Sally-Anne Wilkinson is an English Studies graduate, who became addicted to writing after starting York University’s online creative writing course. As a child she was an avid reader of books, with a particular love of the Narnia Chronicles. It inspired her to one day become a writer herself, though as a late developer and great procrastinator, it took some time for her to get around to it. In 2012, her poems were shortlisted and published in Rochdale’s People’s Poetry, and the Aesthetica Annual 2013. After a couple of years focusing on poetry and short stories, she is currently undertaking the challenge of writing her first novel, which appears to be taking on a life of its own. She also enjoys her role as staff reviewer on the writing platform, Readwave. Fond of travel, she’s lived in France and Saudi Arabia, but has settled in Lancashire, where she writes surrounded by the chaos of family life. You can read more of Sally’s work in her blog, Writing – Beginning and Beyond, at sallywallywoowoo.wordpress.com.
Aaron’s attention is caught by a gull rising from the surf out at sea, and I take the time to scrutinise him, grateful to have something to focus on apart from the water. His features aren’t entirely familiar to me, as I’ve only known him a few weeks. If I’m honest, I’ve kept him at arm’s length – but he’s different to the others, and finally, I’ve allowed myself to enjoy his company; accept the attention he gives me. It’s tough for me to admit it – but I like him. A lot. It’s the fact he’s interested in me; really interested. He encourages me, but doesn’t push. On top of all that, my mother’s not keen, which is another reason to keep him around.
My eyes follow the line of his jaw from his ear to his chin, which is unbelievably smooth. He reminds me of one of the marble statues in the museum he took me to last week. He takes me to lots of places; makes sure I’m entertained. Earlier today we visited a Turkish barber down a back street in the Old Town, where they shaved every unnecessary hair from his face. At one point, I shrieked at the green wax lathered on his ears; made a joke about him resembling Shrek. It’s a long time since I laughed like that. The sensation in my throat and the sound in my ears felt peculiar.
‘Next, it’s your turn, Selena’ he said, wincing as another slathering of wax tore microscopic hairs from his nose. ‘Why should girls get away with the pain?’
‘No thanks,’ I said, ‘I shaved this morning,’ and he crossed his eyes as me.
Now, he looks boyish. His skin, slightly blotchy from the astringent, smells of peppermint. The scent is alien on him and I miss the gritty texture of his stubble. I’m aware of an impulse to touch where his jaw bends into the angle of his chin. The compulsion is almost a physical ache, but I ignore it. He turns his gaze back from the sea, and catches my stares. Embarrassed, I distract him with yet more teasing about his vanity.
‘So what’s it next week, Aaron? Full body bronzing?’
‘Maybe,’ he plays along, ‘or maybe I’ll get my legs shaved. Would you like that?’
Spindrift catches on the wind, and hits us full in the face. I gasp, breathless, and blink away stray droplets from my eyes.
‘You okay?’ he asks, his forehead creased.
‘You know what?’ I say. ‘I think I am.’
During lunch he takes a napkin and cleans a stain from my mouth.
‘What a pig,’ he says, and gives a little snort.
‘Actually, we pigs have a method to our madness.’
‘I save food around my mouth for a reason, you know?’
‘Oh yes? And why is that?’
‘For my afternoon snack.’
‘Ah really? Then you’d better watch where you save your snacks in future,’ he grins. ’or next time you might find I’ve licked the napkin before I wipe your face.’
‘Oh gross,’ I say, ‘save me from that torture.’
‘And now look – your hair’s in your face,’ he teases. ‘I can’t take you anywhere.’
He tucks a stray lock of hair – blown by the breeze – behind my ear, and the heel of his hand accidentally brushes against my cheek. My skin glows at the contact; alive. The terrace is crowded with people, but for that moment, I am aware of nothing and no-one but him.
Even before he spoke, I knew I wouldn’t like the words that came out of his mouth. He’d suggested we stop in the City gardens, and not long after we arrived, he perched on the edge of a wooden bench under a sycamore. The shade from the tree was a welcome relief. As he sat, his knee began a steady quiver in time with the dipping of the leaves, and I knew something wasn’t right.
Half an hour earlier we passed the abandoned outdoor pool – the water thick and green with algae; the red-rimmed, warning sign scored with scratches and blotched with moss; the concrete boundaries beginning to crumble; neglected. No-one used the old pool any more, though not so long ago it was populated by both locals and tourists throughout the summer. My mother even taught me to swim there. Of course I registered where Aaron had taken me but he told me it would be okay. I ignored the buzzing of my brain as we approached the water; a buzzing which became increasingly frenetic the closer we got. I asked Aaron to stop quite some distance from the edge. Yes, it hurt to be there, but I was also shocked how quickly the place had deteriorated; how much things change overnight.
Despite my misgivings, I attempted to appear casual about being there – I wanted to be brave for him. At one point, he and I even playfully bickered about whether the sign’s message meant no swimming or no diving. The words stung as they tripped over my lips, but I managed to articulate them with traces of humour. I was proud of my achievement, taking it as a sign of how far I had come; that, at last, I was recovering. I want to laugh now, feeling foolish. Obviously, these visits to old haunts were preparation, and the whole purpose of today was to drive me to this moment.
‘You know, Selena – I’ve been thinking.’
‘They’ve built a new spa in the centre of town.’
‘Yeah, you should see it. The structure’s amazing – all intricately designed steel and glass outside and – it’s even got a pool.’
I gazed at my hands, flaccid on my lap. There was burning in my throat, and I tried to focus on it.
‘It’s not big. Small. But not too small. Not like a bath…’ He stopped talking, aware he’s gabbling. ‘It’s all marble inside. I know you’ll love it. Really beautiful.’ He talks in small gasps, as if there’s not enough air.
I sat, not looking at him, not doing anything at all.
‘There’s not many people that go there. It’ll be like our own private party. You know… I know…’ He stopped for a minute, considered what he wanted to say. ’Maybe it’s time?’
I couldn’t reply immediately. It took a minute to push up the word and roll it over the mountain of my tongue. Once I let it go, though, it fell heavily, like a boulder into a ravine. ‘No.’
He continued regardless.
‘Selena, come on. You have to start somewhere…’
‘Aaron – leave it.’
‘You don’t have to, you know, get in the water. Just come with me…’ He paused; smiled; tries a different tack. ‘You’ve never seen me flapping around in the water. It’s embarrassing. I need moral support. An expert opinion. You’ll be there just to explain how it’s done properly.’
He pulled a screwball face, hoping I’d laugh.
‘Aaron – I said no.’
We proceed along the seafront for another hour. I’m subdued since our conversation in the City gardens, and under any other circumstances I’d suggest Aaron took me home, but I know it won’t be any better there. Eventually we reach the newly-built marina, and I absorb how the whole area’s evolved since my last visit. There used to be a cafe situated on the sea front, where Mum sometimes took me after a swim, and right next door, a man who rented out deckchairs and pedalos. Sometimes, Mum and me, we paddled in the surf, saturated by the spray; seaweed and sand stuck between our toes. I grew up right here with the sea charting the milestones of my life.
The heat from the sun dances around us in shimmering waves, from above and below. The flagstone path is fierce, and I wince as I see people on the jetty walking without shoes. In the distance, sun-lovers raise their arms above their heads in worship. They launch themselves into the water in long, graceful arcs, leaving no trace as they cut through the surface. Later they emerge nearer the shore – hair wet and gleaming. Aaron is looking at me.
‘Just because it’s different now, doesn’t mean it’s gone.’
I want to tell him to leave me alone, but I don’t. Instead, as I watch the divers, following their movements, I remember moments I practised, and sensations I experienced hundreds – no thousands; maybe even tens of thousands – of times: the grip of toes on the edge, the tightening of calf muscles, the arch of the body, the cool air on skin, the rush of water as the body slices down, plummeting, deeper and deeper. I take a gasp of air, as if I’ve resurfaced. The inhalation hurts my throat.
‘I thought you understood.’
I appeal to him with my eyes. ’You’re meant to be on my side.’
He touches my hair.
We arrive back at the bungalow as the sun begins its dusky descent. Mum lets us in. She reminds me of a prison warden in her tailored grey shirt.
‘Where’ve you been, Selena? I’ve been really worried.’
She looks at Aaron; the criticism clear in her eyes.
‘It’s okay, Mum – leave it. I wanted to stay out. We had fun.’
For a minute, she hesitates, but she can’t let go.
‘And now, of course, you’re exhausted. I can see it in your face.’ She always sees everything in my face. Sometimes I feel I have nowhere to hide.
‘Mum… relax. Everything’s good. Aaron didn’t force me to do anything I didn’t want to.’ He catches my eye, and I know he’s thinking about the swimming conversation.
‘The City’s glorious in the summer, Mrs C – you know that.’ says Aaron. ‘I wanted Selena to see some places she’s not been before. And maybe some places she’s missed these last few years.’
Mum looks unsure. ’Well, at least you’re back now, though look at the clock. I think it’s time for bed, young lady.’
‘Stop fussing. I’m twenty four, not twelve.’
Aaron makes for the door. ‘Well, I’d better be off. See you tomorrow, eh, Selena?’
As his hand turns the handle, I realise I can’t bear to spend the next hour alone with only my mother for company.
‘Aaron?’ I call after him.
‘Do you mind…’ I pause, aware of Mum watching. Caught between embarrassment and frustration, I phrase my words with her discomfort in mind.
‘Will you take me to bed tonight?’
Aaron blushes slightly, though I ignore the prickle of guilt. Mum’s reaction is exactly what I expect.
‘What? No, Selena.’
‘Why not?’ I say, ‘Why can’t he? Is no one allowed in my life but you?’
Aaron comes towards me. ‘Selena – don’t.’
Mum’s face crumples. ’We don’t pay Aaron for the night-time,’ she says, and immediately I feel ashamed.
‘It okay, Mrs C, I don’t mind. Come on, Selena,’ he says, pushing my wheelchair down the corridor into the wing where my bedroom and bathroom are situated. There, he doesn’t use the hoist, but lifts me tenderly onto the bed. I can’t feel his arms around my back or under my knees, but I pretend I can.
Once I’m safely tucked in, after my evening rituals have been dealt with, I apologise for my behaviour with Mum earlier.
‘I don’t know what happened,’ I say.
Aaron arranges the covers around my shoulders. ‘It’s hard for both of you.’
I absorb his words. ‘It’s not her fault.’
I nod. ’Thank you,’ I say, ‘for being here.’
‘It’s my pleasure… And anyway, if I wasn’t, you’d only find some way of punishing me.’
I laugh, wanting to cuff him in retaliation, but the realisation that I can’t leaves me feeling heavy.
He pulls up the rail on the side of the bed.
‘You okay?’ he asks.
I glance at the bars stretching down the length of the mattress.
He caresses my forehead, and I close my eyes, enjoying the soothing spirals. He stops, his fingers remaining on my head, and I wait, wanting something that I’ve never dared consider. There is no sound, not even of our breath, as unspoken words pass between us. After a moment, he sighs, and I hear his footsteps move towards the door. The residue of his touch remains on my skin like a skein of gold. I keep my eyes closed, not wanting the sensations to dissipate, but quickly, the lustre becomes assailed by a seeping inkiness, transforming in my mind into the fetid waters of the abandoned pool.
‘You know the pool today?’
‘I’m sorry, Selena – we should never have gone. It was thoughtless of me. I wondered if you could – but I was wrong.’
My closed eyes cocoon me from the memories and allow the gentle vibrations of his voice to ride the shadows of darkness, playing octaves of sensation on my skin, just as his fingers did.
‘What will happen to it?
‘What do you mean? To what?’
‘The pool. Will anyone swim there again?’
‘I don’t know, Selena, I really don’t know.’
‘Do you think they will? I hope so.’ The pitch of my voice rises slightly. I close my eyes tighter, the lids wrinkling, like I did when I was a child – making wishes over a birthday cake or over a fountain. ‘I mean, it would be nice, wouldn’t it? Do you think they will?’
‘I really don’t know.’
Sometime later, the door opens, hazy light filtering into the room. I’m not sure if I’ve been asleep, but my eyes struggle to fight against the curtain-folds of darkness. Night’s descent has chilled the room somewhat, and my cheeks are cool, exposed above the blanket. Someone leans over the safety rail, the long, black figure blocking part of the hallway’s glow.
‘Selena?’ The voice is a throaty whisper.
I smell the familiar scent of sandalwood combined with peppermint and soap.
’Mum,’ I say, my words barely audible. ‘Mum… I’m sorry.’ Tears well in my eyes. ‘I don’t know what’s wrong with me.’
‘There’s nothing wrong with you.’
She places her lips on my brow, and slowly, the gentle pressure warms my skin.
A LANGUAGE CALLED WATER
The water is where I belong. It’s where I always belonged: submerged and concealed from the world. I blink and examine my surroundings. I don’t remember my journey. One minute, I was on the ward and the door was open; the next, I was here. I don’t recall ever knowing this place existed. I am wet from the storm, and the wind shrieks, slapping my face. In front of me, a metal ladder leads into an abandoned pool built at the edge of the sea. My feet sink in a carpet of low-lying weeds around the rim. The water is almost opaque and thick with algae. Over the pool’s outer edge, facing the horizon, the ocean crashes against the boundary, fighting to enter. The constant impact of the sea has weakened the barrier, and salt water seeps through, disturbing the glassy surface. I watch the gentle undulations and the pattern of the rain, mesmerised. The movements are an invitation. They beckon. Come. Come. It’s her. She brought me here. I put my bare foot on the top rung of the ladder.
Water’s always called to me, wanting to share its secrets; tell its story. It recounts its narrative in many ways: the trickle of a brook, the drip of a tap, the rain beating against a window, the foamy flurry of a waterfall, or the lapping of a lake. Hearing its urgent whispers pricks the hairs of my neck, and makes my nostrils flare. With every watery sound, the world intensifies for me, sharpens. And yet, I don’t understand. Its a language I recognise, but one I’ve forgotten. It’s at the back of my brain, on the tip of my tongue, on the periphery of my hearing. Unable to begin a dialogue, I lose myself in the small communications that are offered: drips become my punctuation; ripples are my music; tears, my art.
It was early morning when they found me at the shore of the lake all those years ago. I imagine the dew glinting on the tips of the long grass, the perfume of the water hyacinths, as the sun rose over the horizon. I was six years old, they think, wrapped in tendrils of pondweed, green scum knitted in my hair and eyebrows. I was exposed, naked, for hours, but the summer night protected me, caressing my skin with kisses that should have been borne from my mother.
I dream of her sometimes. Mother. Dream of her and others. She speaks to me from the water. Twisting, meandering messages I can’t quite grasp the meaning of – though I know she wants me back. She urges me to return, but in my dreams the surface of the water is impenetrable. Instead, I am left gasping on the rocks, suffocating in sunlight, limbs flapping helplessly. When I wake, two nurses enter the room, and shackle my wrists with leather bindings. Once I am bound, one injects my arm, and waits till I sleep.
I step onto the second rung. Rust rasps my ankle bone, and my foot sinks and slips on thick moss. There’s comfort in the sensation that I could suddenly slip off, my body falling without restraint. The plants beneath the surface are barely visible. I could hide in there. Forever.
The world above the water is hard and sharp, like its words. I’ve never spoken – not wanting to wound others like words wound me – but I understand what I hear. Depression, abused, attachment, disorder. These words make me flinch, yearn for sanctuary, forcing me to curl foetally in the warmth of a bath, submerge my face in a puddle, or lick away the tears of a child – but there’s little refuge for me now. People remain distant, bathrooms and kitchens are locked, drinks tightly lidded. These days, I experience only basic hygiene, which is provided in the form of a cold, wet cloth. It’s like heaven to me – I nuzzle it, pretend it is her – though tranquility is fleeting. Eventually, all moisture evaporates like the memories of a loved one. The fabric stiffens, and in frustration, I rub and rub the desiccated coarseness over my skin until I am raw. More words are cast at me: damaged, obsession, psychosis. Silence is my defence.
The third rung is moss free, but my foot disturbs the fatigued paint, and flecks fall onto the pool. They circle on the surface, in suspended animation. I grip the ladder, looking at my white-knuckled fingers. Last night I dreamed again. My mother and sisters surrounded me in the water, their hair red like mine, tails bending sinuously, nuggets of sunlight flashing off their scales. They called to me and sang: the tune familiar, but the words indiscernible. For the first time I woke without screams. It was clear what they wanted – she left the ward door open for me – and through the barred windows I saw the enticement of the storm.
The fourth rung sits an inch beneath the water’s surface, and the cold soothes my bare skin. Plunging one foot into the water as far as the knee, I relax. The white cotton around my lowered leg rises to my thigh. I hesitate, holding on to the ladder. The fourth rung is the final rung. There are no steps left. I let go.
Down, down my body winds through murky wetness, my mouth closed tight. Bubbles rise from my nose. My hands swirl and dance, and my pyjamas surge upwards, as if wanting to return from where they came. In swift movements, I remove them, and watch as they float upwards. I wait, flanked by anorexic weeds undulating in the brown waters. They won’t be long.
I see them – my sisters and my mother. They’ve broken through the cracks in the pool wall. My lungs ache as they swim to me: their hair fanning behind, their breasts hanging low, milk white and full. Dragging me deeper, deeper into the mat of waterweed, they sing in shrill, pulsing modulations. The beauty of their voices cuts away the last vestiges of confusion, though within my chest, the pressure becomes unbearable, desperate for release. My lips remain closed – the habits of a lifetime dying hard. Their hands fondle and skim over my legs, flaccid and useless next to the muscular, silvery weaving of their tails. Gently, they caress my mouth, and I nod, comprehending. It is time to cast off all ties to the land.
I open my mouth to speak.
In this moment, rising out of everything, it’s our first kiss I remember. To me, it’s far clearer than where we met or what we wore – though that’s something we argued about regularly. You said you wore green, but I’m certain you wore blue. And our first meeting? You were on the bench in the park, but you insisted it was a different bench – the one by the river. Your hair, an abundance of curls, was in a topknot that day, but you said no – you wore it down, freshly washed, the morning cold entwined in the damp spirals. I may have it wrong, I may not. It’s not something to worry about now. We have two minds, two sets of memories and emotions, two sets of eyes.
