, each a double agent, provocateur dominating the other’s thoughts but never knocking on the other’s door.
‘Remember when we met?’ I asked. ‘When you fixed my punctured tyre in your flat in Kennington Park?’
‘And you kept asking me about that old story. What was it called?’
‘That’s right,’ you said. ‘I gave it up because I couldn’t find an ending.’
‘Neither could I. You’d made a situation impossible to resolve without killing people or leaving them to disappear.’
‘Sometimes that’s how it must be.’
‘But it’s so sad.’
‘What’ve you done with it, anyway?’ you asked.
‘It’s in my chest at home.’
You paused again, then said, ‘Do you your parents know about me?’
‘Not yet,’ I told you. ‘But don’t look at me like that. It’ll be fine.’
‘But what about your father?’
‘He’s not a traditional man.’
The attic draws him up the stairs. Oh, his legs aren’t what they were that time, when he finally ran away, stopping only to hold women round his waist, legs tied together in shady hotel bathrooms and university classrooms, teaching English to pay rent, cleaning fluid off the floor with underwear and only kissing goodbye.
He got what he wanted: all the material a writer could dream – in bed in some Salamanca hostel, Prague, Paris, West Berlin, Saint Nazaire, Bombay, Nevada highway alone and unsettled – just how it should be, he thought, self-assured and unaware, then, that his path would become blocked; that a vital piece of him was missing.
And no, his legs are not what they were.
They creak with the bolts holding up the hand railing, hands growing paler white and shoulders brushing pictures on the wall, loudly questioning the motive for their being located in such a narrow space. And the wallpaper is faded around them. And the dust is settled within them. And the faces and places all painted or bared in the photographs are crisp in their age without moisture, dried up like an ancient river, its bed a place uninhabited, desolate.
We go through the kitchen to avoid the guests gathering in the hotel foyer, waiting to take the coach to the church.
‘It’s not leaving for forty minutes,’ said Martin. ‘There’s still time.’
We take the door by the toilets marked staff only and when it swings back it catches my heel, scuffs the leather, trips me up and knocks the blowtorch topping soufflé on the tray in the arm of the Sous-Chef, who glares. And the waiters laugh because this is the day they’ve been waiting for, and I am the man of their dreams.
‘What’s the problem?’ asks Martin.
‘I’m finding it hard to breathe,’ I tell him.
‘Are you drunk?’
‘Maybe. What should I do?’
‘My life. I don’t know who I am –’
‘– and I don’t know what I want.’
‘Yes. No. I don’t know. Is that the only way?’ I’m crashing. ‘Are there not a thousand other directions I could take? Choices I could make? Lives I could live?’
He says I sound like one of my stories.
You sound just like a dream – too unreal for me to take, and make a new self who loves you and holds you and tells you it’ll be forever just this, just us.
Buying furniture, table, chairs, more shelves for your books and an old chest for my memories.
You said I was buying illusions of contentment, working late on the ward while you spent long nights at home alone, with all the space to run your selves on treadmills in your writer’s gymnasium: character dumbbells carrying weight, plot-cycling machine spinning out of control, typewritten pull-ups on a bar in the doorframe straining under the pressure of your body and brain and weight at the ends of your fingers pressing hard, burning holes with their friction typing fast.
You said you were an athlete.
And I knew your legs were strong, and itching, but all you had in your life with me was a hole in the corner for desk and paper and more and more hurdles to jump.
So where was the end of the track?
Was it in separation? I’d started being sick in the mornings, more anxious than normal. We were making love less, and I knew it was bad, and I felt bad because I thought it was my fault, so busy with work and there’s you at your desk all day with not a care in the world save your stories.
It used to be me.
Remember Brittany? How happy we were?
‘No time for a holiday,’ said you, ‘with all your shifts at the hospital.’
I touched your skin and you shivered.
‘I do want you, darling,’ I said. ‘I want you so much but my body won’t listen. It hurts me. It hates me. There is something inside me and it’s punching and kicking and I’m afraid it’ll tear its way out.’
You took a deep breath and you sighed.
‘Then marry me,’ you said. Yes, I’m sure you said it first. ‘Marry me. Then we’ll leave those fears. We’ll travel the world.’
‘And the hospital?’
‘Nobody likes their job.’
‘It drives me mad.’
‘What about money then?’
‘And family?’ I asked.
‘What about it?’
When he first felt the hole in his chest he was dreaming of a voice that used to be his, a voice that now is a stranger. He woke clutching his breast, thought it was a heart attack before he knocked and found himself hollow, the pain not physical but a pain years old born from shards that pierced him and wounded him when he ran.
It hid inside his flesh.
Years later it pushed its way to the surface, and when he realised he couldn’t ignore it, he came back. He took a small flat in Shepherd’s Bush, and a job clearing houses whose occupants had died.
Some things are better forgotten, but he always saves one.
Now his flat is filled with remains – possessions he takes (one from each house), to make a collage of other lives, trying to find the piece that’s missing and thus fit it back into his. In his bathroom are postcards and wish you were here’s; his hallway a gallery of love letters; his study a shrine to characterisation in bookshelf messages on inside covers and photographs pinned to notice boards.
He surrounds himself with strangers and they become him. He turns them into the memory of a life he never had; a wife he threw away; a child he never knew existed.
False memories are safer than people.
The hole was black and engulfed him. It aged him and put fear in his head. When he recognised her name in this week’s obituary, he saw his chance and took it.
The sun heats the side of the church. Its stones are warm to the touch, and coarse. I ask Martin, ‘How many people do you think have touched them?’
‘Will you focus?’ he says. ‘This isn’t like you at all. And to tell you the truth, I’m worried.’
‘I didn’t want it to be in a church, you know. Old stones are beautiful, but they’re fragile. They’ll fall.’
I’m being crushed.
Martin drove us here, ready to greet the guests, shake their hands, pin buttonholes on pageboy nephews and groomsmen cousins I don’t know.
‘How could you let it get this far, if you’re only going to back out now?’ he asks, handing me a cigarette.
‘I needed a taste of reality.’
‘How long has it been this way?’
‘She’s put on weight –’
He raises his eyebrows.
‘– gets angry so often; gets incensed over the smallest of things. And then she cries. Oh, Jesus, the crying.’ I inhale deeply.
‘This is small shit,’ he says. ‘She’s a good woman…’
‘Then you marry her, Martin. God knows I’ve seen the way you look at her.’
‘Stop that,’ he says.
‘Fucking this up.’
‘But I’m scared.’
‘Do you love her?’ he asks.
‘But you could love someone else?’
The vicar opens the door of the vestry and asks is everything alright? ‘Would you like a drink?’ pulling a small flask from under his surplice. ‘Against the rules, I’ll admit,’ he says, ‘but I find a little courage does help.’
You lived in fear. I felt it in your smile, saw it in your eyes as they glazed over when I said the words I do into the mirror, when I thought you could not see.
Write the final part of our life together in letters to you but not sent, simply cut out and left on the floor to be walked on, and ignored.
When you asked me, in all your selfishness, to marry you, I thought I cried in happiness – that we might just be okay. But I know I cried because I saw in front of me the rest of my life. Career over, family tearing their way out.
Still, I loved you.
I loved you with as much love as a heart can give, and there were two of them beating inside me. But they made me feel mortal. I felt years pass and death loom so quickly. And the hearts kept beating and beating and when I said I do to the mirror, the large heart screamed so loudly that the small heart could not be heard.
Give me life and I’ll give it to you.
It was a voice I couldn’t hear because, like you, I was scared.
But I wasn’t going to run.
You told me you were a writer because women love men with words. And I did, for a time. But your words became impatient, restrained, colourless. You blamed me for it, and I was afraid to tell you when I knew about the child, so I kept it to myself, hoping it would save us if I saved it for long enough, and told you and showed you what you could have if only you ignored your fear.
But that time never came. You left us, and left no trace. I spent nights writing letters addressed to a name. But a name became a memory, a memory became a ghost. All I had left was the story you gave me on the day we first met. I searched through it so long for an answer, but like a story without an ending I was left balancing on the edge.
What I found in there was an ending.
The pregnancy was hard. The birth left me desolate. I knew I could never have another, but I gave up the child because it didn’t belong to us. It stood for something that no longer existed.
Now I’ve done what you never bothered to do: I finished it myself.
He’s getting closer. He works frantically sorting boxes of Christmas lights, curtains and clothes. A wooden platform in the corner carries the water tank. Beneath it sits a wooden chest with cracked leather corners, pictures of sailing ships stuck on with paste and varnished over, now chipped, torn, faded in the light from the small round window in the wall. On the front is a large metal lock. Oh yes, he says loudly, I remember it clearly. She was always losing the key.
He remembers the bureau, rushes back to it as fast as he can.
He goes to the shed, finds a hammer, takes it upstairs and starts hitting the lock hard and then harder, until the metal breaks and the wood splinters and the lid lifts slightly as though waiting.
He catches the air that dribbles out and it takes him back to the flat in Kennington Park. He savours it. Relishes it. Breathes it in deep drags – a drug he can take and find himself wake in the past, before he chose to abandon her; before he abandoned himself.
He lifts the lid further and finds the chest full of envelopes, sealed but not addressed, hiding letters inside which were written but never sent. Confused, frustrated, he pulls them out without a care in the world save one.
When the chest is empty he sighs, slumped in a pool of old paper, pieces he doesn’t think to open. Whatever they are, they’re getting in his way. He’s about to close the chest and look somewhere else, but something catches his eye – a small tab of cloth where the base meets the side. He pulls it. The bottom lifts out and a whole new smell reaches his nose.
The manuscript is worn at the edges, torn in places like someone has read it a thousand times, in search of answers, in search of anger, too, and tears which have stained the pages and caused the ink to run and the words to change their meaning.
He stands in the hallway, testing the air – smell of damp, dust, time forgotten.
He laughs. He’s been here before, alright.
And stands, tearing the letters on the floor with feet once again too eager to run, now that he’s found it, now that he’s holding the piece to the hole in his chest and laughing.
But something’s wrong. He’s beginning to worry. ‘Why won’t it fit?’ he whispers, and flicks to the final pages, slumping down as he remembers that he never wrote an ending.
HOW ROUGH THE WAVES MAY BE
Sarah buttoned her coat on the way down to the beach and got Marin to do the same. She held her cigarette between her lips when she pulled her coat close around her, then took the knapsack from Marin so that he could zip up his. He didn’t ask for it back and Sarah carried it the rest of the way. He kept his hands in his pockets and his eyes on his feet. Sarah wrapped her arm around Marin’s and looked ahead to the sea. It was a short walk from the car. A thin layer of sand coated the hobbled stones of the path making it slippery to walk on, but together they walked without slipping. As they stepped onto the beach, Sarah threw the butt of her cigarette in the floor of the foot shower and it hissed in the cold and went out.
