FICTION: Untitled: (Self Portrait with Blood) by Cathleen Davies

Mary couldn’t feel the cold, though her sister complained it was freezing. Perhaps she was warm from all the love and generosity. More likely, it was all the jumpers she’d nicked. The year was creeping into October, and while the sky was bright and the air fresh, biting chills were starting to take effect. According to news reports, the upcoming winter would be a bad one, and Mary and Hannah were contributing to a giveaway outside a multi-faith community centre which the girls had nicknamed ‘The Church’. The church because it wasn’t their church, and this had been cause for concern.

‘Why do you need to involve yourself?’ their father had asked. ‘Those people aren’t true believers.’

‘It’s charity work, Dad,’ Hannah said. ‘It’s all for a good cause, and Mary will stay with me the whole time.’

Mary stood silently, her hands clasped behind her back hoping she looked sweet or coy, although her father wasn’t taking too kindly to sweetness these days. He acted as though it was a sign of insolence whenever Mary behaved exactly in the same way she had since childhood, and now she was unsure whether to stand with good posture, or kiss him on the cheek when saying goodbye. It was best to let her sister’s blandness speak for both of them. It worked. He waved his hand to indicate consent, and cautiously the girls picked up their boxes, both in silence so he wouldn’t change his mind.

Outside the church a picket sign was jabbed into the grass. It read: ‘Take what you want, pay what you can.’ All proceeds went to the centre for their community outreach programmes. Tables were scattered along the slight incline of the grass, and a variety of sects – C of Es, Methodists, Protestants – were attempting to out-do each other’s generosity. Mary cartwheeled beside their wobbly table.

‘Can you help?’ Hannah said, starting to get irritated as she stacked the shawls and jumpers into piles.

‘Well, I said we should spread them out so that people could see what they looked like, but you said that was a stupid idea, so I’m not helping anymore.’

‘It doesn’t matter what they look like, Mary. This isn’t about fashion. It’s about warmth.

‘Well if I’m so thick you don’t need my help then, do you?’

Mary did a handstand, tried to stay upright. Her long skirts floated down from her waist and Hannah knocked her legs down, fearing a flash of underwear. Mary screamed dramatically and insincerely as she fell.

‘Goodness sake, you always have to make such a spectacle of yourself,’ Hannah muttered. Mary shrugged, pulled the grass out of the ground. This wasn’t as fun as she’d expected. There was no one exciting or interesting here, aside from the nice old ladies who’d made an effort to speak to her.

‘You’ve got lovely, thick curls,’ they’d said.

‘And hasn’t she some gams on her?’

‘Up to her neck, I’d say!’

‘How old are you, love?’

‘Fifteen.’ Mary had been grinning.

‘Ooooh, and breaking hearts soon enough, I’m sure.’

Mary liked the old ladies in their long coats, and beanie hats. She liked how they sang in high-pitched voices before calling over to each other, in deep, booming, accents. Looking over to their cake-stall, Mary yearned for their attention. She touched the mad explosion of curls growing sandy and thick out of her head, but it didn’t give her the same scalp-tingling sensation as when others did it. Hannah had long hair too, but hers was flat and fine, sticking to her head like it’d been poured on top. Their father had wanted to cut their hair in order to dissuade vanity, but Hannah begged him not to and if Hannah got to keep her hair then so did Mary.

Mary listened to the buzz, the chatter in the vicinity, as exhausted mothers dragged around their children looking for clothes they could get for cheap. They were all embarrassed to be there, Mary could tell. They made excuses, said things like: ‘Well, I suppose I can chuck you a few bob if it’s all for a good cause,’ while their kids sulked in ugly clothes far too big for them. A young boy nearly wept at the bobbled, black jumper he’d been informed could pass for school uniform.

Hannah was handing out shawls to the people who came up to their table, but refused to engage in conversation, and after around half an hour, everyone avoided them. Mary was so used to her regular church members with their disingenuous grins, that Hannah’s firmness could sometimes be refreshing. Right then, though, it was dull as sin.

