The copper bell is the only non-essential thing Nora’s kept from before. She’s not sure why. It has no use in this new world. Food, water, somewhere safe, and hopefully dry, to sleep and firewood are all they need now. But oh so hard to come by. Tonight’s dinner – puffball mushrooms with wild garlic and a woody leek they’d found growing here in the abandoned garden of this crumbly cottage – is a feast. The most they’ve eaten in one go in many weeks.
‘Cheers,’ Bill raises his tin mug of nettle tea at her.
Nora smiles, raises her own, ‘Sláinte.’ She has no idea how he keeps so cheerful. But she does her best to pretend she is too. He pretends to believe her.
She’d stuffed the bell in her bug out backpack on the night they’d had to run. It was sat there like it always was on the little wall outside the front door. Waiting for callers that never came anymore to bring its chime to life. The visitors heading their way that night were unwelcome. And not the sort that would ring the bell when they arrived.
‘Hurry,’ Bill said to her repeatedly. Following her as she went from room to room, touching chairs and homemade blankets and family pictures, stroking the cats, inhaling the familiar woodsmoke smell of home. Wanting more than anything for it all to stay the same. For what was happening not to be their world now.
Nora hadn’t really believed they’d have to leave; despite the rumours she’d heard in the village when she was there trading their eggs and veggies. Tales of gangs sweeping through the country taking everything from everyone — not that anyone had much for them to take — and leaving no-one left alive. She’d still hoped everything would eventually return to normal, whatever that was. Hadn’t wanted to admit, even to herself, that she couldn’t remember the last time life had been “normal” and the world one she recognised.
As they’d snuck out, heading away from the flames of the torched village that lit up the horizon, she’d grabbed the bell. Stuffed it in next to the clothes, dried food, sleeping bag, first aid kit, and other survival gear Bill had gathered in the months leading up to that night. Swapping their wedding bands, and the jewellery Nora inherited from Gran, for the things he said they’d need. Nora laughed at him then. Now she just wishes she’d been more vigilant about having it all packed and ready to go.
Most of the room in her bag was taken by books — ones to read and ones to write in. She’d been glad of them at first but as the food, and her energy had dwindled, they got too heavy to carry. She tells Bill she’s sorry every day and he always says it doesn’t matter. But his eyes tell a different story. They tell her she could’ve carried many more weeks of dried food rations if she’d limited herself to one of each, which is all she has now. The others have been burned.
The writing in her one remaining journal is now so tiny you can barely read it. Not that she’ll want to revisit these days. But she’s always kept a journal and she’s not stopping now. The other book, Foraging in the Wild, is no use as most of the plants and trees that thrived when it was written are long gone. She’ll use it to light tomorrow’s fire. If only she’d kept the Yeats. Comfort could be found in his words of destiny and knowing that all that has come to pass was preordained. There was nothing she could do. She was always going to end up camping here in this ruined cottage, with this man, and this tarnished copper bell in her bag.
The bell doesn’t weigh much, doesn’t take up much room but, as he does every night when they’ve finished eating, Bill looks at her from across the fire and says, ‘Leave it behind.’
She shakes her head.
Sighing, Bill pokes the fire with a stick sending hissy sparks up into the dark. ‘You have to. You need to lighten your load.’
He says that every night too.
He’s probably right but she’s happy to bear its weight on her wasted shoulders as they trudge along roads leading to who knows where. The endless rain hurling itself down from above. Mud sucking at their feet from below. Heaven and hell pulling them and pushing them. Pulling and pushing her almost too far.
Something makes Nora keep the bell. Maybe it’s that glimmer of hope still flickering faintly inside her. That one day she might have a front door to place it outside again.
Bill sits beside her, strokes her hair and she tips her head into his hand. Closes her eyes and pictures the nights when that stroke would have led to a kiss, then to tearing each other’s clothes off. An almost forgotten swell of longing twists beneath her soaking knickers.
But Bill is gone. Her head cold now where the imprint of his hand had warmed it. She watches him lay his sleeping bag on the groundsheet, climb inside and snuggle down. Like he is every night, he’s asleep in moments.
She pulls the bell from her bag. Traces her fingers over the faded flowers she painted on it back when living like this had never crossed their minds. Holds her filthy hands around it until she feels it turn warm. Then she rings it oh so gently.
A marker of another day survived.
If only it was a signal of change.
Amanda Saint is the author of two novels, As If I Were A River (2016) and Remember Tomorrow (2019). Her short fictions have been widely published and appeared on lots of prize long and shortlists and the winners’ podium just the once so far. Amanda founded and runs Retreat West, providing an online writing community, competitions and courses; and the award-winning Retreat West Books indie press, which publishes short fictions, novels and memoirs.
- Real Damage – The Cabinet of Heed. Read it here.
- Back From Outer Space – Ellipsis Zine. Read it here.
- Peeling Away All The New Layers, Virtual Zine. Read it here.
- Truly Deathly, Fictive Dream. Read it here.
- Golden Glow, The Cabinet of Heed. Read it here.
- Things To Sort For The Funeral – STORGY. Read it here.
- Maneki-Neko, Longlisted Mslexia Flash Fiction Prize 2019 and Flash 500. Published Reflex Fiction. Read it here.
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