For the longest time, ensnared in rituals of work and family, we lost our kiss, and we lost each other. Each night, exhausted after a day on the lathe, I’d hang my mask on a hook by the door. You were rushed and pushed by children, while I, covered in dust, was brushed away. We sank into our own lives. We didn’t realise then, but the kiss wasn’t lost; just misplaced – like old coins buried down the back of a sofa. We needed to look in the right place; to wipe away the grit and debris; to expose the glint of copper and nickel beneath.
And now with our children grown and gone, I lie beside you on the bed: our chests swelling and falling to a rhythm where I take four breaths to your one. The windows are shuttered, the room shrouded in grey light, and I see the outline of your hair, and catch a wet gleam in your eyes. Today I wear a different mask. It covers my mouth and nose like the ones I used to wear, but this time it’s moulded from clear plastic. Attached to it by a tube, a tank of oxygen sits by the bed. I want to speak, but words drain my energy. You put your finger to your lips and stroke the stubble on my cheek.
Your hair is auburn, though over the years the red became interwoven with threads of silver. A rogue curl springs away from the rest, flopping down to rest on your mouth. An echo through time reminds me how once we could forget everything with the touch of our lips. I try to raise my mask, and after a brief pause, you help lift it away. As if you understand, you lean forward and press your mouth against mine. Again, the familiar soft pressure, the scent of your own particular perfume, the ache, the line of longing that pulls from my lips to a place deep within.
My breath labours. You lean forward to replace my mask, but I pull my head away. No. You look at me for a long moment, and edge closer. The mattress dips further under our weight. Face-to-face, hip-to-hip, knee-to-knee, we are joined. We kiss again. With each halting inhalation, I gaze into your eyes and understand this moment will remain with me forever.
Eva side-stepped the cowpat on the muddy path, feeling the warmth of the sun as it penetrated through the cold of the morning. In the distance blackbirds trilled, but instead of watching them sweep by as she usually would, she kept her eyes firmly on the path in front of her. She didn’t have long for her walk, but she needed this time to herself to clear her head. The day would be full of people and full of chatter. The sort she generally found long and exhausting anyway, but today, more so. Today was Tom’s day. Tom’s birthday. In fact, soon she’d be rushing around, making ham sandwiches and putting cocktail sausages on sticks and laying out miniature cakes with fondant icing. All the things he favoured.
In the past, Joe complained about her preoccupation with her son. He claimed it was what drove them apart. It probably did. But, for as long as she could remember, having a child had been her main goal in life. He knew that; had always known that. She wanted a child. Children, in fact. Lots and lots of children. Why else would she spend most of her teens babysitting, and then train to be a teacher? She loved children. Absolutely loved them. In the distance, walking on the field with a giant Schnauzer, a mother and daughter caught her eye. The little girl, aged about ten, half-raised her hand and smiled uncertainly. It was Poppy from her old class. Gentle, kind Poppy. The girl’s mother glanced in the direction her daughter was waving, said something, then pulled the young girl away.
Discovering she couldn’t have any more children after Tom was a great shock, but in the end she realised it didn’t matter. If she couldn’t love lots of children, she would have more love for one. Of course, Tom was so easy to love: so calm and sweet-natured; such a curious child, ready to learn and discover. Although sometimes, there were disadvantages. Joe took many precautions, but still their child got into everything.
‘He’ll be a scientist or engineer when he grows up,’ Joe said, ‘with curiosity like that.’
Most parents thought their child was a genius, but she and Joe were absolutely certain. Tom learned to read in next to no time, years before his peers, and it was as if he was born counting. From the time he could sit up, he was a wonder with construction toys and puzzles. Eva would mix up pieces to trick him, but it was as if her son was able to visualise how the pieces fit together even before he touched them. He’d have things clicked back in one piece quicker than she ever could. By aged two and a half, Tom was able to use a screwdriver and pull apart toys and fit them back together in full working order. He also liked to see the machinery inside gadgets, and one day, Joe found both his phone and his tablet in bits. Eva smiled at the memory. Joe was red with annoyance, yet something about his shoulders reflected his pride at his son’s abilities.
She couldn’t remember the exact moment, but somewhere along the line, she and Joe stopped being allies in their love of their son.
‘You know, Eva, he’ll not die if you leave him unattended for five minutes. Ten minutes even. Go on, why don’t you give it a try?’
The sarcasm was a sign of the toxicity seeping into their relationship, and she remembered the words as if they were spoken only yesterday. A few weeks later, Joe left, claiming she was too focused on Tom, and he was nothing more than a third wheel in their relationship.
And today was Tom’s fourth birthday. Four. Where had the time gone? It didn’t feel like two minutes since his birth. Somewhere during the last year, he’d lost his babyishness, as his face slimmed, and his speech became more clear, assured and boyish. He looked very much like Joe. During one of Tom’s stopovers at Joe’s, his father risked taking him to the cinema to view one of those silly superhero films. From then on, Tom developed an obsession with flying. Not with planes, or helicopters, but a belief that real people could fly.
‘One day, Mummy, I’m going to learn how to fly. You’ll see.’
She ruffled his hair, more than half-believing he could do it, ‘I’ve no doubt about it, darling. You can do anything.’
As she reached the edge of the field, knife-edges of laughter pierced the early morning tranquility, and Eva stopped in her tracks. More early risers – a band of children accompanied by their mothers in the park. On any other day, she might have been in there too, as Tom was never one for lying in. Something – either her presence or a sound from the park – disturbed a tiding of magpies who suddenly rose up and screeched in the air above, their wings casting shadows on the ground. Keeping her head down, Eva took the first steps back home.
Back at the house, she was greeted by her husband’s car parked outside, his dark outline visible in the driver’s seat. Her father was inside the house, and would have let him in, so either Joe had only just arrived, or he’d been there a while but hadn’t yet knocked. Obviously he’s delaying, she thought, like herself.
Joe climbed out of the car as she got the door keys out of her pocket. He looked tired.
There was little to say. Not today. He was only here for one reason, and they both knew that.
‘Come in,’ she said, ‘I’ll get dad to make some coffee.’
Keith, Eva’s father, was arranging a platter with triangle sandwiches and covering them with cling film as they entered the kitchen.
‘Oh thanks Dad – I told you I’d do that.’
‘It’s okay. I needed something to do.’
Cards crowded the window sills, and Joe picked each one up in turn, reading the sentiments inside.
‘There’s a lot,’ he said.
‘Yes.’ There wasn’t anything more to say.
He pointed at the blue and white balloons that decorated the corners of the room.
‘I’ve brought a helium balloon, but it’s still in the car. I thought he might like it.’
She nodded. ’He’d love it.’
Keith put on the kettle, and Eva turned the oven on and got a roasting tin to bake the sausages.
‘Are you hungry?’
‘No, I’m okay thanks.’
She looked at Joe’s face and he returned her gaze, but there was a blankness in his stare. She wondered if things would always be like this between them? She knew he blamed her, and she could understand it. Why wouldn’t he? She often blamed herself for how things turned out.
On the kitchen table lay a small wrapped box. It was a present for Tom. Inside was a game that simulated superheroes in flight. She’d known Tom would love it when she heard of it, and she stored it for months, having to stop herself from giving it to him early. She shook her head: Tom and his insatiable love of flying. His room was a shrine now to various superheroes in the form of posters and figurines, but Superman was his absolute favourite: Kal-El didn’t need any special equipment to get into the air.
‘When are they bringing him over?’ Joe asked, as Keith handed him a cup of coffee.
Joe nodded, and took a sip of his drink.
As Tom grew from infancy into boyhood, he liked his own space, and Eva made an effort to step away, remembering Joe’s accusatory words. In his spare time, the boy would spend hours in his room, drawing diagrams of machines that would catapult people into the air, and other machines that would transport themselves around and provide soft landings for the flyer. When she found them, the descriptions and pictures would make her smile. One weekend, after a good couple of hours of quiet from upstairs she shouted him to come down for lunch. She wanted to take him out in the afternoon, as some fresh air would do them both good. With no response, she went to his room and knocked on his door.
‘Tom? Come on – lunch is ready.’
Sighing with frustration she walked into his room, laughing nervously at what met her.
‘Tom, that’s really not funny.’
His feet were dangling about three feet from the floor, and the stool from his desk lay sideways on the carpet. His face was a pale purple, especially around the lips and eyes.
She recalled that she helped him down, and when he failed to move or breathe, she called for help. She also remembered how cold he was, but that was all. Everything else about that day was a fog. The Police told her that it looked like he was trying to set up a hoist using the window-blind runner, and the Coroner classified it as misadventure. Once again, there was a furore in the media about the danger of window-blind cords, but like everything else during Tom’s infancy, she’d been extra careful and tied each string to its own fixing on the wall.
Once she and Joe managed to drag themselves out of their traumatised stupor, they decided that as the funeral would be held on Tom’s birthday, it wouldn’t be a mourning, but a celebration. Tom would want that. He always loved party food and balloons, but most especially, fun. That’s what he’d always been about, though remembering was cold comfort.
Watching the coffin go into the ground made Eva numb, and putting Tom’s gift into the ground with him made her number still. She glanced at Joe’s face, at how stiff his mouth was, and she understood he was numb too.
Back at the house, once she’d served the sandwiches and spoken to everyone, Joe approached her.
‘I’ve still got Tom’s balloon in the car,’ he said. ‘Do you want to come for a drive?’
Eva nodded, and whispered to Keith she wouldn’t be long.
The ride up through the hills was comforting somehow. It was somewhere she and Tom would go occasionally to fly his kite, the wind whipping the ribboned tail round and round into a whirling frenzy.
At the Crags at the top, Joe and Eva stepped out of the car, and Joe opened the boot to get the balloon. It was a Superman figure, fist forward in full flight; red cape cascading behind. The wind snapped the balloon into a spin, and Joe held it tightly at the very top of the string.
Eva stayed back a little, letting him have this moment to himself – a little privacy was the least she could do – but Joe turned to her.
’Will you let it go with me?’ he said, ‘I can’t do this on my own,’ and for the first time in as long as she could remember, the expression in his eyes softened.
Eva took the string directly beneath where he clutched it, and the skin of their hands touched. They held on a moment, tight, then together they released the balloon and watched as it rose higher and higher and higher, moving further away into the blue of the sky.
From the first moment I see you, that’s it.
We’re on our lunch from work, taking advantage of the dry weather and kicking a ball around the Common, when Mac suddenly stops and nudges me.
‘Jones-y. Check her out.’
I look in the direction he’s indicating – towards you. I’d already seen you earlier, but knowing what he’s like, I purposely show little concern, as my interest will only increase his. He’s always been the competitive type.
He looks at me, raising his eyebrows. ‘Maybe I should go over? Say hello?’
‘Try it,’ I say, surprised by the warning in my voice. I can see Mac is, too.
‘Alright, alright, mate. Keep your shirt on.’
I still half expect him to amble over, but instead he shrugs, throws the ball in the air and boots it over to Pommy. That’s strange. I’m not used to Mac giving in so easily. Over the years, most of the guys have, at one time or another, had their crushes or dates pilfered by him. But then, they’ve got a lot of confidence, and Mac’s more protective of me. Maybe he thinks I deserve a chance.
I stand a minute or two longer to observe you, sitting on the bench facing the bandstand, a portfolio bag at your feet. You are perfectly placed, like a work of art, between the two lamp-posts. Your back is straight, and the sun casts a halo around your hair. I hate the word nibbling when applied to people, but that’s exactly what you’re doing. You are absent-mindedly nibbling at your sandwich while reading your book. You turn the page with the sandwich hand, the piece of bread nimbly balanced between thumb and index finger as you catch the corner of book with the remaining digits. You read the last few lines of one page, and then immediately start on the next. Of course, it’d be easier to put the sandwich down entirely, but you’re so absorbed in the book, you can’t look away, even for a moment. Something warms inside me. I know that Mac would say it’s nothing more than lust, but I know it’s something else.
‘Jones-y!’ Mac points to where the ball’s landed at my foot. ‘Come on, mate.’
I grab the ball, and jog over towards the others. We kick around for another ten minutes or so until it’s time to go. When I turn to the bench again, you are gone.
For the next couple of weeks, if it’s a nice day and if I’m lucky, I see you sitting on the bench. You are nearly always reading, though sometimes there’s someone next to you, playing with their mobile phone, fiddling in a bag, or reading a paper. Though they aren’t with you, I’m envious of their proximity. On the few occasions that one side of the bench is empty, I feel a strong compulsion to sit with you, but always walk past.
One Friday, I decide that if I ever see you again, I will talk to you. Though that’s a big ask for me. I’ve never been good with women. Actually, that’s not entirely true. I’m okay with girls – after a few pints, that is – but women, they’re a different matter entirely. I mean, though I’m twenty-five, and some people might describe me as a man, I still see myself as a lad, which come on, let’s face it, translates in the real world to boy. Inside, I’ve never grown up, and I’m terrified of authority figures. I don’t want to be like this, but I don’t know how else to be.
Women are like authority figures, aren’t they? They’re grown ups. Yet women who are girls, they are adults but more like kids inside, like me. I mean, you meet thirty-nine-year-olds who can be described as girls. Hell, you can even have sixty-year-olds girls. But there are some that you’d never call a girl. Women who are women are a particular type – sure of themselves and mature right to their very core. At least, the women I know at work are. They are the ones that are good at their jobs and want to get somewhere; to achieve. They never question themselves, they stand up for their beliefs, and they don’t take shit, and that’s good. Sometimes, I just wish they’d take a minute, and maybe have a sense of humour about stupid stuff. Soften up a bit.
But weirdly, I recognise you as a woman. A grown up. You’re not my usual type. I sense you are certain of yourself, responsible, that you want to be taken seriously: the way you sit, the way you dress, in your double-breasted coat. But I feel that you might be a woman who can also be a girl – that sometimes you like to tie your hair in a ponytail, or that you might like lying in bed in your pyjamas all day reading a favourite book, or that you’d sit on the beach in your best skirt and not worry about getting sand in your knickers. You look like you laugh easily, at stupid stuff no-one else gets, and might cry at weddings and films. You look like you wouldn’t mind either, if I made stupid jokes, or if I cried at weddings and films. Because I do. A lot.
I tell Mac about my decision, that you’re the perfect girl for me, and he just laughs and tells me I’m a soft-arse and to find someone in my own league.
The next time I see you is over a week later, on a Saturday in May. I’m cutting through the Common on the way to Mac’s, and you’re on the bench again. You’re wearing strappy heels and a tailored summer dress. Floral. No sleeves. It shows your arms and your collar bone and you look feminine and… well, to be perfectly honest, totally amazing. You aren’t reading this time, but gazing at the bandstand. The sun is strong in the sky, and blankets and lovers and families are strewn over the grass, together with the daisies. Children run wild, shrieking like hurricanes, and within it all you, reposed on the bench, are the eye of the storm.
Remembering my promise to myself, I hesitantly step off the path and perch on the edge of one of the wooden slats. I’d like to say I’m relaxed, but my chest tightens and a cold sweat breaks out on my forehead. Unsure of how to begin, I glance briefly at your arm resting on your leg, and notice a tiny freckle near to your wrist. Somehow, this tiny mark is reassuring, and I allow myself to settle further on the seat. Though there’s plenty of room, you hutch up a little, smoothing your skirt beneath you. You’re holding a well-worn book I read earlier this year, and your thumb acts as a bookmark, three-quarters in. After a few seconds silence, with my mind floundering for the perfect first words, I take a deep breath.
‘It’s good, isn’t it?’ I say. ‘I was terrified for most of the book.’ Then I curse myself silently. Are men meant to show fear?
You glance at the cover – which displays a man’s fingers clenched around a dagger – then at me. I can sense you quickly scrutinising me, to check whether I bear any similarity to the psychopath in the book, and then you smile.
‘Me too. Totally terrified. To be honest, I’m having a break from it, because I’m not sure whether I can handle the rest. I’m always a total wuss where horror is concerned.’
I like you. You’re honest, and like me, you give away slightly too much information.
‘Have you read his other stuff?’ I ask.
‘No, this is the first. Probably the last. I prefer a more gentle read usually, but a friend lent it to me.’
I think of Mac, who introduced me to the particular author. I’ve only read a couple. They’re stomach-churning.
‘She’s made of strong stuff.’
‘It’s a he,’ you say, then glance at your watch as if remembering something, put your book in your bag and stand up. ‘Look, I’ve got to go. I’ve arranged to meet someone.’ There – too much information again. You grin, sheepishly. ‘But it’s lovely to meet you.’
You’re so endearing, I nearly ask for your number there and then, but it’s a totally random thing to do in the park. I wonder why it’s okay to do this when everyone’s had a skinful in a pub at night, but not when you’re sober in the cold light of day. Seems all wrong to me.
I watch you step away, listening to the rhythm of your heels grow quieter on the pathway. You walk out of sight and for a while, I watch the children playing on the bandstand, before I set off to Mac’s. All the way there, I go over our conversation, remember your smile, and hope that I get the chance to see you again.
Never mind – Mac will put my mind off it with a few beers. And he said he might invite a few of the lads round later for poker.
But when I get there, he’s not in. He must have got a better offer.
The fog presses down heavily, which is unusual for June. It leaves a moist coating on everything it touches. I’ve not seen you in a few weeks, even though I’ve taken to walking through the Common to and from work. It’s the long way round, and adds an extra fifteen minutes to my journey, but I still hope every day you’ll be there, in your usual place. Every time I pass I remember the last time I saw you, and curse my hesitation. In the thick mist, the bench is visible between the two lamp-posts – the view perfect in its symmetry – but the bandstand is indiscernible in the greyness beyond.
It’s a relief to get to work, and Mac is already at his desk, where he’s packing up his stuff. Lately, he’s always in early, and usually stays later than me. Put in the effort and get the rewards, is how he puts it. Or another of his favourites is, If you want anything enough, eventually it falls into your lap. Usually a woman. Shame that doesn’t work for me.
‘Arsenal won three nil last night, mate,’ he says, forming his thumb and index finger into an L-shape and placing them on his forehead.
‘LOOOOS-ER, LOOOOOS-ER,’ he chants at me.
I shake my head. This is par for the course, though I never get offended where Mac is concerned. When it counts, he’s a real friend. And it’s true, I’m going to miss him now he’s moving to another part of the office. We both started at the publishing firm as grads, but Mac is far more determined than me, which means he’s recently been promoted from editorial assistant to junior editor. I can’t say it doesn’t bother me – I’m ambitious, obviously, but I’m progressing less quickly than him. Yet, I can’t begrudge him either – he works hard and deserves it, though no-one can deny, in some ways it’s simply that his face fits with our boss. He’s not terrified of her like I am, and though she’s got zero personality, she puts up with his dodgy humour. I never understand how he gets away with it. If I said some of the things he does, I’d be sacked.