 Mary lay on her back craving sunlight. All the jumpers she’d stolen weren’t protecting her from the wind anymore. Some of the sandwich and pie stalls were packing up, and Mary would’ve wanted to go home too had Hannah not insisted on staying till the bitter end. Despite seeming miserable wherever she went, Hannah always insisted on staying till the bitter end.

Mary heard their voices before she opened her eyes. They blew in while everyone else was still chatting over Styrofoam coffee cups. The song was American, Mary could tell by the way they were singing their ‘t’s like ‘d’s. We’re geddin’ close to Jesus now. She sat up to look at them, intrigued by the sounds, but already, she could feel Hannah’s eyes on the back of her head.

The man wasn’t tall but he felt tall. His beard covered half his face, but he was young, no wrinkles round the eyes. The women around him were devastatingly beautiful, dancing in crop tops and baggy trousers despite the freezing cold. They could all sing, which seemed amazing. There were no bum notes or awkward warbling. And he, surrounded by their beauty, absorbed it, became the sun in their small, little solar-system.

He wasn’t the only man, there were others, all grinning and still singing as they unloaded the boxes from the van. These weren’t cakes, casseroles or woolly jumpers, but leaflets illustrated like comic books. The group weren’t concerned about finding a table. Instead, they dumped the boxes on the floor and continued to sing. When the song ended they cheered together euphorically and Mary, who had been staring at them the entire time, found herself clapping too. The man looked at her then, turned his head in her direction. He held her eyes for a few seconds before allowing his mouth to turn upwards. Mary could feel something beating inside her, fought against every instinct telling her to turn away. Eventually, she hid her face in her jumper to hide the blush. She hoped that he’d find it endearing.

‘Good evening, ladies,’ the man directed this at the old women selling their butterfly buns.

‘Now then, young man.’

‘Would you care for some literature?’

‘Depends if it’s owt good.’ They giggled and Mary recognised it as just that, a giggle, not a laugh or a guffaw, but a kind of girlish flirtation, and she felt almost jealous of these old women and how naturally they could interact without fear.

‘There’s nothing quite as good as the word of our Lord, don’t you think?’ the man replied. The beautiful women handed the leaflets around the tables. They walked passed Mary without thinking, but she stood to follow.

‘Don’t,’ Hannah said. ‘Just don’t.’

‘They mean Jesus. That’s what they mean when they say our Lord.’

‘They mean trouble.’

Mary rolled her eyes. She could tell that Hannah was proud of that quip, which bothered her. She continued to watch them. Even when they weren’t singing, they hummed. Even when they weren’t dancing, they swayed. This was the way to do it, Mary thought, with music and beauty and laughter. It wasn’t long before they began a different song, and Mary joined them, ignoring all of Hannah’s muttered ‘don’t you dare’s as she stumbled over. They played. She swayed along awkwardly to the beat, not quite getting the hip swirling movements the other women accomplished. They pulled out tambourines from the back of the van, made a kind of tap, shake, shake rhythm which sounded more rock and roll than righteous, and Mary wished more than anything that she knew the words so she could sing along properly instead of just mouthing.

He noticed her. He must have seen her in her long skirts, in her many baggy jumpers.

‘What’s your name?’ he asked.

‘Mary.’

‘No,’ he said. ‘No, you don’t seem like a Mary.’

‘Mary’s the mother of God,’ she defended, hoping that he’d praise her for her knowledge, realising a second later that the knowledge was childish, basic.

‘Yes, but you don’t seem quite so…’ he paused for the right word. ‘Puritanical. You’re a free spirit, that’s what you are. We need to find you a better name.’

Mary felt a grip on her arm. She turned and saw Hannah with a face like thunder, the same severe expression she reserved only for Mary. Hannah was obviously going to tell their father. She always made sure to tell on Mary, using phrases like ‘self-respect,’ and ‘common decency’ while pretending her father’s discipline was all a valuable learning experience.

 ‘We’re going. Come on, we promised we’d be heading back.’

