“Don’t touch it,” she said.
“The red curtain.”
I must have looked horrified.
“It’ll wrap you up. Bind you in its velvet redness.”
“I’m sorry, I forgot who you are.” I said, which was the truth, but then, I never really knew her, I think.
“It doesn’t matter who I am just don’t touch that curtain.” She walked off through the café. She might have been a waitress, not a chef. I don’t know if she was wearing a badge. I should have looked.
The café was full because it was raining outside. It was a trendy sort of place with scuffed boarding on the walls and vintage signage: ‘Wipe your feet’, ‘Mind the gap’, ‘Keep off the grass’, ‘We don’t suffer fools…’, ‘You can take a horse to water…’, and it was mostly occupied by shoppers with bags on the floor, also a few women with laptops, and a couple of readers. The rain was beating against the window next to my seat.
I was about to draw a smiley face in the condensation when an elderly woman with a smart, helmet perm pulled out the other chair at my table, raising her eyebrows. I nodded although, across the room, two people were vacating a table but perhaps she, like me, preferred a window seat. She must have seen my finger hovering by the misted-up pane.
“Don’t touch it,” she said.
“I was about to draw a smiley,” I said. “A small act of defiance in a world of…”
“The glass will turn red like the curtain and we’ll all believe we’re curdled in a blood bath.”
“Don’t you mean cuddled.”
“No, curdled. Curdled.”
“I’m sorry, I forgot who you are,” I said. Although she had only just appeared at my table, it felt like the right thing to say.
“You won’t remember me,” she said.
The waitress with the badge turned up and glared at the curtain.
“A refill for me,” I said. “And I’d like to treat this lady, a good friend of mine, I believe.”
The elderly woman half-smiled and ordered a large gingerbread latte and a slice of cherry cake with mascarpone, which is the most expensive elevenses on the menu. I admired the woman’s taste.
When her order was brought, she said: “I see an empty table. You must excuse me.” She gathered her shopping, left, and seconds later returned for her cake and drink.
At that moment, music streamed from the sound system, Don Redman’s ‘Cherry’, cheery 1930s jazz, and a man tapped me on the shoulder.
“Don’t listen to that.”
“Why ever not?”
“It’ll turn your ears vermillion and all you’ll be able to hear is boom-boomdy-boom-boom.”
I tore up a paper napkin and stuffed the pieces in my ears so all I could hear was the internal hum of conversation instead of Don Redman.
“I’m sorry, I forgot who you are,” I said but I don’t think he heard me above the music.
I finished my coffee and left a solid coin for the waitress.
“Don’t tread on the white boards.” A voice droned just as I was going.
“I hadn’t noticed white boards.”
“Don’t step on them, I tell you. They will fan your dream-flame.”
“My dream-flame? I don’t think I have one.”
“You don’t know it until it’s fanned.”
“I’m sorry I forgot who you are.”
At that moment one of my earplugs fell out and in the scrabble to catch it, I stepped on a white floorboard, jumped back, tripped, grabbed the red curtain, and inadvertently my elbow drew a huge smile on the misted-up window pane.
“Don’t be even half a minute late or the swans will bind you in the spiders’ wire.”
“So the swans and spiders are working together?”
“They’ve been talking, I believe you’ll find.”
“And I will be bound by them?”
“It’s very likely. Don’t say you haven’t been warned.”
I don’t believe a word he says and to be honest, I’ve never cared much about swans and spiders. I care very much about their feathers and webs. You can make hats out of feathers. I usually collect them at dawn because at that time there’s no one in the park and I like the way dew soaks into the suede of my boots. Also, at dawn the spiders’ webs are strung out between bushes and even between individual blades of grass. I have a special super-glue atomiser gun that I spray onto the webs and can collect then as solid entities if they are not too damp. They look extremely effective on a hat made of swans’ feathers.
Today though, after the inspector told me off – that business with the spiders’ wires and being half a minute late for my inspection – I told him that, in all probability, the hands on his watch were wrong and that I use a digital watch which is programmed by satellite, and is therefore likely to be more accurate than his, and by my watch I was on time. He, however, is the inspector and of course cannot bear to be wrong, and I will face a disciplinary meeting.