‘You up for a pint tonight?’ I ask.
‘Can’t. Gotta… You know?’
‘Again?’ I say. ‘You serious about this bird, mate? ‘
‘Oh,’ he nods with pretend gravitas, ‘very serious. Gotta keep her happy, you know.’ He forms his mouth into an O and sticks his tongue through it.
‘I’m sure she’d love to know you do that when she’s not around,’ I say.
‘Oh she knows I do it,’ He sticks his tongue out again, further this time, ‘and of course she loves it. That’s why she keeps asking me to do it. Over and over and over again.’
I start to feel uncomfortable, so I change the subject. ’When am I going to meet her? And why keep hiding her away? You scared she’s going to fancy me instead?’
‘In your dreams, pal. In – your – dreams.’
Thankfully, when I come out of the office, the fog has disappeared, and I’m wondering whether to go for another wander in the park before I go home. I need to be honest with myself. Really, it’s unlikely I’m ever going to see this girl again, and I’m not the type to broadcast one of those emotional pleas on the radio. Though I have toyed with the idea. A lot.
I’m pushing through the revolving doors at the entrance to our building, when I notice a familiar tan coat passing into the building through one of the clear partitioned sections of the door. I make a decision fast and continue round in the circle until I’m back in the building again – hoping, hoping – until I see that it really is you. Your waist looks dainty in your belted coat, where a portfolio bag is strapped to your side. I want to shout to you, but I realise I don’t know anything about you, not even your name, and to yell out ‘Oi!’ doesn’t seem right.
Instead I try to catch up as you head towards the lifts, but the foyer is busy with people leaving, and I’m flagging behind. When I see you press the button for the third floor, I hesitate. It’s the floor I work on. The floor where Mac is still working, killing time before his secret date.
It all starts to fit together. I want to kick myself for being so stupid.
No I don’t. I don’t want to kick myself.
I want to kill Mac.
Love at first sight – if that’s what I’m experiencing – what is that? What does it mean? Does it mean that I’m deluded, that I have hopes and dreams about someone who is unlikely to ever have any feelings for me in return? If so, what’s the point? Not only have I been an idiot about you, but also about Mac, who’s been playing a game with me all along. How could I have ever thought he was a friend? How could I have ever expected any sense of loyalty from him. He was far from loyal – just biding his time, obviously. I laugh, realising I’m not just angry with him but with myself.
I think about going home, but no. I remember Mac’s mouth earlier, shaped in a tight circle like a sphincter, and his tongue poking through. I think about his raucous laugh, and my fists tighten. For once, I’m going to brave this out, tackle something head on. The foyer is empty now, as most people have gone home. I press the button for the third floor, step into the lift, and wait for the automated voice to tell me that I am at my destination.
There are no voices when I reach the third floor, which is what I expect. I take it you’re both otherwise engaged. But what I am surprised to see is you standing alone and perplexed in the centre of the room. When you hear the slide of the glass door you turn.
‘Oh, hello,’ you say, recognition registering on your face. ‘You work here?’
‘You’re here for Mac?’
‘Yes.’ You hold out your hand. ‘I’m Jenny Peters.’
‘Good to meet you. I’m Nick Jones.’ The whole situation is measured and reserved. Not how I imagined when I found out your name.
I can’t blame you for this. You’ve never known anything about my feelings. If I didn’t have the guts to do something about it sooner, then it’s my own fault. Mac, however, is a different matter. Yes, he’s a chancer, but he’s also my friend. He knows how I feel about you.
‘I’ll see if I can find him,’ I say.
I wonder where Mac is, and what I’ll do when I find him. Although it’s like him to forget when he’s got a prior arrangement, it’s not usual where women are concerned. He’s probably faffing around his new desk. As I walk up to the partitioned section that separates the editors from the rest of the room, I hear an unusual sound from the boss’s office, as if someone’s in pain.
I knock, gently. ‘Tabatha? Are you in there? Is everything okay?’
‘Just a minute,’ she calls. There’s something different about her voice. It’s higher in pitch; more feminine; almost uncertain.
There’s a lot of shuffling, and after a few seconds, the door opens. First Mac walks out, straightening his tie, and behind him, Tabatha. Her neck and cheeks are blotchy and flushed, and though she appears neat, she’s less fastidiously arranged than normal.
‘There’s someone here to see Mac,’ I say, the words sticking in my throat.
You walk over. ‘Hi. I brought my portfolio – we spoke on the phone.’
‘Oh yes. Jenny, is it? We didn’t expect you yet,’ says Mac. ‘You’re early.’
‘The early bird and all that,’ you smile, nervously.
The whole room reeks of awkwardness, and as I stand in the middle of you and Mac and Tabatha, it becomes clear. You don’t know Mac. You’ve never met. This isn’t what I thought.
I look at Mac’s new place in the office, and Tabatha’s red face, and finally Mac.
Neither of them meet my eyes.
Sitting on the park bench in the late afternoon sunlight, it’s hard to believe that this morning, the whole area was suffocated by an overwhelming fog. The bandstand, free from the dense, grey curtain, rises grandly from the grass, its rich pewter-and-green peaked dome supported by sixteen paired red columns.
I don’t realise you’re here until you’re beside me.
‘I’ve always loved this place,’ you say.
We sit in silence for a while.
‘So how did it go?’ I ask.
‘It went well I think. They said they loved my artwork; that I’ll hear from them soon.’
‘Great. And what about the book?’
‘The book you were reading? From your friend?’
‘It was okay. But I think I prefer something a little more steady in future,’ you say.
I glance at you out of the corner of my eye. You’re a virtual stranger. Definitely not a girl. A woman. Taking risks frightens me. It always has. But if I’m going to win, I have to be in the game.
The freckle on your arm peeks out from beneath the wristband of your coat.
‘You don’t fancy having a drink some time, do you?’
If I had a previous life, it’s gone. All I know is, the baby won’t stop crying. His wails pierce through walls, as though they’re made of eggshell. His lungs squall for hours, leeching the oxygen, and leave nothing for me. Some days it’s hard to gather strength to get out of bed, climb downstairs, or even lift my arms to wash my hair.
Day and night, the baby feeds, sucking me dry. With each feed, my skin hangs off my bones; bags deepen under my eyes. There’s a vertical crease forming between my eyebrows, and a small blood vessel in the inner corner of each eye pollutes the whiteness. Some days I see the dark hollows of my eye sockets and wonder if Halloween is a daily event.
When the baby arrived, Jonah abandoned me for the spare room. The baby is always latched onto my breast; a breast which probably – in a previous life – filled Jonah’s mouth. A nipple which probably – in a previous life – was cupped by his tongue. The same breast which was probably once full and firm, now sags limply, onto the mattress. A mattress stained with sour milk and dried saliva. Not a lover’s bed. A mother’s bed. The baby’s hand holds possessively onto my skin, its head resting on the pillow beside mine. This was Jonah’s place. Slowly I realise, Jonah doesn’t have a place. In fact, he’s never home. Apparently, it’s the way it’s got to be, when one parent doesn’t work. I look at the baby, it’s mouth a toothless, gaping, fleshy hole, at the bottom of which possibilities once lay.
It’s an age since my agent contacted me. That’s another life – one in which I lost my finger-hold. But I know that somewhere it still exists. My mother mentions it when she visits, and I have shelves upon shelves of books containing my illustrations. I open them sometimes, scrutinise the sketches as if they were drawn by a stranger.
Sometimes I question our decision to move here. At the time it seemed like the perfect location for a gothic illustrator to live. The house’s quirks called to me; its creaks and groans fired my imagination: the crooked walls, squeaking floors, chestnut beams and rafters. I loved the mullioned windows, and stone flags; the scent of spruce burning in the open fireplace. I loved the trees that canopy the house, the swaying shadows they cast at night, the wall around the garden, the stone gateposts, and the tiny chapel and graveyard at the end of the lane. The lack of cars and shops and people create a world where real life doesn’t exist. My house. My world.
When the screaming gets too much, I put the baby in his pram and walk down the lane. He’s soothed by the whispering trees and the birds singing. I croon as we stroll as far as the graveyard and the chapel. As the covering of trees disperse, he starts to cry again, and I turn back.
Occasionally, the baby sleeps for hours. My mind in the silence becomes agitated, unfocused. Reading is impossible. Even television is too much, nothing more than a set of meaningless impressions and noise. Sometimes I laugh at what I’ve become. A navy coat hanging on the corner of a door becomes a shadow of an intruder; the stone gatepost at night, is a stalker ready to jump from the trees; and my own reflection in the mirror on the other side of the shower is a ghostly presence ready to steal my soul. The house’s own moans and lamentations, the shrill wind through the trees outside, take on a life of their own.
It’s then I realise, the baby’s cries are a relief.
My mother visits. For a change, the baby is asleep in another room. Mum washes a few dishes, and wipes round the kitchen while she waits for the kettle to boil. I keep a lot from her – I don’t want her to worry – but she knows.
‘You look tired, Theresa,’ she says, setting a cup of tea down in front of me. ‘And you’ve lost weight.’
‘Oh, I’m okay,’ I say, forcing out a tight smile.
‘You should get out more – you’re pale. How about I pick you up one day, and we go shopping?’
‘I do get out.’
‘More than just the end of the lane.’
‘I’m sorry, love.’ She sits opposite me at the table. ’Are things any easier?’
‘It’s…’ I struggle to find the right word, ‘… different.’
‘It’s tough. No one can deny that.’ She nods towards the bookshelves. ‘Have you managed any new illustrations? It might be time to focus on – ’
‘I try. It’s just… I’m so tired, I can’t seem to concentrate.’
‘Y’know – I saw Maggie in the City, and she was asking about you. She said whenever you’re ready, she’s happy to…’
I put my cup down. Tea splashes the table. ‘I told you, I’m not ready.’ My voice emerges louder than I intended.
‘Look love,’ she tries to take my hand in hers, but I move it away, ‘this isn’t healthy. You need to be around people, not shutting yourself away like this.’
‘I’m not shutting myself away. Jonah’s…’
Mum looks at me sharply. I catch her look.
‘I know. I know. You’re right,’ I say, ’he’s not around enough. But he will.’
‘Theresa, this can’t go on. Being on your own… You’re – ’
From upstairs, I hear whimpering. It’s Mum’s fault.
‘It’s the baby,’ I say.
Mum grabs me as I try to stand up, but I shrug her off and rush to the room at the top of the stairs. It’s meant to be a nursery, but mostly, it’s a storage area for my art supplies. The baby’s mewls escalate; soon the noise will be unbearable. A tightness develops in my chest.
I’m at the door, but Mum’s followed me up the stairs. She steps in front of me, grasps the handle. She tentatively tries to touch me with her other hand. A buzzing begins in my ears, gradually heightens.
‘Don’t,’ I say.
‘Theresa, I’m sorry, but there is no Jonah.’
‘What?’ I laugh, scornfully.
I laugh again, horrified. ‘You’re nuts.’
‘Theresa, you know. You know that he – ’
‘Don’t be daft – I saw him…’ I grapple for a memory. I can’t remember when I saw him. ‘He works away because I can’t… because of the baby…’
‘Theresa.’ She clings onto my arms. ‘Theresa, there is no baby.’
Again, I shake her away. She’s wrong. She’s wrong. I push open the door, turn on the light, and run into the room. Sometimes if I pick him up, cradle him in my arms before he realises I’m not there, I can stop the torrent, the endless torment. The baby. The baby.
I expect Mum to follow me in, but she stops in the doorway.
‘Oh my God, Theresa,’ she says.
I follow her gaze. My eyes widen, and my hand hovers in front of my mouth.
In the room, there is no way to see in or out. Every wall and window is painted black, streaked in angry white and red splodges and slashes, covering three of the walls and the ceiling. It’s a puzzle, an optical illusion. If you study it for long enough, eventually a shape will form. And a shape does form.
I am at the centre of a black, howling chasm emitting a never-ending scream.
She steps from the doorway, as a familiar wail journeys from deep inside me, and her arms draw me in.
Oh God, I can’t believe I’m writing this letter! It’s soooo embarrassing. I mean, you know I’ve fancied you for, like, ages, and I know it makes things a bit weird for you, you being a teacher and all that, and me just being fifteen. But when two people love each other, rules and age and stuff like that, they just don’t matter, do they?
That day, when you first started at our school, was the best ever. Let’s just say French classes got a whole lot better after that. I was in Year NIne, but at the time, you didn’t notice me because I was still pretty small and, really, I suppose I was just a kid. I’ve changed a lot since then. Grown up. I think you’d only been teaching for a few years, because on your first day you looked dead young and just like one of those models in the magazines. I loved the waistcoat you wore. Dead tight around your body, not one of those awful baggy jackets other teachers wear. Some days, you still wear it now. Makes you look different – you know, stand out? Course, you always look dead fit – not like someone’s grandad. To be honest, just about everyone fancies you. When you pass by in corridors, there’s always loads of pushing and giggling and stuff, and ‘Hi, Mr Worrall’ in that stupid high-pitched voice everyone does when they’re taking the piss. Course, you’re always dead nice and that, smiling and stuff, but I know that, really, you think they’re idiots. That’s why I don’t let myself behave like them – just stay at the back and watch. I don’t want you to think I’m one of them. Not that I ever have been.
After school, the only thing I want to do is be on my own so I can think of you. Whatever I do, watch tv, go on the internet, mess around on the Playstation, read a book, whatever, I just can’t concentrate, because all there is in my head is you. Mr Worrall, Mr Worrall, Mr Worrall. I let you stay in there. It’s like you’re my own personal visitor. Mum’s always out since dad left, so you’re good company. A lot of nights, what I like to do is lie on my bed with my notebook, you know, one of the spiral-bound ones with frayed strips of paper trapped in the metal coils, and I write your name over and over and over again. Mr Worrall, Andrew Worrall, Monsieur Worrall, Monsieur Andrew Worrall, Andy Worrall, Mr Andy Worrall, Monsieur Andy Worrall. And then I write my first name together with your surname, first in print, and then in different types of joined-up writing, and I practise my signature in case we ever get married. Over and over and over again. Then I decorate the whole lot with flowers and hearts, and those, like, little curl thingies – what are they called? Curlicues? And arrows. Lots of arrows. I love all that Cupid stuff. People say romance is dead, but not with me. There’s this daft game everyone does with the boys they fancy – dunno if you know it? You write out your own name, and the name of the person you fancy, and then you, like, cross out the letters in the two names that are the same. From the letters that are left, you work out if you love or hate each other, if you’re going to marry or divorce. Love, hate, marry, divorce. Love, hate, marry, divorce. But no matter how many times I do it, no matter how many times I change the way I write your name or mine, you always hate me. Always. That makes me really angry.
I’ve never told you about the photos, have I? I’ve got so many of you. I really wanted to stick them next to my bed, but if Mum saw she’d take the piss, and I couldn’t put up with that. So instead I stole a photo album from a shop in town and put them in there. I collected some from school yearbooks, and others from the local paper. I also have your staff ID card. That’s naughty of me, I know, but now I’ve told you how much I love you, I think you understand. You left it on the desk once at the beginning of French, and I put it in my pocket as I walked past. Later, when the bell went, you were looking for it in the drawer and under the table, and as I walked past I said ‘Bye, Mr Worrall,’ You looked up and smiled and said bye. People don’t usually hear me, but you did. For the rest of the day, I put my hand in my blazer pocket and rubbed the corner of the ID card with my finger.
You’re always in the local paper with school stuff and that; with the athletics club, and chess club, and guitar club. They’re always winning awards. I always have a little laugh to myself, thinking how it’s just like you’re famous. I’m no good at sports. I’m always picked last for the teams in PE, but I joined the chess and guitar sessions after school. I go, but I don’t really like it because out of school I want you to myself. Sometimes it’s better at home with just me and your photos. I’m in one of the pictures, you know? From the music festival – but you can barely see me. Everyone’s in a group, laughing around you, and I’m like a speck at the back.
The only one I didn’t keep was the one when you got married. The paper cottoned onto it, and did a big story on it. You remember? Popular Local Teacher Marries. I tried to cut her out. You know – her. But in the picture, her hair covered part of your face. Cutting her out of the picture meant I cut part of you out too. I hated her even more after that, scribbled all over her ugly face and stupid dress with a red biro, and then I got the matches and burned every scrap of paper there was. Her. The headline. Even you.
The most precious pictures I have are the ones I’ve taken of you myself. They’re pretty fuzzy, because I took them quickly – from the back of the class, or in the corridor, or when I’ve waited outside your house. I think you saw me once. You wrinkled your forehead like you weren’t sure about something, but she shouted you, and you went back in.
I have to admit, I visit your house quite a lot. I feel a lot closer to you there. I stand outside and I watch and I watch. Usually I stay until my feet and hands are past cold and past pain and have gone totally numb. I kind of enjoy it – seeing how long I can last. Each time, I see if I can beat my own record. When I get home it takes hours to warm up and I can’t sleep, but it doesn’t matter. It gives me more time to think about you and what I’ve seen. Sometimes the curtains twitch, and I know you’re sending me a message. That you know I’m out there, that you’re asking me to wait. That it’s only a question of time. Once the postman arrived with a package for you. He brushed past the laurels in your front garden, and they made, like, a whispering sound. They were telling me that your love for me was pure. I like that – pure. It reminds me of when I was younger, before dad left. It was better when he was home, but Mum always says that that silly bitch and kid are welcome to him.
Even though the signals helped me, it’s really hard to keep focused sometimes. ‘Specially now she’s just had a baby. To be honest, I’m, like, really angry about that. I’m really, like – what’s the word? Betrayed? Yeah, betrayed. You let me down. ‘Course, it feels worse because you ended up taking a couple of weeks off school, and now, when I stand outside your house, the curtains and the laurels, they’re really silent. They say nothing. Nothing at all. One time, you came out of your house to go to the shops for some milk, and I was standing much closer than I usually did. You didn’t even notice me.
The last French lesson we had together, you asked me to conjugate the verb aimer. Usually I find French really hard, but this was easy. Aimer. To like, to love. It was something I’d practised over and over again with your photo in my hand. I love – j’aime. You love – tu aimes. We love – nous aimons. I realised right then that you loved me too. So a few days later, when they said in assembly she’d had a baby, it was a huge shock. The signals didn’t prepare me for that.
