FICTION: Girl with Umbrella by Rebecca F. John

I see you first from across a street.  Your umbrella is slung over your shoulder, open, so that it frames you like an enormous black water lily.  You twist the stem between your fingers and the canopy spins, shaking off miniature marbles of rainwater which change colour as they arc to their destruction: electric blue, lilac, emerald, gone.  In the dull depths of the day, you are creating fireworks.

At your wrist, your mechanisms show briefly, the delicate turning of your cogs releasing their gentle tick tick tick.  Your gears are gold.  Otherwise, you wear a black dress, fitted at the bodice and wider in the skirt, paired with short black gloves of flowered lace.  Your bronze hair is gathered and twisted at the nape of your neck, but the loose ends fly with the wind.  Your lipstick, letter-box red, encourages strands of it to cling to your mouth.  Occasionally, you pull them away with hooked fingers and, above the cuff of your right glove, a bright peacock tattoo reveals itself, sitting in profile, its tail draped about your wrist like a piece of cobalt jewellery.

But for the movement of your hands, you stand still – a picture of perfect sorrow amongst the dancing, rain-slicked leaves, and I wonder what it is that troubles you.

Perhaps you are lonely, or frightened, or unwell.

A motorcar rumbles past and, around you, magpies burst into the air.  Today, their sapphire streaks are invisible: they are scraps of scribbled-on paper, scattered on the thick charcoal sky, their creases cracking as they whirl and eddy.

It might be leaving that makes you cry.  I took your tears to be raindrops at first – you almost succeeded in hiding them under the weather – but I have looked closer now.  I have noticed that the bag at your feet is in fact a small suitcase, leather, worn.  Perhaps this is where your next story starts, standing straight-backed beneath an umbrella in the rainy early evening, waiting on a motorbus.

This is where I’ll write you from.

I try to give you a name.  I toss letters around, arranging them in unusual orders: Cadence, Penelope, Essie, Roman.  But you refuse to fit any designation perfectly.  You are stubborn, impossible to contain.  You are the downward crash of a mid-sea wave.

A motorbus approaches, cautious and cranky in the rain.  I watch as it slows towards the single-posted stop you wait at, its workings creaking into stillness.  The doors fold open and fold shut.  You do not get on.  As it pulls away again, I meet your eye for a flinch of time and smile, but you do not smile back.  I do not think you can.  You hold your head high, ignoring the trembling of your lips.  You do not wipe at the hurt that rushes over your cheeks, carving translucent trails through your makeup.  You do not care how other people see you.  I know because when the motorcars roll by, you do not step back from the fans of dirty puddle water they spray at you: you allow them to darken your shoes, your ankles, the bottom inches of your dress.

You are not remembering it now, but there was an afternoon, two years ago, when you stood on a sun-shone winter beach and stripped right down to your clockwork, your skin goose bumped all over, because you wanted to splash about in the surf.  You did not think about the walkers who could see you, a pillar of gold and pale playfulness at the shore.  There are so few people whose good opinion you have sought.

Presently, you roll one shoulder forward and, with a click-clicking turn of your arm, begin searching something in your handbag.  It is a diary you seek.  Inside, you know, on the page reserved for December the 10th, words have been written in another’s hand.  You hold the diary close to your body, protecting it from the rain, and study the shapes the pen made – tall and jumpy and so different from your own hand.

December the 10th.  The day you gave yourself to someone else.

I am almost distracted by a rushing past, but I do not cease staring at you.  You are a curious portrait, a simple arrangement of black and pink and gold and peacock blue, made all the more fascinating perhaps by your bland city background.  You are just a girl with an umbrella, waiting, and yet you are more, you are more than every person who marches past you; every bird that air-snaps its wings; every vehicle that stutters through the streets; every building that is stacked up behind you, turning its gears in the production of music or food or life.  In a café there, a brass band shoves skittering notes against the window glass, but the sound barely blares through and you do not make the effort to hear it.  Several yards away, a boy in a cart pours coffee into tankards and shapes pancakes on a griddle, but you do not inhale the drifting scents.  You are lost to something, or someone.

