Kate lay in the moist grass. Dew glistened on the leaf tips as the morning sunshine, like tiny spotlights, broke through the gaps between the trees. The small clearing didn’t attract much light, but some tenacious, wild flowers grew in a tiny arc that the sunlight crept across daily.
The smell of warm soil and yellow archangel hung in the air, and tiny tendrils of mist rose from the ground. A circle of light moved slowly up Kate’s leg as if the sun’s rays were a tender lover. Her legs were parted, skirt around her thighs, one arm was by her side, and the other stretched above her head in a seductive pose. Palms upward, her fingers were cupped like purple crocuses. Her head was elevated and her face turned away from the light. Her eyes were directed at a space between then and now.
No one came to this part of the woods. Well, hardly anyone. Kate had never been here before and the man who brought her had found the secluded spot the week prior. It was a beautiful place. He told her so as he carried her into the clearing. He smiled as he moved her hair from her eyes.
She had waited on the bench for him. It wasn’t strange that their first meeting was in the park just after dark. It was half way between her flat and the town; she would have walked this way anyway. She thought he was being romantic. He brought roses; she would recognise him this way. One red rose was placed carefully in her jacket pocket too.
The roses were now strategically placed around her as she rested between the gnarled roots of the oak tree. Fallen leaves trailed across her breast, while beetles, ants, and spiders explored her body. The gentle breeze rustled between the treesand set a few more leaves free. One drifted and turned repeatedly before coming to rest on her damp cheek. Her hair was splayed amongst the grass; the colour almost matched the deep red of the decaying roses.
If Kate had been alive, she would have been horrified at the minute forest life making a home within her crevices. Her cold, bloated body would have disgusted her. Always one to take pride in her appearance, her lips still had a smudge of Dangerous Red lipstick at the cupids bow. Her false lashes were still intact, but a few of her nails snapped off in the struggle. She wore a new outfit for the date; pencil skirt, white silk blouse, jacket and new heels. She knew he liked this look – hetold her so. Her flesh now bloated and bulged against the seams of her outfit. The left shoe was missing, the other hung loose on her foot.
As her body broke down into simpler matter, her flesh began to rupture. Her liquefying tissue was now making its slow journey out of her nose, mouth and other orifices. She was slowly becoming part of the clearing, molecular death and rebirth. Her body was now a complex ecosystem, a host to bacteria. Her skin the perfect habitatfor a dedicated microbial community.
It was nearly a week before Martin convinced his new project to come to this spot. She wore a similar outfit at his request. He came with a huge bouquet. The roses were expensive but it was a small price to pay. This was too easy. How desperate these women were.
He suggested a walk afterwards, but Tracy declined. Something about her shoes not really being suitable. He’d have to consider this in the future. He told her he wanted to show her something, it wasn’t far, and it would be worth it.
An inkling of doubt entered Tracy’s mind, but she brushed it aside. She needed to be more trusting, to embrace life, take chances. She followed him through the foliage. A niggling voice told her she was a stupid girl, and she looked behind to be sure of the route they travelled. When she turned again the area had opened up and he was looking at her. He gestured for her to approach.
Tracy stood rigid with shock, her hand over her gaping mouth. Martin found it hard to hide his heightened arousal and Tracey caught him smiling at Kate’s long limbs and bloated body. He was invigorated by the look of disgust and the flickering realisation in Tracy’s eyes as the epiphany of her future hit her. He smiled broadly as her eyes widened, revealing the milky white sclera. She trembled. He held his hand out to her.
If Kate could speak right now, she would scream at the girl to run. To run as fast as she could, to scream as loud as she could, but Kate’s mouth was now choked with putrefying liquid and blowfly larvae. Her eyes saw nothing. Her once agile body was now just mush as her necrophagous inhabitants made short shrift of their habitat. The evidence of twenty-seven years of hard living reduced to very little in just days.
It wouldn’t have mattered if she could shout anyway. Tracy was rigid with fear. Her brain frantically searched for reason, for solutions, for a way to flee. She realised there was no obvious escape. Her senses were heightened, and the gentle breeze felt icy cold against her skin. The moments ahead revealed to her like a succession of photograph stills, time captured and paused before moving to the next scene. Everything was clear – the veins in the leaves, the seeds from a dandelion head that floated between them, the pores on his face. She could hear his heartbeat racing, could smell his anticipation. He was waiting for her to run. He wanted her to run.
She reached her hand out to him and smiled.
The disappointment on his face was instantaneous. His hand dropped to his side. His heart quietened.
‘Truly beautiful.’ she said.
Photo by Aleksei Drakos
I watch as Fay’s lips flap, her face twisting into strange, exaggerated shapes as she moans on and on. There is a line of spittle in the corner of her mouth; it catches repeatedly on her dry, flappy lips as she witters on with herself. It reminds me of the stringy cheese in that pizza advert. Her tongue like dry salami, flaps in her mouth – her whiney, pedantic, never-has-a-good-word-to say-about-anyone mouth.
‘Jack, Jack? Are you even listening to me?’
I begrudgingly remove the headphones, and Fay’s drone replaces my ambient tunes. If her voice were music it would be brass, or bad gamelan. Thrash gamelan.
‘You say something?’
‘I’m too hot, it’s too hot for me.’
‘You want me to turn the sun down?’
‘Oh, you’re funny.’
‘Well, we are in Tenerife in peak season, my sweet.’
‘Yes, I know that, I’m just saying.’
‘You are in the shade, with factor fifty on, wearing the biggest sunhat on earth, what else can I do to help?’
‘I shouldn’t come on these holidays.’
‘Well, next time I shall bring my other woman.’
Fay harrumphed and flopped back on her lounger. Moaning cow.
‘Everything’s a joke with you.’
‘Go and have a dip in the sea, it’ll cool you down.’
‘It’s full of seaweed, it’s all sloshing about near the water’s edge.’
I give her an incredulous look and shake my head. I imagine her entangled in the seaweed, choking down seawater, drowning and floating off towards the horizon. I chuckle as I pop my headphones back on. I admire the sea. A couple play bat and ball near the water’s edge, I find this very strange. Children frolic in the shallows, and a couple on an airbed kiss passionately. I observe all this with my own soundtrack. Bliss. It’s amazing how much of my life I shut out these days. In my early years I absorbed as much of the world as possible. I wonder when it changed.
We chat over all-inclusive dinner. She moans about the chicken – it’s tepid, apparently everything is covered in oil and the guy frying the fish was picking his nose and looked dirty. She also eyes up the other couples, disapprovingly I can tell. They’re probably having far too much fun for her liking. She thinks loudness is uncouth, which is funny really as she never stops talking. She talks a lot, but never really says anything. Her voice is like white noise.
She picks at her chicken and I find it unbearably irritating. I can feel my annoyance mount as she pushes it around her plate. Stuffing my mouth with chicken salad, I stifle my temptation to tell her that I wish she would choke on it. The waiter hovers with wine and I gesture for him to fill my glass and thank him. Fay waves him away. In my mind’s eye, he smashes the decanter into her stupid face repeatedly and she bleeds out all over her tepid chicken. Everyone in the restaurant cheers and we all raise our glasses, a few let off party poppers. I stand and take a bow and tip the waiter generously.
I hate my wife. I’m not quite sure when I realised this, but recently I have recurring thoughts about bumping her off. In fact it’s probably these thoughts that keep me sane. She dies at least twice a day in my imagination.
I decide to book her in for paragliding, water skiing and the banana ride for the next day, in the hope that fate may take a drastic turn, or at least to get a few hours respite from her fucking face.
We sit outside and the night air is cooling. The entertainment at this hotel leaves a lot to be desired, but sometimes it’s so dreadfully bad, it’s good. Tonight after the kids disco, there’s a knife thrower and then karaoke.
Carmen and Alex from Liverpool befriended us a few nights ago and they join us for drinks. Carmen is uptight and likes a good moan so her and Fay get on great. During the knife thrower act, they ask for a member of the audience to participate. I plead with my wife to get up, but she won’t.
I drink too much, as does Alex, and we start talking about music and find a common bond over our love of Queen. We keep getting dirty looks from the ladies, but this only encourages us. We drink more. And more. Alex gets the karaoke book from the DJ and we select a song each. We think we are hilarious.
I’m up on the stage belting out Queen’s I Want to Break Free, whilst glaring directly at Fay’s miserable face. I strut around like Freddy Mercury and the crowd lap it up and start to clap. The more ridiculous I act the more people laugh. I’m loving this.
Fay becomes so tight lipped that her face looks like it’s imploded. Alex is laughing, singing along and getting a bit lairy with Carmen, who is trying to calm him down. He stands up and grabs at her, trying to get her to dance, but he staggers and knocks some woman’s chair over. Within a blink, her bloke uppercuts him, sending him flying over the table. Carmen is up screaming and pointing at the couple. Fay stands up but before she can open her flappy mouth, the bloke’s girlfriend has chucked a drink in her face and is lunging towards her. Drinks go flying, and in domino fashion, rage spreads across the holidaymakers. Women are standing up, hands on hips shouting drunkenly. Hair is being pulled, tables are being flipped. Men with tattoos are offering one another out. And I’m only on the third verse.
I look at the DJ who shrugs as if this is a nightly occurrence. I carry on singing, resigned to the fact that nothing I do will make this any better. I watch as Fay dodges the lunging woman and wipes the drink from her face. This would look so much better in slow motion. The tune changes to Don’t Stop me Now, perfect fighting music.
Chairs are flying into the pool now, along with a few women. Fay stumbles over in a less than ladylike fashion as lunging woman drags her around by her low cut top. Alex is giving it full throttle now. He smashes a chair over a bloke’s head. Bloke is now being assisted by two other meatheads: they prance around nimbly, brandishing fists in a cartoon fashion. One of them is the guy that puts towels on all the beds in the morning and has a brood of kids that swear like navvies. He has tattoos of each child on his arm and a huge one of what I presume is Elvis on his back, though it actually looks more like K.D. Lang.
The DJ has done one; I catch him disappearing behind the stage curtain, where I see the knife thrower and his assistant quickly packing their gear away. I see an opportunity here. My eureka moment. Dropping the mic, I dash to the back and grab the knives from him. I arm myself with the largest swords, the ones saved for the finale. I turn and face the fighting throng. I head towards them, purposeful. I’m the Last fucking Samurai, Jedi Knight, and The Man from Nowhere rolled into one. I pause behind the DJ booth and flick the music back on. Queen, Another One Bites the Dust. I couldn’t have picked better. I dive off the stage, into the throng.
Photo by Tomek Dzido
My Papa always said that if you put your mind to it, you could do anything. He was a real adventurer, forever in awe of the world, always wanting to experience new things. His true love was being under the sea. He’d spent most of his life there and he told the most amazing stories that would make you hold your breath and sit wide eyed, rigid with fear or laughing till your belly hurt. He met Ma in the sea. They didn’t speak for almost a year as they only ever met underwater. Papa said the coral blossomed wherever they swam; you could feel the love warming the ocean. He said their first kiss made the fish blush and swim away.
‘I’m going to live under the sea.’ I told him.
‘You almost do anyway.’ he said.
The ocean has been my home too. Papa joked that I swam right out of ma’s belly into the sea, he said my limbs were so long and lean that an octopus mistook me as hers.
‘Little Gurita, wants to live with his mammy gurita.’ he would say to ma. Then he would hold me up and pretend to look for my other legs. Ma would laugh and say she would happily share me. Everyone called me Bayi Gurita – baby octopus.
My parents were divers. They would dive for fish and sponges to sell at market. Occasionally they would find some small treasure. When I was three I started to swim down with them. Shallow at first, then gradually deeper till I could help them catch fish and tend coral. I loved to play with my fish friends and explore my underwater playground.
Under the sea was so calm and quiet. The rules were different than on land. Upside down was the right way up if you wanted it to be. Nothing was ever still, yet your body ebbed and flowed with the gentle movements so it felt like you were part of everything. The fish knew me, and they were friendly; even the large clams would stay open for me to stroke them. I made friends with the wrasse, and they would swim alongside me, now and again they would nudge me, they were always playful. By the age of ten I could stay under twice as long as my parents.
I pushed them to venture further, but they didn’t have my stamina. Papa knew not to hold me back and encouraged my adventures. As he grew weaker, I grew strong and the adventures he could no longer undertake, I would tackle with ease.
‘You go on your own today my Gurita, be sure to come back to us.’
There had been talk in the village of a wreck. It was three cliffs around from where we normally dive, and those waters were deeper and darker. Only the bravest dived there, and even then they knew not to go too deep. There is a fine line between bravery and stupidity, Papa always said. We talked a lot about how the water gets into your head and compels you to do things you wouldn’t normally do. It can push and pull at you, confuse you, and convince you that you have more breath in your lungs. Look what happened to Ma, he’d say.
I had been training over the week, testing my limits above and below water. I never timed a dive. I didn’t like the pressure of a visual gauge because it makes you compete with yourself. I listen to my body. Papa knew what I was doing and I could see he was a sad, but he didn’t try to dissuade me. The other villages got wind of my plans. The elders said I was stupid, but the young divers said I was brave. I wasn’t sure which I was. My good friend Mawi said my head wasn’t just in the clouds but had actually left the cosmos.