They removed their shoes and socks and walked barefoot. The sea was at low tide and the beach was wide so the sand was dry. The rock pools were out and further along the beach moored boats were grounded. To the right the cliffs rose above the sea and on top of them sat the abbey, while to the left the dunes separated the country from the ocean. The beach was quiet. It was a nice day for one picnic more.
‘Where shall we sit?’ Sarah asked.
‘Out of the wind,’ Marin said.
‘Let’s sit next to that boat.’
Sarah took out her purse to get to the blanket she had in her knapsack and she laid it out on the sand. They sat next to a disused fishing boat. The windows were smashed and the hull was green with algae and rumpled with mussels. Sarah had sandwiches wrapped in foil and packets of crisps in her bag, and Marin had a bottle of pop in his coat. They ate the ham sandwiches first and saved the cheese and pickle ones for later. Marin washed down his first mouthful with some pop and placed the bottle between himself and Sarah.
‘How is it?’ Sarah asked.
‘Good, thanks,’ said Marin, swallowing another bite.
‘It’s that breaded ham you like,’ she said.
‘I thought we used it all for our Ian’s birthday.’
‘No,’ said Sarah. ‘We had some left over.’
‘I thought we used it. They’re nice cobs,’ said Marin.
‘Yeah, subs. They’re nice subs,’ said Sarah.
Marin lifted his shoulders and raised an eyebrow. His head gave a small shake.
‘They just call them subs in America.’
‘They do, do they?’
Marin nodded once and swallowed.
‘This is a cob.’
‘They’ll look at us funny if we go round calling it that,’ Sarah said.
‘Subs?’ he asked.
‘We need to act the part.’
‘They’re nice subs,’ he said after a time.
Sarah smiled at him.
Marin took another ham sandwich from the knapsack and removed it from the foil. Sarah watched him fold the foil back up again neatly and place it back inside the knapsack. He took a bite of the sandwich, and chewed.
‘You know you’ll like it more when we’re there,’ she said.
‘Never said I wouldn’t,’ Marin said. He turned over the sandwich, picked at the crust and took another bite.
The waves rolled over the rocks and the kelp slapped against the rocks when the water slipped back out to sea. Sarah watched the water drain back into the sea and stared at the limp weeds. Those weeds would never lose their hold upon the rocks no matter how rough the waves may be. She picked up the bottle of pop, unscrewed the cap and looked over to the disused fishing boat. The wind had dried the hull out so the dank smell of the sea was hardly noticeable. The chain that tied the boat to the beach was rusted and in parts the hull seemed about to give.
‘I wonder who owned that boat,’ Sarah said. She took a sip of pop.
‘Does it have a name?’ Marin asked, glancing to the boat.
‘I’ll have a look.’
Sarah stood up and went over to the boat. She walked around the boat, carrying the bottle of pop and kicking the sand at her feet to rain back down upon the boat. On the far side of the boat the hull was not layered with mussels. Towards the stern the paint had worn and the metal had rusted and the name looked as though it had been chiselled off. She came back over to the blanket.
‘What is it?’ Marin asked.
‘I don’t know,’ she said. ‘It’s got no name.’ She sat back down again upon the blanket. She leant back on her arms with her legs outstretched in front of her and wiggled her toes.
‘We should name it,’ Sarah said.
‘The boat,’ she said. ‘We should name it.’
‘We’re not doing anything else.’
‘Okay,’ Marin said. ‘What are you thinking of?’
‘What type of boat is it?’ Sarah asked.
He checked. ‘A fishing boat,’ he said.
Sarah paused. She drank some more of the pop. ‘It needs to be an adventurous name.’
‘I don’t know any,’ Marin said.
‘How about the Seafarer?’
‘No, I don’t like it,’ he said.
‘You think so?’
‘What do you want to call it then?’
‘I don’t know,’ he said. ‘The Endeavour?’
She went into the knapsack for another sandwich.
‘I like mine more,’ she said.
‘I bet you do.’
‘What’s that supposed to mean?’
‘Nothing,’ Marin sighed. ‘Can I have the pop?’
‘No what do you mean, “I bet you do?”’ she asked.
‘It means you can name the boat whatever you like, love. Can I have the pop, please?’
‘Fine.’ She dropped the foil from her sandwich and folded her arms and crossed her legs, the bottle of pop cradled within. The foil was scrunched up into a ball. It rolled to the edge of the blanket and stopped at the touch of the sand. She clenched the sandwich in her hand and mustard dabbed at her skin.
‘We’ll call it the Endeavour.’
‘No, honestly, you can call it the Seafarer. It sounds more adventurous anyway.’
‘No, you don’t like that name. It’s clichéd.’
‘So is the Endeavour.’
‘It’s less clichéd than the Seafarer.’
‘No, it’s more.’
‘I don’t care anything for it anyway,’ Sarah said. She stared out to sea.
Marin paused. ‘Can I maybe have the pop then?’
‘Sorry, I don’t know what you’re talking about.’
‘The pop you’re still holding. You’ve been holding it for five minutes now.’
‘They call it soda in America.’
‘We’re not in America.’
‘We will be.’
‘Well we’re not there yet.’
Sarah stopped. She picked up the cap and screwed it back onto the bottle of pop and gave it to Marin. He unscrewed it and took a sip. He put the cap back on and placed it between himself and Sarah.
‘Can I have another sandwich?’ Marin asked.
‘What do you want?’ Sarah asked without looking at Marin.
‘Do we have any ham sandwiches left?’
‘I’ll have what’s left then.’
‘Cheese and pickle.’
‘That sounds fine.’
Sarah took a cheese and pickle sandwich from the knapsack. The kelp struck the rocks. She took it from the foil herself and gave it to Marin. He looked at the sandwich and turned it in his hand.
‘This has mustard on it,’ Marin said.
Sarah blinked at him.
‘I don’t like mustard in my cobs.’
‘I forgot,’ said Sarah. She looked back out to sea. A small sailing boat came around the cliffs and moved across the cove. Sarah followed it. It had a sail of warm orange with a black base.
‘That’s okay,’ said Marin. He took a bite of the sandwich.
‘Do you want to stay here?’
Marin swallowed his mouthful.
‘They don’t call them subs in America,’ he said. ‘They’re sandwiches. A sub is like a baguette. Cobs are just bread rolls over there and they call them sandwiches. I don’t know anything about the pop.’
‘Well if you know so much about it why don’t you want to go?’
‘Who said I didn’t want to go?’
‘I want to go wherever you want to go.’
‘Do you want to stay here?’ Sarah asked.
Marin paused. ‘No,’ he said.
When they finished their lunch, Sarah drove them home. They trailed sand into the car.
E. P. Henderson
“I am going to have an affair.”
Helen speaks the words into the mirror, softly, so that Brian doesn’t hear. The mirror seems to approve. It pouts on the word “going”. She likes that. She tries the French, to see if it sounds sexier.
“Je viendrai avoir une affaire.”
It’s probably bad French, but still …une. Ooh. Just one. Only a little affair. More of a last fling, really, before the wedding. Certainly not a one-night stand, unless a one-night stand can last fifteen years. An affair of the heart, really: une affaire du coeur. She thinks about Parisian rooftops gilded by evening sunlight: d’orée par le soleil. She hears the bedroom door creak as Brian stumps towards the bathroom, and she squirts toothpaste onto her brush, starts scrubbing away. He idles impatiently on the squeaky floorboards outside. When she emerges, guiltily, he checks a non-existent watch and raises an eyebrow.
“Sorry,” she says. As she closes the bedroom door behind her, she drops the green towelling dressing-gown she’s been swaddled in, and stretches luxuriantly towards the ceiling.
“Une affaire,” she whispers to herself, and grins.
The last time she was in Paris it had been for pleasure, not business, with her unsuitable gap-year boyfriend. They’d met in Goa and travelled back together, up through Russia and Turkey, taking in the sights, reading one another bits of classic novels they found too boring to manage on their own. Terry was his name, which was unsuitable for a start. He was American, and a sportsman, which was even worse – he’d rowed for his college, or state, or something, and had told her this over bonfire beers during a full-moon festival, expecting her to be impressed. But he read War and Peace in funny voices, and they laughed together in their own foreign language – sometimes, if they were lucky, in their own carriage – and curled up and drowsed on the endless trains.
She’d often daydreamed of tracing their route back down the continent, from the Eurostar terminal at St Pancras to Brussels and Paris, then south through France and Italy by many small odd trains, to Madrid; and further, deeper, out of the safety of Europe into the familiar strangeness of Asia. The Orient Express had always fascinated her: the name reverberates in her head with romance and murder. She’d tried to get Brian to come with her, when they were first together; but he’d refused. Perhaps it had been too soon. After seven years, of course, it was too late. Brian didn’t really do romantic journeys.
“What’s the point?” he’d asked, shrugging. “It’s much quicker to fly.”
She and Terry had been on the last dregs of their money when they’d finally fetched up in Paris, fifteen years ago. They’d had just enough to rent a room for two in a picturesque little youth-hostel in the shadow of the Sacré-Coeur. It was late when they dragged themselves in from the Gare du Nord, exhausted and lubricious with sweat and Métro-grime. The only room available was on the fourth floor. All she heard down the corridor when he swung their door open was Terry’s booming sportsman’s laugh.
“C’mere, Hels,” he said, “Look what they’ve given us!”
She stumbled up and ducked under his pointing arm. He let it fall weighty on her shoulder. The room was devoid of furniture and fittings, except for a porcelain washstand in the corner, a tiny desk and chair, and a rickety metal-framed bunk-bed.
“Guess it’s the floor tonight, huh?”
And it had been. They’d showered in turn, gone out for a cheap dinner, then picked up some non-vintage champagne from a corner-shop and took it back to the hostel. The only glasses were thin disposable plastic ones from the water-cooler. They chatted to a Canadian girl and her German boyfriend, over on a University break, and gave them a glass each. Nevertheless, when they swayed upstairs to their attic room, they were both a little drunk.
Terry pulled the mattress off each bed onto the floor and billowed the thin bedsheet over this makeshift lovenest like a tablecloth. She collapsed onto it as soon as the sheet settled, bouncing and giggling. He dived down next to her, shirt already half off.