And to find you, I think, I must reinvent you.  I must erase the memories tangled up in your decision to grit your teeth through the long minutes it took to needle-dot your peacock; in the ribbons of your tears; in the diary entry you read and reread, solely to see that hand again; in the old perfume, no longer worn, which still clings to the crosshatched fabric of your dress; in your own clockwork body.

A gentleman bicycles past, a small terrier held in the basket attached to his handlebars, and as you turn your head to watch him go, I get another flash of the mechanics at your joints.  They are private workings – I should not be looking.  But their particular wan gold is a shade I have never seen before.  The key that matches you must be a peculiar thing.

A second motorbus arrives and this time, with a sigh, you decide to step on.  You saunter down the aisle and, settling on a seat, drop into line with the other passengers.  By degrees, your face is made invisible to me.

Only when the vehicle moves off and I lose you completely do I notice that the clouds overhead are rising away from the city now, like so many grey balloons, and that there, on the spot where you had been standing, you have left behind you an ellipse of pavement untouched by the rain.

And then, it is as if you never existed.  You were a fleeting thing, an accident, a not-quite-honest reflection in a bookshop window.  I think that perhaps it is my fault; that I did not believe in you well enough.  I could not sustain you any more than a shadow can pin itself permanently to the world.

But you were always too much.  You began, didn’t you, on a fit of passion: too bold a pen-stroke.  There is no one who understands you.  You struggle yourself sometimes.  I am determined to try, though.  I need to know why you decided to become one of those clockwork girls.  And so I watch for you, for weeks, until eventually you reappear, sitting at a street café table, a steaming tankard of cocoa cupped in your palms.

Your dress and gloves, this time, are a deep emerald green.  It does not rain, but the clouds roll frantically and you keep a matching umbrella tucked at your feet.  Next to it, lays a bouquet of plump white roses, ribboned together.  I wonder if they were a gift.  I sit three tables across from you, beyond the pane of glass which separates the indoor and the outdoor seating, and think about what it would be like to approach you.  Impossible.  How would I introduce myself?  I could not simply offer a hand and say, “Hello, I am a writer”.  Surely you would ask for a name.

Incidentally, I have decided upon yours now.  I have christened you October – the saddest, most beautiful month.  Because that is how you look: sad and beautiful and lost.

But I promised, didn’t I, to reinvent you.  I promised to gentle your past by creating you a different future.  So let’s pretend you never knew what it was to dance alone at an unattended birthday party, or to sit by yourself and create portraits from letters for company, or to love a boy who could no longer love you back.  Let’s pretend.  Dreaming is my favourite thing to do.

I decide that your greatest hope is to become a cellist: not for an audience, perhaps, but for yourself.  You long to sit in quiet rooms and fill them with sound again.  And it is important that you have plans, ambitions.  It is time now to choose a new direction.

For weeks, I write you at home, your new cello caught by its curves between your knees, your fingers blistered and swollen and almost bleeding, your tears lessening each time you carve a new note from those catgut strings.  In the concentration, in the sounds, in the timeless hours, you begin to discover parts of yourself you had lost.  You are more than a creation.  You are a creator.  And so perhaps you do not need to be written; perhaps you can write yourself.  But I cannot stop without finishing.  You have not yet revealed to me what made you become one of those clockwork girls.  You have not yet shown me your workings.

It is deepest midwinter when I see you again, reflected in the surface of the ice-stilled lake at the city’s furthest edge.  Your dress, on this faded morning, is the colour of ripened cherries and as you lean over the water, seeking yourself, its skirts bulge like the walls of a breaking heart.  You did not leave.  You no longer carry your suitcase.  Something has persuaded you to stay.

And I think, perhaps, it is your music.  Your music and your memories.