‘How will you look after your papa, if you are dead under the ocean?’ He threw a pebble into our fire and dug his heels deep in the sand.
‘I’m not going to die. You know I won’t do anything silly.’
‘You’re always doing silly things. You take after your Ma. You are never sensible.’ He paused, realising that he had hurt my feelings. ‘There is too much water in your brain, it has turned it into mush.’ He tapped on the side of my head. ‘Let me come with you.’
‘At least I have a brain.’ I ruffled his hair, but he wasn’t biting at the joke. He looked serious. His offer was to keep me safe. He was a good friend, but I couldn’t take responsibility for him. I told him no, and he was quiet for the rest of the evening.
I woke early on the morning of the dive. I tried to sneak out, but Papa must have heard me. I was dragging my shorts and top off the line when he tapped me on the shoulder.
‘Remember you can come up and go back, you don’t have to do it all in one go.’
‘I know, Papa.’
‘And remember there is nothing down there worth using your last breath on.’
‘I love you Gurita.’ He hugged me and kissed my forehead.
‘I love you too, Papa.’
‘Mawi came late last night; he wanted me to talk you out of it. I think that boy is in love with you.’ He handed me a small pack with bread, dry fish and a water bottle.
‘I’ll deal with Mawi later.’ I kissed him again and headed off. I didn’t want to prolong the exit.
The walk to the beach was long, but the temperature was perfect, and the salt air invigorated me. I never tired of the views – endless blue to my left and uninterrupted green to my right. The only sounds; my footfall, my breath, and the ocean. By the time I reached the cliff above the beach, the sun was directly overhead and I took shelter and drank some water. Careful not to fill my belly too much, I ate only a few flakes of the fish. I looked out at the ocean and imaged what my tiny body would look like under from this viewpoint. I descended to the beach, approached the waters edge and sat. Before a deep dive I liked to visualise relax and focus on my breathing. I shut everything out. It was an exchange between me and my body. The swim out would take little energy; I was long and lean and I would cut through the water with little effort. The dive would take up all my reserve.
Once in the water I felt at ease. I swam out and positioned myself. I breathe deep, relax, and feel the water. It is warm at the surface, but it would quickly cool below. It feels as though my lungs have expanded throughout my body and my heart rate slows. I am ready. I surface dive, and quickly drop deeper and deeper. Every second saved diving is an extra second exploring. I feel the water cool quickly, and my muscles contract. I blink and my eyes adjust to the pressure. I feel a whoosh in my ear but it quickly passes as I equalise. I look up and check the light. Releasing a few bubbles, I check my position. I look down into the dark. I blink again and slowly release more air from my lungs. I can feel the blood move from my limbs. It is at this moment my dive body kicks in. The shift is significant and I feel like I have dispersed. Time has stopped. I am calm and my mind is blank. I feel aware of every atom in my body as it adjusts to the underwater world.
I observe my surroundings. The pressure increases and moves up my body like a heavy wave. The light from above is faint. I cut through the water. The only sound a slow thud – thud in my chest. The ocean floor finally reveals itself to me. As my eyes adjust, I can see a rocky bed, and as I get closer I realise it is sloping off. I follow the drop of the ridge and try to determine if it ends within my limits. My body instinctively makes the split second decision. The pressure is stronger than I’ve experienced; this must be the deepest I’ve been. Finally I can just make out a shape. An anchor. This means the ship should be nearby. I move further along the flat bed area, through the undulating reeds, and there it is, a shape, only discernable by its solid darkness within the darkness. As I move towards it, a huge cramp hits my stomach. I have reached my limit. I kick off the nearest rock and push myself away. All my focus has turned inwards. As I move upwards, something tugs me back. I make a hard stroke and focus on moving away. Every sinew in my tiny body is screaming out for oxygen, but I can’t move. I look down and see a hand around my ankle. I kick out hard, but it won’t release me. I bend and grapple with the fingers, try to prise them away. I follow the white hands along the pale, slender arms and see the face emerge from the reeds. My face comes close to its face. It is my face. I close my eyes, focus and become still. I know never to fight with the sea, as it will always win. When I open my eyes, I see the reeds around my ankle; I gently tease them loose and kick free. I head for the surface, kicking harder than I should. Papa’s voice tells me not to panic. I know I cannot stop once I am coming up. Suddenly I feel serene. I know this is my body eking out what little oxygen it has left. I can feel the pressure ease around my limbs, the focus in my eyes change. It becomes lighter and I know I do not have far to go. Someone is swimming in the brightness above and I wonder if it is me. Those long limbs look like mine. Hair swirls around a face like mine. I realise that Ma has come to make sure I am safe. I kick harder and harder and finally I break the surface.
‘Deep breath, hold and push it deep, Bayi Gurita.’ Her face is close to mine, and her body wraps around mine and lifts me. I inhale and push the oxygen deep into my cells. I feel my limbs awaken and my eyes adjust to the bright sunshine. Lay on my back, I float till my breathing returns to normal. The sun beats down on my face and the above-water sounds bring me back to my land body. The endless blue looks more vibrant than ever before. I turn to swim back and see Mawi sat waiting for me on the beach. I wave, tuck my head in and swim for the shore.
Photo by Tomek Dzido
“You have to singe the hair off, remove the insides, then pop it back on the fire again to cook.” He scooped the rat’s innards out, flicked them to one side, then placed the rat back on the fire. He grabbed another from the wriggling bag. “Stretch them gently to break the neck.” The rat put up little resistance as he pulled at its head. He poked a stick through it and placed it next to the others on the fire – a neat little row of rat kebabs. He had been through this little routine many times, possibly in the hope that I would do it one day.
“How many we got left?”
“Enough.” He prodded at the fire, turned the charred little bodies, and passed me one.
“I’ll catch more tomorrow, keep the bag wriggling.” I tucked in.
I caught, he killed – this was our division of labour. Rat tasted like shit, but not as shit as other stuff we’d eaten. We always overcooked them, preferring the taste of burn to the flesh.
“We’ll eat this, fill our water up, then walk till nightfall, okay?”
I nodded whilst I munched.
“Where we headed?”
He pointed ahead, toward the ravine, where the two hills met.
“Are we ever gonna stop?”
“Why would we do that?”
“Dunno.” I shrugged.
“Well then.” He stared morosely ahead.
We walked in silence. We always did. I liked the hills, the ups and downs, the feeling of having traversed a great distance, our journey mapped in my body’s memory and my aching muscles. I imagined myself being watched from a great height; from a tall tree, a soaring bird, a plane, a satellite, another planet; my body slowly shrinking and then disappearing. There were no planes any more, and we rarely saw birds. This must be what it was like before man built on the land, just rolling hills and red skies. Spring meant that the days were getting longer, so we walked more, but it also brought with it optimism and warmth.
Moving gave us purpose. We both acknowledged that. To stay put was to give up, but how long would we keep walking? Jay always said too much thinking was bad for you. You think too much when you stay put. Stillness leads to melancholy, he said. He was probably right; I did always lose myself staring into the fire. Probably in the same way he lost himself imagining what was over the next horizon. For now I was happy to walk. We ate, and we moved through life, one point to another.
We used to walk side by side, but this led to talking, which meant disappointment. Now I walked behind him. I was his shadow. I wondered how far I could drop behind before he noticed I was gone. He never checked if I was there, and we rarely spoke. It could be hours before he noticed I had disappeared. We could lose one another and then find each other again.
He stopped and looked around. It wasn’t fully dark yet, so we didn’t need to rest. He crouched down low and beckoned me. I walked over to him.
“Look.” He pointed. In the distance, I could make out dark shapes on the hillside.
“What is it?”
“I don’t know.”
We sat for a while and stared at the silhouettes. They didn’t move or make a sound. As the light dimmed they lost definition and merged to become a mass of darkness.
“We can’t stay here,” he whispered.
“We should go and see what it is.”
“It’s probably nothing.”
“It’s not nothing. It’s definitely something.”
“I say we walk this way.” He gestured in a direction away from the hillside.
“What is the point in all this if we don’t go and see?”
“I don’t know.”
“Are we just walking, or are we searching?”
“I don’t know. I’m just don’t know anymore.” He sat down and sighed. He muttered and fumbled for words. “I pretend sometimes… that we are just between all the normal things. I imagine that at the end of all this, it will be just the same as it was. Do you?” He looked at me and I nodded. ”We just have to get through this. We have to just ride this bit out.” He picked at the grass, small blades at first, and then big soil clumps. He dipped his head so I couldn’t see him crying. He sniffed and wiped the bloody snot from his nose.
I stood and walked ahead, then turned to him. “Come on.” We walked on, and this time he was my shadow.
The shapes became clearer as we approached. They were huge carcasses, at least ten of them. Their dry, white bones gleamed in the moonlight. We approached one of the bodies. They were much bigger than I ever imaged them. We both surveyed the scene before us. One lay on its side with its neck stretched out, its skull upright to the ground making it look twisted and wrong. Dark, empty eye sockets stared peacefully ahead.
“Looks like they all died at the same time.”
“Or came together to die.”
I could smell the last of the day’s warmth emanating from what little flesh was left on their bones. I slipped my hand into his and we stood for a while, neither talking. I imagined us from high above – me, Jay and the piles of bones. I imagined our thoughts swirling around us and rising into the atmosphere, joining the thoughts of others. Did cows have thoughts?
We left the hillside of bones and carried on walking. Night was creeping in so we walked closer to one another. You could gauge the light of the day by our proximity. We would have to find somewhere to sleep soon. We walked, the crunch of our footsteps the only sound. The ground was getting hard and I could see my breath.
The old farmhouse was tucked into the corner of a field, surrounded by the skeletons of old machinery. Some rusty, corrugated iron flapped on the roof as we approached, as if panicking.
You could smell the life inside as soon as we opened the door. The scent, like warm metal and urine permeated the room. I heard a whimper as we walked in. Jay slipped his hand into his pocket and pulled his knife out and we approached. I could see Jay’s wide, white eyes as we walked slowly toward the noise. My breathing stopped and I could hear the rush of blood in my head. The bitch and her puppies were huddled in the corner, cowering as we moved towards her. She was all sweat and dirt, and was panting heavily. I poured some water in my cup and held it for her to drink.
“Save your water, she’s gonna die anyway.”
“What we going to do with her?”
“I’m taking the puppies.”
“Can we leave her one?”
“Maybe. I wonder where the male is.”
We both sat and watched as she fed her pups. You could feel the heat coming off her. The writhing little bodies squeaked gently as they suckled.
We slept in the same bag that night, and he held me close. He was funny like that, hardly touched me during the day, but all over me and inside me at night. After we had done it, he turned away and lifted his arm for me to fit mine though. He was asleep and snoring within minutes. I gently eased my arm from around him, tucked it under my chin and closed my eyes. The sounds of the panting dog feeding her pups disturbed my sleep. I tried to synchronise my breathing with hers, and I thought about all those little mouths suckling on her teats.
I dreamt that night. We were sleeping on the hillside amongst the dead cows. Jay was next to me, but he was all bones, his ribs jutted out from his chest. Turning to me his jaw clacked, ‘if you don’t move, you’ll change too.’
I couldn’t move my legs, and looking down I saw my feet were stumpy white bones. I wiggled my bony toes and held my hands up to my face. One was a skeleton and the other a dog paw. I tried to tell Jay, but it came out as a bark. He started to move closer, his bones falling away as he lifted his arm to put it around me.
When I woke, I felt my legs and studied my hands. A dim arc of light was moving over the opposite wall from the high window. I followed it till it faded into the light that crept from under the door. Jay was already awake, I could tell from his breathing.
“You were barking in your sleep.”
“Was I? Sorry.”
We packed up in silence and I went over to see the dogs. I bent down beside the bitch and stroked her. The puppies whimpered as they clambered over each other fighting for space. I moved one aside, leant in to her nipples and put my lips around it. I sucked gently. The milk was warm and sweet. She looked round at me briefly then returned her head to the floor with a whimper.
“You should have some too,” I said to Jay.
“Nah.” He walked over with his bag and picked up the pups one by one and dropped them in.
“You need to leave a male,” I told him. He inspected the last pup and put it back with mum. She didn’t lift her head.
“Come on, we’re leaving.”
“Now?” I stroked her gently between her eyes, and she closed them. I wanted to stay with her, but Jay was already by the door. The day’s light filled the room as he dragged it open. The bag was wriggling and yelping on his back. “We need to find wood for the fire.” He walked out and I followed.
Emily lived under the old house for as long as she could remember. She never questioned why. It was dark and she was alone, but she was used to it.
A solitary window, high up the wall, let in a little light and she had piled up boxes, crates, and anything she could find, to reach it. Now and again she climbed up to peek out at the world. She stood on her tiptoes to get a good view and sometimes she would push her face through the bars and breathe in the air from outside.
The garden out front was overgrown and a high broken fence surrounded it. Beyond the garden was the forest where the big black birds lived. Occasionally they would perch on the fence and caw to one another. Emily would join in, stomping from one foot to the other and flapping her arms. The birds, thinking she was one of their own, pecked at the bars to try and free her, and they would poke their beaks through the gap and drop morsels of food for her to eat.