Frankly, I’d prefer to go freelance and be done with all this inspection business. But it’s not easy catching swans. They’re especially frisky at dawn and can dive through hoops. I like to catch them while the feathers are tinted by the dusty pinkness of the light and they hide at dusk. Ultimately, it’s about money. I’m paid well for my hats although they bear the name of the firm, not mine. That’s another thing I brought up with the inspector:
“I’d like my name on my hats. Bardot’s Hats. I think it has class,” I said.
“We all work for Flats’ and Flats’ is how it will stay, and that’s that,” he said. “You’re in no position to bargain, Bardot. I tell you now and I tell you flat. What’s more this is the end of our chat. Flats’ it will remain, Flats’ Hats.”
“Rats!” I said, mischievously.
The inspector looked confused, which was pleasing.
This all happened before the cafe debacle which is also confusing because the voice was right about the dream-flame.
Basically, I find it’s best to stay quiet during a disciplinary and think about something else, something more pleasant like the park, the feathers of a swan at dawn or a beautifully sculpted hat brimmed with a comb of cobweb.
Disciplinaries are a regular occurrence at Flats’. I know not a single employee who has mastered the rules. Last week, a whole tranche of us were in disciplinary because of the complexities of Fire Drill.
I am fire warden for Hats, and am therefore responsible for summoning the sixty milliners but only after I have put on the purple plastic hard hat and taken the Flats’ Fire Flag from the stationery cupboard and the axe from the stake plant.
At the point when the siren went off I was using my own head to shape a rook feather entrepartre. The glue had nowhere near set so I couldn’t don the hard hat, and since the entrepartre was 48 centimetres in diameter, I had no chance of fitting into the stationery cupboard let alone the stake plant. I had to resort to shouting instead of flagging everyone up and when it came to roll call in the car park there were only six people in my line. All I could say to explain myself was that the siren had deafened us, and that didn’t go down well with management particularly since I was still dressed in the rook feather entrepartre. The inspector snarled something about extra downloadable fire courses and put us all in disciplinary including the six that did queue, and that didn’t go down well at all, with anyone.
In today’s disciplinary, the inspector is flanked by six sub-inspectors, three on either side of him. I find myself thinking of the heraldic knife we use to trim the rachis. The heraldic knife, with its golden blade so sharp you need barely touch a breast before it is sliced and its handle made of horse thigh that shifts to the shape of every hand, or so the story goes, is the stuff of legends. I think I could slice into my forehead, right through my skull and the hat would remain intact, and I would be dead. And that would altogether not be a bad thing, altogether. But I imagine that the blade would be covered in droplets of blood, oily, I think, like the fat on a stew, and also the blood might spatter onto the stitches and feathers, and if they were swans’ it would be far too Jackson Pollock for Flats’. And if they were rooks’, who would even care?
The disciplinary is coming to an end because the sub-inspectors are conferring, and everyone is nodding. A cross is written by my name. The file is given to me for signature and I see that the cross is, actually, a long way from my name, two lines to be precise. Each line has 24 boxes and in each box is a cross. I am certain someone in Disciplinary has been overly liberal with his crosses and I tell them so. This sets off another round of nodding and conferring.
I decide to toe-tap. It is unchartered territory. I have never done this in a disciplinary before. I toe-tap ‘The Sun Has Got His Hat On’. It is a song that never fails to cheer me up. As the inspectorate stand and bow to each other, I hum the melody and emerge from the disciplinary with a jaunty aspect, which appears to perplex the inspector and his minions because they scatter to all corners of the room, probably to hide from each other.
The jauntiness doesn’t last long and once back in the cramped quarters of Millinery Wing, with its tall, grimy windows, the yellow light casting a complexity of shadows, the hats on their towers, and the biscuity smell of the quills that are strung like demisemiquavers from a network of invisible nylon lines, I join the others. We work in silence hunched over our benches with just the occasional scream when a needle pierces through a finger or an eyelid is glued to an eyebrow to enliven our endeavours. Other than that all we hear is the interminable snip of scissors as we sculpt the barbs. Some years back I played ‘The Sun Has Got his Hat On’, the 1932 version sung by Sam Browne with Ambrose and his Orchestra, on a loop for three weeks before someone cut the wires to the speaker, so that was the end of that. Honestly, I was surprised it lasted that long. But there we go.