The next morning, a Monday, they were woken at seven by the pungent morning sunshine and the shrieks of schoolchildren. They’d forgotten to close the shutters.
He’d stayed on in Paris and they’d kept in touch, on and off; holiday rendezvous, sometimes as two halves of a pair of couples, sometimes, nostalgically, tête-à-tête. He made flying visits to London, and she stopped off on her way somewhere else: Venice, Lille, Rome, Seville, Athens, always just passing through. In Paris, he was Thierry and she was Hélène: a private joke which had survived between them, in one context only, like an endangered plant. Sometimes they slept together in his eaves studio, then his tall-windowed apartment, then the chic little house that was still too big for him: sometimes they did not. But she always felt at home in Paris, with him.
He eventually became a translator: what else? He did magazine articles, and the subtitles for version-originale films. He still rowed every Sunday on the Seine. He’d found himself a woman, a Frenchwoman, a high-class chiropodist, all eau-de-toiletteand cashmere and manners so charming they were almost offensive. Agnès, Anne-yes, like Thierry, so much better in French. And Helen had found Brian, who was exactly the same in any language, and perhaps that was why she’d liked him.
But then, six months ago, Terry and Agnès had split up, pretty messily, according to him. And then work wanted her to visit the French office to welcome the staff and make sure the set-up was going well. They offered to send the new trainee with her to translate, but she insisted that she’d find her own, thinking of Terry. No need to impose on his spare room this time: work would pay for the hotel, and dinner, and drinks. Everything else worth having in Paris, the weather, the walks, the museums, and Terry himself, would be gratuit.
Ten years ago they had clambered the steep flat steps from their youth-hostel up towards the white spire of Sacré-Coeur, panting, sweating in the hot night, resting frequently. Whenever she tried to sit down and rest he yanked her upright by brute force, till she dangled from his arm like a puppet. He pushed her on and she complained enjoyably. It was ten at night by the time they reached the church at the top. They’d thought it would be closed, but the cobbles in front were thronged with people and the cathedral itself lit up like a department-store. They wandered in, feeling inappropriate in shorts and t-shirts, and split at the nave, to explore.
Between the massive, smooth stone pillars, tall as redwoods, she caught his long pale figure, silhouetted over a pyramid of tea-lights which burned, for fifty centimes each, in memory of the dead. She watched him light one and place it solemnly into the black iron bracket. It made her feel estranged from him, suddenly chilly. He’d never mentioned being Catholic, or even religious. Perhaps it was just what one did. She dropped in a handful of change and lit three and, since she did not believe in prayer, made a wish on each. Then she saw him, across the twilit belly of the church, looking around for her, and quickly moved away.
This time they meet somewhere their student selves could never have afforded: an elegant bar-restaurant near the Jardin Luxembourg called Le Fumeur. He suggests it. The Smoker: typical. She remembers his Gauloises Blondes, originally an affectation, now a habit.
It’s raining passionately when she emerges from the Métro, and she half-stumbles, half-splashes to the restaurant in her suede summer heels, a newspaper sheltering her head. In the doorway she shakes herself like a dog, combs her short brown hair with her fingertips, wipes the panda mascara from beneath her eyes and looks around for him. They kiss three times, in the French fashion, and draw back to examine one another. She’s glad of the mess, the rain: it takes the strange edge off meeting again. How long has it been? Four years? Five? He is, now, effortlessly French. He’s grown into himself, a foreign plant gone native. She knows that however chic and sleek she is (or was, before she got rained on), she’s still a tourist. It doesn’t matter, of course. It never did.
It’s a dark, polished place: the waiters are just attentive enough, the barmen handsome, and the gleaming walnut bar (so the menu says) was imported from a Chicago speakeasy in 1934. They drink cocktails with American names and ordersteak-frites. Blue-rare for her, well-done for him: one of his few remaining Americanisms. They talk about work, and films, and books. She asks him if he ever finished reading War and Peace. He asks her if she ever went on the Orient Express. The answer, in both cases, is no.
When she walks self-consciously past the tables of serious, middle-aged men on her way to the Ladies’, she knows she is a little drunk. Her reflection in the long mirrors is elegant, beautiful, like a French film-star’s.
“Je voudrais une affaire,” she whispers to it, and laughs.
When he suggests coffee, she puts her hand over his (the ring of paler skin on her engagement finger gleaming in the candlelight) and proposes champagne instead.
“All right,” he says, puzzled and pleased, taking a beat, reassessing, “champagne.” Lust flares and billows inside her as the waiter delivers the dripping bucket.
“So,” Terry says, lifting his glass. “What are we celebrating, apart from your promotion?”
She drops her eyes and looks back up into his, black and gold in the candlelight.
“You first,” she says.
“Well, I guess I can think of something.”
She smiles encouragingly.
“Agnès and I – well, she called me today. She wants to come back. We’re gonna give it another try. Great, huh?” He raises his champagne triumphantly. His grinning teeth glitter like glass.
She smiles even harder, unable to press her lips back together, nodding like a backseat dog. She lifts her flute and clinks.
It’s like a book you realise only at the end you have read before, she thinks on the train home. Of course they weren’t going to sleep together. Of course he’d got back with Agnès. Of course she would be cheated of her final fling, dumped in favour of an Estée Lauder chiropodist. She tears her brioche with unnecessary force. A fuckingchiropodist.
She finds her engagement diamond in her makeup-bag and fits it back on at Dover, as they emerge into the wet English light. She’s told Brian to meet her at the station: he’ll certainly notice if it’s missing. He likes her to flash it around: as he always jokes, it cost him enough. She hardly looks out of the window as the train glides into St Pancras. Duty Free, a pair of shoplets scooped out of a wall, had passed back in Paris: she hasn’t even that to look forward to. She steps off the train into hard afternoon brightness and shopping noise, into a great airy bubble of a place she feels she’s never seen before, a long, gleaming tunnel to nowhere. There’s no sign of Brian. Ugly English voices surround her, pasty English people push past her, stamping their clumsy paths to somewhere they don’t want to be and are already late for.
The money is wrong. The language is wrong. Even the accents are all wrong. Helen flees to the public toilets, which flush incomprehensibly and smell foreign. She only has Eurocents for the attendant, who rolls her eyes and sighs. Helen’s face in the mirror is strange and unattractive. The ring on her finger looks like a fake. The middle-aged anglaise next to her flinches and edges away when she hears Helen mutter to herself.
Helen takes no notice. She watches her lips in the mirror, moving wrong, speaking in broken English.
“I want to go home,” she says, “I want to go home.”
INTOXICATION & DECADENCE
Angel V Joyram
Midway through my second whisky the door knocks. I ignore it, someone has the wrong compartment. Anyone choosing my company is crazy and the solitude of this small place I call home suits me fine.
Two years after moving to Colorado, I’ve not spent one night at the family residence. I repeatedly inform my mom that my job requires me to stay on site. The lie became easier to maintain than come clean about. I visit weekly to check on her and my little sister Susan, who gives me sticky four-year old embraces which make me yearn for my childhood. Mom tells me I’ve changed and I can’t hide my pain from her. She’s acutely aware of the guilt and anger still eating at me.
The tapping impatiently continues. I curse profusely, banging my tumbler on the wooden table ready to confront the obnoxious culprit, but I’m hardly being disturbed. Sleep’s peace evades me like a shadow I can’t catch, however exerted I am. When I endeavour, I remember how Isabella last regarded me with accusation and grief. I don’t have nightmares, I wish I did. They’d be easier to tolerate than the memory of her smile, or that innocence and vulnerability she had only revealed to me.
I fling the door open and am rendered speechless.
“Hey there, soldier”.
I frown, my guard instantly up. Of everyone I might have expected – Kathleen? I hadn’t seen her since leaving Illinois. My eyes travel suspiciously over her knee-length raincoat, hood up, and brown boots which stop mid-calf. She appears healthier – not so dirty.
“Shouldn’t you be out screwing or something?” I say grouchily, “-Not banging my door down at bloody midnight.”
“I sure can see your appeal”, she bites, but a teasing smile plays about her lips, “-What you meant to say was come in, but I forgive you”.
She steps past me, flashing me a mischievous grin. At the risk of being arrogant, I’d think she was flirting, but a late night in-person booty call – really? She and Isabella used to be friends – or that’s what I presumed. I secure the door resignedly behind us. Kathleen immediately kicks off her boots and removes her coat, leaving a splattering of water drops which mar the polished floor. As her hood comes down, a cascade of long black hair falls over her back and she smiles at me with fake coyness.
“You like? It’s the latest in overseas re-growth technology”.
The way she enunciates every syllable reminds me of how Isabella used to imitate accents to make me laugh. It replays like an old, fading record I never tire of.
The white flimsy garment she adorns resembles fancy nightwear rather than a dress, but what do I know? I’m usually getting women out of their clothes. The delicate translucent material doesn’t leave much to my imagination and I once more contemplate whether it’s intentional. She’s after something and my instincts prickle.
“You could use some company”, she states pitifully, taking in my surroundings.
“You don’t know the first thing about me”.
She plants herself on my bed impishly, pulling her feet up to lie on her side, and props her head up with one hand. The dress riding up her thighs is provocative but too delicate for her.
“I’ve missed your handsome face”, she tells me playfully, “I came to see if you’ve moved on”.
I sneer discreetly, what was it to her? I’d tried. Moving from girl to girl, hoping one might hold my interest but none lasted a whole night. Eager to please curvy blondes, willing to give it up for a quickie with young, devilishly attractive and eligible Joshua Connor – not my words. I snort. I couldn’t recall their names. They were distractions, ways to seek escape in giving lips, warm bodies and feminine affection. I purposely steered clear of girls resembling her.
I gulp my whisky back straight. Kathleen watches me curiously, rising to perch on the small stool at the foot of my bed. This past year, the whole sordid mess had lost appeal. I wasn’t surprised – it wasn’t effective before my epiphany. No one could replace Isabella or erase her from my thoughts. Instead of short bursts of release, lost in carnal pleasure, the sex became like bathing in mud. So I stopped. Three months without a woman to warm my bed and I missed nothing.
“Trying to give Sam a run for his money?” Kathleen quips, referring to an old neighbourhood drunk who had reportedly died choking in his own vomit.
I shoot her a stony stare. Drinking had crept up on me. I’d never been one for alcohol. Initially, it was the odd one with the guys, until I realised a few took the edge off and clouded my mind enough to fake a little happiness. I was living what back then I’d have considered a life of luxury, a life where I wasn’t worried how my widowed mother would provide our next meal or whether the roof over our heads would be there tomorrow. Only now my best friend wasn’t at my side, so sometimes I indulged myself.