One day a gang of raggedy children came and played in the overgrown garden, and hearing Emily caw, assumed that she was a trapped bird. From then on, whenever they visited, they brought scraps of food to drop through the window. The children talked to the trapped bird, but as Emily could not understand their strange language, she would caw and flap at them.
And so Emily lived. A tiny, trapped bird. Living on scraps in a dark cellar, with only the birds to speak to.
“Where are her Mum and Dad?”
“The story doesn’t say.” Ali tucked the covers tight around Kate, tapped her nose affectionately and turned the page.
Emily spent her days performing strange rituals to pass the time – marking the sun’s single ray as it moved slowly across her dark floor, slowly cleaning herself and changing her clothes, moving all the items in the room from one side to the other, building and reinforcing the stairs to the window and looking for bugs, some of which she ate, some she kept in a jar.
At night she wrapped herself in a rug, climbed into a box and went to sleep stroking her own face whilst cawing gently.
Her dreams were dark and dismal, much like her surroundings.
“I have bad dreams too, sometimes.”
“I know sweetie, but you have to remember they are just dreams.” Ali read on.
One night, for no apparent reason, she woke, clambered up to the window and looked up at the sky. She saw lights dotted around the darkness. She imagined that someone had poked through the black cloak of night and revealed a bright and wonderful place behind. She had never noticed the stars before.
From then on her dreams became more vivid. She dreamt of the bright place behind the sky. Long, lustrous wings grew on her back and she soared with the black birds. They glided in and out of the holes of light. Sometimes the light stayed with her and she could still feel it in the pit of her stomach when she woke.
The next time the children visited they left her food and they banged and clanged at the bars. This time more loudly and more frantically than before. Emily hid.
“Why do they bang?”
“I think they are trying to help her.”
“But they are scaring her!”
“Maybe they don’t realise.”
Finally they left and she collected the food they had dropped. Amongst the morsels was a small object, possibly the item they banged with. She picked it up and examined it. It was long and cool in her hand. One end was big and heavy, the other ended at a point.
Realising that the object had a function, she jabbed repeatedly at the air with it. Then she stabbed at a block of wood among the clutter on her makeshift stairs. The tool lodged tight in the block. As she pulled it out, the wood splintered and cracked. She examined the split in the wood closely then stared at the tool in her hand. Suddenly her fingers started to move fast as they grasped their purpose.
The tool picked and chipped and scratched at the block of wood. When she finished she inspected what she had made. It was the perfect image of her own face.
For days she looked to the wooden face hoping it would show her what to do. She licked it clean and kissed it, although she could never recall being kissed. She pressed the cold wooden face against her own.
“She needed a friend.”
“We all need friends, don’t we?”
Each time she looked at the face, its dark wooden eyes stared back at her.
“Why doesn’t the face tell her what to do?”
“Can wood speak?”
“No, but this is a story. Anything could happen.”
“That’s very true.”
Waking one night, she looked for the face, but she couldn’t see it. Panicking, she scuttled over to where she left it, but it was not there. She let out a sorrowful caw. Then she spotted it.
The face was on the floor, split in two – right down the middle. A sliver of moonlight illuminated the space between.
It was trying to tell her something. She could feel it. Following the gaze of the broken face, she saw how one eye looked at the tool while the stared at the window and the lights beyond.
Emily felt the light turn on inside of her. Seizing the tool, she climbed up to the window and banged as hard as she could on the concrete surrounding the bar.
She banged and chipped. Caw!
And bashed and smashed. Caaaw!
And pounded and beat away, until her hands bled. CAW!
Eventually the bar loosened; she could feel it move! She grasped it hard with her bloody hands and rocked back and forth in a frenzy until it was free. Finally she pushed the bar through the window with a mighty scream that took her by surprise. The birds fluttered from their resting place in the forest and swirled as one across the night sky.
She looked at the space she had made, and then she looked at herself. She glanced at the face on the floor and turned to the lights behind the sky. Everything was so clear, so still, and so beautiful.
She breathed in the cool night air, let out a loud caw and flapped her arms.
Ali closed the book and looked at Kate.
“Right, sleep time.”
“Does she climb through? She escapes! Where does she go?”
“That’s where the story ends.”
“Well they have to end somewhere.”
“But what happened to the girl?”
“What would you like to happen?” She brushed the errant hair from Kate’s frowning brow.”
“I’d like her to climb through the window.”
“Ok. She climbs through the window and she is free.”
“But you just made that up. It doesn’t count.”
“I’m going now. I’ll leave the light on for ten.”
Kate waited till Ali had left the room and then she picked the book up from the floor. She turned to the back page and studied the picture of Emily looking through the window, her little face reflecting the moonlight.
She grabbed at the pen on her bedside table and scribbled the face out. Then with tongue poking out and a determined look on her face, she carefully sketched a picture of Emily flying amongst the stars. She placed the book back on the floor, smiled, and closed her eyes.
She waits. She watches the horizon. The sky was almost black when she left the cottage. Now it is a dark grey, where the low cloud meets the blanket of white. Her legs ache from the steep walk through the forest, and her face stings. It’s a bitter, biting cold. She inspects the mud that clings to her skirts.
She imagines him appearing over the horizon. His fair hair, his dark eyes, and then his smile, his perfect smile.
“Wait for me, I will come,” he said.
She doesn’t know how long she has waited, but her hands are numb, despite the thick socks and pockets she stuffed them into. The once toasty coals from the hearth are now just cold rocks. She pulls them out of her pocket and drops them into the snow. Maybe she should keep them; they might need them later. They are like black eyes staring up at her. She wonders if it’s bad luck to leave them like that.
“But, what if Father won’t let you go, what if you can’t get out again?”
“I’ll get out.”
He winked. She blushed. They kissed.
“Make sure you eat lots, and wrap up,” he said.
She is wearing every item of clothing that she owns, but she can still feel the chill creeping in. The layers of stockings don’t compensate for the hole in her boot. She rocks from foot to foot, the snow crunching under her feet. Her wet toes squelch. She would have to fix that before they set off on their journey.
She scans the skyline again.
“Listen now, don’ you be talkin’ to anyone else you might see.”
“And don’ even be thinkin’ ‘bout it. Keep them thoughts nice.”
“An’, if it creep in your ‘ed, push it reet out.”
She looks down at the black eyes, then closes her own and imagines him walking towards her, taking her hand. Escaping into their future. They have plans just over the horizon.
When she opens her eyes the whiteness blinds her.
“It’s just the sun. It be comin’ up.” Her words form a mist in front of her face.
The posts along the track seem to move. She can hear them creaking under the weight of the snow. They look blacker too. Her stepmom had told her they were the charred souls of all the bad people.
“There be a space for you, right there.” She would point. “Marching right to hell, and you be going wi’ um, dirty, evil girl!”
Maybe they are moving to make room for her right now.
She can feel it creeping in. The doubt.
She looks around at the patchwork of fields, boundaries marked by bare trees and stumps that jut out from the land. Billowing white as far as she can see. They played in these fields as children. Black clouds hang heavy, almost touching the ground, casting a creeping dark shadow on the white as they roll.
She can just make out the twirl of smoke in the distance. Father was up. She imagines him swinging his axe, chopping the wood. He had been a good man once, but now he was always angry. Most of the time he would take it out on the wood, but sometimes not. She shivers, pulls her layers tight around her and pushes her hands deep into her pockets. She prays he has made it out.
She turns to see the wind lifting the snow from the path, a small swirl at first, but growing, dancing and twirling, gathering speed. A spinning whirlwind moves towards her. It picks up speed and strength as it moves.
….Push it reet out
She closes her eyes. Warm fires, his eyes, his lips, holding hands, she’s laughing, he pinches her cheek. Laughing…laughing…his hands…warm fires…his face… where was he? Kissing…their hands… holding hands – not cold but warm, soon, but when…
She can feel the icy fingertips on her face. Her heart beats loud in her ears.
She closes her eyes tighter. Her heart pounds in her head. She feels sick and dizzy.
Push it out
But she can feel the chill down her right side where it brushes up against her. She can hear its breath freeze into crystals and fall to the ground. It sounds like the bone chime on their porch.
He aint comin’ they won’t let him out, stupid girl.
Come with me, I’ll keep you safe.
Warmth, fires, kissing his lips, sunshine, green fields, picking buttercups, laughing, always laughing, his eyes on her, his touch…there be a space for you right there, dirty girl…
Noooo. Shhhhhh, push it out.
You can’t make me go away. You need to look at me.
“I ain’t lookin.”
I won’t go till you see me.
Gleaming light bursts through as she slowly opens her eyes. She stares ahead then flicks a glance at the path, but he’s not there. She looks back at the house.
I told you, he aint comin’, he’s knows you a wicked girl.
Without moving, she glances to her right: she can see the swirl of white at her side. She can feel the chilling stare. Hear the wind whistling through it.
LOOK AT ME.
She turns, her eyes still closed.
“You can’t scare me.” She opens her eyes and sees the gaping holes staring back. The wide, blackened mouth smiles and swirls around its icy face. The shape shifts with the wind, and a long tendril extends outwards, it jabs at her belly.
That chile coming out all wrong and you goin’ straight to hell!
She places her hands over her stomach.
“Don’t you be saying that.”
You done wrong, but I can make it right.
“No, leave me alone. I ain’t bothered your kind, please go away.”
I can make it go away.
The icy tendrils wrap themselves around her. The wind whips around her face, howling at her, lifting her skirts, pulling at her hair, taking her breath as it tries to get inside her. The chill seeps deep into her bones. Her whole body begins to shiver.
She closes her eyes and screams into the storm.
“You’re NOT real!”
She opens her eyes. Stillness and silence. She looks down at the two lumps of coal in the snow and pushes them under the white with her boot.
She turns and he is there on the path. She straightens herself and resists the urge to wave. His face looks stern. She watches as he gets nearer. He’s got Father’s coat on and his gun hangs over his back. He walks right up to her and kisses her boldly on the lips, and gently strokes her blossoming belly. She welcomes the warmth.
“You good little sis?”
“How did you get Father’s gun?”
“Don’t you be worryin’ ‘bout that. You ready?”
“Then let’s go.”
Photography by Ryan Licata
MAN ON A BEACH
His eyes have been open for a while before he registers the scene before him. He observes the world on its side. His senses are attacked as he tries to understand his surroundings. Ahead is the sea, calm and still, and around him is pristine, white sand as far as the eye can see. Above him, the infinite blue sky is void of life. He lifts his head slightly and looks around – sea, sand, and trees behind. He is on a beach, a beautiful beach.
He inspects himself. No broken bones, he feels perfectly fine. He feels great actually, as if he has just had the most refreshing, long sleep. He brushes the warm sand from his left cheek as he sits up.
He notes that there is no other person in sight. He also notices he is wearing an extremely smart three-piece suit, including waistcoat and tie, certainly not good attire for the beach. He stands and stretches.
“Hello!” He turns and looks around him. “Hello, anybody there?”
There is a flutter as a bird flies out from the trees; he feels reassured by life’s presence.
He looks at the sea. For a second he thinks he can see someone swimming in the water, but the glint of the sun is playing tricks on his eyes.
He looks back at the trees.
“Hello! Hello! Anybody there?” he yells.
The silence is palpable; his voice sounds out of place and it feels like every living thing is holding its breath.
He walks back from the beach towards the trees, pausing to slip off his footwear. He sinks his toes into the warm sand, stretches upwards and lets out a long satisfying groan.
“I can think of worse places to be.” The silence unsettles him; the sound of his voice is comforting. He tries to remember places he has been and he can’t. He also tries to remember his name. There is only one thing he is sure of – he needs to piss. Badly.
He undoes his jacket, unzips his pants and looks ahead at the trees as he empties his bladder. He considers writing HELP in the sand but he’s nearly finished by the time the thought registers. He fastens up, and slips his jacket off. Something solid bounces in his jacket pocket; he feels inside.
One bar battery, no Wi-Fi.
He flicks it open and scrolls through the previous calls; he recognises no names. He looks at the messages. There is only one, from a Sarah.
‘WHERE ARE YOU?’
He taps reply and stares at the blank screen. He doesn’t know who he is, where he is, or how he had got here. He types,
‘I don’t know – where was I?’
and clicks send. The message disappears with a whoosh. He calls 999; the line buzzes for a while then cuts off. He calls Sarah. It eventually rings and goes to messages.
Hi, I can’t take your call right now, leave a message and if I can be bothered, I’ll get back to you.
‘Hi, it’s me. You sent me a message. I don’t know where I am, I’m not sure what’s happened. I’m on a beach. Somewhere. I don’t know…can you track this call? I…I’m not sure you’re even gonna get this…’
He cuts off. He looks at the phone, and taps onto pictures. Scrolling through the unfamiliar faces, he doesn’t even pause at his own. He turns the camera on, and flips the icon to take a selfie. He looks at his face and feels at his jawline. It is his face, but he looks like a stranger.