I heard you were going to be back in school today. I have to admit, I’m pretty excited about it, and I can’t wait to see you, but I’ve got something to do first. ‘Specially when I got that new message, which really, like, cheered me up, you know? I was walking to school through the park, past the bench near the bandstand. It’s a bench I walk past every day, but that day, there were some words written on it. Usually, that really annoys me, how people wreck stuff, can’t leave anything nice. It’s like they have to poison everything. But this time I knew it was a message for me. It was in thick marker pen, soaked into the wood, clear for me and everyone else to see: a black-filled love heart and the words je t’aime. I knew then that you and I were meant to be, and that nothing could ever stop it.
Once I’ve dropped this letter off on your desk, I’m going straight to your house. You’ll be at school by then and reading this, and it means I get chance to be alone with her and the baby. I don’t want to say what I’m going to do. I want it to be a surprise. But then, you and me, we’ll get chance to be together, won’t we?
I think you like the idea of that, don’t you, Andy?
Thank you for loving me.
That night, Obsita was swarming, which was comforting for us. Exhausted after days of patrolling, hungry for food and company, it was gratifying to return to the tribe. Raids from the vespers and avis were thick in Saltus recently; they stole from our oothecas, murdering our burgeoning young. Of course, all of us were permanently at threat, and the knowledge of it lay thick amongst us – heavy as approaching thunder – but we were not afraid. As warriors, we were strong, ready; our instinct to protect.
The sultry night air filtered into the club, leaving a residue of moisture on our flesh. Strong drinks were required, and hopefully, if we were lucky, something more. Many of us were experiencing the pressure of the season – of Tempore – which was so much more than our usual urge to defend the tribe. Our mating instincts simmered, barely contained, and arguments rose amongst us. We tried to restrain ourselves. Conflict weakened us – we knew it. We also knew what would put an end to our frustrations. A few hours in Obsita would help. Not all of us, but hopefully a few, at least.
Kash-Ha removed her sword, as men passed by – some in pairs or groups; some singly. Their conversations stopped as they observed us, heads swivelling, absorbed in our arrival. Kash-Ha handed her weapon to the worker at the entrance, who placed it together with the others in the locked store. Relieved of any extra weight, the eight of us left the dank, dimly-lit reception. As the door opened into the plant-laden bar area, the creaks, chirrups and hums of conversation escaped into the foyer, along with the melodic whine and unbroken drum beat of the bambusa band on the stage.
‘Come,’ Kash-Ha said. The tallest and strongest amongst us, she led us into the room and towards the bar.
We carried ourselves proudly, weaving through the teeming tables of males who, again, surveyed us with interest. Of course, they were captivated – our entire way of existence was alien to them. As soldiers, we risked our lives, fighting and guarding the territories that surrounded the village, while they observed the ordinary daily routines of a worker.
I was glad to be born a woman. In our prime, all of us, our muscular forearms were gilded with spikes, and glistened under the lights. I scanned the watching faces. Most of them were familiar, and since I reached maturity, I’d rejected one or two. Some of the males were so puny it revolted me. I noticed that on this occasion – because of Tempore – their numbers were depleted. It was expected at this time of year.
Rast-Ku concentrated on a far corner, beyond the dance floor.
‘Dish-Hu is gone?’ I asked her, as she leaned on her four legs against the bar beside me. Last time we came to Obsita, Dish-Hu – particularly muscular for a worker – danced with Mu-Pla, as many of us stared with envy. She was not with the patrol tonight.
‘She is resting during Priapus,’ Kash-Ha told us all, days before. We understood, but we missed our companion. In a few more days, she would be back – Priapus was inconvenient, but only a short-lived burden.
‘His own fault. Caused by weakness.’ Rast-Ku only responded to my question after a long pause. ‘Not quick enough.’
She turned away from me, her head gliding in a smooth one hundred and eighty degree rotation, to study the bottles lining the bar. In her unwillingness to talk further, I sensed her shame as it coalesced with sadness.
‘Rhizophora sap. No ice,’ she said to the worker tending the bar. ‘Make it large.’ I indicated with my arm that I wanted the same. He nodded in response.
‘Is there food tonight?’ I asked.
‘No – finished.’
I sighed. No matter. The drink would replenish my energies.
Rast-Ku’s unhappiness bore heavy on me. ’In a few days, Mu-Pla’s ootheca will bring forth – ’ I searched for the right sounds. ‘It will be a time of celebration. You will see.’ I was trying to brighten the mood, but I understood the other woman’s pain. Rast-Ku had many sons and daughters, but a mother loves all her children, and feels the loss of just one. It is why the women defend so well.
Our drinks were placed before us.
Rast-Ku, slowly turned back to me, her eyes black orbs resting on the top corners of the inverted triangle of her face. ‘I hope you are never in my position, Chu-Ku.’
Unable to meet her gaze, I concentrated on my drink.
Since our arrival, the buzzes and trills of the men, situated in the semi-darkness, gained momentum. Meanwhile, our gathering of eight found ourselves caught in shimmering cascades of green and white illumination. This contrast between light and shade was intentional. We were on display, but we did not mind. We were proud of our roles as defenders of the tribe; of our strength and physiques – our long necks, our mighty wings folding around the curve of our distended abdomens. Kash-Hu untucked her wings with a flourish, and cool air momentarily soothed my face in an invisible flurry, before she folded them away again. I caught her eye with a smile, as the music stopped, and a heavy stillness filled the room.
A disturbance in a distant booth attracted our attention, and a lone body strode to the dance floor. His frame was smaller, more slender and sinewy than the females assembled in the room, but this was expected. None of the males of our species could match our beauty or brawn, but we respected them for what they were: each tribal member was an essential part in the success of our existence. His face and torso were a particularly vibrant shade of green, and his matching emerald eyes were met with hisses of admiration. I’d never noticed him before, and assumed he’d reached full maturity since our last visit. No other male moved forward tonight, and I could sense a shift in attitude amongst the patrol. Hope transformed to anticipation – none of us would reject him if he made a move.
On the empty dance floor, an orange spotlight lazily glowed above the green fronds of the Pteridophyta that filled the area, and the moist earth beneath it. The space around this section was hazy with an intoxicating, woody scent, and the bowing, fragile vegetation added an ambience of intimacy. He moved fluidly into the lit area, and as he lifted his arms, the Pteridophyta brushed against him, its leaves quivering with each touch. Alone on the dance floor, immersed in amber luminescence, the worker appeared even more inviting. The music tentatively began again, and ripples of expectation transferred from the audience at the tables to us at the bar. He danced as if in a trance, transferring weight leisurely between legs, his body bobbing delicately like the necks of the Avis at war, but with far more elegance. His arms raised and lowered in alternating patterns in the air. We were hypnotised. Aching.
As the power of the drumbeat intensified, he directed his attention to me. Mesmerised by the deliberate repetitions of his movements, I held my breathe as he drew nearer and nearer. I caught sight of Kash-Hu. Her surprise was evident, but rather than stepping towards the dance floor as I expected, she edged back.
Rast-Ku encouraged me forward with her arm. ‘It’s your time, Chu-Ku.’
‘What shall I do?’ I asked, searching her eyes for an answer.
There was no hesitation. ’What is right.’
On the dance floor, he caressed my face with his antennae, and I followed him deeper into the foliage.
‘I am Lan-Si,’ he said, continuing to swathe my head and forearms with the tender kisses of his skin on mine. I could think of nothing but his touch.
‘Chu-Ku,’ I said.
He pulled me towards him.
‘You are a handsome warrior, Chu-Ku.’
‘I am strong.’
‘I know. And I am fast.’ He laughed. I’d not had very many dealings with men, but his demeanour was attractive.
And we began then, a new dance of a more primitive form. He swung me around so my wings were against his chest, and together, in harmony, we swayed; an ancient rhythm that is the headspring of our kind. Those oscillations enslaved me. I could think of nothing but that moment: the delicious pressure of his body, the solidity of his forearms on my back, his triangular head above me. From the depths of my daze, I discerned the beating of the drum, in unison with my own heart, and the blood pounding in my head.
‘Chu-Ku’ he hissed, ‘Chu-ku’
He slowed, and with the change in cadence, there was a shift. I stirred, as if from an enchantment, my earlier hunger reborn. There was no graduality – it simply consumed me in a powerful wave: like love, like joy, like grief, like the arrival of a new life. In a swift turn of my upper body, I grasped his face. I looked deep into his eyes; witnessed a twitch: the knowledge of what was about to happen rendering him almost immobile. I observed his remonstrations with himself; they flickered over his face in an instant. He’d been taken off-guard – as caught in the moment as I. He forgot who he was with.
He pulled back. Once, twice. But I was faster, stronger: my arms twice as wide as his. He ceased resisting – understanding the futility, weak from our dance – and I opened up the two plates concealing my jaw, and sank my teeth into the soft centre of his face, which broke apart more readily than I could have ever imagined. The taste was delectable, his flesh more succulent than the fattest caterpillars of late spring. As his head disappeared morsel-by-morsel, his brain secretions dribbled from my mouth onto my chin. Our lower bodies remained in the positions of our original love dance – his torso and legs continuing to convulse – but now a large drop of fluid, the colour of the forest leaves, oozed from the open wound of his neck onto my breast. Gradually, the reflexes of his body halted. As he dropped to the floor, reality seeped in; the knowledge of what I’d done.
I looked up, saw the patrol watching. Rast-Ku’s eyes were blacker than ever under the green aura of the bar. She nodded at me, and I understood. It was time to finish the job, to ensure I consumed the utmost nutrition required for the eggs I would soon lay in an ootheca; to guarantee the best possible future for our people. Bending to the floor, I gorged, devouring Lan-Si whole: his neck and arms, his abdomen, legs and wings.
And all the time, with each mouthful, I thought of Rast-Ku and her son, Dish-Hu; I thought of Mu-Pla in her time of rest, and how I would soon join her. Finally, as I held my now swollen abdomen, I spared a thought for Lan-Si, who sacrificed himself, although unintentionally. In our union, he was now part of me forever.
THE HEAVEN OF CANNIBALS
LANDING ON ALL FOURS
In time’s past, painting was what you always turned to: to relax, to create, to express. Putting pencil to paper, or brush on canvas, it helped you breathe easier, take stock, absorb your surroundings.
Now, years later, the paintbrush returns to your hand. It feels so natural, you don’t know exactly why you stopped, though you clearly remember the time – a point somewhere between real life beginning and dreams ending.
Your thumb and index finger pinch the brush at the furthest point, which allows you to flick the tip delicately onto the canvas. You stand back to examine the effect of the olive, mauve, and mustard tones, now flecked with black. The scent of the acrylics that rise up to you from the palette seems alien, yet achingly familiar.
That’s what people always said about you: that whatever happens – and you’ve had more than your fair share of mishaps – you consistently land on all fours. And I suppose, in the past, you did. At least, you appeared to. On the many occasions the world betrayed you, when it unexpectedly split into a vast black sinkhole, somehow you never perished. Down, down, you plummeted, through the twists and turns of what some call life, like a cat flipping in the air, fighting against gravity, until you landed, gasping, unsteady, shaken but upright, in the light.
That’s on the surface though, that’s what people see, but what’s going on inside? They don’t know what’s happening there. The compound damage of years of shock; the intricate web of hairline fractures; body and organs putrefied; bones splintering from continual impact; the gradual disintegration of personality, of heart, of soul. They don’t realise you’ve crumbled, and as your body weakens, unable to support itself, you start to eat away at yourself – for sustenance, for strength – until there’s nothing left but a hull in the shape of you.
They also don’t see that, though you’re back in the light – it’s not the same light. You’ve lost time: it’s later now, the sun is lower, and your empty body is bathed in shadows that claw in from all around.
So why don’t you just tell them how you’re feeling? Explain you’re not coping? Because it’s not that simple. You’ve been brought up not to complain, to keep it all in, to smile. You’ve learned how to tell everyone only what they need to know, so when, inevitably, everything collapses, inside and out, they struggle to believe you’re the same person they knew all along. ‘But you were always so strong.’ (That particular one makes you smile. Though like your bones, your smile is brittle and could easily shatter).
When they ask why you didn’t come to them, why you didn’t ask for help, you shrug as if you don’t know the answer, but you do. You know exactly why. You resent them. You resent them because, even if you did tell them, they’d never understand. How could they? How can anyone? So busy living in pristine houses, driving expensive cars, and pandering over beautiful children. The Victorias and Charles’ and Patricias and Toms. All of them swigging champagne, bleating about ballet, competing over who has the most or richest friends, whilst they vault at top-speed up career-ladders. Misfortune never touches them, saving itself only for people like you.
So eventually, the ‘resilient’ you finds yourself here, in an art class for people with ‘issues’. There are others in the room – maybe eight or more, all in various states of recovery – but you pay them no heed, and they offer the same favour in return. Each person is focusing their attention on the display in the centre of the room – a large aspidistra on a table, coupled with a book and a guitar. Apart from you. As usual, you’re doing your own thing.
You’re allowed to take part in the class because they say you’ve been co-operative, and you admit, being there makes you feel better somehow. It’s partly the brush in your hand, the chemical smell of paint, but there’s also something about the room that reminds you of how you used to be. It’s infused with the scent of honeysuckle and freshly cut grass. The sunlight that dapples the walls and floor originates from the open French doors that let in, not only the warmth of the summer’s day, but the music of the birds, and the restless rustling of the oak trees. These sounds are punctuated by an occasional cleared throat, light footsteps, or a chair grating softly on the wooden floor. Ordinary sounds, which for you, are soothing interruptions.
‘Oh – you’re doing a self-portrait, Sandy.’
The male voice materialises behind you. It’s John, the art therapist. You mash the brush tip onto the middle of the palette and twist it round, and round.
‘Well spotted,’ you say.
‘You’re very good.’ He examines the picture. ‘The shadows are a real challenge, but you’ve got them just right.’
‘I’ve got lots of experience.’
‘You’ve painted before?’
You weren’t talking about the art, but you let it go; ignoring him instead. You expected him to miss the point. The brush continues to circle, the coarse hairs becoming increasingly mangled, clogged with paint. The various colours, swirling together at the central point of the palette, begin to merge into a thick, brown sludge.
You don’t know what it is that sets you on edge. It’s something about his linen shirt, you think. There’s not a mark on it. As an art teacher, you’d expect it to be stained in some way; tired, threadbare, old; but no, it’s white and crisp and clean.
He observes the cyclical churning of your brush but says nothing, and after a moment he steps away. You take a look at the chaos on your palette. You stand and you stare for a few seconds, before tears prick at the inner corners of your eyes. Your lower lip trembles. The bristles are crushed into a paint-saturated mess. You want to continue to paint, but you can’t. You’re frozen, unable to ask for another brush, and you don’t know what else to do.
‘You’ve got the light and shade just right, but you really do need a fresh photo of yourself to work from.’ You didn’t hear him return. ‘You’ve gained weight since you first came in. So much healthier.’ His voice sounds gentle, but you continue to look at your brush, at your fingers which hold it, bony and frail, replicas of other hands in the room.
‘You’re doing really well, Sandy.’
He stretches forward, holding a fresh brush. You see his hand: solidly-built with thick fingers, square nails, and peppered with fine blond hairs. A strong hand, a capable hand – clean, smooth, unblemished. As he leans towards the table-top beside you, the cuff of his shirt shifts, revealing the wrist and underbelly of his lower forearm. Beneath the linen, a series of faded scars appear, in varying shades of red and pink, crisscrossing the pale fragility of his skin. The brush makes a gentle wooden clack as he sets it down.
‘Thank you.’ Your voice is a ghost, fading in the air, as he walks away.
After a moment, you swap the brushes, dispense more paint, and with deft movements, begin to daub iridescent white and lemon highlights onto the picture of yourself.
The days and nights, I drift, like flotsam on the tide.
Soon I’ll wash away entirely.
Of course, there are moments when I grasp on, when I hear the stampede of life, and remember what I was; when all this started.
I’ll tell you about it, while I’ve got time.
Physically, I felt odd for a while, with lack of sleep getting the blame. I was recently a new partner at Fassett, Masters & Jones, and found it difficult at times, though nothing I couldn’t handle. Yet each day, I became increasingly off-kilter – a strange sensation, like losing myself.
Oscar laughed. ‘What? Don’t be daft. You’re just tired, that’s all.’
‘It’s more than that.’
‘You need a change… A weekend away. Me. You. No kids…’
That’s the trouble with Oscar. Things need to fall down around him before he takes them seriously – but I knew it was time to seek help.
Dr Bowles resembled a figure from a black-and-white photograph – from the wisps of his grey hair, to his matching moustache and beard. His charcoal suit, and pale irises completed the look, which he wore with a scent of Extra Strong Mints.
Having known him since childhood, we were on first name terms. Or, at least, he was with me.
I described the lack of sleep; the disturbing sensations.
‘The kids alright? Oscar?’
‘Yep, fine. Everyone’s, you know, the same.’
I explained about the changes at work. He nodded, chewed his pen a second, then slid a sheet of paper towards me. After taking a quick look, I raised my eyebrows.
‘I’m not depressed,’I said, but there seemed no point in arguing. Quickly, I ticked the boxes. Apart from insomnia, it appeared that, in all other ways, I was normal. I could imagine what Oscar would say about that.
‘So what now?’I asked.
‘I’m thinking: a course of sleeping tablets.’
I opened my mouth.
‘Marissa, if you sort your sleep out, I can promise you, things will look a whole lot different.’
That night, after popping a pill, I rested back in bed. Oscar leaned over, kissing the nape of my neck.
‘How about it, tiger?’
I turned to him, incredulous
‘You. Your mind’s only ever on one thing,’ I laughed, leaning back into the solidity of his arms.
I woke with a start, stunned to see sunlight spewing into the room, and the covers on Oscar’s side of the bed thrown back. It could swear it was only a minute since I’d gone to bed. From next door, the faint sound of running water and singing. Sitting up, I groaned.
I moaned again. The house rule was, two cups of coffee, and maybe a slice of toast, before I could blink, never mind speak.
‘Yeah. Bit fuzzy.’
Oscar snorted. ‘You went out like a light. And snored like a pig.’
‘It was quite arousing, actually…’
I threw the pillow, but he shifted out of the way.
‘You never were a good shot,’he said, throwing the pillow back in my face.
Laughing, I leaped up to grab it again, but stopped mid-step.
‘You alright, Mare?’
I clutched the door for support, caught off-balance by a sensation of lightness; like a balloon about to float away.