With each passing day, elongated hour and empty night, the absence of Isabella’s presence spread, invading me like a parasite, draining me of sensations, relentlessly twisting its point into my heart. I threw myself into anything that might deaden that hollow ache, fill those never-ending seconds with purpose to stop receding into loneliness that stretched out like an endless chasm, smothered in regrets.
“What do you do for entertainment, soldier, aside from… fucking?”
The word hangs like a tempting invitation, the kind that taking up would inevitably be a mistake.
“What’s it to you?” I retort grittily. “If you’re after a heart to heart, you’ve wasted your time”.
She laughs aloud.
“Sense of humour, I can work with that”.
I roll my eyes and fix another drink. Seeing Kathleen only made Isabella’s memory as vivid as blood splattering over white cotton.
“You’re not good with words like him”, she announces cuttingly.
I snap my head towards her, catching her satisfied expression. Drinking a million bottles wouldn’t stop the soreness of Isabella being his. What was additionally insufferable is that in the rational, logical part of me, I can’t even hate him. Daniel Monroe, regular good guy, with the only girl I would ever love. I envy him. I couldn’t take back that fateful accident and bring Nathan back. Isabella’s grief for her brother had consumed her and finished us. The suffocating, inescapable blame weighed me down like a ship whose anchor had ploughed into a quicksand sea bed. So I left. Returning seemed as pointless as an immortality potion to a rotting corpse.
“Don’t compare us”, I snap. “We have nothing to talk about”.
“I haven’t come here to talk, soldier”, she replies smoothly.
“I’m not in the mood for games, Kathleen. What do you want?”
She’s unfazed, “-You”.
I study her pensively and think of Eve encountering the serpent. Another few drinks and she could almost be Isabella. I’d restrained myself long enough to what avail, why not? It hardly mattered. I’d lost Isabella. She probably didn’t want to remember my name. My self-loathing strangles me like a boa constructor around its prey. Kathleen comes nearer and takes my chin between her finger and thumb, forcing my face to hers.
“I don’t want to own you”.
“You could never own me”.
She shakes her head.
“I bet, you’re already owned”.
Her flippant comment carries the weight and precision of an executioner’s axe. I move away.
“I saw them last week”, Kathleen announces suddenly.
Her tone lacks malice but my discomfort only grows. Isabella rebuilding with him everything I had wrecked was unbearable. He’d been her saviour. I don’t feel the burning liquid roaring down my throat or its bitter aftertaste. I’m past caring what Kathleen thinks. Love was for losers.
“How is she?” I venture facetiously.
“Tired”, she returns, “Sort of lost I suppose, but I heard that he’s going to marry her soon”.
Having stupidly assumed nothing else could breach my barriers so woundingly, Kathleen’s words fall without warning like an abrupt nuclear bomb, wiping out every resistance I was attempting.
She takes advantage, her voice lowering to a rasping whisper.
“He told me a secret, soldier”.
She holds out for an agonising few seconds before dropping it with sugar.
“-They want a baby”.
My mind fills with images of Isabella in white walking up the aisle to him, her stomach swelling with his child; with her raven hair and his blue eyes. Overcome with helplessness and frustration, I launch my empty glass against the wall with tremendous force. Shards of glass splinter across the room like an exploding firework. Like the last thing I remember from the accident when I hit my head so hard I blacked out. In an instant I have Kathleen against the wall. I feel desperate and out of control, like an addict in need of a fix.
“Are you trying to get a rise out of me?” I snarl.
Kathleen’s pupils darken, feeding from my channelled fury. I don’t intimidate her. It’s admirable, she’s got guts. Like Isabella. Brazenly she places a hand between my legs, smirking.
“Seems I’ve succeeded, soldier”, she taunts.
She’s all searching lips and determined desire as she slides down my body and quickly rids me of my belt, loosening my pants. I feel the pull of her mouth and lean forward, hands against the wall. I let her go on but it’s not Kathleen I’m imagining. My temper and envy churn together inside like an unforgiving tornado, raging to release. Her teeth graze me. I breathe in sharply, caught up in the sensations.
“Damn you”, I groan after a few minutes, yanking her up.
Defiantly we hold one another’s gaze, fighting out a battle of wills like two leaders of a war to the death, but she’s found a chink in my carefully assembled armour. She unbuttons my shirt, my wrath matched by her lust, and I’m sucked into the momentum of her want. Her red acid mouth hovers alluringly. I’m heady as her breath tantalises me, her tongue coming out to brush my lip before she takes it between her teeth. I move to kiss her, but she shoves me back, reaching up to brush her straps over her shoulders. The material glides effortlessly off, noiselessly pooling around her feet.
How mesmerising would Isabella be like this; ready to be mine until we were one as we were in so many other ways back then. Isabella completed me. Without her I was merely fragmented pieces that couldn’t be remade whole.
Kathleen thinks she’s in control and I need this selfish indulgence. She pushes me onto the bed, pulling my clothes off before straddling me. The heat of her body covers me as she throws her hair back, regarding me sardonically. She’s not naive and I despise my weakness. I can’t stand that she doesn’t mind I’m using her. We’re using each other. My fingers expertly turn her into an insatiable melting mass as she writhes around, craving gratification. I flip her off, pinning her beneath me.
“Weren’t expecting that, were you?”
She smiles but I grab her wrists tighter.
“Let’s get one thing straight”.
She raises her eyebrows at me amusedly.
“This isn’t going your way, okay?”
She glances up, not seeking gentleness or love, just the primal meeting of two bodies with one shared need. I liked the uncomplicatedness. I couldn’t give her those things had I wanted to. Kathleen rests her head on my pillow, dark locks streaming out in a silken halo and I burn inside. I reach for my bedside drawer. I used to want children.
“Don’t worry about that”, Kathleen says flatly.
“What?” I reply off-guard, distracted.
“I can’t have any”.
“It’s not that I’m worried about”, I counter dryly, methodically preparing.
I want this aloneness to leave me, forget myself in lust and get away from my constant dissatisfaction. I finish quickly, ignorant to her fulfilment, before wordlessly going to shower. When I return, she’s wrapped in my sheets, smoking, looking at me as if trying to read my mind. I’m disappointed and annoyed. It was cheap, meaningless and regrettable. I give a short cynical snigger, replenish a glass and take a mouthful.
Kathleen watches me steadily. “It’s rude not to offer. It’s the least I deserve”.
My pride isn’t dented and I oblige. I’m impressed as she knocks back the contents unflinchingly and gestures for a refill.
It should say that on my headstone – ‘He was sorry’.
“Forget it, soldier. We’re not so different”.
We sit in silence – me mulling over the finality of Mrs. Isabella Monroe and Kathleen chain-smoking until the room is filled with a thin sheen of cloudy smoke through which we don’t even try to look at one another.
“Better than having nobody to hurt over”, Kathleen says eventually.
Had I been willing to be insightful or considerate, or even able to engage sensitively, I’d have understood she was reaching out. Instead I shrug and raise my glass in a scornful salute.
“To Isabella Monroe”, I say with forced sincerity but I’m under the influence now so it comes out a drunken, bitter yell, “-and her blue-eyed babies”.
Before Kathleen’s glass can clink against mine, my door knocks again. I moan exasperatedly, waving my hand dismissively in the air.
“I’ll get rid of them”, she offers, pulling my discarded shirt on around her.
I decide I don’t like it; it seems too personal and inappropriate.
“Fuck off!” I yell, more through annoyance at Kathleen than at the unwelcome visitor.
Kathleen grins obliviously.
“Have another drink, handsome”.
I don’t need to be told twice and storm tipsily to the cupboard. Not bothering with the glass, I open the bottle and raise it to my lips.
“Isabella Monroe!” I shout again, hating the name, hating that she wasn’t mine and how much it hurt. My world feels as black as the night outside and as damaged as a burnt out shell.
“Hey, soldier?” calls Kathleen.
There’s a trace of an edge in her voice and the back of my neck prickles. I hear footsteps behind me and the scent of faint jasmine reaches my nose. It’s just as I remembered but I can’t trust my reliance in my senses, dulled with cheap whisky. I’m scared to endure the cruel disappointment that it may be a figment of my imagination. The footfall halts and a surreal feeling passes through me. Anticipation engulfs me like a harsh taunt.
Slowly I turn, and there she is, here standing in front of me – more beautiful than any of my reminiscing had given justice to. Through my inebriated haze, I see the heartbreak I’ve carried in her expression. We lock eyes for a long moment. When I finally hear her voice, it’s laced with intertwined ice and fire.
“It’s Isabella Devereux, actually”.
C. T. Kingston
My name is Dionysus and I’m an alcoholic.
I’ve been sober … um … like three weeks and three days now? I think that’s the score … To be honest I can’t remember much of last night.
I’m kidding! Jesus, keep your hair on, it was a joke. We’re not allowed to have a sense of humour in here, or what?
OK, I’ll keep it “appropriate” Sorry. Sorry bout that, I didn’t mean to offend people. I know it’s hard. Harder than fuckin Chinese algebra. What? How is that racist?! It’s an expression, a common expression, you never heard that? Hey, Chinese algebra isfuckin hard. You ever tried to do algebra in Chinese? No? Then you shut up. Racist.
Sorry, sure, the swearing. I’ll cut it out. And the shouting, yeah, I’ll keep it down. My bad.
You know there’s a winemaking class next door? Did you all know that? I didn’t. Just saw the sign when I came in today cos they had to switch rooms. I nearly turned right instead a left, believe me!
No, but I didn’t, and that’s a victory, you’re right. I’m taking it one day at a time. Thanks for reminding me, yeah. I just mentioned it cos it seemed kinda funny. Who would programme that, you know? AA in one room, ooh, let’s put a winemaking class right opposite on the same night! Like they’re laughing at us, right? Daring us or something?
Seriously, am I the only person thinks that’s weird? Ok, whatever, moving on. Yeah, three and a half weeks sober. Snaps for me.
How am I feeling? Um.
Well, I’m feeling … OK. I mean, I don’t have the DTs no more, and that’s definitely a good thing, but then I didn’t have the DTs when I was drinking and I felt a hell of a lot better than I do now. I know it’s an illusion caused by alcohol, yeah, but I kind of liked the illusion. I’m … OK is the best I can say about how I feel right now, to be totally honest.