You rode horseback here once, didn’t you, so shortly after your transformation.  That day was snow-covered, too, and your strawberry roan mare delighted in it, flicking her hooves up too high and tossing her mane and whinnying at her cold new dance partner.  You sat heavy through your aching hips, holding low to the leather saddle and letting the mare choose her own pace, her own path.  She carried you away from the lake and into the trees, to lace between the trunks until your every innovative clockwork joint hurt, but it was a hurt you welcomed.  Though they’d promised you the opposite, you could still feel: beyond the throbbing and the soreness, there was a smallest pulse of joy, buried far inside your stomach.  You and that mare were soaring.

I watch you watch yourself, mirrored in the lake.  You are abstract today.  Your features won’t fit together neatly.  Behind you, a hot air balloon climbs the sky, unwinding up its wire tether with a series of cranks and clicks.  Its skin is a melted blue globe, its shades reminiscent of your peacock tattoo.  You spare a moment to push up the cuff of your sleeve and consider the creature.  His proud stance, his eternally displayed feathers, mark reassurance – that’s why you decided to ink him to your wrist.  Your only regret is that he, like the hot air balloon, is bound.  He cannot fly away, as you have longed to.  As you have so longed to.

Overhead, a wedge of black swans arrow into their descent.  Their flapping and trumpeting call your attention away from yourself and you turn to watch them wallop onto the ice below.  You wince at each impact, dropping your face into your shoulder.  Your pale clockwork sparks.  Already, you are growing more vital.  That first day, at the bus stop, you would not have flinched at the painful smash of each plumped swan belly.  Your own pain would have muted theirs.  It is your empathy, I think, that will truly draw you back to life.

The snow begins a new downward drift and you lift your cherry umbrella to it.  The canopy pops open to catch the flakes and slide them into rain-drips and I wonder whether now is the time to introduce myself.

I could say, “I am the writer.”  And, before you had time to question me, I could tell you that I know why you are alone, that I understand the reason you stare at that same scrawled upon page of your diary, that I have felt your fear.  I was there when you folded your suitcase shut and carried it through the rain.  I was there when you first clamped your knees around your cello and stroked sound from it.  And I was there before that, too, though I want to forget it.  I was there when you first knew him, and fell into him, and during those ugliest, fathomless hours when you mourned him.  I was there from the start.

But now is not the time for introductions.  There, on the lake’s rimy bank, I think I see in you the slightest hint of tranquillity.  I hope.  I will not risk spoiling it.

At your back, the hot air balloon begins its jolting descent.  The chuntering grind of the reel is audible and I turn to watch it with you.  Minutes later, it disappears shyly behind the treeline, and the sky is empty once more but for those thunderous slate clouds that seem to roll with you.  You step along the lake’s edge and I watch as, yes, they travel along above you.  What I cannot decide is whether they are stalking you or sheltering you.

Your hands twitch and slide over your instrument’s strings faster each day.  Your skin is hardening, the joints strengthening.  Your muscle has almost forgotten the clockwork which drives you.  Music is your functioning mechanism now.  But I cannot bear to see you at home any longer, back to the open fireplace flames, eyes trained on the notation held on the music stand now that your fingers know their way.  I do not want the distraction of the ticking mantle clock, or the telephone shrilling on its cradle, or the pulled doorbell rattling.  The so many photographs of his baby face diminish you.  The flutterings and squawkings of your blue and gold true parrot are company, but not company enough.  I prefer to write you out in the world, where you can be noticed as you ought to be noticed.

I see you last on the city’s central pavilion, doubled in the lenses of my glasses.  You sit on a single wrought iron chair, your head bent to twisting your tuning pegs into accuracy.  Today, your dress is amber.  I have never seen you brighter.  Your grey eyes spark close to silver.  Your peacock tattoo gleams as your hand turns the pegs, turns the pegs, and finally, he is taking flight.  Your umbrella is propped against the pavilion railings, unneeded.  It will not rain.