‘I’m fine,’I said, the dizziness already receding. ‘Stood up too quickly, that’s all.’
Despite improved sleep, things weren’t right. There were a couple of incidents where I didn’t recognise important clients at work, and then I forgot the kids’ names. Not just for a minute; not where you call one child by the other’s name, or by the dog’s – but completely. Frustrated, I could feel the letters strung together, the words dancing on my tongue –yet they remained elusive, out-of-sight.
‘Cameron,’ Fay chanted, ‘if mum doesn’t remember who we are, there’s no hope for mankind.’
‘Why would she remember us? She’s only our mother…’ Cam turned to me, grinning wickedly. ‘Mother. This is Fay, I am Cam. We’re. Your. Children.’
Their laughter ebbed away, as I was engulfed by an unusual sensation. On the surface, everything appeared normal, yet I experienced what can only be described as a strange rippling beneath my skin. Gradually, it subsided, and I became aware of the children staring at me.
‘What’s the matter?’I said, forcing a smile. ‘Come on…! Stop gawking. Let’s get dinner on the go.’
‘Think it’s time to see the Doc again?’Oscar said later.
I looked up, startled.
‘That’s the butter you’ve put in the washing machine.’
Sure enough, it was. I leaned into him as we giggled, but it was the third time something like this had happened in as many days.
In his surgery, Dr Bowles cleared his throat, as he stared at his notes.
‘Try not to worry, Marissa.’
I imagined batty old women, shuffling on the high street in see-through nighties and slippers.
‘Work changes are far more unsettling than you think. But, let’s get you checked over anyway.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘A precaution, that’s all.’He rubbed his eyes, put his glasses on, and keyed information into the computer, ‘You’ll get an appointment shortly – to MRI, and for blood tests.
‘To check for tumours.’He cleared his throat, ‘Maybe dementia. A stroke.’
I stared at him, as he shifted in his seat.
‘Marissa, really, it’s a precaution,’ he said, the flicker in his eyes barely perceptible.
From his drawer, he pulled another sheet of paper.
‘Another test?’I said.
‘Cognitive function. It’ll give us a starting point.’
The result didn’t put my mind at rest.
As the weeks passed, I barely kept it together. Cam and Fay stayed out a lot, and their friends didn’t come over anymore. At work, I lost a client after a huge mistake on an account, and my boss asked me to take some leave. I knew I didn’t have a choice. As for Oscar, he took to sleeping at the far side of the bed. Yet he refused to discuss anything.
‘The doc’ll sort it out,’is all he said.
The MRI came back clear, yet each day, I became increasingly vaporous. My body seemed lighter, my thoughts distracted. I became disconnected, haunted by a new feeling that my skin was nothing more than a thin film keeping everything together.
Inside, I was dispersing, little-by-little.
Out for a walk with Oscar one day, it started to rain. I reached out to catch the falling drops. In my current state, the liquid crystals were hypnotising; seemingly more solid than I. By my side, Oscar held my elbow; a connection to the world.
As we walked by the wheat-strewn fields, Oscar stopped in the quiet lane. He turned to me, clutching my outstretched hand.
‘Marissa.’His voice cracked; his eyes, glassy. ‘What’s happening to you?’
I stared at him.
After a minute, he sighed deeply, and we continued on.
A week later, Dr Bowles referred me to psychiatry.
The sessions with Dr Evans were held in a modern office, brightly lit by enormous windows. My skin tingled as I gazed at the blue expanse outside.
‘So when did this out-of-body feeling begin, Marissa?’
Interlacing her fingers, Dr Evans placed her hands on the desk. Although she was only a few feet away, it seemed I was staring at her from the wrong end of a telescope. Her well-cut suit, and her blonde hair, scraped into a tight chignon, made me aware of how ill-defined I’d become; the loose tendrils escaping around my own face, imperceptibly lifting and lowering with each intake of breath.
‘I’m not… It’s more….’Lately, my language was affected – many words not lost, but lurking, hidden. Others, gone forever.
I drifted off.
‘You’ve described yourself to Dr Bowles as losing yourself piece-by-piece.’
‘I suppose… Physically, there’s nothing inside me now,’
‘The scans show everything as normal, Marissa.’
‘I know.’I thought for a moment. ‘It’s like… Imagine I’m a chocolate egg…’
‘Okay.’The psychiatrist nodded.
‘I’m all shell. Empty inside…’
Quickly, she scribbled in her notebook.
‘I feel… I don’t know… too much pressure and… I’ll burst into a million pieces.’ I took a breath; giggled.
Dr Evans put her pen down.
‘An interesting metaphor… You know, sometimes women lose their sense of identity. Especially after marriage or children.’
‘No… it’s not…’
‘Marissa, sometimes we shut down. Our brains, our bodies, can’t cope. It’s hard to admit to ourselves…’ She paused, looking at her notes, ‘It says here you took a partnership at your firm…That’s when this began.’
It was so difficult to concentrate.
‘I know it’s not that…’
Again, the strange rolling beneath my skin. The sensations were stronger lately, more frequent.
‘Okay. I’m going to prescribe antidepressants. We’ll see how they go…’
I didn’t have the energy to argue.
In the weeks that followed, Dr Evans and I discussed many things: my childhood, my hopes and dreams, the kids, my job. It was futile, exhausting. Each time I spoke, another part of me disappeared with the words. My lucid moments were fading.
Soon there’d be nothing left.
On my last visit, Dr Evan said, ‘Marissa, I’ve increased your dosage, but to me, you seem…’
I couldn’t absorb her words. Instead, I focused on the softness of her voice, caressing like Oscar’s fingers on the underbelly of my arm.
After our session, I stood by the door, listening to her explain to Oscar.
‘I don’t know what to do,’he said. ‘She’s closed off. The kids… they don’t go near her.’
‘Mr Parker, if this is dementia, you’re going to need help. You have to prepare yourself and the children for the worst.’
The doctor spoke again, ‘I’ll make some calls.’
That night in bed, in a rare moment of clarity, I considered their conversation. I was a burden to Oscar, and the children.
I wanted help –I wanted to recover – but I was sliding down a steep path away from them. Strangely, I wasn’t frightened, no longer suffering strong emotions like fear, anger, or grief. But there was no laughter either; no pride or joy. Oscar and I hadn’t made love in months. He slept in the spare room now.
And as I lay there, it happened.
My skin, tingling wildly, began to ripple, visibly this time, like raindrops on a puddle. Each wave grew stronger, larger, until a surge overwhelmed me, and my entire body became an effusion of light.
As I watched, luminescent particles flickered upwards, disseminating around the room. I saw my own body dissipate like vapour. Everything I once was, now dispersed, until I was nothing more than specks of semi-consciousness – diffusing into the air, sinking into the walls; deep into the furniture, the carpet, curtains.
The next morning, Oscar came early to wake me.
He left the room. I could sense him searching the house, the shower, calling outside; asking Cam and Fay if they’d seen me.
Later, the police arrived – to search, to question.
Suspicion and fear swelled through the house, polluted the rooms. Over time, the toxicity cleared, but now, something different blights the air. Something that can never diminish.
Cam and Fay will never have their questions answered, and Oscar – there’s an emptiness in his eyes.
But their life goes on.
It’s soothing, as I drift, absorbing the rhythm of daily routines, the pulse of hearts. But each day, there’s less of me. Floating away on the air through open windows and doors, I’m free as dandelion seeds –I slip out into the sky; the atmosphere – atom-by-atom, back to the stars.
SUNRISE OVER CAPPADOCIA
‘Come here. There’s sleep in your eye.’
‘Mmmm…That’s good to know.’
He leans closer, and with his fingertip, removes the offending article. I can feel the softness of his skin as he takes the tiny haul from the corner of my eye. He smiles, proudly, displaying the crustie, then kisses the end of my nose. The room is draped in shadows, and the pale blob resting on his nail is barely discernible in the dim light.
‘How can you do that?’I say.
‘Why not? It’s part of you.’ He wipes his finger on the side of the bed.
‘You wouldn’t do that for me?’
‘Not squeeze the blackheads on my back?’
‘Would you cut my toenails if there was ever a time I couldn’t reach them…’
‘You’d be lucky.’
He edges across the bed, so his face rests on the pillow beside mine, our noses almost touching in the morning half-light.
‘You’re a hard negotiator.’
I inhale his breath, tasting musty mornings, sex, unwashed bedding, Raki. I can smell the garlic and cumin of the Karnıyarık still lingering in his hair. The silence outside is thick, unsettling, transient. The ripples of the party only calmed an hour before – remnants of the mandolin and the accordion fizzled around us as we lay in the dark, together with the voices, scraping chairs, clinking glasses, and shuffling feet we’d left behind earlier. As the sultry air cooled just before dawn, the echoes of the revellers dissipated like memories. Now, the scent of the desert sand wafts in the air, carrying with it, a lighter, humid overcoat. I know it is only a question of time before the birds begin their morning song, and the sun commences another journey of blistering tyranny over the land.
His hands move towards my body, draw me closer. The links of his watch-strap dig into my ribs and I shift slightly.
‘Oops,’he says, undoing the catch. He places the watch on the bedside cabinet. The sun’s now visible through the muslin draping the balcony window, and throws a dusky-rose cast into the room. He turns to me, grins, looks like he did years ago.
‘We should get up.’I say, ‘Shower.’
‘What’s the rush?’
The back of his hand rests on my stomach, the coolness of the thick wedding band presses next to my navel. His fingers stroke in gentle circles, move to my inner thigh, where the skin is tender; sore.
‘The balloons,’I whisper.
‘There’s time,’he whispers back.
The sound of the shower drowns the birdsong, and I pad back into the bedroom, relishing the cold smoothness of the tiles beneath my feet. He’s sprawled on his back, pillow ruched behind his neck, fingers wrapped tightly within his hair. I smile wryly, and shake my head at the way he’s glorying in his own nakedness, then glance at the area between his legs, and nod.
‘I don’t know what you’re so proud about.’
‘Didn’t hear you complaining five minutes ago…’
‘Shut up -‘
‘But now you come to mention it – you were doing an awful lot of moaning.’
I lift a pillow from the bed and throw it at him.
I’m showered and so is he. The sun is higher now, still low on the horizon, but powerful with heat and light, bleaching away the earlier soft glow of the room. I’m dressed in white, and he’s in cream linen, and he smells so good – of fabric softener, sun lotion, ginger and bergamot. I remember the night before, as we stepped onto the mosaic deck for our first dance. As we swayed slowly to the music, my nose and lips pressed gently into his neck, where his skin gave to my touch – before the tornado of whooping and clapping whirled us around for the rest of the night.
I pick up my bag. We can watch the balloons from the balcony, but we’ve decided to leave the sanctuary of the room. I’ve dreamt of coming to watch the balloons for years.
I put on my hat and glasses, as he gets his wallet and watch from the bedside table. He’s about to pick up his phone.
’I was thinking about Christmas this year -‘I say.
He raises his eyebrows. ‘You want to talk about Christmas?’
‘It’s just -‘
‘I just don’t want a repeat of the last couple of years.’
I don’t know what’s come over me. Why I need to talk about this right here.
‘It’s okay for you. You don’t have to -‘
‘Look, you asked to do this, and we’re here.’
‘I’m not being awkward.’
‘I know- ‘
‘I can’t cope with another -‘
‘I know.’ He touches my face, ‘But you know -’
His phone rings. I look at him, and he shrugs. Mouths ‘sorry’as he answers.
‘Hi, Bridget,’he says. His eyes crinkle, and his cheeks flush. I turn away, as he strolls away into the hallway.
‘No, no, you didn’t wake me. Meeting starts in half an hour.’
Holding apart the muslin drapes, I step out onto the balcony, away from the protection of the air-conditioning. My hat doesn’t shield me in any way from the torrid blast of heat. As the day progresses, it will only get worse.
I can hear his voice in the distance, laughing.
‘Yes, I’m missing you too. It’s been tough here. How’s Lauren? Oh – good. Hello, gorgeous. Yes, Daddy misses you. I’ll see you soon darling. Only a few days.’
He laughs again as the first hot-air balloons – huge orbs of colour advancing from the grey, rockbound horizon – start to drift into the blue expanse before me. For a moment they seem so close, I believe I can touch them. But slowly, they float away, growing smaller and smaller into the distance, until I am left only with an arid landscape and an empty sky.
The laughter stops, and then, he’s behind me. He slips his arms around my waist. His chin rests on my hair.
I hold my breath, relieved I’m wearing sunglasses.
Stepping from the bus onto the estate, I smell bacon frying. It’s years since I left, but nothing’s changed: the houses, clean and neat, overlook characterless gardens, and the street itself is airless; stagnant with marriage, kids, invisibility. The bus drives away, and I’m abandoned with my rucksack, heavy on my back.
I look at the house. Karen’s car is parked in the shared driveway. She offered to pick me up from the station, but I said no.
I see a bike, flung carelessly, to the right of Karen’s car, and I laugh, a small, indiscernible sound.
‘Seems to me, Charlie, you think the world owes you a favour.’
‘Your bike. On the drive.’
‘Dad – I wasn’t…’
‘Money Charlie. Hard-earned cash. Bikes aren’t free, you know?’
‘You can’t look after anything – ’
‘Dad – I only -‘
‘Don’t talk back to me.’
I rub my mouth, remembering the sting.
Stepping around the bike, I’m surprised to see the birdhouse in next door’s garden. I remember helping Lucy build it, on a day as sultry as this. Lucy’s dad played his ukelele on a deckchair, and at midday, he brought glasses of cold juice. I see the twine, wrapped tightly, still bonding the wooden walls together, and I recall her hands, golden from the sun, as she tied the ends.
‘You’ve built it too low.’ I warned. The estate was full of cats. Her answer was to arrange a string of bells around the bottom.
‘Need a hand with that?’ I asked, as she struggled to bend the wire.
She blocked me with her back. ’I’m okay. I can do it’
After that, the bells tinkled in the slightest breeze.
‘I thought I heard the bus.’
Karen’s waiting in the porch.
‘Tea,’ I say, and follow her through the house into the kitchen, flinging my bag on the floor.
‘Who’s living next door?’
She checks the kettle and switches it on, placing cups on the counter.
‘Thought her dad got married years back?’
‘Yeah. He moved out. Gave her the house.’
I raise my eyebrows. ‘Generous.’
Lucy moved onto the street the summer Mum died. We were both thirteen. Turns out she didn’t know her mum, hadn’t seen her since she was a toddler. We never talked about it, but we were the only two kids on the street with one parent: separate, loners.
After a while I ask, ’Is she on her own?’
Karen hands over my tea, then lifts her coffee to her lips. She always drowns everything in milk to drink straight away – Karen doesn’t mess around.
The kitchen’s full of family photographs. Dad didn’t change anything after Mum died – all her things, exactly where they’d always been. Even now. In one picture, Mum’s on the beach, Brighton Pier behind her. She’s holding her hair down from the wind and laughing.
‘I always wanted to travel,’ she told me once, ‘but I only got as far as Brighton. Met your dad and fell in love.’
What she meant was she got pregnant with Karen. Sometimes, I found her alone, browsing endlessly through travel brochures.
Dad laughed at her. ‘Nothing but pipe dreams,’ he said.
I catch Karen staring at me.
‘You look well,’ she says. ‘Tanned.’
‘Tired. I’m still jet-lagged.’
‘You settled in Indonesia?’
Her lips tighten.
Karen never really understood why I couldn’t make it up with Dad, but she’d only just married when Mum died. She didn’t know what it was like. Marriage and kids was her Disney fantasy, though I couldn’t think of anything worse. Being stuck with Dad in suburbia – a living hell.
‘He’s not coping, Charlie,’ she said, after Mum’s death.
‘He’s an uptight arse-hole.’
I spent most of my time at Lucy’s. We put pins in the giant map on her wall; all the places we planned to visit.
‘What if you get a girlfriend? There’ll be a ring on her finger in no time,’ Lucy teased.
I’m not sure when things changed. I remember looking at her mouth one day, and it was no longer just Lucy’s mouth, but a living entity in its own right: red and full. When those lips parted, I heard no words, but only saw the gap where her teeth and tongue glinted invitingly. I wanted to touch the softness, see if it gave like the cotton pillow on her bed.
Something in Lucy changed too, and one day, with her dad downstairs, we clumsily fumbled, doing what we’d seen on television and read in magazines. I was drugged by her warm touch, and drowsy in the cocoon of her silken skin – until a few weeks later.
‘Charlie – I can’t do this.’
‘Me too!’ I laughed.
‘It’s not funny. You’re not listening.’
‘I’m listening.’ I stroked her face, but she moved away.
‘Charlie – don’t.’
‘What is it?’
‘Look, it’s not working.’ She had tears in her eyes.
‘I want to see other guys.’
And then I understood.
‘He never got over Mum, you know? Or you leaving,’ Karen says as she empties another box. She looks at me. ’You two were more alike than you care to admit.’
‘Stubborn, hiding your heads in the sand.’
‘I don’t hide my head in the sand.’
‘Yeah – ‘course.’
‘What do you mean by that?’
‘Oh – ignore me. I’m tired. One more box, then time for a break.’
We take the boxes and pile them in Karen’s car.
‘Want me to come with you?’ I ask.
Something catches her attention and she hesitates.
‘Nah, stay here.’
I follow her gaze. It’s Lucy, walking across the lawn. Karen waves, then gets in her car and drives away. Lucy continues towards me, tentative, yet smiling.
‘Hey,’ she says.
I smile back. ‘Hey yourself.’
I notice the bike, leaning now against the wall of her house.
‘I’m sorry about your dad.’
I shrug. ‘You look great.’
‘Thanks. I’m good.’
‘Everything’s good. It’s just… I’m – ’ She touches her collar bone. ‘ y’know… Back then – ‘
I wave my hand, as if erasing the past. ‘Forget it.’
‘It’s not easy,’ she says.
I’m about to ask what she means, when the birdhouse tinkles. Standing there, holding a bird-feeder, is a boy of about ten.
‘Mum, can I hang this now?’
‘Yeah. I’ll be there in a minute, Tom.’
‘I can do it,’ he says.
‘Oh. Karen didn’t tell me you had kids.’
‘Kid,’ Lucy says.
‘He’s a good looking lad.’
‘Looks like his dad.’
I watch the boy, balanced on tiptoes, muscles tense, trying to hook the feeder onto the side of the birdhouse. It’s clear he’ll never manage it.