Things is, it’s not like they say it is, you know? It just ain’t. You hear all this shit from people who’ve gone dry, like quitting the booze is the fast track to fuckin eternal life, (not that that’s my problem) and they’re all like, oh I have so much energy now, and my skin’s started to glow, and I have a permanent boner that’s harder than Chinese algebra and all that bullshit. (Yeah, sorry about the algebra thing, I couldn’t not, you know?)
But it’s just not like that – not for me anyhow. You know something? I miss drinking. Sue me. I’m telling it like it is. Not drinking fuckin sucks, man! I miss it! I’ve been drinking since I can remember, it’s like losing a limb or some shit. How can I not miss it? Answer me that, how can I pretend like I don’t give a shit when my fuckin leg’s been cut off?
What exactly do I miss? That’s a trick question, right? I miss the alcohol. I miss wine and beer and whisky and lager and ale and vodka and gin and tequila and rum and champagne and fuckin liqueur chocolates, can you believe we can’t have them, and white wine sauce on my fish, can you believe that? Like I’m gonna get blasted on fuckin fish sauce. I miss it real bad, all of it. The dive bars and the Irish pubs and the wine bars and the cocktail bars. The beer gardens and the beer tents and the keg parties and the cocktail parties and the wine and cheese parties. Do you know how much a part of life booze is?
Yeah, stupid question, I’m sorry. I guess we all do, right? That’s why it’s so hard to quit. But booze – I am not exaggerating here – booze was my life. It was my raison d’etre. It was my whole fuckin purpose and that is a very difficult thing to abandon, my friends, especially after doing it as long as I have.
Thing is, you say you understand, you say you do, and yet I have a nasty feeling (over and above the natural paranoia of sobriety, I mean) that in fact you bunch of ex-soaks and quitaholics sitting in a badly-painted community hall on a Wednesday night do not have the slightest fuckin clue.
I told you my name upfront, right? I did mention that. Dionysus? No? Not ringin any bells?
Sure, you can call me Donny if it’s easier. Why the fuck not, I been called plenty of things in my time. Eleutherios, Sabazios, Enorches, Bacchus … still nothing, huh? No such thing as a classical education no more, I guess.
No, I never wanted to quit drinking, where’d you get that idea? Who the fuck wants to quit? I was … not bullied into it so much, but pressure was brought to bear.
The usual. My mom, my dad, my wife. My dad – well, he was a pretty wild guy in his youth, screwing and partying all over, drinkin it by the amphora, stickin it in anything that moved, so he couldn’t exactly take the moral high ground with me, if you know what I mean. (I got six half-brothers and sisters. Six, all by different moms! Beat that!)
But, you know, he sat me down, man to man. Said that in the past it was all very well, chaos and drunkenness and orgies, maenads and satyrs and sacrifices and party, party, party, but now we all had to live in the real world, and that world doesn’t regard alcohol the same way any more. I wanted to punch the old hypocrite, believe me, but I held back. I thought hey, you know what, my old man’s right. I can’t keep on going the way I been going because fuck, look around Dionysus, wake up and smell the coffee, the coffee, you know, not the wine, the ouzo or whatever the fuck else – the world has moved on, buddy, and if you don’t change your ways you’ll be left behind.
He also laid a bunch of guilt on me because my aunt Hestia made room for me in the family business, she kind of resigned so I could get promoted, and the undertone was, basically, that if I didn’t shape up I’d have to ship out and that, you know, is like the last thing I need, especially with Ariadne riding me day and night.
So yeah, a little pressure. From every direction except one. That’s what hurts most, you know. That’s who I miss most too. I feel like I betrayed him. Fuck that, I did betray him. Let’s not beat about the fuckin bush here. I screwed him over, my best friend. I lied to him, through my teeth, in his face and I feel like shit about it. We never had any secrets from each other, me and Silenus. I know he’s a drunk, sure I do, but he’s my buddy too, and I miss him.
I never told him I was comin here, you know. Not that I thought he wouldn’t support me – though yeah, OK, that would be a long shot. I never told him because I felt like that meant I wasn’t supporting him any more. You’ve all had drinking buddies, right? Right. Those guys, you know, that’s a special kind of relationship. You seen each other at your worst and lowest and craziest and you still don’t run away screaming. What the fuck’s that about, right? But you know, it’s a bond. You can always rely on your buddy. Your buddy’s always there for you. He’ll always stand you a drink, give you a place to crash, make bail for you … well, you know the score. Some people got lotsa drinking buddies. Hell, I used to be one of them. But you know, the world turns and times change and all of a sudden it’s orange juice at weddings and you only got one buddy who drinks left, let alone one drinking buddy.
He was more my dad than my dad, Silenus. He’s kinda like … you seen photos of Charles Bukowski, the poet? (Boy, was he some fun). Silenus, he looks a little like Chuck. Better looking, obviously; he has that whole silver fox thing going on; not too much of a beer belly either, more of a late-period Elvis kinda heaviness; a great guy. Like, you know, that guy in Shakespeare, Sir John Falstaff. No? I forgot, the education system here … Loyalest friend in the world, I mean. A really stand-up motherfuckin guy. He’d sell his kidney for a pal, not that anyone would want it, and I was his friend – his only friend who still drank any more, and I couldn’t do that to him.
What did I do? I lied is what I fuckin did. Like a coward. Like a little bitch. I spun him some bullshit about avoiding hangovers by switching from beer to clear spirits, and I just drank nothing but soda water or Coke. I had an arrangement with the landlord at the Bunch of Grapes our favourite dive: he filled an old vodka bottle with water and he’d pour from that whenever I asked for a double vodka tonic, vodka coke, on the rocks or whatever. I’d sit there drinking, Silenus with his red wine or Bud or whatever, me with my watered-down water, and I’d pretend to get drunk. Nearly convinced myself a few times. We’d go out on the town, hit the bars, me always on the vodka-orange, vodka-lime, vodka-ginger. I’d give the barman a wad of cash then whisper when Silenus’s back was turned to keep them coming, but hold the vodka for mine.
Sure, I felt like shit. You don’t lie to a friend and feel OK about it, not if you’re any kind of a man. But then nor do you lie to a friend if you’re not a little coward pussy bitch like me.
I’m sorry, you’re right. That kind of language is misogynistic. I guess I’m more of a coward dick asshole anyway.
When did he realise? Oh, after a few weeks, the worst way: I didn’t tell him, he found out. I thought I could get away with it, I really did. Hide the shakes and the sweats, hold myself back, grit my teeth and sit through the twenty-four-hour drunks, the mad benders we went on every other night. It wasn’t the not drinking that really fucked with my head, those weeks: it was the not telling him.
It was morning, just about. Six am, seven, maybe. We were back at the Grapes, walked all the way down from 110th Street. Man, did my feet hurt. We kept bangin on the door till Zorba opened up; we knew he lived above the shop, we knew if we made enough noise he’d let us in, and give us a hair of the dog, let us sleep on the couches till he opened for real around 11.
No, Zorba wasn’t his real name. We just called him that cos he was a Greek.
So he comes down, he sees it’s us, he opens up. Wine for Silenus, vodka rocks for me. I swear I never drank so much water in my life. My skin got real clear that month. Anyway, I’m sipping away like it’s the real deal, ask Zorba for a top-up, big boozing man that I was. He slops a shot into my glass when Silenus grabs the bottle off him.
“I could do with some mouthwash,” he says, and winks at me. I just stare in horror as I see what he’s gonna do. He raises the bottle to his lips. He sucks on the speed-pour tube. He musta swallowed about a half-pint of pure chilled Poland Spring. His eyes bulge. He starts to cough. He splutters it out, all over the bar. Water, nothing but water.
He looks at me. He knows, but he doesn’t know why. Why I quit, why I lied. He don’t know me no more. I’ll never forget that look he gave me. I miss him. I miss him like hell.
You know what’s the worst thing about not drinking? The boredom. That’s how I’m feeling. That’s the word I wanted before. I’m sober, I’m sad, I’m lonely as fuck, sure, but most of all I am bored. Bored out my fuckin skull, staring down the barrel of juice and soda for the rest of my goddam life. And don’t pretend you don’t all feel that way too, cos I know for a fact you do. Bored, bored bored.
One day at time, I know. It’s hard though. Man is it hard. But I’m tryin. I’m tryin. One drink at a time.
The official definition in the dictionary for ‘story’ is:
An account or recital of an event or a series of events, either true or fictitious, as:
- a. An account or report regarding the facts of an event or group of events
- b. An anecdote
- c. A lie
With this in mind, the author has chosen to comply with definition A. This story takes place with real people. Two ‘characters’. As this story is real, the names of the characters will change for identity purposes. This story is not ‘a boy overcomes his troubles to get the girl’, ‘a girl winning the heart of a boy’, ‘the boy winning the heart of a girl’…In short, it is not a romantic formulaic plot heard so many times before. It is simply a chance, a coincidental collision of two lives, completely different to each other, in parallel yet disjointed directions. In this case, she is called Virginia. His name is Arcadius. No epilogue is included.
Arcadius and Virginia meet within a convoluted narrative structure. His head is a black hole, completely vacuumed of feeling, hers, a mixture of apprehension for the future and nostalgia for her past self. The story will take place called ‘Somewhere’. A coffee shop. (No brands remember, brands signify familiarity.)
Bring me summer back
Bring me the sun back
Bring me the dawn over Paris back
As hopeful dusk burned into the early brims of night, Virginia realised she had already walked away the afternoon. This was a successful day. Wasting time was one of Virginia’s greatest accomplishments. She noticed the coffee shop, and as part of her daily routine, she walked inside, a man in front of her was wearing a shirt that said, ‘Eternal destiny depends on intelligence’.
What did that even mean? Why did people have those sayings on shirts? Did they think they were more cultured to the people who didn’t wear those pointless shirts with quotes on? It both irritated and confused Virginia.
Eternal destiny depends on intelligence.
Does fate depend on coincidence? That’s what I often ask myself. They’re the same thing in disguise.
I remember when I sent her letters and she never answered in the order I wanted her to. It was like she was there when I wasn’t.
I remember my dad always kept saying “be one of life’s good guys, the ones that no one has a problem with” it was the third time he said that with my mum crying in the corner I knew I couldn’t and wouldn’t change.
I remember a song that I barely remember the words to. It’s the tune. It’s always the tune.
Bring me summer back
Bring me the sun back
Bring me the dawn over Paris back
I sent her letters. I sent her thirty five letters and she replied in all the wrong order.
Bring me the dawn over Paris back
In obituaries why don’t they say the truth? That the person had flaws, why do they always talk about someone in such fake and false terms? Arcadius, I think to myself, stop being like this.