It’s hot. He strips to his boxers and pops the phone down the front. The skin around his ribs is mottled with bruises, old and fresh. As he takes off his pants he sees a strap and holder on his calf. He rummages inside and pulls out a small gun. Instinctively he pops open the cartridge – one bullet used. Tossing the gun onto the jacket, he slips his shoes back on and heads inland.
“Hello…hello?…” His voice bounces around the trees and foliage. He stops and listens out for the distant sounds of civilisation. Maybe there is a resort nearby. He hears nothing. He walks further, but stays parallel to the beach, scanning all around him for any tiny signs of life; footsteps, debris, a walked path, animals, birds…anything.
The terrain is tough and exhaustion sets in quickly. An ache in his head and a throbbing chest brings him to a halt. Fire burns in his throat, reminding him that he needs water. He rubs his hands over his ribs, and a pain shoots from chest to groin as he probes. He needs to get back out in the open. He turns and walks back towards the light of the clearing.
Out under the blue sky again, he hears the lapping of the ocean waves. He is relieved to be back on the beach. He walks back along the sand until his pile of clothes appear on the horizon. He will have to find water soon. He will have to start thinking long term.
He phone buzzes in his pants and he grabs it, flicks it open. 1 unread text. It is from Sarah.
‘Did you do it?’
What? What did he do?
The text comes back within a minute.
‘Everything is going to be ok.’
He tries phoning the number, but it cuts off. He tries other numbers, none work. He clicks ‘emergency call’, but it just rings out.
He shuts the phone and looks out to the sea.
‘I need to cool down.’
He strips and wades in. The water feels wonderful. It soothes his aching body, and the salt heals. He floats, looking up at the endless blue. Everything is going to be ok. He has no reason not to believe this. He turns and looks back at the beach.
No. It can’t be. He blinks and looks again. There is a man lying on the beach. A man in a suit. He waves and frantically starts to swim back to shore, but the drift pulls him back. He shouts, and waves again. The man stands, he looks like he is waving, but he turns and walks towards the trees.
RED AMBER GREEN
Trevor took a deep breath, as deep as he could with the ball gag in his mouth. He estimated that he’d been breathing the same air for over two hours now, as it felt warm and heavy in his lungs. His arms and legs ached, and an itch kept visiting his lower back. He also needed the toilet, but he liked the feeling of having a full bladder. He would have to relieve himself soon, but this didn’t bother him. Despite his aches and his need to piss, his mind was clear. The word ‘serene’ floated around his head and he decided that this was exactly the right word for his situation. He played with the word in his mind, said it over and over till it lost its meaning. Trevor mentally arranged all his problems and found a solution for each and every one of them. He created his ‘to do’ list and prioritised tasks. He felt invincible; he would conquer all his worries with renewed vigour once he got out. He could tackle anything after today’s session. The time was right to release his piss. He revelled in the warmth as it worked its way down his legs and pooled around his knees.
Meditation couldn’t beat this, he thought. He didn’t buy into all that new age shit; crystals, homeopathy, Chi, Zen, Feng Shui, all of it bollocks. The image of the Dalai Lama bound and gagged popped into his head. Unwanted thoughts happened sometimes, and the more he tried to shake them, the more they persisted. He pushed His Holiness to the back of his mind and pulled his tax-free allowances to the front; he was sure there was more he could get away with. He wondered if he could claim for his new toys on his expenses. He was just tallying up the cost of his new leisure activity when the cramp set in. It was a dull ache at first, then pins and needles. He tried to contract and release his muscles but it was no good, he was too tightly bound. The cramp was now in that excruciating tenderness stage that always followed pins and needles. He froze, tried to take his mind away somewhere nice whilst it passed. The Dalia Lama popped into his head again; this time he had red stilettos on.
Trevor’s legs were now completely numb, and the once warm piss was cold on his thighs. The smell was still warm though. He knew by now you had to take the rough with the smooth. He had come to learn of late that the rough was the smooth. No pain, no gain he thought – sometimes you have to go rock bottom to appreciate the finer things in life. He couldn’t think of any more clichés, which surprised him as they were always banding that shit around at work. If only they could see him now. This thought actually invigorated him and he could feel a twitching in his groin. The ball in his mouth was beginning to feel bigger and he desperately wanted to swallow but couldn’t. The dry spittle around his chin was dry and itchy. He made a slurping noise as he sucked in the warm pissy air and dribble. He reckoned it was past three hours now. Not long to go. He must savour these last moments. He delved deep into the darkness, and after fighting off the image of the Dalai Lama dancing in red shoes and stockings he found the place he wanted to be.
Trevor liked to relive the first time he was caught. It was at this low point (although he now thought it otherwise) that it had all turned around for him. He had been sat at his desk working his way through his papers, filling in his tax return, which was already late. Marie had been nagging him about it for weeks and eventually she had ground him down. He rummaged around her desk for an envelope and stamp. God she was organised. There was a tidy pile of envelopes and a booklet of stamps. For no reason in particular he pulled out the other drawers, all were just as organised. The bottom one was full of women’s magazines and at the side of the magazine was a long box, he opened it up. Inside was what he thought was a long torch, but then it dawned on him. It was a huge vibrator. He laughed at first, but then he felt angry. How come she hadn’t told him about this? They hadn’t had sex for over six months, not for his want of trying, but she always had a headache, or was tired. He flicked the vibrator on. He wondered how he would tackle this issue with her, maybe he wouldn’t; perhaps he wouldn’t say anything at all. He wasn’t quite sure of his train of thought, but just two minutes later he had rammed the vibrator up his ass and was wanking furiously over a magazine article about Fern Britton. The dirty-big-blonde-bitch loved it when his hot stickiness flopped onto her face.
The moment when Marie walked in and when Fern got what she deserved was absolute bliss for Trevor. He considered afterwards that he knew he was going to be caught. This was the moment he thought of every time he masturbated. Each time he would imagine Marie’s face more distraught than the last. Sometimes he imagined that whilst he was still frantically pumping over Fern, Marie would come over and slap him hard in the face and call him every obscenity under the sun. She would beat him so hard he would piss himself, and then she would laugh and laugh and laugh at how pathetic he was. He liked this one; this was his default wank fantasy scenario. In reality, Marie had run off crying and had been unable to speak to him for a week. They had communicated via post it notes and phone messages. Eventually and reluctantly she agreed to chat about it. Trevor pleaded with her, said he couldn’t bear to lose her and that he’d do anything to make it work. Marie was angry, but unwittingly she slipped into the role that Trevor had only ever fantasised about. Within a month they had ordered a huge luggage trunk and he was having his alone time, bound and gagged, whilst Marie was off with her friends shopping and having an afternoon tipple.
Trevor woke pushing against his restraints. He didn’t normally sleep. This was wrong, very wrong. Marie should have been back by now. He tried to shout the safe word. His jaw had locked around the ball. He pushed and writhed to the point of exhaustion. He struggled till he no longer recognised his boundaries. He drifted away. He felt numb. He was cold. Disorientated. Only occasionally did he reach that place where his limbs felt out of proportion. He had surpassed that and now he was floating in space, he was as vast as a milky way. There was no up or down, and he was slowly spinning away from himself. This was his natural state of being and everything else led up to this moment. He was back in the womb. How crude his life had been until this point. His mind lay like a thin blanket across the cosmos. His body was weak, but his mind had never been as sharp. He could hear the low hum of existence, a sound that had always been there but he had never noticed before. The sound filled him up. He became the sound.
He stands in front of you, and you look up to his face. Inhaling his breath, you smell his sweat, his warmth tantalising your chemoreceptors. You feel the interatomic forces as the flesh of your lips come closer to his. You are two magnets bound by the attraction of charged electrons.
Pulses race, a palpable pressure wave crashes over bone; a human tide. He is the sun and the moon, and you are the ocean. Pupils dilate; breath quickens, a sweet and gentle zephyr carries the scent of yellow roses.
You remember the dreaming, wanting, aching – this as a picture in your head over and over, revisited, rewound, perfected, but it is more vibrant.
You contemplate the moments before this, past times measured by significant occurrences, impossible to recreate or capture with words; and your imagined future, untouchable, a billion offshoots of this perfect instance. Then you consider this second and how it exists in every available space.
Your lips haven’t yet touched. You can’t quite catch your breath, but you sip the air between you. Capture this moment. You need to preserve it all.
You want to savour. The shape of his mouth. The light through his hair. The space between you. The spaces between everything.
Your bodies are close, his face fills your view, and his eyes pour into yours. You wade into his warmth. Your hand is drawn to the arc of his cheek. A temporary horizon. Fourteen billion years to this.
Then the kiss, the exchange of sensory information; silent pheromones. A sip of honey. You close your eyes, and the sensors in your lips tell your brain they are touching his lips, but it is the gravitational and electromagnetic forces of the atoms within. You are mainly empty space, essentially nothing. You love his nothing.
For a moment you imagine yourself as a statue. The world is moving around and over you. One day you will be weathered and beaten and eventually you will be dust. In another time your atoms will exist in another part of the universe.
But for now, this very second, you are here standing in front of him at the edge of an immeasurable heaven.
Your lips part from his and you catch your breath. The world feels blurred. You float through the evening on a lullaby of distractions. Hand in hand you move between worlds, smiles, and laughter. Affirmations – human interactions that serve to reinforce this socially recognised ritual.
Many years from now your memory of this will change. You won’t remember the lines at the corner of his mouth when he smiled, how his hair looked golden in the sunlight, or how when you looked into his eyes a whole universe existed there, a black hole at the centre. But you will remember the kiss. This was your event horizon.
The days pass by as fragmented as distant memories. Faces come and go, but you no longer recognise them or worry about making sense of everything. You find meaning in the little things, and take comfort in the sameness of it all. Your world has become small, yet everything seems much bigger.
Someone brings you flowers, yellow roses tinged with pink. You dwell on the contrast of the colours. It stirs you. You try to discern the colour between as you breathe in their scent. You imagine yourself lying on the soft petals. A voice seeps into your mind, as a gentle melody. The sound waves dance around you as you sink into the yellow and pink.
You turn and look at her face. It is his face, with his soft lines, his smile.
She has his eyes too, and within them you see the universe, the whole of space and time, infinite possibilities, many lifetimes occurring in a vast cosmic arena. You slide from your petal tip and place yourself in a distant constellation and wait for it all to begin again.
THE HEAVEN OF CANNIBALS
I ate my dolls as a child. I remember the act of putting the plastic limbs in my mouth and the difficulty I had chewing them. The cheap, thin plastic crunched like tiny bones. I imagined the dolls screaming as I devoured them. I also remember the feeling of overwhelming joy when I had eaten a full one. This started when I was about five years old. My mother told me I used to eat the stuffing out of my teddies. I recollect their deflated bodies scattered around my bedroom.
There was a tremendous fuss made whenever I was rushed to A & E to remove a blockage. I found this incredibly exciting. The panic on my mother’s face when I nearly choked on a particularly large doll’s eye was priceless. I shall never forget her tears of happiness when I drew in a huge breath after she pounded on my back to remove the culprit. I felt distanced from the scene, as if I watched from afar. The eye shot from my throat, arched gracefully through the air, landed on the floor and rolled around before staring back at me.
At high school I’d sneak hairs from my friends’ heads and eat them. My best friend Ellie had the most beautiful long, golden-blonde hair; it reminded me of the straw that was spun into gold in my Rumpelstiltskin book (which I also ate).
Over a few weeks, I managed to sneak together a nice hairball to eat at my leisure at home. I felt satisfied for a while, but then I couldn’t stop thinking about eating all of her hair. I invited Ellie to a sleep over, and during the night I cut off as much of her golden locks as possible. I can still see her wide-eyed look of horror as she inspected her tufts in the mirror the following morning.
That binge had me in hospital for a week. They ran lots of tests and I had weeks of therapy. The looks of concern on my parents’ faces grew deeper and I found it touching that they worried so much. I felt special.
Eventually I returned to school. Ellie’s hair had grown a little. I wanted to explain that my therapist said I had pica disorder, and that I only ate things I loved. I had wanted to make Ellie part of me, just as I had with my beloved dolls and teddies. My therapist explained that it was quite a common issue with children and that I would grow out of it. Ellie wouldn’t speak to me though.
High school became a cruel place. I had no friends, and I was bullied and called names. The other kids joked saying that I would eat them if they sat still long enough. My desire to eat things went away as my therapist said it would. Eventually I stopped eating completely.
The weight dropped off me, and I developed a layer of fine down all over my emaciated body. I convinced myself that I was turning into one of my deflated teddies. I had hardly any energy, and everything seemed to play out in slow motion. My parents shouted and cried at me and then shouted at each other. The world went on without me interacting with it. I tried to explain that because I loved no one, I no longer needed to eat. I wanted nothing inside of me. I was vulnerable. Weak. I stopped speaking. I wanted to be inanimate.
And then I met you online. We chatted for a few days. You said that you understood me. I saw through your sweet words and clichés, but I let you draw me in. I liked the odd attention. I sent you pictures and could sense your furtive fumbling.
You thought you were the spider and I the fly. Stupid old man.
You said we should meet.