‘You’ve raised the height,’ I say.
‘Dad did it.’
She rolls her eyes. ‘Didn’t work.’
Tom looks over. Realising he’s beaten, he raises the feeder above his head theatrically, and laughs.
In that moment, something reminds me of the photograph of my mother. Of Brighton. I gaze at Lucy, and unblinkingly, she meets my eyes. In the end, it’s me that turns away.
I call to the boy.
‘Here, let me help you with that.’
Lucy steps back to let me through.
A FORGOTTEN COLOUR
Judith draws back the curtains, securing them with tie-backs; gently fingering the black beaded ends. David chose them. She glances around the room. It could do with a polish, and a hoover. Instead, she settles for smoothing the duvet with the palm of her hand. Aubergine. David’s favourite.
It’s purple, Mum, he said, snorting.
That’s not what they call it on those design shows.
The conversation she remembers verbatim, but it’s a while since she’s seen him, and lately, she finds it hard to recall his features, such as the line of his nose, and the natural hue of his hair.
She likes to keep his room tidy. That way, it feels like he’ll turn up any minute, though the bedcovers are rumpled from when Frank stops over. Why can’t he clean after himself? It only takes a minute to straighten up a bed-sheet. But if she’s honest, she doesn’t like Frank stopping at all. He always destroys the carpet-pile with his hulking size tens. And the smell – polluting the atmosphere everywhere he goes. She tells him about Odour-Eaters, but he never listens.
David’s trophies catch her eye. Different colours, shapes, sizes. Once, there used to be pictures of him, too, with her, and Frank; one with his girlfriend too, but they’re gone now. There still remains a photo of him as a toddler – baby-blonde. His hair stayed like that until school, when it darkened to… She frowns. She touches the edge of the wooden frame, before rearranging the trophies. Frank messing again, obviously.
David was always the sporty type. Football at first, karate, cycling, and later, mountain-climbing at university. Whenever they could, she and Frank cheered him on. She lost count of the times she came home cold and wet, hoarse from shouting on a field or sports hall. More recently, his diving job took him all over the world. Majorie, down the road, didn’t stand a chance with stories about her daughter’s fancy-pants courtroom shenanigans.
It’s forty degrees in Phuket right now, but it’s lovely in the sea.
Judith knew she shouldn’t brag.
I’ve never been to Thailand, said Majorie.
Oh, we go next month on our way to Australia. David’s meeting us there. Elsa has a boating business, you know?
The holiday of a lifetime.
Outside the bedroom, a change in sound catches Judith’s attention. The bath. She rushes down the hall. A disaster if it floods down through the ceiling. That happened to Janice, and it took forever to get any money back from the insurers. Quick to take your money, slow to give it back. She’s relieved to see it’s only two-thirds full. She hates emptying out bathwater. Such a waste. Water bills are horrific, nowadays. Usually, she takes showers.
She checks her watch, then potters downstairs and outside. As she opens the garage door, she hears a shout from across the road. It’s Audrey in the garden. Judith raises her hand in a friendly salute, but won’t be distracted. Natural light fills the work-space, which is heavy with dust. This is Frank’s domain so, generally, she stays away. Wires everywhere, never used. Boxes and boxes of the things. And half-empty tins of paint. Why can’t he take them to the tip? Typical. It’s always the same old story. He’s worse than useless when you need him to do something.
Finding the extension lead she needs, she locks the garage with relief. The chaos makes her claustrophobic. Though, once she’s back in the house, she sees he’s stamped disarray on her kitchen, too. She tuts at the blob of jam, toast crumbs and coffee stains from breakfast. Why can’t he put his knife and plate in the dishwasher; put the milk away? She wipes around, turns on the dishwasher, unplugs the toaster and carries it upstairs, together with the extension lead.
As she undresses, she thinks of the trip to Thailand. Frank and she were so excited, though she took charge of the travel arrangements and the packing. What else could you expect?
Of course, it was difficult when David moved so far away, but Australia was the place for work. And there was Skype. Sometimes when they talked, she imagined he was in the next room, though she couldn’t hug him, and a mother never loses the urge to hold her son. When he was small, David loved a cuddle, but as he grew bigger, she used the excuse of flicking the hair out of his eyes to touch him. Frank would tell her to leave the poor lad alone. Well, he would.
The day of the trip, the scents of coriander and garangal spiced the air as they coasted from the bay. Elsa arranged a plush sailing boat for them, and Judith felt like a queen. Of course, she didn’t set foot in the water, not like the others – she wasn’t a strong swimmer, though Frank had a ham-fisted attempt with a scuba mask and flippers. Judith stayed firmly on deck, sunning herself and reading a magazine, enjoying the tranquillity of the bobbing waves, picturing David beneath the sea.
There was no sign before-hand that something was wrong, but she could remember how Elsa’s voice broke the silence.
The expression on Elsa’s face – as if she knew something she didn’t want to admit. Somehow she got David to the surface. After that, everything became a blur. Elsa performing CPR. Frank standing uselessly by, staring as his son faded away. The crew got them back to shore, and in all the commotion, an ambulance quietly waited. She remembered the defibrillators, his body jerking. But she knew, as she peered at David’s alien sun-bleached hair, and his blue lips. She looked at Frank. She steadied herself, but used the arm of a stranger rather than that of her husband. On dry land, the sway of the sea had stayed with her – even to this day. Sometimes, she was uncertain whether she’d stay upright when she put one foot in front of the other.
David had done nothing wrong on the dive. It was one of those things. Genetic, apparently. Probably from Frank’s side. David was the spitting image of Frank.
She couldn’t help but feel she should have known. If she’d only taken him to the right doctor as a child.
Unravelling the extension lead, Judith plugs it in and winds it into the bathroom, and plugs in the toaster. Picking up the metallic box, she presses the lever and steps into the cooling bathwater, feeling the heat from the elements rise to warm her face.
She looks up.
‘What are you doing?’
For a moment, she’s tempted to drop the toaster there and then.
Frank looks tired. And his hair – it’s lost the bleached tips from the Thailand trip.
‘You do nothing,’ she says.
It’s why she can’t bear to look at him anymore.
‘You left the milk out of the fridge.’
Frank takes the toaster from her hand, then settles his arm underneath her elbow.
‘It only takes a minute to wipe the scissors and put them away properly.’
He helps her out of the bath, until her feet are set firmly on the ground. She feels the tiles, cold and solid beneath her feet; looks around the bathroom – the toaster now on the floor.
‘There’s crumbs everywhere.’
‘In the water. What a mess.’
‘Judith, I want to help.’
She looks at her husband. His hair.
Frank wraps a towel around her.
She begins to cry.
AN ELEMENT OF SURPRISE
Though it was early, with the sun suspended low on the horizon, the sky was bright. On the estate, a fine layer of frost coated the grass and cars. Sarah, concealed by a tree, stood watching a house across the street, a hood obscuring her face and hair. In her hand, she clutched the handle of a long, wheeled, black bag.
It was almost eight o’ clock. Any minute now, Richard would leave.
As if she willed it, the front door of number ninety-two opened, and a tall man with dark hair stepped into the cold. He fiddled in his pocket, extracting a bunch of keys – she could hear the faintest jangle from where she stood. Double-locking the door, he tested the handle, then headed towards the station, his breath visible as a thin vapour. Sarah stepped back. For a moment, as he strode across the street, he turned towards her. She froze, but he continued, unaware.
Richard lived alone and was private by nature. When their lives were connected, he only ever told her what he wanted her to know. Yes, it frustrated her then, but now, it worked in her favour. Little did he realise, she was good at keeping secrets too.
She’d watched his movements for a few days to be certain he wouldn’t return home unexpectedly. If he did, her plan would be ruined. She’d travelled for days, and many people were depending on her. Richard worked freelance and his routine was inconsistent, but lately, he left the house at approximately eight, returning by six. That would give her plenty of time.
Glancing left and right, she crossed the street with the bag, before anyone spotted her. She slipped down the path at the side of the house towards the wooden gate which separated the front garden from the back, stretched her arm over the top, undoing the latch. It wasn’t easy as she stood on tiptoes, the cold causing the latch to stick, but she gently eased it up and down with the tips of her fingers until it loosened. She dragged the bag behind her. It contained, amongst other things, latex gloves, and the knives she’d sharpened the night before. Later, she’d use the bag for removal purposes.
From where she stood, she scanned the garden – it had been a while, but Richard was a creature of habit. Beneath the laburnum tree in the corner, she saw what she was looking for – a collection of rocks of different sizes. It wasn’t easy to spot the right one, but eventually she did. Picking up a smaller stone, less dense and a shade darker than the rest, Sarah flipped it over. Underneath, she caught a plastic flap with her fingernail, and gently, it clicked open, revealing hollow insides. She turned it over, shaking the opening over her hand, until a pair of keys fell into her palm.
Putting the rock back, Sarah glanced at the windows of the neighbouring houses. No-one was watching. Good. Next door, a busybody regularly peered out, and since Sarah started surveying the place, she’d struggled to keep out of her view. It was important she remain anonymous, as knowledge of her presence in the country might get into the wrong hands.
The conservatory door opened easily, though the door into the main house was more complex. She jiggled the key, pushing it far back into the lock, until it clicked. Only then did she realise she was holding her breath.
Rolling the bag into the kitchen, Sarah settled it onto the floor and unzipped it. It would take hours, but she had everything she required, and it was important she work fast. At four forty-five, she took her phone and dialled, ‘I’m ready. Let the others know – tell them to come around the back. Make sure no-one sees you.’
It was a long thirty minutes. Sarah had prepared for this moment for so long, organising meticulously. She couldn’t afford for something to go wrong now. Her nerves jarred as she heard a noise at the side of the house, then three dark-haired men – broad, well-built – appeared on the patio at the back.
Sarah let them in.
‘Did anyone see you?’
‘No – we parked out of sight.’
‘And the others?’
‘They’ll come later. First, he’ll find out exactly why we’re here.’
It wasn’t long till keys rattled in the front door, and immediately, they arranged themselves in their pre-agreed positions. Sarah remained by the counter, while the men awaited her signal, out of sight. In advance, she’d closed the door between the kitchen and hallway. The element of surprise was vital.
As the handle of the door nudged downwards, Sarah hands gripped the work surface, her knuckles white.
And then, he stood before her.
Apart from a scattering of grey on his hairline, he remained exactly the same – tall, wide-shouldered, yet trim.
‘Sarah!’ He stopped dead in the doorway.
She placed her hands on her hips.
‘Oh Richard, I’m disappointed. Aren’t you even a bit pleased to see me?’
His eyes narrowed, ‘How did you get in?’
‘That’s not important.’ She turned behind her. ‘Okay,’ she called to the empty air.
As the group of men stepped out, Richard jerked back. He focused on each one in turn, then back at her.
‘You…’ The word was an accusation.
No-one moved or took a breath.
Finally, Richard fractured the silence with a long laugh. Sarah felt what he felt. This meeting was a long time coming. Years, in fact.
‘I could never trust you.’ His voice broke.
‘This is your fault?’ He inclined his head towards the three men, and to the room beyond.
‘Of course.’ She paused a moment, then giggled. ‘Come on, bro… lighten up. You’re only forty once.’
‘Bloody balloons,’ he said, as she hugged him, ‘and banners. You know I hate surprises.’
Seth sat on the bench trying to think of the right words. In actual fact, there were no words for what he had to say; for what he was about to do. He looked at the paper again, which he’d stared at for the last thirty minutes. Dear Grace. It was as far as he got.
His hand was unsteady, and the letters uneven, and though his fingers were unused to writing, it was not this that made the pencil quiver. Outside, the wind cried mournfully, and frigid air crept into his thin clothing, but it was not the cold that made his body shake.
He only hoped she could forgive him. His hand finally allowed him to scribe.
It was not a decision easily made.
He sat at this bench when he first saw her, not yet seven years old. Even then, he knew a bond would be created as strong as whaler’s rope. For many Sundays, he was invisible, too shy to speak, shielded by his father’s leg or the Priest’s robe.
Even then, her capacity to love astounded him.
Our Father, who art in heaven,
It attracted him: the kindness she showed to others, to him. She gave love to all, expecting nothing in return, as she’d learned herself through the lessons of God. Her strength was like no other, never even saying a bad word about another man or woman.
Hallowed be thy Name.
It was here he sat during their first communion. He watched her as she walked back down the aisle in her white gown after taking the body of Christ. Her veil could not obscure the gleam in her eyes.
Thy Kingdom come.
On their wedding day, the sun and the joy of the congregation warmed the grey stone of the Church.
‘Will you accept children lovingly from God, and bring them up according to the law of Christ and his Church?’ the Priest asked.
Seth glanced at Grace as she affirmed her vow. She knew no other way. And then, he promised to love and honour her for all the days of his life.
When you receive this letter, I shall be gone.
Caleb’s birth only added to their happiness. A son. A glorious son. Until they realised he was not like other children.
Thy will be done on earth,
As it is in heaven.
When he saw village children running in the fields, and skipping in the school yard, it filled him with rage.
‘It is pride, Seth, nothing more. Caleb is sent to us for a reason. You will see.’
She stroked his hand, kissed his forehead, and he relaxed against her. In the end, he saw she was right. He loved Caleb for what he was, and he learned to ignore the mutterings of the villagers.
Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our trespasses, As we forgive them that trespass against us.
Though he had the mind of an infant, by his twelfth birthday, Caleb was big and strong. He helped his father with the simplest tasks on the farm, and Seth’s chest expanded with love and sadness.
‘What will happen when we are gone?’ he asked Grace.
‘Have faith, Seth,’ she said, ‘God will find a way.’
I could not tell you goodbye, because you would try to stop me.
Outside, he heard the storm; the waves crashing against the cliff-top on which the Church was perched. And within its four walls, the darkness of the descending clouds shrouded him.
He recalled the wind slowly building that day, the smell of the salt from the sea. They’d worked the field, and Caleb’s face was flushed and hot.
‘Go back to the house,’ Seth told him. ‘Rest. You will be fit again tomorrow.’
And yet, though only a simple fever, Caleb became weak. They called the doctor when his breath grew shallow, but it was too late.
As Seth watched his son’s coffin lowered into the ground, heard the incantations of the Priest as handfuls of soil thudded onto wood, he realised this was his son’s final bed, in which he would rot. The maggots would eat his brain and eyes, and he would never go to heaven. Seth tightened his fists; held them against his thighs.
And lead us not into temptation, But deliver us from evil.
Though, he did not tell Grace, she sensed his fury.
‘God’s love will prevail, Seth,’ she said, her voice fortified by years of prayer. ‘It is His plan.’
‘What plan, Grace? There seems no sense in it.’
‘Have courage. Pray with me. He will show us the way.’
She urged him to kneel and pray with her then, but he could not.
‘Tomorrow, I will speak to Father Matthew,’ she said. ‘He will guide us.’
For thine is the kingdom,
In truth, Caleb was his life, and without him, he could see no purpose in carrying on. Though he admired Grace’s devotion, and he wished he still had the same strength it gave her, his days were empty now. He missed Caleb’s laugh, his clumsy attempts to hoe the ground, his pleasure in simple things: a dewdrop on a flower, the underside of a ladybird. Seth would never regain his faith, and without it, life with Grace was meaningless.
My mind is made.
If he went now, Grace would not know he was missing for some hours. She thought him at the market, and with the arrival of the storm, she’d expect him to rest in some sheltered place. He’d leave his note on this bench, and let the sea and rocks do their work. The bitter squall outside meant he would not survive the fall.
There is nothing left for me now.
Seth rose, leaving the paper on the seat. His legs were heavy. Yet, as he turned towards the door, a faint light filled the room, and a shower of colour speckled the stone flags beneath his feet. The luminous glow of sun strained through the stained glass window.
There in the aisle, Seth fell to his knees, and wept.
Yes, Caleb’s beauty was gone. Gone forever. As was the beauty of God’s hand. He also knew he could not have Grace. But out there, was something else. Something Caleb had shown him. There was another kind of beauty. One never explored.
The power, and the glory,
Seth slipped the paper back into his pocket. He knew what to do.
He would go home.
He’d tell her.
And then he would take his bag and leave.
For ever and ever.
The front door clicks gently, and as I step into the cool stillness, it reminds me of how the day used to start when I was a boy – with the electric whirr and clinking bottles of the milk-float. The sound was friendly, like the milkman himself. He’d come around, every Friday night and stand in our doorway, asking about Gran’s health, and about Eileen who’d moved to Australia three years before. Sometimes he’d tell jokes, or pull a sweet out from behind my ear, while Mum counted coins from her purse. His barrel-chested bonhomie filtered through to everyone he met. Many mornings, you’d collect your pint from the doorstep, to be greeted with a cheery hello from a neighbour or a passerby. You don’t get that now.
These days, people choose to wander supermarket aisles like zombies instead, barely able to glance up from their trolleys to work out whether they want full-fat or semi-skimmed. Occasionally, a parent might build up enough energy to give their child a wallop, but that’s about the only sign of life. And as for neighbourly connections with others – there is none. Like the formless milk cartons, tetra-packs of juice, and cereal boxes, the shoppers themselves seem pre-packed in invisible bubbles: never touching or speaking, and in all likelihood, stamped with a best-before date.
As I arrive at the station, the train’s already on the platform. Though there’s an inspector, he waves me through without a glance at me or my ticket. I think about Charlotte snuggled up in bed, her body warm. I wonder if she’s up yet; hair standing up at the back. Before I left, I checked on Jamie, too. I like to listen to him breathe.
Considering the desolation of the streets, the train’s surprisingly busy. A dawn commute, and the bloodshot eyes that come with it, are the sacrifice of country living. As I sit down, someone pushes past, bashing my head with a laptop bag. I look up, deliberating whether to comment, but they’re already down the aisle.
From my table-seat, I stare out of the window while everyone else is lost in phones and e-books. Eye contact is minimal, and feet, elbows or shoulders rarely touch. A few stops down, the passenger beside me leaves; her warm seat replenished by a muscle-bound twenty-something. He gets his newspaper, spreads it out, and invades my side of the table. I shift, edge into the corner, and he absorbs the extra space with his arms.
The City is a different world to the one I’ve left behind. The air judders with sounds of engines, air-brakes, bicycle bells and voices. There’s a stall selling pancakes, and I’m tempted to stop, but I need to get to the Conference Centre.
Outside the Centre, the Press swarm the steps, like flies on the face of a corpse; buzzing in frenzied anticipation. It’s the big day. Hamish McDermott is announcing his discovery. Up until now, it’s been totally hush-hush.