‘My thoughts are with her family who…’
As I got my coffee, I couldn’t help but think at least inevitability had a sense of irony. All these phrases appear in my head that don’t mean anything. I remember what I said in each and every one of those letters. Hot grimy coffee take my memories away. I realise that I’ve just been thinking about me, about whatever’s happened and I’m here – alive – here. I’m here.
Virginia’s mind sauntered back to her movements and as she was choosing a place to sit, someone was standing in front of her, in her way, lost in reality.
Boy: Oh. Sorry. Oh. Hi. Um.
Girl: Can I just sit
Girl: Hi. Sorry I
Boy: Don’t know me? I was in your
Girl: year! You were in my
Boy: Yeah. Same year. Class too.
Girl: Sorry I don’t wear my glasses a lot, rubbish memory too
Boy: Oh that’s fine I
Girl: I’m not waiting for anyone
Boy: Oh right
Girl: You can you know sit
Boy: Oh that’s fine I’ll just
Girl: You going to sit over there?
Boy: Yeah I was planning to read
Girl: Read what?
Boy: A book
Girl: Oh, what’s your name again?
As this conversations becomes less static, the two characters finally begin to talk with each other. Whether anything becomes more, it is uncertain, for even the author doesn’t know. The more the story unravels, the more reality melds with imagination.
As these two characters continue talking in a corner, the man with the shirt that confused Virginia asks for another coffee. He quietly mumbles to himself. His idiosyncrasies are visible to everyone.
Eternal destiny depends on Intelligence
His own eyes are afar – he thinks in a sea of his own thoughts. The nameless man thinks nameless thoughts. He remembers the one time where he met a girl at this very coffee shop where life granted him an opportunity. He could have been anything. A writer, an artist, a poet. Endless. He slowly stands up, he’s been writing something on a scrap piece of paper, he hides it by stuffing it underneath his seat. He leaves but not before his mind takes him to another hazy memory.
There was once a man who wanted to kill himself. He went to the local beach, but before completing the act, he saw a group of teenagers. What were they doing at the beach at five o clock in the morning? He noticed the comparisons with them and him – they were in shirts and jeans, he was in his best suit because after all, who’d better be best dressed for than Death itself? He walked over to them, gave them two hundred pounds, his watch, his wallet and his shoes. They all stared back at him. He was about to cry – a grown man – in front of these teenagers who he’d never seen before. Their paths would have never crossed if his own actions hadn’t led him here. After the initial shocked silence, the teenagers started to talk to him. They asked him where he came from, what was his name, why he wanted to do this. Then one of the teenagers simply said
“Living – that’s the best thing you can do”
The man looked at that teenager. A moment of silent peace. He asked for his things back bar the two hundred pounds. He put on his shoes, the laces frayed at the ends, the shine gone, it had been polished too roughly. They were good shoes though, brogues to be exact. They’d been with him a long time. He tried to recall where he bought them from. As he walked in these shoes, not yet tattered, back home, he realised that today was not the day he’d kill himself, not tomorrow either.
A song started to play in the coffee shop. The door swung shut in time with the first note sung. It was a relatively unknown song, the mellow voice crooning the words and tune that seemed so familiar to Arcadius.
Bring me summer back
Bring me the sun back
Bring me the dawn over Paris back
Something changed in Arcadius. He stopped talking mid sentence to Vriginia.
“I have to go” he mumbled, barely looking at her and left.
Virginia was not surprised. Something was telling her that this was only meant to a one time thing, that she wouldn’t be able to read anything into it or reflect. It was at this time when the barista told her to kindly leave as they were closing for the day. Virginia complied and left the coffee shop, one of many customers who had left that day. What was so special about this day – she couldn’t shake off the feeling that there was something else out there.
She noticed a homeless person in front of her, a child and her mother.
“Spare change?” A rasping voice asked.
The mother began to walk off but the child looked at the homeless man. She stopped. She felt around her pockets and all she had to give was a chocolate bar. She gave it to him before her mother called out her name.
“God bless you child”
His hand outreached for hers. The child was no longer there.
As the barista started clearing up in the coffee shop, the paper cups, some still holding that precious coffee, the abandoned trays, she started to arrange the seating to mop the floor. It was the final task of day and then she could go home. But before that she checked all the seats as people always dropped change.
As she put her hand underneath one of the armchairs, a paper rustled. She slipped it out and read it. The writing was slanted as if it had been written in a rush and as she tried to remember who sat here, she found it hopeless because all the faces that she served blurred into one.
She read the piece of paper again before putting it in her pocket.
Living – that’s the best thing you can do.
The curtains are closed and so are her eyes. A dainty, but not beautiful girl lies on the sheets with the duvet covering her from her toes to her chin. After several nights the bed sheets still seemed well ironed. There are no creases, no playful wrinkles. She rarely sleeps and when she does she doesn’t fidget. She no longer has dreams and her thoughts are slow. She lies on her back with her arms by her side. She isn’t dead, she’s breathing; but the corpse like figure mirrors the new artificial structure of her mind. The recent prescriptions of antipsychotic drugs seem to be having an effect.
I am the voice inside her head. As a result of the daily dose of clozapine, I’m quieter now.
She tickles the tomato ketchup with her tongue. She scoffs her bagel. She remembers how to chew. As she gulps, her Mother pretends not to watch. There’s an interaction of gesture between the two female Farrens as Rosanna gives her the almost finished breakfast plate. Her mother smiles a smile more than a smile. However an embrace would be too much.
As Rosanna bathes and cleanses herself in the feeling of ease, I struggle to catch a breath. Before the combination of medication and therapy, I would be greedily feasting on Rosanna’s remaining sanity. But recently she has stolen my piggish appetite. I’m not hungry.
Art class begins at 9.30am. The Farren household floods with normality as her Mother holds the front door slightly open with one hand – keys, handbag and sunglasses collide in her other hand. Then, by glancing to see that the time is approaching 9, and encouraged by the chilly breeze sneaking through the gap, she calls to see if Rosanna is almost ready to go. The underweight, ill, smiling girl hurries down the stairs and they leave the house.
At 9.30am Rosanna’s therapy begins. It’s a square room. Perfectly square. It’s on the third floor of what used to be the old Grammar school. The laminate flooring detracts from the beauty of the high ceiling and rusty beams. I don’t like this room. But if Rosanna had the choice, she would never leave. The bodies in the room are scratching canvases and flicking through sketchbooks. Human hands are violently or delicately drawing; yet the room has the power to feel still and quiet. Penny controls this power as she paces, white wall to white wall in a close to silent fashion. Her ballet-style pumps kiss the cheap flooring as she monitors each character’s work. She doesn’t stand too close. However Rosanna secretly wishes she would lean in closer and her dopamine levels seem to regulate when Penny is near. ‘Look at my painting. Tell me it’s good’ Rosanna thought to herself.
In this room there are nine people (ten including Penny). Boys and girls, men and women. They range from a sixteen year old girl to a sixty-one year old man. The room shelters these nine people, Penny, sketchbooks and paintings, and the voices inside their heads.
Therapy, for Rosanna, means clearer cognitions. However for me it means casting fewer persecutory delusions. I fear that today, during therapy, I won’t cast any at all. Her growing strength means I exist glumly in her hippocampus. Perhaps I shall glide through her frontal and temporal lobes. But for what? Her recent artificial brain structure means I have no purpose. Now, all that is apparent to me is the desire to withdraw and insert thoughts into Rosanna’s conscious mind but uncomfortably know that this want and need cannot be fulfilled. The 300mg daily dose of clozapine and the Cognitive Behavioural Therapy strive together to control her misfiring dopaminergic neurons. A teamwork, a bond between herself and the clozapine is formed as they sooth the misfiring dopamine, and teach the receptors to pretend to be normal. The therapy alone won’t completely eliminate the hallucinations and paranoid delusions. It is a combination of both therapy and drugs that is necessary. Her sense of normality depends on it.
White, red and blue – Rosanna particularly enjoys mixing the colours. The lilac acrylic dribbles onto her blank background. Her scrawny, blotchy hand strokes the canvas and the delicate movement from her shoulder blade to the tip of the bristles creates yoga like breaths. Her flaky skin absorbs some of the acrylic blood and she’s made a bit of a mess on her light pink blouse. The seventeen year old inspects the rapidly crusting paint that has flicked onto the cotton. She tries to scratch it off but that only creates a purple that is more intense. Soon her eyes move away from her invisible breasts as she dreamily stares at her painting once more. She’s in a trance of bliss. Penny hums a whisper to announce that there are only ten minutes of the class remaining.
Rosanna’s Mother is leant on the car at the gates of the Grammar school as lurking outside the art room would be rather patronising for her daughter, especially when she is doing so well. Her Mother smiles. “Did you have a good morning?” Only silence responds and they both climb into the Nissan and drive into Tuesday afternoon. Until 11.22am the only voice that could be heard was a lunchtime Radio 2 presenter. At 11.23am Rosanna says, “I painted Bobby.” “That’s lovely Rosanna. Were you in the picture too?”
It was a long drive. Too long a drive for a normal family to drive their daughter to horse riding lessons. But the advice from Dr Burton’s Practice leads them to Greenthorpe Stables which is beyond the outskirts of town. Rosanna is quiet but her two faced dopamine receptors will not rest as they continue to indulge and feast on false normality. I sink into her suffocating frontal lobe as she and her Mother greet Jo. Jo is a could-be-pretty lady, perhaps turning forty. She has a familiar smile and a loud voice but always looks rather tired. Her son suffers from Bipolar disorder, which is why, I believe, she dismounted from her predictable livery business and took on Greenthorpe Stables with the financial and educational help of Dr Burton. The influence of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is apparent in her teaching and seems to have a great success rate with patients such as Rosanna.
Bobby is waiting. A 14.2 dappled grey chomps on his bit and rests his right hind leg. His stable smells of haylage and saddle soap. Treated like a prince, he’s not like a horse at a normal Riding School, but he gives the impression that he is owned by a little girl who takes great pride in his appearance. A silky dappled pattern, combed mane, a freshly washed tail, bright eyes and a velvety muzzle so velvety, you have to touch it again. This is all because of Jo. Fourteen horses and ponies that are stabled at Greenthorpe are treated with true compassion and beauty. This compassion triggers Rosanna’s unconscious mind: The feeling of closeness with Bobby and the feeling of understanding with Penny and Jo.
Rosanna fastens her hat strap and adjusts the stirrup length whilst her Mother sits in the car with the heating on full, reading Woman’s Weekly – horse hair gives her a runny nose.