We met and you said that you loved me. That this was our destiny. You fed me your kisses, and your saliva quenched me. I drank your fluids, wasted not one drop. A flower of love started to bud inside of me. This was me – at last. Your hands all over my bones. This was what I had desired all these years, but had been on the wrong path. I grew strong – the bud grew tendrils that reached deep inside you. Your strength became mine. We were the perfect equation. You gave and I took. I was unwilling, but you forced yourself on me. Then it was you who wavered as your strength drained out all over the pavement. You said I took too much, but you underestimated my passion. I saw the fear in your eyes just before I ate them. Soft and succulent, they slid down my throat instead of lodging in it.
See, it was meant to be.
WE ARE EACH OTHER
Sleep is a state of darkness separate to existence; it is pleasant and restful to the mind, which can be a matter dark indeed. Sleep is a journey to welcome relief. It is the shifting kaleidoscope of darkness that can be found by burying the whole of your head in the pillow and beckoning the world of dreams. To dream is to banish yourself to some far distant corner of mind, to imagine memory dissolve and vanish, to forget, to lose sense of place and time. We become locked in a more intense reality. The dream is, in a sense, a purer sense of self, as it is in the dream that the whole self is situated.
Dreams are portals to wormholes. Upon dreaming, the physical being will transfer thoughts, experiences, knowledge and memory with another physical being that is also dreaming. Dreams allow us to physically experience the lives of others.
In dreams you cannot always be sure you have escaped yourself and one must be wary of this. You can traverse and surmount centuries of the immobility of the body, from where the unseen walls keep changing, adapting themselves to the shape of each successive lingering consideration; things that you had in mind when you went to sleep.
The dream experience creates a smooth transition from one physical being to another.
Dreams help span seemingly unbridgeable gaps; the dream is the journey through the wormhole. When the dream comes it is a cave of warmth dug out of the heart of a summer evening, where you fall into a moment of the heart beating.
The images in dreams are possibilities of other futures, a glimmer of others’ memories merged with your own to add the familiar. The dream will sense your feelings, your wants, desires and apprehensions, and will try to make the transition with a suitable match.
A person may experience recurring dreams if previously these dreams have been successful in transference.
In dreams, the simplicity of everything will begin to appear. The thoughts of others blend so harmoniously with your own ideas, earlier memories mingle with the present and the possible futures. In dreams one can meet with others’ thoughts. Real life may gradually become mundane in comparison.
The mind will never contrive to make the body and all the surrounding objects stand still. It is surely life-affirming knowing that you are not in places that you had known or will ever know; yet they seem familiar. They seem familiar because they are remnants of another’s memory, the physical world’s link to all others. In dreams one can distinguish the reflections of mysteries and forbidden thoughts. One can become an inviolable solitude.
Time after time the dream-invaded consciousness will become infinitely more peculiar and appealing. The refinement and existence of a particular dream instance makes it seem highly probable that any moment is possible. During waking hours the dream consciousness will whisper – forbidden pleasures and gushing sweetness will come if you understand. Hearts will be broken, mended. Infinite pleasures realised. Eternity exists within a single breath and a single breath can last an eternity.
The dream self will beckon you, tempt you into sleep, so that the two selves can be reconciled.
The ultimate aim of a dream is the transference of the consciousness to another physical being. In a sense it is possible that at one time you were the person walking past you in the street.
The physical being is a vessel for many consciousnesses.
We do not live in the now for there are infinite nows.
We were all each other at some point in time and will continue to be so.
Sunrise in Cappadocia
The coach was unbearably warm, despite being advertised as fully air con. Brian fiddled with the air vent above them for at least half of the journey, which meant his growing gut and sweaty armpit continually invaded Hannah’s personal space. He seemed to invade her space a lot these days. Just being in the same room was enough to bug her sometimes.
Since the kids left home they lived separate lives, so they booked the holiday to try and find some common ground. They needed something to enjoy together, but it meant that now she had no escape from him. She swore that if he messed about with the air con one more time she would smash his face in.
A rancid smell wafted into her nostrils. It made her retch.
“Jesus Christ, Brian, is that you?”
“Sorry, love, it’s all this spicy food I’m eating.”
Hannah’s lip curled in distaste and she looked out of the window. The sky had turned a deep blue and was now discernable against the rocky horizon.
“Leave the bloody air con alone, Brian.”
“How long now? We’ve been stuffed on here for ages.” He heaved back into his seat.
Hannah looked at her watch, the watch that Brian had bought her for their last wedding anniversary. It wasn’t the one she wanted, it was a cheaper version and it made her wrist itch.
“We’ve been on here forty minutes, not long now.”
They sat in silence for the next twenty minutes. Brian regularly jostling around in his seat, fiddling with his crotch, letting off more farts, groaning and generally getting on Hannah’s nerves.
The bus finally came to a stop, and the travellers started moving around, chatting, and grabbing bags.
“Ok, ladies and gentleman, thank you for your patience, and welcome. If you would all like to get off the coach and gather near the door, we’ll have a short talk about the area then head off on our walk.”
“I’ll get the bags luv.” Brian stood up, unleashing the journey’s stock of farts from their resting place.
The air outside the coach was still and warm. The rep chatted about the valley but didn’t tell Hannah anything that she hadn’t already read in the Rough Guide.
They walked, they observed, they waited for sunrise, but they didn’t chat much. Brian seemed very impressed with the views. He couldn’t tell that she was still seething because of his embarrassing behaviour the night before in the hotel bar.
Hannah’s mind was elsewhere, planning a life that could have been, different choices she should have made; pursued maybes and what ifs. She imagined herself in another life, with another man, in another place. She felt no twinge of guilt at her imagined infidelity.
Ahead of them walked the young couple that had got on the coach last. They were staying at one of the cave hotels. Brian said they couldn’t stay in a cave hotel as they had already paid for their accommodation and it would be a waste of money.
Hannah watched the young woman, in her perfectly fitted summer dress; her hair was tied back with not a strand out of place, her face was without make-up and flawless. The heat didn’t seem to bother her either. Hannah felt at her armpits, they were soaking, and what bit of makeup she was wearing had run.
She watched the couple, how they moved perfectly around one another, gently touching each other as they moved. How they caught each other’s eye, smiled, exchanged something that didn’t need words. They were like two butterflies dancing around one another.
She had wanted this, but Brian wasn’t like a butterfly, they were like…oh she didn’t know what they were like but they weren’t butterflies. They were those stags that crash horns. No, even they were majestic and purposeful in their movements. She decided Brian was more like a baboon, yes, a baboon flinging shit around a cage.
“Ooo, love, take a look at this.” Brian beckoned her over and handed her the binoculars. He pointed in the distance. “Look at the light, how it moves across the rock, changing the colour of everything.”
“I don’t need binoculars to see that.” Hannah grabbed them anyway and scanned the horizon, closing in on the young couple that had wandered off into the distance. She was surprised to see that they both wore wedding rings.
She handed the binoculars back to Brian and he moved nearer the edge of the viewpoint for another look. Hannah considered what might happen if he fell, if she helped him fall. Was it far enough for him to die instantly? Probably not. Knowing her luck she’d just end up with him in a wheelchair for the rest of their lives. Was that irony? She wasn’t sure.
“I don’t feel so good, luv. I might head back to the coach.” Brian hung the binoculars around his neck.
“We’ve only just got here for goodness sake.”
Hannah watched as the blood drained from his face. He dropped to his knees, letting out a barrage of farts.
“Get up Brian, you fool!”
“I ca – oh, Jesus.”
“You’re showing me up, get up for goodness sake.”
Brian’s tanned face now looked ashen and Hannah saw the fear in his eyes. She knelt beside him.
‘What is it?”
“Paaain…” he clutched at his left arm.
The young woman with flawless hair appeared from behind and her young man placed his hand on Hannah’s shoulder. The woman bent over Brian.
“I’m Sue, now try to breathe easy. I’m a doctor. Where is the pain?”
Brian clutched at his arm. The doctor removed his binoculars and camera, and undid his shirt. A group began to gather and fuss. Another woman sat fanning Brian. Hannah wasn’t sure how she felt, and she realised that she didn’t know what to do. Everyone seemed to move around them, to organise, to help, but she just sat next to Brian doing nothing. The rep was on the phone, she recognised the word …ambulansa. Then the tears came.
“What’s your name?”
“Hannah.” She realised the doctor wasn’t talking to her. “Oh, his name’s Brian.”
They had missed the sunrise. She wondered if it would be Brian’s last one. He had even ruined that for her. She was comforted by how organised and decisive everyone was; she just felt numb.
She held Brian’s hand in the ambulance.
“It’s going to be ok, love.” he promised.
She hoped so.
I sit in my library marvelling at the splendour of its wall-to-wall dark wood shelving and its deep red plush pile. As I look around, I take comfort in the fact that I am amongst the thousands of books I have collected over the years. Not one inch of wall space is unused, even the door doubles as shelves, so that when closed, I am totally surrounded by my beautiful books. I am sitting at my antique solid oak and leather desk with my arms stretched out above two opened books that rest on the leather inlay, my hands are pressed flat against the pages that lie open in front of me.
I close my eyes and take my mind to another place. I can feel the coolness of the freshly opened book against my fingertips. I sit still until the page warms at my touch, and then I move my fingers ever so slightly to a new spot. I can sit like this for hours.
Books are not allowed into any other room of the house, only here, in my library, and then, only my books. Marion forgets this sometimes and it drives me crazy, it’s not difficult to remember. Sometimes she’ll lie to me, she will deny vehemently knowledge of any books being elsewhere, when I know she has books in other rooms of the house. I won’t let her get away with it though; I have turned the house upside down before now just to let her know how serious I am about the matter. Sometimes it isn’t her fault, Jennie will have left one of her college books behind a cushion on the sofa, and once the culprit was a local phone book that had been posted through into the porch.
Marion understood me at first. In fact, she positively loved my little idiosyncrasies in the beginning. Even though I told her to keep it to herself, as some might think me a little unusual, she just couldn’t help herself. I’d go along with her sometimes and play her little games of ‘hide’, or ‘guess the book’, as it kept her happy. Then things changed and those cute little ways that you love at first began to rile me. I wouldn’t cause a fuss; I’d just escape to my library. My library was my sanctuary, Marion wasn’t allowed in, even though she occasionally tried to bring me cups of tea or sneak in to clean when I wasn’t there. So I got a lock fitted and that solved the problem once and for all.
“Why the hell won’t you let me in Leo?” She would whine, on and on.
“You know why.” I would tell her for the millionth time.
“What difference does it make?”
“I just need my space, can’t you understand that?” She used to understand, back in the beginning.
I am sure that sometimes she provokes me just for a reaction. I don’t know why she bothers, because I end up angry and she ends up in tears. Then I spend even more time in the library to keep away from the damn woman. She’s not been so bad lately though, she doesn’t bother me so much.
I have noticed that I need to spend more time with my books; I can understand that Marion might get upset and may be a bit lonely. Sometimes I feel bad for being so short with her, but it won’t last. I’ll make it up to her soon, when this has passed. She just has to understand that I need my books right now. It’s worse now than it’s ever been. I don’t want to burden her with the details. It will pass as it always does. Although this time it feels different.
I have always been unusual. When I was little, my mum and dad struggled with me. I was disruptive. We saw numerous doctors and we also tried counselling. Being different in school was difficult; being different meant you were bullied. I tried to fit in but it was exhausting. I managed to make it through school despite its hardships. I even went onto college and then to university. University was torturous.
The root of my problem was pinpointed when I was about thirteen. It was my own discovery and I chose not to tell anyone, as I didn’t think anyone would understand, least of all my mum. I was strange enough in her eyes to start with.
My revelation was probably the one thing that stopped me from going insane. I can remember the moment clearly. It was a Saturday afternoon and mum had dragged me out to the shops, despite my pleas that I would die of boredom. She said the trip would do me good, and I suppose in a way she was right. She was looking for new wallpaper for the dining room, and as Dad was working, I had no choice but to go with her. I wandered around the shops as she looked at the sample walls. I saw a huge book full of different types of paper and I suppose boredom led me to open it and touch the pages.
Then something strange happened.
The voices in my head quietened.
I hadn’t noticed they were there until they were gone. I lifted my hand back off the book and waited, slowly the voices returned; whispering voices, overlapping voices, different tones and dialects, different languages all chattering away at the same time, but very quietly. The voices crept back up on me and returned to their normal volume. I put my hand back on the tome of wallpaper, it was almost instant, a deafening silence. I remember looking round to see my mums reaction, I must have thought she could hear it to, but she was busy chatting with the shop assistant. I put my hand back on the book and stayed like that till my mum prised my hand away to leave the shop. The voices took all the way to the top of the High street to return.
From then on I developed an obsession with paper. Clean paper, lined or unlined, it didn’t matter, but there could be no words tarnishing the lovely whiteness of the page. All of my pocket money went on paper. I found an art shop in town that sold different types of bound jotting books; I would spend hours in there. Flicking through the smooth white pages of the books made me calmer than I had ever felt before in my life. I would pick up each book in turn, open it, run my hands along the smooth empty page, hold it up to my face and breathe in the newness. The storekeeper thought I was strange at first but as I became his best customer he didn’t really care about my little quirks anymore. I would leave the shop having bought armfuls of books; I would buy one in each colour.