Opinions are divided, of course. Many say he’ll change the face of renewable energy forever. Others – the fuel companies, mainly – are downplaying it. It’s easy to see why. They won’t benefit, and don’t want anything to threaten their monopoly.
At the entrance, I present my ID, and I’m directed to the kitchen. Staff in white shirts and black trousers come and go, and a man in a suit folds leaflets, putting them in envelopes.
‘What’s your name again?’ he says.
‘Worked for us before?’
‘A few times. At –‘
He doesn’t give me chance to finish.
‘Yeah, yeah.’ It was clear he couldn’t place me.
‘Personal belongings? Put them in there,’ – he points to a room situated just off the kitchen – ‘then help Jade take the cups to the main hall.’
He doesn’t wait for a response.
An hour later, McDermott enters the building through the side entrance, shadowed loosely by Security. There are a few safety concerns. Death threats, according to the papers, but McDermott’s treating them lightly.
Me and Charl watched him on Question Time last week. He’s an interesting guy.
‘Fear of change,’ he said. ‘The threats are nothing more than that.’
Someone from the panel asked if he was concerned his plans might get leaked before the conference.
‘No. I’m the untrusting type. The blueprint stays with me. In here.’
He tapped his head, grinned, and the audience laughed along with him.
I’m in the corridor outside the main hall when it happens.
I push my trolley to one side to let the group past, but I’m still blocking the way, and McDermott collides into me.
‘Oh sorry,’ he says, grabbing my shoulder to steady me.
His group drifts on; a joke’s shared between them, and a snicker of amusement trickles back. That’s all it takes to remove the syringe from my cuff and stick it in his thigh. I recognise surprise in his eyes, and his grip slackens instantly.
As I stride off, a flicker of something like sorrow passes over me. He apologised, and that’s rare nowadays. Though I hear commotion behind, I don’t turn back. Instead, I slip through the surge of people rushing towards his body on the floor. Once outside, I’m a speck in the masses.
When I arrive home, Charlotte is pleased to see me. The television news shows a smiling image of McDermott.
‘Tough day?’ she says.
‘Not bad.’ I kiss her, draw her in. Her breasts press softly against my body.
‘You look tired.’
I nod towards the screen. ‘What’s happened?’
‘Heart attack.’ She shakes her head, disbelieving. ‘At the conference.’
‘Hey – Jamie.’
I lift him, smell his hair. He’s getting so big. He won’t let me do this for much longer.
Charlotte smiles, and wanders off to finish dinner.
‘Can we play Lego later?’
‘I can’t see why not.’
This is what makes the rat-race worthwhile.
BRING ME MY SHOTGUN
This was the best Christmas present Kevin ever received.
Even better than the Superman costume when he was ten. Though that outfit didn’t survive long. Not once Shaun Peterson got his hands on it.
Avoiding Shaun at school was a skill; one Kevin thought he’d perfected, until that Friday. It was dress-as-you-like day – though Kevin was the only one to turn up in fancy dress. All the others kids simply wore their favourite clothes, having long outgrown the concept of imaginary play. At least in public.
Intrigued by an eruption of noise, a passerby stumbled upon a chanting mob of children in a back street.
‘Hey,’ he yelled.
Spotting an adult in their midst, they scattered – leaving behind a tiny figure, spread-eagled on tarmac in skin-tight red and blue.
‘Oh my God, Kevin,’ said his mother, when he hobbled into the house.
She surveyed the bruises on his face, the blood seeping through the tissue under his nose, and the shredded ‘S’ on the front of his costume.
‘I don’t know who did it,’ said the man. ‘The lad won’t say.’
‘His father died last year. And now this.’
Kevin began to cry; heaving sobs that he’d held in during the fight, and on the way home.
‘I don’t know who it was,’ he lied.
Later, as she wiped away blood and tears with tender hands, she said, ‘Don’t worry – I’ll buy you another costume.’
But, it wasn’t the costume. And it wasn’t the agony of Shaun’s boot, either. It was that face in the crowd; a face he’d loved for over a year.
The image of her prompted him to halt the memory; rewind; recreate it; so that Shaun lay on the floor instead of him.
His boot. Shaun’s ribs.
Donna hadn’t chanted with the rest, but clearly scribed onto the smooth parchment of her freckled skin, was pity. And pencilled in with the pity, was contempt.
He was only relieved she didn’t try to help him.
As the children ran away, he’d watched her departing back. He waited for her to turn around, but she didn’t.
For Kevin, Christmas was a time like any other. Since his mother’s death, he didn’t bother to celebrate, or take days off. He simply carried on at the farm, the same as always.
Despite the cold, he liked winter days. The darkness meant the lights went on early in the farmhouse. The kitchen glowed with warmth and life. It was partly the incandescent light, partly the fire, partly the twinkling tinsel on the Christmas tree – but mainly it was her.
He could hear the chime of her laugh, and it drew him to the window. Though there were a few lines around her eyes now, her skin remained smooth; flecked with freckles. Right now, she was sitting by the Christmas tree, reading; the ghost of a smile haunting her lips.
‘Hey, Clark Kent. Stop spying on my wife.’
Shaun laughed; slapped him on the back. It stung.
‘I wasn’t. I –‘ Kevin floundered for an excuse, but Shaun wasn’t listening.
‘Anyway, I thought superheroes had x-ray vision.’ Shaun blasted out another guffaw. The sound ricocheted in the cobbled courtyard. Kevin smiled, weakly.
Later, after locking the barn, Kevin went to the house to explain he was heading for home. Shaun’s voice thundered through the closed front door.
‘I caught old nutjob again, outside the house.’
‘Oh Shaun, leave him,’ Donna said. ‘He’s harmless.’
‘Time for him to go.’
‘No. He’s got no-one.’
He heard their voices trail away down to the back of the house. After a minute of silence, he rang the bell.
‘I’m off now,’ he said.
He noticed the curve of her stomach. The change, though barely perceptible, was to Kevin – who knew every angle, every crook of her body – as obvious as the difference between night and day.
She caught him looking; rested her hand on her stomach.
‘Come in,’ she said. ‘Christmas Eve drink?’
He looked at her, about to smile, then noticed her expression. The one from years before. It drifted over her face like a shadow; contaminating the blueness of her eyes, and the pink undulations of her lips.
‘No,’ he said, ‘but thanks.’
His fingers grazed hers as he handed back the keys to the barn. Most people wouldn’t register the flinch, but he did.
Deep in the countryside, the arc of the inky sky was as open as liberty. Ahead of him, the road – illuminated by the moon and whorls of stars – led him home to safety. He stopped to watch, to inhale the cold air. As he stood in that moment, he witnessed above a multitude of lights beginning to streak like comets across the sky.
A meteor shower, he thought.
All around, a hail of shimmering stardust fell, landing in clusters, in the grass and on the road. He laid out his palms, overawed by beauty.
When he woke, he knew he was different.
He turned, treading the route he’d navigated earlier, but this time, a lightness commanded his step. Something not experienced since childhood.
He’d been given a gift.
A Christmas gift.
This was far better than the superhero costume.
He remembered the boot. The painful ribs.
But, it didn’t matter. Not anymore.
He was strong now.
He’d find her. She needed to know.
The meteor shower might be gone, but he’d absorbed its power.
As he walked, he breathed in the freedom of the night sky, the clarity of the future.
‘Shaun. Wake up.’
‘There’s an intruder.’
He sat up in bed, instantly alert.
‘Someone’s in the house.’
Footsteps on the stairs.
In the darkness, he rooted under the bed. The door opened.
His hands trembled; his heart pounded; a layer of sweat emerged on his forehead.
Until he found it.
Heavy as certainty, colder than death, he knew it was loaded – he cleaned it regularly, kept it ready. He liked to be prepared; never one for surprises.
Unlocking the safety catch, he aimed at the shadow hovering at the open door.
‘I’ve got a gun,’ he said, ‘Don’t move.’
He could hear heavy breathing. His own; Donna’s.
A floorboard creaked.
Shaun’s heart beat faster.
Slowly, he squeezed the trigger.
The blast of the shot, and Donna’s scream, deafened him in the night-filled room.
SEND HER AWAY
You stand hidden in a doorway, your breath rising, a phantom on the frosty air. You watch another, similar doorway, dimly lit by streetlamps further down the road. On its step rests a holdall, the zipper slightly open.
It’s the zipper that draws your attention. It reminds you of the sighs and murmurs of trees. Above, colour creeps back into the soup of the sky – first a muddy sludge poisons the purity of the black, and gradually, an angry shade of red bleeds onto the horizon. You are reminded of the red handprint on your leg. You were less than the height of the kitchen table then, but the sting lives on. There were many more handprints – bright, livid – but they never hurt as badly as the first. You shake the memory away.
Your attention is drawn back to the gap in the zipper. You picture your hands leaving it open.
You remember other nights, as still as this. You remember other hands. You relive the soft slide of fingers over bare thighs, belly, breasts. The whispers, the breath caressing your nipples; the low moan escaping the cavern of your throat. An animal sound. I love you. Did the noise come from you or him? You’re beautiful, baby. It was hard to know where you began and he ended. Fathomless. You’re perfect. The tightness of the sheet, binding; the rolling, twisting feet and legs, gliding, turning; your fingers weave together, decipher the Braille of each other’s bodies. Your whispers send messages only the two of you can hear. You’re beautiful, you’re beautiful, you’re beautiful. Your mouth inhales his breath, his mouth inhales yours. Lips touch; part. Tongues graze. The brush of pink flesh over teeth. Your mind empties, fills, drifts, empties. You know nothing. Everything. Nothing but the touch, the gasp, the moment. Oh the love, the love, the love.
Birdsong disrupts the tranquility of the street, shatters the magic of the night. Baby, I love you – I have to go. You look at the bag. You know it’s time to move on. Shhhhhhh – she might hear you. It contains everything. Hopes, dreams, beauty, promises, future.
Everything’s clear this morning, but clarity makes you fuzzy, confused.
Bitch. Fucking bitch.
The pain, the pain. Hide it away. In a place no-one knows. Zip it up. Secure it inside with the red handprint. It’s there. You know that. It knocks. Baby, let me in. You don’t have to answer. Ignore it or let it in? It’s up to you. The choice is yours. Baby, let me in.
You recall the corridors, heaving with blue blazers, grey skirts, white socks. The suffocating percussion of voices, of laughter. You try to blend in, disappear. Your hair falls in your face; your blazer swamps your body; you carry your bag clutched to your stomach. Freak. Their eyes watch and follow. Fucking fat cow. You lock away the words with the handprints. Ruth, is there anything you want to tell me? No. No. You’re a bright girl. Don’t throw it away. She’s wrong. You’re not bright. You forgot. Don’t let anyone in. I can help. Don’t give them the key. Words can embrace, but after, there’s more pain. An agony of kindness.
You recollect the tender pressure of his leg next to you on the sofa. I don’t know why you bother? Stupid waste of space. The canned laughter on the television. Leave her alone, she’s okay. He touches your arm. The promise is in his eyes. Later.
All magic ends.
You remember the pain earlier in the woods. Lock it away, lock it away. You were all alone. Alone is good. Alone is choice. No-one will know. Shhhhhh – she might hear you. The towel’s in the holdall.
The constricting ache comes, goes, surges, depletes. Each wave clenches your gut, a gripping torment, stronger, faster. You squat under the cover of naked trees, reflect on the heavy grip of his fingers on your arm. Bruises. The spray of spittle in your face. Don’t tell anyone – they’ll never believe you.
An owl hoots, something small rubs past the channel of light from the torch, rushing through the brittle leaves. You pant; tiny exhalations. You’re beautiful, baby. You hear a sound. This time, you know the sound comes from you. The pain, the pain, the pain. Lock it away. Something slips between your legs. You recall his touch, his fingertips stroking the smoothness of your inner thigh.
In the torchlight, blood stains your hands. Wipe, wipe, wipe the red away. It’s gone. Like him. Fucking bitch. It’s all your fault.
Too many thoughts. Perhaps, the dam is broken.
From the doorway, you hear the drone of a car on the main road, the clatter of milk bottles somewhere amongst the jungle of houses. The world is waking. It’s time to go. No-one will ever know. You begin to move, falter. Shhhhhh – she might hear you. You need to go home, get to bed before more people edge into life.
You look at the holdall, the zipper, the door. You don’t know what you’re waiting for.
You remember the forest whispering its secrets earlier. You’re beautiful. You think about the bundle you wrapped tightly in your hoodie. You wiped away blood with the towel. No more red, just purest white. You buried the towel beneath the trees, buried it as deep as you could, as the roots and rocks sliced at your fingers, split your nails.
Baby, you’re beautiful.
You levelled the earth with your foot.
Hide it away, zip it up.
You look up. It’s getting lighter. The birds are much louder now. The spell of the night always ends with birdsong. Mercifully, they deaden the crescendo of words and images spiralling in your mind.
You run to the doorway, ring the bell. Twice. Three times. You glance at the holdall as you pass – you sense the stirring within it, hear the tremor of a whimper – then steal down the street, alone.
Time to go home.
It’s school in a few hours.
STUCK IN TRAFFIC
You know, Rick, everyone says you can always count on me to be around if you want something to go wrong.
Take today for instance – first day of car-sharing and what happens? It’s kind of funny if you think about it. Look at all the cars. None of us are moving anywhere for a while.
Thinking back, it’s all Florence’s fault. A real busybody if ever I met one. You can’t tell her a thing without it ending up around the office, and then, on top of that, she’s so interfering. I’ve lost count of the times she’s caused a stink over nothing, solving problems when there wasn’t an issue in the first place. And this match-making and arranging people’s lives – what’s that all about then?
Oh sorry, I forgot, you don’t know her that well.
She thinks she has an Elastoplast for everything. We all say there’s no end to her skills. Such-a-body, have you met thing-a-me-bob? Or, don’t you two look nice together? And, like now, you two live near each other, don’t you? Maybe you could car share? Save a few bob. I’ve felt like telling her, you know, maybe sometimes you could keep your mouth shut. But then I’d hurt her feelings, and I hate upsetting people.
Are you the same?
I could tell you wanted to say no. Don’t deny it – I could tell. I mean, new job, first week at work. We’ve never had a chance to speak past fancy a brew, have we? You could have ended up with anyone. Can you imagine? You might have had to trawl back and forth every day with a real bore? Or someone with an opinion on everything.
You know, in Finance?
Yeah, the one with the tight perm, and the glasses that make her eyes look like oversized marbles. She’d be tough to put up with every morning, wouldn’t she?
You couldn’t even put the radio on to drown her out. She says she gets feedback in her hearing aid.
You don’t look so clever.
Gets stuffy in here, doesn’t it, after a while?
Do you think we’re late yet? I bet they’re just starting to complain. Where are they? Both of them late. Florence will be tutting, like she does. Especially as she’s always early.
But then, maybe she’ll learn to keep her nose out in future.
Perhaps they’ve heard the traffic announcement? Everyone knows this road – three lanes of traffic; jam packed. And then, when you’ve got rain, like today, it only makes it worse. It’s a nightmare. When there’s an accident, you’re trapped. The lanes are blocked and you can’t go anywhere. Sometimes for hours.
At least if they’ve heard it on the radio, they’ll know. I don’t know about you – I always feel like I’m making up excuses, even when I have a good reason for being late.
Sorry, I need to shut up.
It passes the time though, eh?
I’m getting married, you know? Next month. If we ever move from here. You can come if you like. Chris will kill me for inviting someone else, but the more the merrier, I say. Do you think you’ll come? There’s the gang from the office, so there’s people you know.
I never thought I’d get married. I didn’t seem to meet the right bloke, but Chris, he’s the best. My friends say I’m fussy, but what’s fussy about wanting someone decent? I don’t want someone who looks like a film star. Though, to be honest, I wouldn’t complain if he did. I just want someone who looks at me like he’s made the right choice; that I’m the only one for him. I’m not a beauty, I know that, but if a guy’s with me, he shouldn’t ogle other girls. Well he might, but not while I’m standing right next to him. We all like a sneaky glance if we see a looker, don’t we? Nothing wrong with that. But show some respect, please.
Do you hear that?
A siren, I think.
My daughter, Molly, she’s five. You knew I had a daughter, didn’t you? That’s why I got you to pick me up at the school – I had to drop her off at the breakfast club first. She’s absolutely gorgeous.
Me and her dad didn’t work out, you know?
It’s a shame. But if it’s not right, and you can’t fix it, what’s the point in staying together? Life’s too short, isn’t it? She wants a sister, and I said that if I can give her a sister, I will. Chris loves kids. Wants truckloads of them. We’re going to start trying right after the wedding. But don’t tell work – I’ve only just finished my training.
You know – you’re quiet. You okay?
It shouldn’t take too much longer, I hope.
Weird, isn’t it, how you can be doing one thing, and the next minute, everything changes? I didn’t see that car coming at all. Did you?
Straight out of nowhere. Dangerous at those speeds. Especially in wet weather, too. Some people are nuts. Should be banned from the roads.
We got off lightly, though, eh? Looking at the state of the other cars. I can’t even see into that one over there. The windscreen’s covered in blood.
You know, you look pale.
I don’t feel too good either. If I’m honest. Bit breathless.
Someone’ll be here soon, though. Eh?
Can you hear that?
And I think a baby’s crying.
A while back, someone screamed. It sounded like it was right in here.
It’s a mess, isn’t it? I wonder how the ambulance’ll get through?
We’ve been here a while.
I’m getting cold. What about you?
Rick, are you alright?
Open your eyes, Rick.
Open your eyes.
Open your eyes.
These last days, she draws down on me. Sometimes I pause; lean against the wall. I wonder will the burden be too much? Jacob has waited many a year, and I too. But we are not young.
God’s miracle, he says.
The winter nights are long. In our youth, the candles flickered, danced to the quaver of Jacob’s fiddle. Our muscles were tired; our eyes, heavy. Replete with bread and stew, we were content. Later, I’d sing a ballad to the music of the wailing wind.
Enchantress, he said.
Now my stomach is ripe, I sing again. For many years, the candles’ flames waltzed, but to a silent melody. The fiddle lies lifeless still – a memory of another time – by the empty crib. That tiny bed, a gift for our betrothal, was for endless winters, nothing more than a broken promise.
Jacob sits by my chair, cast now, not under my spell, but the enchantment of another. Each night, to the crackling beat of the fire, I hum a lullaby, as he gently rests his cheek against the swell of my belly.