Rosanna has ridden Bobby for twelve consecutive weeks now, and although there are other horses she could ride, part of Jo’s structure of learning (influenced by Dr Burton) is heavily focused on creating a bond. This bond strikes once more as Rosanna greets the beautiful, trustworthy creature in the stable and then leads him out into the outdoor arena. Jo walks close by. The lesson begins with groundwork as they wander the arena with great purpose on foot. Here they focus on body language – the unthreatening kind that will create this special bond. Breathing techniques are used too. As she breaths I don’t disturb her.
Mrs Farren inks her savings onto a piece of paper as she writes the weekly cheque of fifty pounds, made out to Josephine MacCallum. The car stinks of horse and damp straw; her Mother reaches for a Kleenex. Rosanna sits quietly and she is content. How tiring this is. Her what seems to be never-ending normality is still apparent, making her painfully caress me in her foreign hippocampus.
She’s naked in the bath. Rosanna soaks her ugly skin as her Mum puts the horsey clothes in the wash and makes a start on the evening meal. The lavender bath salts mimic the work of the clozapine – hiding the embarrassing, the unwanted, and creating something more pleasurable. Disguising the stench. Rosanna is deaf to my shrieks and completely unaware of my current cognitions. As she has forgotten me, I bathe in her low levels of glutamate receptors and cuddle her vessels, trying to distract myself from the discomfort of the healthy dopamine that haunts me. Rosanna is now clean; she gets out of the bath. She is still deaf and ugly.
Recent improvements in behaviour have urged her Consultant, Doctor Jarvis to lower her clozapine dosage in order to give her the minimum whilst still keeping behaviour under control. The room smells of hand sanitizer and the light is yellow. The room has barely changed since she first started seeing Doctor Jarvis seven years ago. The desk that separates them is the same. The navy, bristly carpet is the same. The indoor plant, presumably new, is in the same place and the soil, like she always remembers, is dry. Jarvis isn’t surprised that there are noticeable improvements in Rosanna’s behaviour and wellbeing. By monitoring Rosanna’s condition it is found that she suffers more from positive symptoms such as: hallucinations and hearing voices. She doesn’t seem to suffer from negative symptoms such as: an ability to experience pleasure, because in previous consultations she has expressed a strong liking for art and horse riding. Positive symptoms generally respond well to medication and over the last few months, Rosanna supports this theory by demonstrating an improvement and portraying a sense of normality.
The conversation between Jarvis and Rosanna is factual. Symptoms are discussed and an agreement on a lower dosage is made. Its six weeks until the next appointment where they will review the behaviour and emotion at 240mg.
She follows the Doctor’s orders and over the weeks the lower dose makes Rosanna more uncomfortable but gives me strength. This dose has less control over misfiring dopaminergic neurons and her speech and thinking once again becomes disorganised. She is either very lethargic or suddenly in a fret of panic. Sometimes I create auditory hallucinations at night.
Last night she didn’t sleep, nor did she come down for breakfast. At 11.40am she enters the kitchen and her Mother quickly shuts the cupboard door then immediately acts nonchalant.
“Want any toast?”
Rosanna ignores her and pours herself a glass of water. She knows that her Mother had been looking at something in the cereal/pills cupboard. The fact that her Mother has a gluten intolerance lead Rosanna to believe that she was looking at the clozapine medication. She hoped that was the case. She hoped that she was reading the list of side effects and she hoped that she was worried. Rosanna pours herself another glass of water. Her mother adds cornflakes to the shopping list.
By week five of the lowered dose experiment I was speaking to Rosanna more frequently. She fears that her thoughts are being broadcast and she believes that harm is going to occur. The hair that is unhygienic and dull – neither blonde nor brown is spread over her pillow. There are knots and clumps of god knows what. The hair grows from a flaky scalp. That flaky scalp stretches over Rosanna’s skull. That skull protects an active schizophrenic mind.
My harsh, energetic storm through her frontal lobes makes her become fidgety. Her skin is clammy. Her cold, damp back sticks to the sheets underneath her making her physically more uncomfortable. My shrieks become louder, more deafening; but some of the whispers are clearer and louder than the screams. I spread voices throughout her mind and the sound viciously travels through disturbed pathways. She kicks off her duvet and sheets and she wriggles in her bed and she clenches the mattress. She starts to cry. Her crying is loud and tears rush over her sweaty face.
Doctor Jarvis increases the dose. He increases it to more than what caused previous success. At the dispensary Rosanna collects a prescription of 360mg and it will return to 340, 320, 300mg once the severe symptoms have settled. Rosanna queues at the dispensary and collects her normality that’s in a white paper bag. Her Mother is waiting outside in the car.
There are fast improvements and slow brain processes.
Her hair is thin and dull but not dirty. I’m talking to her less frequently and this morning I find I can’t say anything at all. All that Rosanna can hear is the sound of the kettle boiling and her pencil scratching as she does further work in her sketchbook for therapy today.
“Want any toast?”
Rosanna waited at the table as her Mother rummaged in the bread bin and operated the toaster. “I’m looking forward to showing Penny this drawing of Bobby in the field.”
“Aww good. Do you want jam or just butter?”
“I really hope she likes it.”
Two sessions of therapy, both the art lesson and the horse riding always make Rosanna tired on a Tuesday evening. She yawns on the sofa downstairs.
“Why don’t you go up to bed, hun?”
The curtains are closed and so are her eyes. A dainty, but not beautiful girl lies on the sheets with the duvet covering her from her toes to her chin. After several nights the bed sheets still seemed well ironed. There are no creases, no playful wrinkles. She rarely sleeps and when she does she doesn’t fidget. She no longer has dreams and her thoughts are slow. She lies on her back with her arms by her side. She isn’t dead, she’s breathing; but the corpse like figure mirrors the new artificial structure of her mind. The recent prescriptions of antipsychotic drugs seem to be having an effect.
I let her sleep.
The Property Line
In our part of the country, the fences are covered with large, rusted barbs and stretch for miles. They extend like veins across the whole of North Texas. This is partly the product of a leftover law from the cattle-driving era, and partly a product of our “ain’t broke, don’t fix mentality.” You couldn’t drive cattle across fenced-in property, and if you did, you were liable to get shot by the landowner. Not much has changed; all along the fences are the private property signs. “Private Property: Keep Off.” “Trespassers Will Be Prosecuted SHOT.” Sometimes I think they made these fences for kids like me.
At night we run the full length of your property, down from the steady orange glow of your porch light, down to the ditch by the woods where after sunset it gets so dark you can’t see my arms folding around your shoulders. Down by the creek bed where the two lengths of barbed wire are strung so taut they nearly snap me. Tonight, as your mom returns from a date with her boyfriend, while your stepdad stayed in to watch the kids, I learn about the strength of fences.
Solomon said a cord of three strands is not easily broken. Perhaps the proverb guided Joseph Glidden. His fence was the first they employed to keep cattle in, and it’s been used ever since to keep all kinds of animals out. If I knew his name tonight, I would curse it as the headlights of your mother’s car suddenly break the blanket of darkness. I take off towards the property line.
Perhaps the grass is really greener there across the way, but in the dark it all looks black. I know the creek will be coming soon. Then the poison sumac. Then the tuft of mesquite thorns that your neighbors cleared out of their backyard and deposited in the wood line. I never see the razor sharp wire, those signs of the dairy-farm era of the property before it was split. In that thick blackness, I never see the creeping metal vines here and there grown over by the wild blackberry bushes. I don’t realize my error until the steel thorns with their orange and brown edges have sunk in and caused me to flip headfirst and fall, a frightened animal springing from its boundaries. I don’t feel the warm blood gathering at my waistline or the wind blowing through the fresh holes in my shirt until I see the red lights flutter and hear your mother’s voice yelling that if I come back she’ll be waiting. Here by the creek bed that’s long been dry, I wait until she goes inside to find a safe place to cross back over.
When it rains in the sullen early spring, little streams form all down the length of your driveway. Meanwhile, across the two acres that lie between your single-wide and your landlord’s house winds a white, concrete driveway. We walked it once, when we thought he was away, but he came outside and threatened to call the police if he caught us on his property again. Little rivers also form down the sandy, built-up sides of his concrete driveway when the rains come.
His red and yellow house was built with bricks from the old Warren brickyard. In 1936, 35 workers including a Mexican and two Negroes, went on strike for better wages and shorter hours. This strike ended when the owner of the yard gathered 35 hoods and burned a cross out front of the union boss’s house. The Mexican kept a shotgun propped by his front door from then on. The two Negroes directly left town with their families.
In June, your stepfather calls me to help him with more of his projects around the house. He says I’m strong for 17. Your mother is always away when he calls, which suits both of us well. Here and there, along the driveway, we dump and compact sand. In each of the potholes, we drop three shovels full of the coarse, brown filler and then pat it with the rounded backs of our spades. By the end of the summer, you say that my hands have hardened. While I caress your cheek you tell me my palms feel like the palms of a man. From then on, you speak to me differently.
Once the sand has been compacted, your stepfather borrows my dad’s ’73 Dodge, and we drive to the brickyards and buy half a ton of loose gravel. The owner is generous and offers his 12% “friend’s” discount. When we return to the driveway, some of the mid-March showers have washed out the sand from the larger potholes, and we’re set back two days on our work.
After five days, we’ve re-lined your driveway and pulled all of the Johnson grass up by the roots. We spray the dandelions and dollar weeds with herbicide. We spray the edges of the driveway as well to keep the meandering St. Augustine grass from taking root there. To even out the surface, we drag a wide strip of iron with heavy rubber fringes on it slowly behind the truck. I follow this strip with a shovel for displacing any rocks that get jammed beneath it. Now and then you come out barefooted on the porch to watch us as we work.
That night, you and I sit out under the wide, black sky on the dry grass beside the driveway. You lay a quilt down and turn off the porch light before lying down beside me. I lie on my back, and you snuggle in close with your arms draped over my chest and your head nestled into my shoulder. I sigh and quote a line from a movie you’ve never seen. You don’t say anything, but kiss my neck.
I’ve parked my car at the end of the driveway. We walk down it together, through the thick blackness of the property line, all the way out to the cul-de-sac. There, at the end of the paved road that leads back into your neighborhood, I place my hands on your hips and draw you in. You say you have to hurry; your mother will be up soon. I reply, I understand, and kiss you quickly as I open my car door. Through the window, your face looks lonely beneath the pale yellow streetlamps, or maybe it’s my own reflection; it follows me home.