It was after the disciplinary that I went to the café and where, ultimately, the dream-flame fanned me and I went to a place well beyond Greece and it can be had for now, for a while at least, for most of us, so don’t cry for me or yourself, whoever you are.
In this place, beyond Greece, the sun turns the walls so white they become mirrored silver, every path is bordered by walls too high to see over and everyone keeps away and the silence is as overwhelming as the brightness, and shoots between my ears and eyes.
I walk between the walls day in and day out, secure in the knowledge that what will be, will be. The silence caught me on the hop but I was prepared for the heat by wearing a plain but broad-brimmed, navy cotton boonie but nothing can be done about the silence or dazzle.
This is a land of journeys, where destination is barely a hope. At night one can turn into the dark doors that are set into the walls every kilometre or so. The first evening I found one ajar, and pushed it. Behind was a room of cloaks, a simple bed laid with a rough brown blanket and pillow, a bowl of fresh porridge, a bottle of wine, candle and matches and a book of rights. I ate and drank, grateful to rest my eyes, but perhaps even more thankful, as it has turned out, for the reading matter. I find it comforting to read before I sleep and it has become my habit to spend my days repeating the page number that sent me to sleep the night before. Since every dark door reveals an identical room one can easily resume reading.
I cannot say that I am not haunted by the befuddlement of the inspector, I will never be rid of that, and I hanker for 1930s jazz at its cheeriest but I resist defiling the perfection of silence by singing. Sometimes even the yellow smog of Millinery Wing brings that hollow yearning for desperation or camaraderie, I’m uncertain which, but all that is in the past and now I walk between the dazzling walls of the present.
I am half-blinded by the glare of the sun shining on the white walls. I hardly dare look up but I know it’s blue because it hums around me in its own way. I tramp in solitary. Only once have I seen another traveller. He was wearing an outfit in horizontal red and white stripes that showed up vividly against the walls. I walked behind him for most of a day without calling out but when I turned a bend, he was gone and I wasn’t sorry.
As for the hats, without them I am without my shadow. Mostly I am not aware of it, but something I once had is missing. It’s a personal loss that I have so far managed to survive, although once I was tempted to use my teeth to tatter the brim of my boonie.
Today, I walk the straightest paths, and I have seen no dark doors in an hour. That doesn’t worry me, and I am not bored because I must remember page 1065, I am nowhere near the end of the book of rights having only recently finished Knowledge and am looking forward to Limpets, the right to gather limpets at low tide. Nothing is the answer. And we can all start again.
There came a point as I was walking along the narrow, walled path, when my journey was brought to a halt by a pair of ornate ironwork gates; as I approached I saw it was a miracle of curlicues in gold and black. I pushed the gates and they parted silently and easily. Beyond, a dozen paths converged on a broad cobbled piazza in the middle of which was a fountain singing its song of forgetfulness and the future. On the wall surrounding the fountain, sat a young goat or a girl, I forget which.
“Tell me your future,” she said.
And I tell her
The SHALLOW CREEK Short Story Competition
Mallum Colt, proprietor of Colt’s Curiosity Shop, invites authors to explore the sinister shadows and crooked streets of his once splendid town of Shallow Creek.
Guests are gifted a Shallow Creek visitor pack consisting of a map of Shallow Creek, a character profile, a specific location, and an item of interest.
These items shall act as a source of inspiration as Mallum Colt guides his guests through Shallow Creek and reveals the secrets and stories of a town bereft of sleep.
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Twenty-four short stories, exclusive afterwords, interviews, artwork, and more.
From Trumpocalypse to Brexit Britain, brick by brick the walls are closing in. But don’t despair. Bulldoze the borders. Conquer freedom, not fear. EXIT EARTH explores all life – past, present, or future – on, or off – this beautiful, yet fragile, world of ours. Final embraces beneath a sky of flames. Tears of joy aboard a sinking ship. Laughter in a lonely land. Dystopian or utopian, realist or fantasy, horror or sci-fi, EXIT EARTH is yours to conquer.
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