‘No, we didn’t,’ Mary said. ‘We said we’d stay till the end, or till all the shawls were gone.’

‘Well, it’s the end now. We’re going.’

‘Oh no,’ the bearded man interjected. ‘This is just the beginning.’ He held out a hand to Hannah. ‘I’m David, pleased to meet you.’ But Hannah wouldn’t touch him. She felt it was dirty, not dirty as in grime and germs, although frankly it probably was, but dirty like impure. He didn’t have a wedding ring, but Hannah noticed how his hand was on the small of some practically shirtless woman’s back while she played the tambourine.

‘Nice to meet you, but we have to leave.’

‘I’m not going,’ Mary said. It amazed her, how quickly this resolve appeared, how it could fight away her fundamental survival instinct when it involved a charming man. ‘I’m staying. We said we weren’t home till late. Till five, that’s what we said. I’m staying out till five.’

Hannah bit a lip. They’d already wasted time here, already been around the wrong people too long. The thought of being caught by her father stood near these people drove her near insane.

‘We’re going,’ she said again, beginning to walk away. She picked up two heavy boxes, waiting for Mary to gather the rest. She’d done too much looking after Mary for one life-time and she was sick of it now. It was always the same, flirting with boys, running off with new children and then getting lost, never once considering how Hannah felt when she ended up shoved to the side. There were no sounds of gathering or footsteps, though. Instead, Hannah heard the voice of the man shouting after her, a voice deeper than she felt it had any right to be.

‘We’ll have her back in one piece!’

Hannah stormed forward stubbornly as her eyes filled with tears.

Mary didn’t know the songs, but she had an aptitude for the tambourine. It turned out guitar wasn’t too hard to pick up either. The girls danced on top of Mary’s now deserted table, swaying their hips while their ab muscles twisted, arms above their heads then trailing down the lengths of their sides. People walking passed stopped and stared. It was effective. They handed out their comics, which they called ‘letters’, with all the details and meeting information, but only after they’d spoken to them about life, and death, and God, and hope, and love, and freedom, and everything else that seemed to come up with these practical strangers. Mary couldn’t understand it. It didn’t seem as though the girls ever mentioned what the group believed in. Instead they nodded their heads at everyone else’s philosophical arguments, pretending, wide-eyed, that every man who spoke with them was telling them brand-new and fascinating information.

‘I think it’s all bollocks, me,’ a bald man was saying to two of the girls, who were named ‘Chaos’ and ‘Freedom’. Freedom stood behind Chaos, her arms draped over her shoulders, her hips pressed against her. Mary hadn’t seen such closeness between women before, and she wanted the girls to grab her from behind too, wanted to feel this sense of affection. Part of her hated it, though. She saw the way David was smiling at them.

‘Totally,’ Chaos was saying, presumably oblivious to the other girl’s pubic bone jutting into her back. ‘That’s just what corporate religion wants you to think.’

Whoever had a strong opinion one way or the other always left with letters. At the end of the day, Freedom grabbed what was left in the cardboard boxes and threw them in the air, scattering the pavement and the road, allowing them to fall like sycamore seeds onto the bonnets of cars.

‘I suppose I’d better go,’ Mary said. It was a bus by herself now and, even at 4:30, it was already dark.

‘Where are you going?’ David had asked her.

‘Home,’ she said.

‘Pfft, where’s home? Surely home is anywhere you want it to be, as long as you’re with the people you love.’ As he said this he put his arm around Chaos, pulling her close to his side. Mary tried to swallow her jealousy. ‘That’s it!’ he continued. ‘You’re Gypsy! That’s your name. You can be our little Gypsy and then anywhere is your home.’

‘Yes!’ Chaos reiterated. ‘Gypsy. It suits you.’

And that was enough. She trusted him. She stayed.

That night, Gypsy experienced something new. David showed her power inside herself that she wasn’t aware she had. He used himself to move her insides, touched her skin with his, and made her feel like she was something magic, something beyond mortal when he gasped in ecstasy. She was told that it would make her feel broken, but it didn’t. She wasn’t even sure if she felt pain, though there was blood. Chaos kissed away her tears after the event.