The dairy farm had outlived its use around the end of 1947, so the land was divided into five nearly equal parcels and sold. Over time, a neighborhood grew up, and houses were built where barns once stood. All but one of the properties were bought. When the final property sold, the new owner built a large brick house. At the far edge of his property, he placed a single-wide trailer house to rent.
That orange light is always on. Here, on the 4th of July, we finally turn it off and break out the bottle-rockets and the brown, bulb-shaped fireworks. Streaks of silvery blue, gold-rimmed red, green and orange, and long streaming tails of pure white whistle through the sky and shine in your hazel eyes. The ash and smoke drift off into the distance. Across the yard, your little brother and sister light up Roman candles and fire them towards each other in a mock battle. The ash from the third shot follows the wind into your sister’s eyes, and your stepfather brings around the garden hose to flush out the little black specks.
The county has issued a burn ban because of the drought. Twenty-five square miles have burned in our county alone, but here in the outskirts of town, the sheriff turns a blind eye to the fifty-some-odd people shooting miniature mortars into the night breeze.
As your family and friends enjoy hot dogs around a bonfire, I light the last bottle rockets. Your stepfather gets so drunk that he falls backwards off the cooler; his laughs ring out louder than the fiery pops. Your mother slaps him and runs inside the single-wide. The fireworks and friendly banter begin to fade.
Slowly, everyone else wanders away from your porch, some down to the creek bed, a few inside, most to their cars at the cul-de-sac beyond the driveway. This is the first time I meet you. Really meet you. There, in the fading light of the last grand finale, my hands begin to shake. Then my arms. Then my body. I don’t tell you I’m afraid, but you say, I know, it’s okay, shhh, it’s alright, do you want to kiss me? I nod but can’t respond. And all of me and all of you meet for a second; I don’t feel afraid. Then you step back, open your eyes, and smile. My heart pounds. My hands stop shaking.
It was a common habit when the corrals were built next to the barn to nail up horseshoes on the fences and above each stall for luck. Woodworking tools and branding irons were hung close by for convenience. Later on, when many of the barns and corrals of the property were torn down, the horseshoes were buried three feet down in the earth to bring luck for whatever the land was to be used for.
In the two months since your 17th birthday, I’ve helped your stepfather rebuild the old barn. He says that soon, if things work out, you’ll have a new horse. In the meantime, I begin work on the corral beside it. While digging postholes for the new fence, I hit a horseshoe and toss it aside.
That afternoon, you bring out a pitcher of sweet tea. The heat of summer has come early, and my shirt is drenched from hours of digging. I finish mixing the cement in the wheelbarrow. As you watch, I dip my spade into the thick gray mixture, and shovel six inches of cement into each post hole. When each of the thirteen posts is anchored, I plant my shovel and walk over to meet you.
As you pour the tea into two glasses, I reach out to brush back a strand of your hair. Don’t, you say, your hands are dirty. I haven’t heard that tone before. You turn and hand me a glass with a lemon slice in the bottom. You know I don’t like lemon, but I smile and drink it anyway.
Five minutes of silence wander by, and I ask if you’re feeling alright. With a simple, yep, you pick up the pitcher and head back inside. Later on, when I’m finished anchoring the posts, I walk inside to talk to your father. On the counter by the door, I see the summons and petition.
I’m 18 now. After my family and friends come over to my house, after you make a cake for me from your grandmother’s recipe, after my grandmother tells me that I’m finally a man and can no longer expect a free ride, and after the presents and questioning from my family –When will you get serious and marry that girl?– I tell them that I have to drive you home. They disperse as they say, it is getting late. We climb into the Dodge as my parents turn off the porch light to show that they’ll no longer be waiting up for me.
I drive across the warm autumn night, taking the long way past the pond whose water has sunk six feet and some-odd from last summer’s drought. We cross the railroad tracks at the end of the long country road. No one is driving tonight, but a state trooper sits just past the crest of the last hill before Exit 451, with his lights off and the lull of his car’s powerful engine whirring as we pass.
When at last we arrive at the cul-de-sac, I park the truck and cut the lights. We don’t say anything for a while, but I roll down the windows to let in the breeze. There’s a distance to your smile as you take my hand, and I wait in expectation of a final gift. Instead I’m met with a silent kiss to my neck. You lay your head against my shoulder and breathe a warm sigh.
Time passes, and my hunger grows, and I try to ignore it. I kiss you and say you’re beautiful. You tell me that you’re just not ready. I shouldn’t want that anyway. We’re not married yet. We both know it’s wrong. I reply, you’re right, and quietly curse my luck and turn back to the wheel. Your little brother and sister appear from the black cocoon at the edge of the property line and ask us if we love each other, and you tell them to go away, and I say it’s none of their business, and we lie to ourselves as well. I kiss you goodnight, and you hang a rosary up on my rear-view mirror.
The Brown Brick House
My grandmother’s first husband died in 1935 while working on a highway expansion plan that was to stretch from Waco to Dallas. When, after five days of heavy rain, what was left of the hill collapsed on him; she was sent an insurance check, which she used to cover his funeral expenses and later to build a house. The contractor she hired placed the brick order at the Warren Brickyards only to learn that they were on strike. Out of respect to her, he then drove 248 miles south to the brickyard in Brady where he stayed until the order was filled. Upon returning, he built the house for her in two weeks and thereafter weekly inquired as to its state and her satisfaction. No one was surprised when he proposed to her a year to the day after the house’s completion, though there was some murmuring when their first child was born seven months after their wedding.
February bleeds out in the waiting room where your mother and stepfather sit, hands locked, in the opposite corner. The complications that arose from one impatient life have wasted yours. I leave Parkland and drive in silence back to the brown brick house. Back to the family who waits with grim faces. Back to the silent remorse for the pieces of myself that have gone cold. I want to pray. No words pass.
My father sits silent on the couch waiting for the news he can already read in my face. My grandmother stares at the dying embers in the fireplace, her eyes distant. My mother’s eyes are red and swollen in the waning light. I place the rosary on the table. No words pass.
Along the two strands of double lanes divided by a grass median, I press the accelerator nearly to the floor. In half-curse, half-prayer I mutter a few words under my breath, something to Jesus. I look at the rosary your grandmother gave me last October that you hung with all of our hopes on my rearview mirror and that dangles there silently, chastising me for my poor discretion.
I hear my grandmother in my head, Repent! Repent! God’s kingdom draws nigh. I bite my lip and hear myself saying something to shirk responsibility. The white stripes begin to blend into a solid line on the road beside my window. In my head I reply to her, If there were something to repent of, I would, and then my stomach grows sour. I have plenty to confess. I bite my lip and keep my mouth shut.
Repent! Repent! I press the gas pedal harder, and the needle steadily rises as the February air begins to fog my windshield. I want to pray. I want to curse my own stupidity. I want to hold you. My hands begin to shake like they haven’t in a while. The tremors move through my arms and body. They grow along the way to Parkland, through the glass sliding doors, and into the sterile room where I know what’s happening and what’s happened. God’s kingdom draws nigh.
Here by the pond, I park the car. The lights reflect on the water, and the moon is just bright enough to etch out the white shale outcroppings all the way around the edges of the pond.
“Silent night, holy night,” I say as I slip my arm around your waist. We sit quietly a while before you lean across to kiss me. There’s a movement in this kiss. Our bodies stay still. I lay my backrest all the way down and brush the hair away from your eyes. You look past me now when you say, I love you.
I slide my fingers across your cheek, then down your neck to your shoulder. I trace a line down the length of your arm, across the veins of your wrist until I feel the smoothness of your left hand. I grasp it and pull you towards me. There, in the fading light of this last grand finale, your hands begin to shake as our bodies move together.
In my mind we’re running the length of your property again. Down from the steady orange glow of your porch light, down from the green, the blue, the explosions, down from the blanket on the grass beside your driveway, back down to that heavy darkness where I run full speed into the sharpest points of the fence, and all of me and all of you meet once more, where I feel the warm blood gathering at my waistline, and where I now search for a safe place to cross back over.
RULES & REGULATIONS
We are pleased to announce the first ever annual Short STORGY Competition.
The first Short STORGY Competition where readers choose the winning short story.
The period for submissions will open on 1st October 2013.
1st Prize £250
Two runner up prizes of THE WRITER’S & ARTISTS YEARBOOK
No entry fee
- Submissions for the 2013 Short STORGY Competition will be accepted from 1st October 2013
- The deadline for receipt of entries is 11.00pm November 30th 2013
HOW TO ENTER
Applicants are encouraged to submit online to firstname.lastname@example.org as early as possible before the deadline.
INSTRUCTIONS FOR ENTERING BY EMAIL
1) Type and Format the short story as per the following instructions:
- One entry per author
- Written in English
- A maximum of 5,000 words
- Font: any font, 12pt, black
- Double spaced
- Include a front page which details the title of the story and word count
2) Save as a Microsoft Word document (.doc or .docx) with the author name and story title in the file.
3) Attach the file to an email with the subject line ‘2013 STORGY Short Story Competition’.
- Entries not submitted in accordance with the Entry Instructions and Entry terms and Conditions will not be eligible for consideration
ENTRY TERMS AND CONDITIONS
1) All entries will be read by at least two (2) STORGY contributors and a shortlist of ten (10) exceptional short stories will be put forward to STORGY readers from which a winning story and two (2) runner up stories will be selected.
2) The winning award is worth £250.
1) The Award is open to all.
2) The story must not contain more than 5,000 words.
3) The entry must be submitted by the author or his/her representative.
4) Only one entry per author permitted.
5) Authors can only enter individually and not as part of a writing team.
6) The story entered must be unpublished.
7) The story submitted must be original, fictional, and entirely the author’s own work.
8) Entries are limited to stories written in English.
1) By submitting a story for the award the entrant hereby acknowledges and agrees that the winning or any other shortlisted story will be made available on the STORGY website free of any fees or royalty payments.
The STORGY Short Story Award will be looking for the best new writing and will consider all entries on the basis of quality and originality of prose and narrative voice. The Award aims to support excellence in the short story genre.
Judging of the Award will be as follows:
1) All entries will be read by STORGY contributors against the Award criterion and a longlist of ten (10) short stories will be put forward to ALL STORGY READERS for judging.
2) Shortlisted and winning writers will be contacted personally by email.
3) The voting outcome is final and no correspondence will be entered into.
We look forward to reading your Short Stories and wish you the best of luck for the first ever STORGY Short Story Competition.
Though not a prerequisite for entering the Short STORGY competition, we would appreciate it if you could ‘like’ our Facebook page and help spread the words of STORGY.