I would rush home up to my bedroom and flick through the pages again. The smell of fresh clean paper was intoxicating to me. Once, after a particularly fruitful journey to the artists shop I rushed home and placed the books out on my bed end to end, each one opened dead centre where the seam lay, and I climbed gently, so as not to crease the pages, on top of them. My mind took me away and I fell into the deepest most refreshing sleep. I eventually woke up when my mum barged into my bedroom ranting and questioning as to whether I intended spending the rest of my life in bed. I had been asleep for fifteen hours.
The voices stayed away for a week. I decided to keep my new discovery a secret. It stayed a secret for many years until I finally confided in Marion, three days before we got married. She said that she understood and would stand by be no matter what. She found it quite a novelty that I could tell her what book she was reading without her showing it to me. This novelty didn’t wear off for some while for her, for me it was tedious from the beginning. It used to keep me awake at night when she read, she might as well have been sat next to me reading out loud. Eventually she agreed to not read her garbage novels in bed. Then I wouldn’t let her read in the same room, she pretty much gave up reading all together, which suited me.
Everything seemed to be going along just fine, then things changed. The voices intruded more and more, and I found it harder to concentrate, even holding a conversation with Marion was like being in a crowded bar. She suggested that I go see a doctor, but I had seen enough doctors. It would pass; it had done before. But this time the voices were different, whereby before they would intrude into my life telling me tales of romance, instructions on how to use a mobile phone or how to assemble a shelving unit, the voices now seemed to focus on me; what I had been doing, where I had been, my temperament, even what I had for tea. I had never been the topic of discussion before and it unnerved me.
So, I escape to my library and sit amongst my books, my sanctuary, my safe cocoon. Surrounded by hundreds of my books, the perfect sound barrier, blocking out the narratives of others lives, cheesy romances and clichéd fiction. Surrounded by my blank books, collected since my childhood. I still have the very first one that I bought in the art shop all those years ago. All my beautiful books, sitting in silence, waiting for the etch of a pen, waiting to be brought to life. I still take them out in turn and brush my hands across the pages, smell them to see if the aroma of newness has managed to cling to the pages.
I pull out two books from the shelf and take them over to my desk; I open them up and place them in front of me. I get myself comfortable in my chair and then I place my hands flat on the pages. I close my eyes and take my mind to another place. I can feel the coolness of the freshly opened book against my fingertips, I sit still until the page warms at my touch then I move my fingers ever so slightly to a new spot. Normally I can sit like this for hours.
why..why..whywhywhywhy…. began the whispering in my head.
I turn the pages and place my hands down again.
….WHY WHY WHY…, round and round the voice moves inside my head, I can feel the words bouncing around behind my closed eyes. I pull my hands off the pages and I can still hear the low repetitive moan,
– w h y?……
I throw the books to the floor and rush to the shelves to get two more, but the voice has its grip and it’s not letting go. I can almost recognise it. I pause to listen, but as I hold my breath and concentrate, it stops. With every book I pull from the shelf the voice is there mocking me
I frantically grab at each book in turn, my beautiful books that have provided me with solace over the years, NOW they turn against me.
whywhywhywhy they whisper over and over and over and over whywhywhywhy.
I run around the room listening for a glimmer of hope but my books offer me nothing. I find the first, my very first book, now battered, the pages no longer perfectly white, the smell of newness is long gone and has been replaced with mustiness. I flick through the pages searching for the answer, then I spot it,
a single word,
tiny, in black ink,
I recognise her handwriting instantly.
My head feels as if it is about to implode and the room closes in on me… I run to the shelves to hold on… to touch my books…I am off the ground scrambling up the shelving… books fly past my face and everything collapses around me as I hear the solitary word pass my lips.
A LAYER OF SNOW
Steven Michael Photography and Art
The day they met it snowed. It made sense really.
She hadn’t seen him since she was seven. The memory of his face was distorted by all the other adults she had met and wished were him.
She remembered staring at a picture in some magazine when she was little and imagining herself amongst the happy scene. Mum, Dad, and Connie. All laughing. All together. They were sorry and they would try harder this time. Everything would be better. She forgave them.
He sat there dishevelled, his face like crumpled paper, stirring a cup of pale tea. He was smaller than she remembered. Her anger melted instantly. She had pictured this moment more than a hundred times and now it was here. He was here.
After twenty-five years – hello seemed a good place to start. He looked up, took a few second to register the situation and then smiled a gappy smile.
He’d always called her that, but she didn’t know why. His eyes watered and he smelled of cigarettes and alcohol. She hoped he would speak first, as years’ worth of words stuck in her throat. She glanced around the café.
“You look well.”
He was being nice. She wondered how he felt right this minute, if he had imagined it as many times as she had. She smiled and glanced out of the window. His voice was weak. She remembered it as booming.
“Are you well?” she asked.
“Oh, as well as can be.” He sipped his drink. “Urgh, terrible tea.” He grimaced and wiped his mouth on his sleeve. “Let’s go walk, it’s stuffy in here.” He pulled his hat on, grabbed a plastic bag and stood before she had chance to sit.
A flimsy layer of white hid the litter and grime. The park across the road was empty. They crossed over and headed through the park gates. She lagged slightly behind him, studying his frame, the way he walked, watching his cold breath dissipate behind him. The snow fell faintly and seemed to muffle the everyday sounds around them.
“These trees have been here hundreds of years, those houses ain’t. Shame things have to change.” He glanced in her direction. “Still they leave a little bit of it for us to appreciate, eh gal?”
“Why didn’t you look for me?”
He stopped and waited for her to be at his side.
“I don’t know.” He looked up at her face briefly. “I thought it was for the best.”
“Best for who?”
“But I had no say in the matter.”
“You didn’t know what was best for you. We were no good back then.”
He turned and carried on.
She knew this, she had read all the files and the police reports. Still, she wanted to hear the words come from his mouth. She tried to read his face.
They walked. It was bright, and quiet. The trees stood heavy and silent, roots buried deep sprawled underneath the ground, below their feet. The branches shook slightly in the icy wind. Auburn leaves clung to branches, lost their grip then flapped against the rugged boughs. The path ahead blurred with the flutter of snowflakes.
“Are you glad I found you?”
“I’m not sure what you expected to find.”
What did she expect to find? Her dad. A dad to tell her that everything was going to be all right. He would have answers, he would cry, cry for all the lost years. She was seeking answers to questions that were a world away from where this man was.
“I’m not sure either.”
The hazy figures walked towards them along the path. A man and a child hand in hand. The young girl carried a doll; it was naked and had an arm missing. The girl was half skipping but was being held back by the man who walked clumsily. She wasn’t dressed for the snow, and neither was he, neither looked like they cared. The young girl looked up at her dad and was smiling as she tugged him along.
She recognised herself instantly. She had walked in this park before.
The girl ran up to her and handed her the doll.
“That’s Molly, my dolly.”
Connie remembered Molly. She held her up and tried to remember what happened to her when she moved on.
“I think she needs a bath.”
She looked back at the little girl who also had a grubby face.
The little girl grabbed the dolly back, and sighed. “She’s not dirty, she’s just been playing.” She stroked the doll’s matted hair .
“Is that your daddy?” Connie glanced behind the girl.
“Yes, and he’s yours.” The little girl pointed at the raggedy man, who stood staring at his younger self.
“He is, but I’ve not seen him for a very long time.”
The girl shrugged and looked back at her dad who had finally caught up.
“Who you talking to gal?” he grumbled.
“No one, Daddy.” She skipped back to hold his hand.
Connie watched as they walked on through the park. Two fresh sets of footprints led the way that they had come and gone.
She gestured for them to move on. They walked together. She didn’t feel the need to fill the silence, or to ask more questions.
“I have something for you,” he said, reaching into his plastic bag.
He pulled out a red tattered bag and handed it to her.
“I gave you that for your seventh birthday, but you forgot to take it with you.”
She didn’t remember the bag. Maybe there were lots of things that she didn’t remember.
“You kept it?” She ran her fingers over the shiny plastic.
He turned and carried on walking. “Doesn’t everywhere always look much nicer with a layer of snow?”
She followed him.
Mummy said that I can write to you here, but it feels funny I’m not sure what to say. I miss you.
Yes you can. You can say what you like. I know and I’m sorry.
I had an argument with Alice today shes always bugging me. Mummy got mad. Alice cries too. Where are you? I miss you sooo much.
Try not to argue with your sister. Why is Alice crying? I’m wherever you want me to be. I know and I’m sorry.
Mummy says that we just need time its all too soon. She doesnt like that I write to you now. I don’t know what to say really. Can you see anything? Were going to the beach this weekend.
They say that time is a great healer, but you probably wont understand that right now. If you want to write to me and you think that it helps you, then I think that is good, but take notice of mummy. You can say anything that you like. I can’t see anything anymore. You love the beach. You’ll have lots of fun.
The beach was good but we went with mummys friend Steven and I don’t think I like him much but mummy does and she is happy. She was swimming in the sea and laughing it was nice to see her. Me and Alice didn’t argue once, mummy said it was a miracle. I feel a bit better. I have a photo of you next to my bed.
You love the beach. It’s good to have friends. It’s good that mummy is happy. Swimming in the sea is fun and laughing is good for mummy. I think I would like to see her happy. I’m glad you didn’t argue with Alice, mummy says some funny things. I’m glad that you are feeling better. Having a photo of me is nice.
HAPPY 11th BIRTHDAY SON! Hope you are having a good day.
Thanks for the Happy birthday. I had a good day. I wish you could have been there.
You are very welcome. I’m glad you had a good day. I know, and I am sorry.
I miss you lots and lots. Mummy wont let me talk about you anymore and she gets angry with me. Steven gets angry too and he has taken my picture down but I have hidden it under my bed. She doesnt want me to write anymore but I will do.
It’s normal to miss someone. Try not to make mummy angry. Try not to make Steven angry. It’s a shame about the picture, but you can see me in your memories. You should do as mummy says. If you want to write to me and you think that it helps you, then I think that is good.
HAPPY 12th BIRTHDAY SON! Hope you are having a good day.
HAPPY 13th BIRTHDAY SON! Hope you are having a good day.
HAPPY 14th BIRTHDAY SON! Hope you are having a good day.
HAPPY 15th BIRTHDAY SON! Hope you are having a good day.
Are you still there?
Yes, I am still here.
I’ve not been in touch for a long time, and I’m sorry. I know that this isn’t really you but still, you did this to make things easier for me. I don’t even know why I am writing this. Does Alice still write to you? What does she say? She’s left home now, she didn’t get on with Steven. I’ve been thinking a lot about you recently, about all the good times we had together. I don’t think I’ll write again, I don’t need to. I won’t ever forget you. You were the greatest dad. I love you.
That’s ok, I bet you have been busy. You’re right, it’s not me, but I thought it might help. We don’t always know why we do the things we do. Alice writes occasionally. You should talk to her about it. She’s all grown up now. It’s good that you think about me. If you don’t want to write again then that is ok. You won’t ever forget me. You are the greatest son. I love you.
I love you Dad.
I love you Colin
I do not understand.
Are you still there?
BRING ME MY SHOTGUN
Cliff Richard had gone too far this time. He was going to pay.
Keith sat facing his hostage, studying the wispy fringe that had once been a thick and lustrous quiff.
“I don’t know what you hope to achieve by this,” said ageing rock and roll star, Sir Cliff Richard.
“You need to be stopped.” Keith chopped at the air to emphasise his point.
“Stopped? What do you mean, stopped?” Keith heard Cliff’s gentle lisp and it transported him to a time of innocence. He closed his eyes and pictured a younger Cliff, a Cliff with a quiff that bounced as he banged the bongos in Expresso Bongo. Cliff struggled against the tape binding him to the chair.
Behind the septuagenarian pop-icon, a small TV screen played Summer Holiday. A man sat cross-legged in front of the screen, singing along and occasionally pausing to laugh manically.
“Can you even play the bongos Cliff, or should I call you Harry?”
The man suddenly jumped up and ran from the screen wailing, “…we’ll enjoy the maaaaaagic, but we won’t fall in LOOOOVE.” He scurried and sat at Keith’s ankles, panting like a puppy. He stared at actor and philanthropist, Sir Cliff.
“What is it you want? Do you want money? I have lots of money,” Sir Cliff’s lip curled into his trademark pout.
“I know you do, but we’re past that now.” He rested his hand on top of the man’s head.
“Daddy can I touch him, pleeeeeeeease?”
“NO DON!” he slapped him hard on the top of his head.
“What do you want?” pleaded the former Young One.
“I need to show you the error of your ways.”
The 73-years-young singer hung his head and sobbed. “What have I ever done to you?”
Keith clicked the remote and Cliff’s face appeared on the screen. Mistletoe and Wine blared out from the speakers.
“You heard me, sing.”
Cliff’s voice croaked as he heaved back the sobs, “…the child is a king, the carollers sing, the old has past, there’s a new beginning…”
Keith and his Don closed their eyes and began to sway at Cliffs’ hypnotic tones. Don hummed out of tune and was hit swiftly on the head; he stopped with a yelp.
“Sing the fucking chorus,” Keith growled.