I take some steps closer, to study your clockwork, but today it is invisible.  It has been fading, hasn’t it, shrinking from view.

The city sweeps around you like a gathering whirlwind.  Chugging motorcars and trundling motorbuses, people pumping bicycle pedals, dogs on jangling leads and children in hooded prams, flower sellers, coffee-cart proprietors, other musicians carrying the beaten-up cases of guitars and trumpets and double basses, whistle-blowing traffic wardens, stampeding below-ground trains, magpies and pigeons and gulls with white heads, skulking foxes too brave for the night, road sweepers and actors and all manner of dreamers.  They revolve into a monochrome streak I can find no detail in, because I am looking only at you.  There you are.  December the 10th is here again and this year you are not lost.

Three Decembers ago, you vowed never to feel again.  Three Decembers ago, you made it out without him.  Three Decembers ago, your boy wrote in your diary for the very last time: my seventh birthday.  He did not reach it.

Satisfied now that your instrument will hold its pitch, you lift your bow and, without a solitary sheet of notation to study, you begin to play.  I tread around the pavilion, waiting for the piece to finish.  This is the day for introductions.  And you must sense it, too, because the moment you set down your bow, you turn your stare on me.  I ascend the three shallow steps which surround the pavilion and stretch out my hand.

“I am the writer,” I say.

“I know,” you reply, standing to accept my hand.  “I have been hiding from you.”

“Not very well.”

“Really?”

I consider the question carefully.  This meeting is important: it will be our first and our last.  And naturally you are right.  I have looked and looked and looked at you, but there is so much I have not seen.

“Perhaps you’re right,” I concede.

“And perhaps you are,” you reply.

I shrug.  “I’m just the writer.”

“Aren’t writers supposed to uncover truths?”

I nod.  “Yes.  So why is it you’ve been hiding from me?”

You smile, and there is something apologetic about the protracted time it takes.  You retrieve your case and, crouching into your ample skirts, go about the business of packing your cello away.  You do not look at me when you next speak.

“Because I am too well acquainted with a writer,” you say.  “And writers have always been in the business of making self-portraits.”

“All of them?”

“All of them.  However hard you might try to disguise it.”

You clip your cello case shut and stand to meet me, face to face, nose to nose, iris to grey iris.  We are matched in every dimension.  Of course.

“How did you know that?” I ask.

“Because,” you answer, “I contain your most difficult secrets.  I recognise them, even amongst all this distraction.”  You wave a hand over your shoulder.  “The balloons, the traffic, the birds, the music.  This entire city.”

I spin slowly about, to ponder the view you indicate.  It is blander, somehow, in the wake of your words.  I do not want to wallow in it any longer.  It is time to go in search of the next snapshot.

“Thank you,” I say, “for making me…”  But when I turn back towards you, there is only the empty chair.  I settle in it and watch you step yourself small, your amber skirts whispering, whispering, whispering into silence.  When you are gone, I stretch and blink my eyes but they can’t find any focus.  The detail of the city has slipped ever further.  The whirlwind has wiped it clean.  There is nothing before me now but a blank grey wall, ready to be reworked, ready to be rewritten.  And you, October, will not appear on it.  You have earned your freedom.

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Rebecca F. John

Grant's Photos 2

Rebecca F. John was born in 1986, and grew up in Pwll, a small village on the South Wales coast.

Her short stories have been broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and BBC Radio 4Extra.  In 2015, her short story ‘The Glove Maker’s Numbers’ was shortlisted for the Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award.  She is the winner of the PEN International New Voices Award 2015.

Her first short story collection, Clown’s Shoes, was published in 2015 by Parthian.

Her first novel, The Haunting of Henry Twist, was published through Serpent’s Tail in July 2017, and was shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award.

Rebecca lives in Swansea with her three dogs, Betsy, Teddy, and Effie.

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Author photo by Grant Hyatt Photography

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