FICTION: The Wolf by Kathy Burrows

Martha May Ottley shuffles, gingerly, along the aisle of the number thirteen, slowly, in pain and through determination. She winces, willing her face not to give her away; Martha needn’t have worried though, for she was now the invisible woman. Her wary, circumspect, cat’s eyes tip toe along and around each and every seat back, as if looking for clues, before finally settling on one by the window,  towards the rear of the bus, tucked in behind the chugging, hot air heater that brings in the outside.

Martha eventually catches up with her eyes and plonks herself down on the seat, graceless. How she misses dear grace, when exactly had it left her? But of course there hadn’t been an exact moment, an afternoon when it flounced out, clean heels clattering off without her, no, nothing like that. Grace went little by little, by degrees, until it had turned tail and slunk away, without, she suspected, so much as a backwards glance. For so long it had held her on puppet strings and suspended there with effortless fluidity, she’d bounded along, held fast by its silken threads. They’d let her slide now though and without grace to hold her, she had simply sagged.

To distract her mind and nudge her perspective along to a sunnier aspect, Martha leans into the window, resting her forehead against the cold damp glass and trying to catch a glimpse of the passing houses, trees and shops. She usually enjoys the illusion of the streets whizzing by, as if she is perfectly still, at the centre of it all. But it’s no use, today; it’s like peering through clouds, and in addition to the condensation, the windows have a film of sooty black grime that Martha doesn’t fancy wiping at with her coat sleeves, so, she concludes that some fishing in her handbag is in order, in the vain hope there’ll be something lurking in the depths, cat fishing along at the bottom, that’ll be of use. This, she concedes, is unlikely. Martha is not an organised kind of a woman, therefore; anything netted will be in there by virtue of luck rather than design. Her not so deft fingers begin to rifle through the eclectic innards: lipstick, lidless; sweet, half unwrapped and sticky; earphones, hopelessly tangled, too short to reach from ear to ear; box of matches, all struck; keys, coins and bingo! Martha reels in the one lone glove and cuts herself a nice little porthole through the fogged up glass with it, in pours the world, lighting her face and warming her cockles.

As more and more of the world floods in to envelop her, she feels resolute. Now that she’s inside, looking out, even the drizzle looks good, it’s glazed the pavements and trees, outlining each detail with crisp clear lines, drawing out the colours and sealing them in, like varnish. She’d been right to come, this is a good day, a good day for goodbye’s. Not that it will be easy, despite the repetition; you spend the first half of your life collecting people, and rest of it letting them go.

Geed up by the movement of the bus, Martha comes sharply back into focus, finding herself in a much better frame of mind. She’s always liked the feeling of being on the move, of going somewhere, never could stay still for too long, it pricked at her feet and made them itch. So she had ran and ran. Or, at other times, she’d skipped along, tripping on air and elation, to him,  and there they had run together, galloping fiercely, cares abandoned to the wind, gulping down air, pushing it in through their lungs and back out into the atmosphere.

But, at the end each day, he’d always gone home, needed the footing. People do tend to need something to tether themselves to, most people, but not people like Martha. To Martha, houses were just houses, places to live, home was where the heart truly was and that could be anywhere, uncontainable by bricks and mortar. She could have taken his house down of course; her lungs had grown strong enough from all the galloping or she could have crept, low backed and stealthy, slid out one or two bricks, then simply sat back and watched it crumble. But then what? Stories, in Martha’s experience, never ended at happily ever after, only the ones in books. Besides, Martha had enjoyed being alone, not a loner, that was an entirely different animal, but she had cherished the solitude. Revelled in the freedom it allowed her, to lap at the remains of the day, turning over each morsel, as she savoured another batch of freshly caught memories, to be devoured at leisure. Even on the darker days, and there were some of those too, Martha had been glad of the chance to lick at her wounds, undisturbed.

With a jolt and a judder Martha is lurched forward five decades or so, by a sudden braking which leaves her feeling dizzy and bemused. Looking out through the window, her eyes meet up with the back of the old cotton mill, which sits all snug and abandoned at the foot of Star Gazers hill, how very beautiful the world looks, just at this moment, thinks Martha, noticing that the drizzle has cleared, to reveal an unexpectedly bright, cobalt sky. Almost there now, all she  wants is to catch a glimpse, shouldn’t even need to get off the bus if she’s timed it right, because it will be that fierce young woman, teeth bared and lips licked, astride all of life, wild and magnificent,  who will say her goodbye’s today. And there, at the cemetery gates, she will leave her forever and begin the task of lugging the bedraggled, threadbare and rattle boned edition of Martha back home, for one last time.

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Kathy Burrows is a learning support assistant by day,’ would be ‘author by night. She only rekindled her love for writing fairly recently, after returning to education around thirty years after leaving school. Kathy writes about people and what makes them tick, and is fascinated by their inner workings and belief that ordinary people are extraordinary, if one cares to look closely enough.

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