“Christmas time, Mistletoe and Wine, Children singing….” Cliff’s voice broke and he started bawling loudly again. “Pleeeease, wha-whatever you have done… it doesn’t matter, we…we can make this right…I won-”
“No Cliff, it’s too late. It’s TOO LATE TO MAKE IT RIGHT!”
Cliff squealed like a baby at the booming voice. Keith clicked the remote again. Saviour’s Day started to play.
“Why… why?” Cliff pleaded.
“…many have come from the valleys, many have come from the hills…” he stopped.
“I said no.”
“Are you fucking kidding me?”
“I’m not doing it.”
“Don, bring me my shotgun.”
Don, scuttled out of the room.
“Wha-what…why are you doing this? What do you want from me?” Sir Cliff writhed and stamped his feet. He rocked as hard as he could and the chair danced on two legs, then toppled over. From this angle Sir Cliff could make out the doorway at the end of the room. A pair of legs, presumably attached to a body lay on the floor in the next room. On the end of the legs were massive platform boots.
“Who…?” Sir Cliff lifted his head to try and get a clearer view.
“This was all your doing.” Keith walked around him and lifted him upright and spun him round to face the screen. “All. Your. Doing.” He poked Sir Cliff on his head with every word. “Watch.” He clicked the remote.
Noddy Holder’s big hairy face appeared on the screen, “IIIIT’S CHRISTMAAASSSS-time, mistletoe and wiiine.” ’Sir Cliff’s voice cut in and his face swooped across the screen in a silver Christmas tree bauble. A break-beat kicked in and a badly morphed version of both songs over-played one another whilst Dizzy Rascal shouted “BONKERS.” All three then proceeded to dance.
Sir Cliff hung his head.
Keith paused the onscreen debacle and glared at Cliff, his face contorted in pained incredulity.
“Why Cliff? Why?”
Don came in with the gun and handed it to his dad. He caught the frozen image on the screen and flew into a Rumpelstiltskin style rage – shouting and stomping on the spot.
“NO, DADDY NO!” He started hitting himself in the face.
“I…I…I have no control over these things…the label…my manager, they organised the whole thing…”
“You did nothing…”
“No! I literally did nothing, it was all done without us…it was just for fun…”
“YOU SHOULD HAVE STOPPED IT!” Keith stood up and yanked the shotgun onto his shoulder. “There can be no more of this…it ends here.”
The geriatric gyrator shut his eyes.
Don ran around the room slapping the top of his head, “FUN-FUN-FUN-FUN!”
Keith aimed directly at the Wimbledon regular’s tanned face. He looked old at this moment, and he felt himself softening – how could he kill this old man? The innocence, the charity work, those beautiful teeth. Cliff’s films and music had been there at every turning point, every hurdle of his life…. He lowered the gun an inch.
Then he looked back at the screen and aimed again.
— Please Keith, don’t do this —
Cliff’s voice was inside his head.
He looked over at his idol strapped to the chair. A calmness had spread over pop legend, Cliff’s features. He no longer looked like the old Cliff, he was now the young Cliff of Summer Holiday. His pearly whites dazzled as he smiled.
We’re going where the sun shines brightly
We’re going where the sea is blue
We’ve seen it in the movies
Now let’s see if it’s true…
His lips weren’t moving, but his voice echoed around the room, holding them both in a trace. Sir Cliff’s eyes opened and the room was bathed in the gleaming white light that emanated from them.
“You shouldn’t fuck with me Keith!” The straps untied themselves from around Cliff’s wrists. The room started to vibrate. Don stopped slapping himself on his head.
“What the…?” Keith began to vibrate; his feet left the floor.
“Shoot him dad!”
Keith blasted Sir Cliff square in the face, taking the right side clean away. The ageing pop star moved steadily towards him. He fired again, this time at the torso. Sir Cliff’s chest cavity spewed across the room, splattering Don’s dungarees. What was left of Sir Cliff’s face began rearranging itself.
“Jesus fucking Christ!” Keith stumbled backwards and let off a barrage of shots.
“DAD, HE’S NOT DYING! MAKE HIM DIE!”
Living legend, Sir Cliff stood tall. With each shot and reanimation he became younger and stronger.
“IT WILL NEVER END. I WILL NEVER DIE!” Cliff’s voice filled the room.
“RUN SON, RUN!”
Keith and Don scrambled for the door. Cliff followed, humming what was to be his next multi-million-pound-block-buster-number-one-Christmas-hit.
SEND HER AWAY
Jen sat sobbing on the sofa, snot dribbling from her nose. She wiped it away with the back of her hand.
“Babes, I never wanted all this, and think…I mean…technically I was sleeping with you.” Rick pleaded.
“Don’t fuckin’ babes me! And you knew it wasn’t me.”
Jen regretted the day she got herself cloned. On paper it looked ideal. The Company had convinced her that life would change for the better. She’d have a soul mate, she’d only have to do half the work, the idea of jobsharing sounded sublime, and she could spend more time with her husband. The reality was that her soul mate irritated her – how could she be irritated by herself? Her clone did her job better, had more fun with her mates, was funnier, prettier, and was most certainly a size smaller, and now she was screwing her husband.
“Babes, come on, you nearly slept with Rick2; it’s an easy mistake to make.”
Getting her husband cloned didn’t make things easier, it just meant that there was twice the mess.
“Yes, but I didn’t did I?”
“You could…if you wan- “ Jen’s steely stare stopped him in his tracks. Rick sat down next to his wife and put his hand on her lap, she brushed it away.
There was a clatter from the kitchen.
“I can hear you both, mooching about. I’m not deaf.” Jen wiped away more snot.
“I wouldn’t mind either!” Rick2 shouted in.
“Jesus, don’t make it worse than it already is.” Jen2 punched him in the arm.
“Well, I wouldn’t. She is my wife, and you are my wife, we could all be mixing it up, enjoying ourselves, it’s seems like the perfect opportunity to me.”
“God, you’re so insensitive.” Jen2 topped the Lemsip with a slice of lemon and a dollop of honey and took it in to Jen. A peace offering.
“I haven’t got a bloody cold. I’m upset.” She took the drink anyway.
Jen2 and Rick2 sat opposite Jen and Rick. Jen sipped her drink; Jen2 nervously plucked at an eyelash, Rick2 chewed at a fingernail and Rick scratched his crotch.
“I’m going to phone the Company today.” Jen broke the silence.
“And say what?”
“You’ve got to go.”
“Whooah, whoooah, hang on a minute. Go where?” Jen2 stood and started pacing the room.
“I don’t know…I don’t know what they will do, I didn’t read the small print.”
“Errr, are we talking about Jen2 here or me as well?” Rick2 piped in, then pleaded with Rick, “Rick, mate, we’re okay aren’t we? Me and Rick, we’ve got a big contract on this week, Jen. We’re bringing more money in than before. I’m not to blame here. Rick tell her!” Rick shrugged and looked at Jen.
“Who is then?” Jen asked.
“Don’t look at me!” Jen2 headed to the kitchen. “I am you after all; I wouldn’t do anything that you wouldn’t do Jen.”
“It’s all a big mess. I started all this, and now I need to end it.” She picked up her cup and followed Jen2 to the kitchen. Rick looked at Rick2. Both shrugged, then leant forward to pick up the TV remote. Rick flicked the sports channel on.
Jen banged around the kitchen whilst Jen2 stood by half-heartedly tidying up. Jen groaned as she struggled with a box of teabags. The bag split and the contents spilled onto the floor. Sobbing, she bent to clear up. Jen2 crouched down and helped.
“What?” she sniffed.
“Look at me.” Jen looked up. Jen2 wiped a tear away and stroked her face.
“I wasn’t to blame, you know. I…you…we…we wouldn’t do anything like that. He said he was Rick2, and by the time I realised it wasn’t…it was too late. Maybe I didn’t think it mattered anyway, but it wasn’t my idea. You know that.”
“Yes, I know.”
“And you know that there is another solution.” Jen2 took Jens hand.
“You know there is. You’ve done it before.”
“What?” Jen looked at Jen2.
“So…what do you think?” Jen2’s voice dipped to a whisper.
“About what?” she mouthed quietly.
Jen2 looked around to make sure no one was listening. Rick and Rick2 cheered at a goal.
Rick and Rick2 sat on the sofa, a mirror image of each other. Both rubbed their feet, then sat back pulling their tracksuit bottoms out of their crotch.
“Mate, don’t worry about it.” Rick rewound the match to watch a tackle.
“Dirty bastard.” They complained in unison.
“She can’t just get rid of you like that.”
“I know she can’t, we’re past the approval period; I’ve read the small print.”
Rick2 paused the game. “Thing is, I don’t understand why she wants to get rid of me and not you.”
Rick sat and thought for a minute, looked at Rick2, shrugged and restarted the match. They sat watching it in silence. Rick looked around the room at all the pictures on the walls, their holidays, their wedding, and family celebrations. They had travelled well; India, Malaysia, Australia – the pictures showed them smiling together at many famous landmarks. These images were embedded into his memory, but when he thought hard about the occasions, he could remember nothing directly before or after the captured moments. Rick paused the game and looked at Rick2.
“Why would she get rid of me?”
Rick2 shuffled uncomfortably, and turned to look at Rick.
“You know why.”
“No, I don’t think I do.”
“Mate, you do – you really do. You’re in denial.”
“What are you saying?”
“Rick, you’re a clone too.”
Both Jens enter the room to silence and stares.
“What? You not watching the match?” Jen places down a tray with four glasses and a bottle of wine.
“We’ve been chatting.”
“Oh yeah, what about?” Jen flicks a glance at Jen2.
“We’ve decided that you’re right, we should get rid of Jen2.” Neither removed their gaze from the match.
“Yes, we’ve been chatting too, and we’ve decided not to act in haste; we think we should all give it another go.”
“Yes, really.” Jen pours the wine and hands the glasses to the Ricks. “I don’t know why I got so upset, you were right Rick; maybe we could all try again – work together. A fresh start.” Both Jens smile weakly.
“Great, we’ll drink to that!” Both Ricks slurp the wine and turn their attention back to the match.
Both Jens return their glasses to the tray, untouched. They sit back and watch.
STUCK IN TRAFFIC
“…Karen Taylor lost the case for euthanasia,“ the man on the radio said. Sarah flicked the radio over to CD and sighed.
“If I ever become really ill and I can’t look after myself, promise me that you will put me out of my misery.”
“Sure thing,” Neil said, overly upbeat, hoping it would lighten her mood.
“We’ll have some agreement beforehand; we’ll set it up like suicide, so we’ll have to do it whilst I still have some motor function. You give me some painkillers, splay a few on the side and wait for me to die, then call for the ambulance.”
‘Oooo-kay.” The rain was getting heavier and he flicked the wipers on.
“You’ll have to stay with me though, make sure I’m dead.”
“I’ll finish you off with a club if you like, just to make doubly sure.”
“Very funny.” Sarah turned and looked at him, he smiled. Neil picked up a bottle of coke and gestured for her to take the top off; she did, he gulped it down then handed it back to her.
“Look, you aren’t dying, you have a headache, and you aren’t bipolar either.” Sarah was convinced her menstrual mood swings were something more sinister; and according to a diagnosis website, bipolar fit the bill. She had been worse this time round and she worried that it was affecting the kids. She turned and checked on them. Both were fast asleep, heads flopped to the side, mouths agape. Ben had dribbled.
“Slow down a bit, we have plenty of time,” she said.
They sat in silence, deep in their own thoughts. Sarah was thinking of the time her mum had her running around the car naked after she had been for a swim in the sea. “The faster you run the quicker you’ll dry, “ she had said.
Neil was thinking about their recent holiday. He pictured the kids covered in mushy watermelon and sand, and he wondered what the fruit seller was doing right now. Was she slicing through watermelon as he raced down the motorway in the pouring rain? Selling fruit on the beach sounded like the perfect job. He took Sarah’s advice and moved into the middle lane. The rain was bouncing down hard and the spray behind the car in front made it difficult to see.
The comfortable silence was too long for Sarah’s liking and as soon as her thoughts strayed to what Neil might be thinking she had the urge to break it.
“I love this song.” Sarah turned up the music. “When I die I think I will have this played at my funeral.”
“You’re having every other song you hear played at your funeral.”
“Well, it will be a grand affair.”
The news flicked on, it was annoying how it did that, and they couldn’t figure out how to stop it. Despite the rain easing, the traffic was slowing down. Red brake lights glimmered through the drizzle. The newscaster was interviewing a financial adviser who had grim predictions for the year ahead. Sarah turned it off and flicked the music on again.
“There’s never any good news. There should be a channel dedicated to just good news, no matter how trivial. Neil ummed in reply, his concentration focused on the road.
Sarah looked ahead, “It looks like everyone’s stopped.”
Neil eased off the gas and onto the brake. Sarah took the opportunity to look in all the cars around her, ticking off the travellers: a woman returning from work, a family heading home, workmen going to a job. She wondered if any of them noticed her, or if anyone else was as interested in all the other people on the road. Everyone seemed focused on the traffic ahead. It struck her as bizarre that all these people were heading in the same direction, all in their little tiny metal boxes, having their own conversations, doing their everyday things, and that this might be the only moment in their lives that their paths would cross.