‘It’s okay, my love,’ she muttered kindly. ‘It’s just to show you he loves you. To show you that you’re free,’ and Gypsy nodded while she allowed herself to sob, feeling both strong and vulnerable, altered and alive.

At some point, Mary woke up. She realised that she was hungry and these people didn’t seem much interested in dinner. Everyone piled into the van, and David dropped her off at home. He put his hand under her chin and kissed her before she left.

‘Remember, Gypsy, that you’re free. There’s always home with us and God,’ he said, and she nodded, smiling, but somehow she didn’t feel convinced. Her stomach was really hurting her now. She was ready for bed, and she hoped that her father wouldn’t still be awake.

Walking up to her house, Mary thought about the morning. She’d make up something, say that the bus broke down, that she’d had to walk, pretend absolutely nothing about her was different. But when she got through the door Mary’s father was up waiting, Hannah by his side. Her face was white and blotchy, her eyes puffed up from crying. She looked at Mary and the grass-stains on her outer jumper, knowing that she was too young for what their father planned for her as he took off his belt.

The buckle hit Mary’s forehead, and the pain was so sharp she could only gasp. Hannah screamed as well, and from a distance it was difficult to tell which cries came from the beaten child, and which from the guilt-ridden sister. It lasted a few moments, the beating, but then it was done. His silence afterwards was so intense that Mary was scared to moan in pain in case it caused more pain to come. He left the room first, not saying a word, because he didn’t feel he needed to. It had been cathartic for him. This anger had been building up for quite some time. Hannah sobbed on the sofa, her head in her hands, fingers crunching up her thin hair.

‘I’m sorry,’ she said, not breathing so much as gasping in air. ‘I’m so sorry.’

Gypsy looked at her face in the bathroom mirror. She was amazed at how much blood there was, how swollen it had become around the forehead cut. Her nose wasn’t straight anymore, and she wondered if it ever would be. She wondered if the kink would be endearing or grotesque. She wondered if she’d still be pretty when it healed.

Some of her hair was matted by the blood. She wanted a bath, really. She wanted to wash her face. It was interesting to stare at herself though, look at what became of her new identity. Mary would have been in floods of tears, but Gypsy wasn’t. She wasn’t going to be here long, she knew that. Her home was what she made of it, after all.

She turned on the tap, watched as the water went down the plughole, slowly starting to warm up. She titled her chin and examined her bloody nose again. She smiled. It stung. Slowly, so it wouldn’t hurt, Gypsy washed her face.

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Cathleen Davies

Cathleen Davies is a twenty-three year old writer from East Yorkshire. She began writing at sixteen, when she won second prize for Wyke Sixth-Form’s fiction contest. At eighteen, she was published in Ace Jackson’s Red Ink Anthology, Rites of Passage; Rights of Womanhood: Volume One. Davies completed the University of East Anglia’s Creative Writing BA in 2016, then travelled to China to live and teach EFL for a year. She finished her Creative Writing MA at the University of Birmingham in September. Now, she continues to teach English and write in the Basque Country, north of Spain. Her hobbies include live music and constant self-deprecation. She has previously been published a handful of times, twice in UEA undergraduate anthologies: Underworld (2014) and Undertow (2016). Her short-story ‘Respite’ was published by Storgy Magazine on December 17th. Her story ‘Time’s Up’ with appear in Dostoyevsky Wannabes collection Love Bites in June 2019. Links to all fiction, alongside articles written for Strike Magazine can be found on her word-press: https://cathydavies1995.wordpress.com/

If you enjoyed reading Untitled: (Self Portrait with Blood), leave a comment and let Cathleen know.

Feature Image by Ana Mendienta.

You can read more of Cathleen’s writing below:

Respite

Underworld: The UEA Undergraduate Creative Writing Anthology 2014

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UNDERTOW

http://www.newwriting.net

You can find and follow Cathleen at:

twitter

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