She watched a pretty girl singing to herself in a car, a cloud of smoke around her. The girl wound her window down and tossed a cigarette butt out. Sarah imagined a whole life for this girl, a family, past, present and future lovers. A job that meant she had to travel. She was carefree and would abandon things at the drop of a hat. She certainly didn’t ponder the sensible things in life like Sarah did. Sarah wished she were younger. Only recently had she had this hankering for youth, and it usually reared its head when she looked at younger women. She didn’t want all the hassles that went with being young, just the youthful flesh. She had noticed fine lines around her eyes this morning.
The cars on the inside lane moved slowly past and Sarah came face-to-face with a young child. To look away would seem rude, she thought; some friendly gesture seemed appropriate. She smiled and waved. She hoped that sometime in that child’s future that simple gesture might be remembered.
“There’s been an accident,” Neil turned the music down as if it would help the situation. The traffic slowly merged into one lane.
“Jeez, look at that mess.” The car’s bonnet was totally smashed upwards and was facing the oncoming traffic at the central barrier. A police car was parked in front with its lights flashing. The policeman was crouched down at the driver’s door, which was open. He was talking to the woman who had been driving, she had her head leant back against the headrest. The man at the side of her sat motionless with his head on his chest.
The scene played itself out like a silent movie as their car inched slowly past the accident. Sarah stared at the woman, willing her to look up. She felt that if they looked at each other, somehow, this would set her part from all the others that looked on.
“Why do things like this fascinate us?”
“We look because we know we shouldn’t”
“It make us feel better…”
“…because it isn’t us.” Sarah brushed a stray eyelash from Neil’s cheek, and let her hand fall on his lap.
Her phone began to buzz in her pocket and she fished it out. “It’s your Amy, how long are we going to be?”
“Tell her we’ll be ten minutes, it’s clearing now.”
For the rest of the journey a heavy silence hung around them, only broken by the occasional slumbering murmur from the back seat. Neil remembered how he would sleep, snuggled under a blanket with Amy in the back seat of his mum’s car on long journeys, the days before seat belts and car seats. Sarah was wondering what Neil was thinking and how the rest of the day would pan out for him.
As they pulled through the ornate gates they just caught the procession of black cars. Amy stood waiting, a gaunt, dark figure; she started to wave then considered it inappropriate. They pulled up, both gathering their thoughts. Sarah leaned in and kissed Neil on his cheek.
“I’ll wake the children up, you go on ahead.”
It is winter and the land is frozen. The great tower rises like a stalagmite of ice from the cold earth. At the top, Rapunzel lies, freezing and emaciated, watching the last ember flicker and die in the hearth. A wisp of smoke rises, freezes and falls to the floor with a shattering sigh. Rapunzel drags herself into the hearth and curls up amongst the ashes and wraps her matted hair around her tiny frame. She licks a finger, trails it in the ash and then puts it to her frozen lips. If there had ever been any hope of her leaving the tower, her frail bones would no longer allow it.
A lone wolf howls in the distance. Rapunzel sees in her mind’s eye, the wolf and a small figure move through the icy forest like shadows. She closes her eyes and waits. Death lurks in the corner and she bids him politely to stay away, at least for a little while longer.
Little Red is lucky, for the Wolf has eaten well today. His stomach gurgles under the weight of the woodcutter and his family. She walks close beside him, his warmth keeping the chill from her bones. His fur billows across her translucent white skin and she sinks her hands into the warmth, twisting his fur around her slender fingers.
‘What soft fur you have.’
‘All the better to keep you warm, my sweet,’ he leans into the girl. ‘You can climb up on my back if you like.’
‘I know that you want to eat me, Wolf. I can see it in your wicked eyes.’
‘I am a wild beast,’ his lolling tongue drips saliva into the snow. ‘I cannot go against my nature.’ He can taste her sweet, girl scent in the air.
‘But I can offer you more,’ she whispers into his ear.
The wolf is cunning; he can wait. He sees the girl as pure and innocent, but he also sees that she has a fire burning in her eyes. He sees that she is white and pure on the outside, but inside she is all red and swirling hot blood. He can hear her heart beating faster as she slides up onto his back and grips him tight between her thighs.
Rapunzel remembers how the Little Red’s white skin looked against her own. How she made promises with every touch. They had killed the sorceress together and feasted on her flesh, and that of every prince that came to their rescue. But then the cold curse crept across the land, and they were left alone; the last execration of the sorceress for peeling the flesh from her bones. She remembers Little Red’s promise to return, their last sweet kiss and the last time their flesh had touched. They were conquerors. They were both warm and plump then.
Rapunzel opens her eyes and looks at the piles of bones around her, then closes her eyes and searches for her rescuers. Snow begins to burn in her heart as she whispers her lover’s name, ‘Little Red.’ The sound leaves her lips and floats on the icy air. Shadows come and go. Death creeps from his corner.
‘Where are we going, little girl?’ asks the wolf.
‘We go to my captive love,’ says Little Red.
The wolf knows nothing of love but thinks, now this sweet young thing is a tasty bite for me. But you must be sly, and you can have them both.
They reach the tower and Little Red climbs the plaited hair that hangs from the window.
‘I have come Rapunzel, and I have brought us food.’
She turns and watches the wolf as he waits eagerly on the ground, drooling, and wide eyed. Beckoning him to climb, she heaves on the plait and he grips onto it with his sharp teeth. He scrambles up the tower walls towards her.
He enters the window of the cold chamber; his fur damp with sweat and his eyes wild and glowing a fierce yellow, like tiny suns. He sees the pile of bones and the frail girl in the hearth – a tasty morsel before his main course. He is the hunter and they are his prey. He pads gently towards the girls, sniffing the air.
Little Red removes her shawl and pinafore; her white flesh gleams white like the moon. She is not scared of the wolf. She crouches beside her lover and strokes her hair. The girl whispers and cajoles and speaks of a red warmth that is above all others. His head is filled with seductive promises. His loins ache and his tongue lolls, as he smells their scent.
‘Sweet wolf, come lie with us and keep us warm.’
The wolf prowls around them.
‘Come, lick her and heal her.’
Little Red strokes the wolf tenderly as his tongue travels all over Rapunzel’s body, gently kissing the life back into her flesh. Rapunzel and Little Red wrap themselves around his warm, fleshy body and their hands and paws entwine as they seduce the wolf on a bed of bones, dirt and ashes.
THE LAST TWO PEOPLE LEFT ON THE NIGHT BUS
Macy stared at the flowerpot on her knee; she gripped it tightly as the bus made its way over the bumpy terrain. Her mother told her that her great-grandmother had grown real flowers and that they had a beautiful smell. Macy’s rose smelled of plastic and it had tape around its stem where she had once snapped it. Someone had once tried to take it away from her. The petals, once red, were now brown.
She didn’t know how long she had been on the bus, but it felt like forever. One by one the others had been escorted off the bus. She had assumed that she would have been one of the first to get off, as she had a number 5 scrawled on her overalls. There was no one on the bus now apart from her and the man sitting right at the back. She wondered if he was special like her, or if he had done a bad thing.
She looked back at him; he was smiling. She frowned.
Her mother had told her not to talk to any one on the bus, and that she was to do as she was told. If she was a good girl, she would get to go somewhere special. A special place for her special girl. No one told her where the bus was going; nobody ever came back, so nobody knew. It was her very own adventure. Her mum had made her promise not to get angry.
“Can I sit with you please?” The man stood shuffling, clutching a bag at his side. Macy hardly moved before he shoved his way onto her seat. He sat too close.
“I’m Thomas,” he beamed. “What’s your name?” His tongue stuck out between a big gap where his top teeth should have been and his eyes darted left and right.
“Macy.” She didn’t like the man sitting so near. She didn’t like his funny teeth and googly eyes either.
“What you got there, Macy?” He pointed in the direction of the flowerpot. He had big fat fingers too.
She gripped tightly, ‘It’s my flower. It’s a rose. It’s mine and don’t you touch it.”
“I won’t touch it. I’m 33 and I’m very clever for my age, that’s why they let me stay so long. How old are you?’
“I’m 15, but I’ll be 16 soon.” She felt silly all of a sudden and her face felt hot.
“Do you know where you are going, Macy?” He tilted his head onto one side.
“Nobody does.” She looked out of the window and saw her dark reflection staring back at her.
“I know where I am going!” He nodded to himself.
“No you don’t!” She closed her eyes and blanked out the image of her face. She couldn’t be bothered talking anymore, and she turned slightly and rested her head on the window. It felt cool. She felt a hollow pit inside of her, and she didn’t know whether it was because she was hungry or because of the bad thing she had done. She didn’t mean to do the bad thing. She wanted to go home.
“I bet there will be real flowers where we are going?’
“You’re just saying that, you don’t know.”
“I will pick you a real flower, and you can wear it in your hair.’
His eyes flickered left and right as he turned to her, and he smiled again revealing his gap. Her whole body flushed, and she fidgeted in her seat. She wanted to run away, but where would she go? She looked at her frizzy hair and ugly face reflecting back at her. She didn’t want him thinking about her horrible hair; she wanted to pull it out. She wanted to tell him that he was stupid, and that he had a stupid face, but she closed her eyes, took a deep breath and let the wave of anger pass.
“Can you read?’ He rummaged in his bag and pulled out a tiny book.
“Of course I can read.”
“I don’t see so good, will you read something for me?’ Macy looked at Thomas’s face and took the book.
“It’s made of paper.” She ran her fingers over its cover. “They don’t make paper ones no more.”
“My friend made it for me.” He giggled like a child and put his finger to his lips.
“That was silly, if you can’t read.’
Thomas was silent, and his smile faded. She felt bad.
The words in the book meant nothing to her, but he seemed to like them.
He even closed his eyes and they fluttered behind their lids.
“Where my sunflower wishes to go!” Macy laughed. “That’s stupid, flowers can’t go anywhere!”
She was drawn to the pictures that ran around the edge of the pages. There was a flower. It was yellow and bright. It had a thousand flame-like petals licking around the edge of a golden-brown centre. It tilted upwards and a glint of sunlight caught between the leaves. She looked at the brown petals on her rose and then back at the vibrant flower in the picture. She had to have it. She slowly ripped the page out of the book and slipped it under her legs, and passed the book back to him.
They sat in silence. Macy stared out of the window, imagining a future in the darkness.
Thomas sat with his hands over his bag, he was smiling and occasionally he whispered to himself.
The bus stopped.
“Would you like to hold my flowerpot?” She pressed it into his big hands and watched as he gently explored the brown petals.
“You can keep it if you like.
“Even with all the pain, Jesus thought of others rather than Himself. His first words from the banana were, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” The vicar gesticulated from the pulpit.
Emma nudged May, “Did he just say banana?”
“He thought of his mother, who stood by the banana weeping, and asked his beloved friend John to take care of her.”
Emma looked around to read the faces of the congregation; all stood still, faces upwards, drinking in the sermon.
The vicar continued “…and out of that blackness Jesus cried from the banana, “My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken me?”
“He did! He bloody did!” Emma nudged May hard with her elbow.
“Ow! May shot her a dirty look.
“I’m not going mad, he just said banana!”
The vicar peered over his half-rimmed spectacles and surveyed his flock. His gaze rested upon Emma, who was now furiously seeking validation from anyone nearby.
“He did…didn’t he?..He said banana.”
“Emma!” The vicar rested his boney hands over the edge of the pulpit. “Do you have something you wish to share with us?”
“I…err,” her mouth was gaping, and everyone had turned around to see what the fuss was about. She closed her mouth, lowered her gaze and stood like a statue for the rest of the reading.
“What on earth is wrong with you?” May grabbed her bag and pushed Emma into the aisle, “I hope you are going to apologise.”
“Were you paying attention to anything he said?” Emma smiled weakly at those whispering and staring as they walked past her.
“Of course I was, I always do. You jabbing me in the ribs and chattering away doesn’t help though.”
“And nothing he said sounded… ridiculous?”
“Look, he’s done this sermon hundreds of times before, just the same, and you have never made such a fuss, are you sure you’re okay?”
“I’m absolutely fine”.
Emma waited in line as everyone gave thanks to the vicar. Maybe she had misheard him; maybe her mind was playing tricks. No one else noticed anything or said anything. What was she thinking? He was such a lovely man. She watched him as he shook hands with everyone; he always had something nice or uplifting to say.
“Hello Emma, are you well?” he took her hands in his.
Emma felt all the blood drain from her face as she caught sight of the banana hanging around his neck. Her legs felt heavy and she grabbed at his tunic to help steady herself.
His voice faded and she fell backwards towards the ground, dragging him with her.
She felt a warmth all over her body and the stone floor felt strangely comfortable. A sea of faces stared down at her and it took her a second to remember who and where she was.
“Stand back, give her some space to breathe.”
The congregation moved back and Emma inhaled deeply. The smell of freshly cut grass filled her nostrils and she smiled. The sun was bright and Emma lifted her hand to her eyes to offer some shade.
“Are you alright Emma?”
The sun dipped behind the huge yellow arc that stood atop of the church, and Emma lowered her hand and gasped.