On the morrow, he whispers, his lips touching the velvet of my skirts. On the morrow.
Our darling craves the richest rampion, and though the hag’s garden grows thick with it, the villagers tell stories about her, and I am afraid.
He touches my hand.
Our little beauty shall have what she desires, he says.
The tower is the cruellest joke.
Looming above, built from coarsest stone, it casts shadows over the land. It is doorless, yet at the pinnacle, sits a window. Each day, I cut my way through the forest, to watch my blonde belle look out; hear her song, sweeter than mead.
Each day, my shame poisons my heart.
To forsake my child to that hag. To that tower.
Agnes does not look me in the eye now, but she did not see the hag’s face as she gripped my rampion-laden hand. Those red eyes left me frozen.
My belle only had one visitor – the hag – until of late. A prince, seduced by her voice, caught sight of her. Squatting amongst briers, I watched the fool, as he duped her; clambering up her hair, into the tower. Day after day, he’d visit – courage and ignorance a-plenty.
And now, my cowardice captures me again. I nearly stopped him, called out. But the hag warned me, when she took our babe, to never come near.
The empty crib will help you remember.
When the length of flaxen hair unravelled from the tower, he climbed without pause. I did not see his face when the hag met him at the window, but I saw his fall.
Treacherous again, I ran from the forest.
Thorns tore my skin with every step.
What have I done?
She was mine, but is no more.
I was not always like this. But the villagers are stupid, afraid. They do not try to understand. I kept my own counsel, but their narrow eyes and whispers twisted my guts like a chicken neck in a wire.
Countless full moons passed as I watched the couple from my garden. As lines of age defiled their skin, my soul expanded with joy. Over a score of autumns, their smiles faded, the brightness in their eyes dimmed. They did not know it, but our arid souls intertwined, and I was less alone.
I took her, not because I wanted her, but because I could not bear to see them blessed. Though I did not expect my heart to fill with joy, I welcomed it. But the joy brought an affliction.
When I saw her, releasing her tresses from the window – her arms open; honouring him in a way she never honoured me – I tasted the bitter herb, betrayal, on my tongue. I let its toxic vines grow unfettered, spreading blight into my hands, my body, my eyes.
When I cleaved off her hair, grasping it from the window for him to climb, her love for me diminished. When he fell into the thorns, her love for me died.
I cast her in the desert so she would know what I saw when I looked in her eyes.
And before I released her, I made clear how I came about her, and how her mother and father never came to set her free.
Lord Baldor advised me to stay away. I, too tempted by her beauty, now pay for my sins.
When the witch cast me from the tower, my eyes were pierced. Later, the girl found me, and I, exultant with relief, kissed her face. To her, it was a symbol of betrothal. Afraid of abandonment, I did not correct her.
Over days, we travelled to my Father’s kingdom. For her kindness, he gave her a place in Court, but I found the girl ignorant: she dabbled with magic, weeping over my eyes to clear away darkness with tears. She said my lack of faith meant her devilry did not work.
Her hair, removed of its bountiful tresses, was cropped like a barbarian. Baldor says she has beauty no more. And her manners – foul.
Now, as she confronts me, she speaks like a serf.
I am a prince, and you are but a common girl, I laugh.
Ah, she says, then I hinder you no more.
She leans, to exchange a parting kiss.
As her lips graze mine, my sight returns as if it never left. She opens her eyes, and I gasp. They burn – red as hell. Fear crushes me in its fist. Our lips part, and with this last touch, the walls slide away, the furniture expands, and the girl too. I am crouching at the base of her skirts. Trying to speak, I fail, then catch my image in the looking-glass.
My clothes are a pile upon the floor, and I – I cannot believe my eyes – am a toad.
Now, sweet prince, it’s time for me to visit my parents.
She turns to leave – pauses – turns back.
I cannot leave you like this, she says.
She raises her foot, and the last thing I see is its shadow as it falls.
THE ANGRY BEAVER
‘Pam! Look at this!’
Weaving through boxes and tarnished brasses, she sees Tony in the shadows of the pub cellar, holding what looks like a stuffed animal. It’s flea-bitten and stiff, with waxy fur and flat, staring eyes.
‘I’ve found The Angry Beaver.’
‘I told you it’s a stupid name for a pub.’
‘Look,’ he says, waving it near her face, ‘it’s fantastic. It’s like it’s alive.’
She grimaces, stepping away.
‘Come on, show it some love. You wouldn’t want to make it angry.’
‘Angry? It’s not angry, it’s scary.’
Tony raises his eyebrows. ‘A beaver? Scary? How many horror films have you seen with mad, stalking beavers?’
Pam thinks carefully. ‘None.’
Placing the animal back in its box, he saunters over, to wrap his arms around her waist – which isn’t as slender as it used to be.
‘Come on,’ he says, ‘it’s quirky.’
She shakes her head.
‘It’ll look great in the bar.’ He kisses her neck. ‘We’d be mad not to keep it. It’s good juju.’
‘Yeah. Y’know – good karma, cosmic forces, vibes, aura… Far out, man.’ He signals peace with his fingers.
Pam rolls her eyes.
‘C’mon Pam. It can watch over us. What with the new business, and all.’
‘How can that protect us?’
‘It’s in its nature. Beavers are loyal.’
‘They mate for life.’
‘And if someone tries to destroy the colony, they fight to the death. They are the coolest of animals.’
She winds her arms around his neck. ‘You’re making all this up, aren’t you?’
‘I might be.’
In the end, it’s not worth the argument.
A few hours before the doors open to the first customers of the day, Pam sits in her dressing gown, sipping coffee and eating toast at the bar.
You’ve put a lot of hard work in here, haven’t you, Pam? Tony and you, you make a good team.
Throwing a tea-towel over the beaver’s head, she returns to reading the paper.
Business takes off quicker than either of them expect, and they employ a couple of staff. Jenny’s your average teenager: skinny jeans, slouchy tops, sneakers, pony-tail. But Maria’s something else. Gleaming red lips, a ripe cleavage, black hair coiled in a dense hive, heels that cause vertigo. Tony’s mesmerised, and even Pam admits that the samba rhythm of Maria’s hips is hypnotic.
But she isn’t worried. Tony has an eye for the ladies, and he enjoys the odd flirtation, but he never touches. Never.
Anyway, thinks Pam, as she fondly gives her husband the once over, watching his jeans snake their way off his backside, who’d want him with that beer gut?
The dreams start a month later.
Pam’s in the bath, surrounded by bubbles you only get in Hollywood rom-coms. Softly, the light flickers like candles on a church altar. Her hair, though short and flecked with grey in real life, is blonde, piled on her head in curls. She clutches a champagne flute in her hand, and at the other end of the bath sits the beaver. He’s smoking a cigar; wearing spectacles. His own champagne glass rests on the bath.
‘You know what you need to do, Pam,’ he says.
Tony and Maria are serving behind the bar. As he passes a pint to the customer, he mutters something close into Maria’s ear. She throws her head back; laughs; caresses the pendant nesting in her neckline. Tony’s eyes follow the movement of her hand, then turn towards Pam, who’s polishing glasses at the dishwasher.
As his gaze meets hers, his smile is as clear as a cloudless day.
She’s stranded in the desert. The hot air bears in around her, as invisible cicadas chant oppressively. Ahead, she sees the beaver approaching on a horse. He stops, fully attired in leather waistcoat, chaps and a wide-brimmed hat. Jammed between his teeth is a cigarillo, his eyes narrowed against drifting smoke. She looks behind, attempting to follow the line of his vision. There is nothing but rocks and sand.
‘You know what you need to do, Pam.’
The smell of last night’s beer is thick in the air. It’s always the way before the doors open for the day’s business. Pam is kneeling on the floor doing a last minute check of soft drinks and mixers.
Proper little goldmine you have here, Pam. Tony and you, you make a good team.
With barely a glance, she removes the cloth from the beaver’s head.
The beaver wears a trilby, a raincoat and a pair of dark glasses. He’s standing in the shadows. Accents of King Oliver wind their way from the bars in the backstreets. She’s kitted out in a tight sequined dress; smoking a cigarette in a long holder. Under her arm is a newspaper; the date at the top, February 14th 1929. He passes her what looks like a violin case.
Today, his teeth are less charming; more like a snarl.
‘You know what you need to do, Pam,’ he says.
In the last week of May, the letter comes. Business is booming and it’s hard for Pam to get away, especially with the bank holiday market.
Tony rubs her neck. ‘Don’t worry. You go. You only have one Mum.’
He turns to Maria. ‘We can cope, can’t we, Mare?’
‘Of course, Pam. We’ll manage.’ Maria squeezes Tony’s shoulder with a carefully manicured hand. ‘You don’t need to worry about us.’
After receiving the letter this morning, Pam had taken a long look at herself in the mirror: the coarseness of her cropped auburn hair, the plumpness of her cheeks.
Now, she shoots Maria a toothy smile, and puts her own long-nailed hand on top of the barmaid’s. Her nose twitches slightly as she inhales the scent of heavy perfume. Behind the bar, she catches sight of the beaver. Light reflects in the blankness of its eyes.
‘Oh, my dear,’ she says, ‘I’m not worried. Not in the slightest.’
THE LAST TWO PEOPLE LEFT ON THE NIGHTBUS
Bill sighed as change overflowed the coin holder, landing in his lap and around his feet. It was always the same. Him getting the short straw.
Checking his wing mirror, he moved off.
He hated this shift. Martin couldn’t do it because he was away at a wedding. Bollocks. Everyone knew it was the derby match night. And Chris… Well, he was a bone-idle buggar. Always using his wife’s job as an excuse to skive. It wasn’t on. Bill took on more than his fair share of the nights. It kept him out of the house, he supposed, but he was sick of it.
‘Aaron, you bastard!’ There was a shriek of laughter, followed by the sounds of a tussle. Bill kept his eyes on the road.
Pissheads, the lot of them. Falling over, singing – if that’s what you called it.
A sourness filled the air. A rank concoction of sweat, alcohol and cigarettes. The lads were scruffy, and the girls, tarted up in tight dresses, needed to diet. No way was Ellie dressing like that when she grew up.
Drawing up to the last city stop, Bill let on a young couple. The bloke, wiry arms coated in tattoos, had a blond Mohican. The girl, hair cropped and bleached, wore a short skirt, and stumbled in heels. Her bare arms were mottled with faded purple and yellow markings. Throwing their money into the coin holder, the pair ignored the dispensing tickets. Bill didn’t call them back.
As the bus trawled back onto the empty road, the air-brakes shot out a sharp exhalation. Holding in a yawn, Bill rubbed his eyes. The world seemed unreal in the early hours. What with that rabble behind, and everything ghostly outside. His skin felt stretched and scratchy, and his senses were shot. His eyes squinted against the blue-white flicker of the internal lights; ears battered from the screeches down the bus.
Glancing in his rear-view mirror, he saw the couple located two seats back, separated from the melee at the rear of the bus. The girl peered into the black void of the window. Her partner, his face squashed against hers, prodded his finger menacingly into her face. Bill couldn’t hear his words, but the white fragility of the girl’s shoulders reminded him of a child.
Christ, he hated his job. He’d pack it in now if it wasn’t for Ellie. The lads were grown, and he and Jackie didn’t have anything to talk about anymore. They’d given up going out for meals years ago. It was awful, filling silences with questions, then not being interested in the answers. He hadn’t realised how boring she was. Even sex was shit. Both of them went through the motions. Sometimes months passed without either of them bothering. He thought she let him because he didn’t pester her too much. She felt obligated.
He’d not expected anymore kids, and when she told him, he couldn’t take it in. He remembered when the lads were little. Jackie spent every minute fussing over them. He sat on the sofa, watching crappy TV, thinking there must be more to life, but not sure what it was. Then, when Ellie came along, it was different. He took one look at her tiny mouth and nose, and everything made sense. Even now, it was all for her.
If there was one good thing about this shift, it was going home to look at her sleeping face, peeping over the duvet. Her delicate breaths. He loved to straighten the covers over her legs, chilled from the early morning air. Daft sod always kicked her duvet off at the bottom. Then, he’d kiss her cheek, smell her hair, before closing the door and heading to bed. Thankfully, Jackie was always asleep, her back facing him.
Driving stealthily through the suburbs, the bus dropped off passengers onto the main road that fed the estates. It was hours before the sun rose, but a glimmer on the horizon hinted that Bill should be in bed.
‘G’night, mate,’ the departing figures slurred. Bill regarded their shadowy outlines in his mirror before he set off. Lurching, caterwauling, they were oblivious that the rest of the world slept.
As the bus moved on, Bill inhaled deeply. He’d be back at the depot soon.
A noise caught his attention, and he glanced into the rear-view mirror. The blond couple. He’d forgotten about them. The girl stood up, her boyfriend gripping her wrist.
‘Let go,’ she pleaded.
‘Listen, you slag.’ Veering up towards her, his nose almost touched hers. ‘You think I’m blind?’
‘I didn’t do nothing… Just talking.’
‘Will you sit down, you two?’ Bill called from his cabin.
‘Keep your fucking nose out.’
The bloke turned back to his girlfriend, grabbing her hair. Her head wrenched back, and her neck bulged like a dam about to burst. She whimpered.
Oh Christ, Bill thought.
He stopped the bus, his throat tight. As he walked hesitantly towards the pair, the boyfriend’s arms reminded him of next door’s Staffie.
‘Look mate, I don’t want any bother.’
‘Let her go. It’ll all be forgotten in the morning.’
The lad released the girl, and Bill’s body relaxed. He didn’t need this. It was bad enough in the day, but at least there were other people around then.
A swift movement, and then a force struck Bill’s abdomen. Wheezing, he slumped forward.
‘Oh fuck, Mike,’ said the girl. Without another word, they darted down the aisle; ricocheted off the seats; yanked the emergency handle to open the doors.
As he watched them blunder into the night, Bill felt wetness on his hands. They were as red as the coat Ellie got for her fifth birthday.
His legs buckled, and he landed on his knees. But there was no pain.
Through the windscreen he saw the couple running away. He watched until they were devoured by the darkness.
Until he was left with nothing but the flickering lights and the empty street.
NEEDLE IN THE STAFF TOILET
Things spiralled long before they found the needle in the toilet. But by then, it was truly over.
Working as an advertising exec, you’re under pressure. Not everyone can hack it. A lot burn out – many in the first six months. But it was my third year. I proved I had what it takes: pimped out to clients twenty four hours a day, few holidays, no sick days. Even if I was on a break, my Blackberry was always switched on. You don’t look away – someone else will get the deal, the bonus, the promotion. There were lots of younger, hungry people passing through.
Some say it’s a tough job – a constant cycle of clients; always having to tout for business. I was pushing graphic designers, writers, photographers; sorting out marketing; cranking up ad campaigns. Reinhardt expected it. I got home in the dark, but I loved the buzz.
The most important rule was, show no weakness. This was how things stood: make a mistake, lose face; fall down, get trampled on; lose an account, lose your job. Simple as. I’d seen a lot go, but now I had a nice, big office.
A few months ago, Reinhardt stopped me.
‘Dom,’ he said, grabbing my shoulder, ‘This is Matt Cahill. He’s joining us. Junior exec.’
‘Hey,’ I said, reaching to shake his hand. As I squeezed his knuckles, an uncomfortable tightness was returned. ‘I’m off to the Phoenix shoot.’ Phoenix were revamping their shaving line.
‘Matt was meant to be with Burke today, but he’s no longer with us…’
‘So later, give him the lowdown on your accounts.’
This was all I needed. Set to beat last month’s target, I didn’t want extra baggage. But seeing the look in Reinhardt’s eyes, I didn’t argue.
‘I’ll come with you,’ Matt grinned. I didn’t smile back.
Matt was a smooth talker, a fast learner. Within six weeks, he’d already built a steady stream of accounts, getting attention from Reinhardt on the way. The attention I wanted.
Weeks later, things changed for me, though not for the better. I’d been working extra hours, getting a lead on the McKellan account before Matt got his mitts on it. I was home after midnight, up at five-thirty. But it was tough. I was tired, my concentration was off, and on some days, my vision blurred. I made some stupid mistakes, which I blamed on overwork. Though I got away with it, I’d seen it before. Once people made errors, they didn’t last long.
A visit to the doctor led to urine and blood samples being taken. ‘You have to slow down,’ he said.
But I couldn’t. There was too much at stake. I’d do anything to sail through the days.
At first, I tried pills, but things got much worse. People picked up on my mood swings, my suit hanging off my shoulders, dark rings around my eyes. I was heading for trouble. And Matt Cahill continued to snap at my heels.
One morning, as I arrived in work, my PA, Sarah, gave me my messages.
‘Matt called,’ she said, ‘He’s got the McKellan account. Can you send over the files?’
‘What?’ My voice was a strangled whisper. ‘What do you mean?’ Sarah flushed.
Storming into my office, I slammed the door, my fingers trembling as I rummaged for the small package of tablets buried in my desk.
Obviously failing to keep my head above water, I sought another answer. This one was harder to hide. One morning, cramped in a toilet cubicle, I realised what a joke I’d become. My office was chaotic, people streaming in and out, and so here I was, with the smell of piss, a box on my knees, and syringe in hand. My shirt-sleeve was folded above my elbow.
With a crash, the gents’ door burst open, and the syringe clattered to the floor. Holding my breath, I watched it roll, stopping just short of the gap under the door.
‘Dom?’ It was Matt. ‘That you?’ As he stepped closer, the toe of his shoe glanced the syringe, and it slipped towards me. Remaining silent, I picked it up; waited. After a minute, Matt left the room.
That afternoon, I returned to the doctor. One look at me was all he needed.
‘Your symptoms are typical, Dominic. You need help. The hospital… ’
‘Your job’s important, but your life’s at risk…’
‘There won’t be a job whatever I do…’
‘That’s fine then – they’ll expect you at the hospital this evening.’
I went back to work. Whatever the doctor said, I could handle this myself. Unusually, Goliath’s reception was humming with excitement. Heads turned as I walked through the door.
‘What’s going on,’ I asked the receptionist.
‘Reinhardt wants you.’ She avoided my eyes.
On the way, mumbling to myself, I listed recent errors. It wasn’t good.
Reinhardt got straight to the point. ‘There’s a problem, Dominic.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘You’re acting oddly. Mistakes… You’re moody… You look like shit.’
I stopped. Reinhardt picked a clear plastic bag from his desk. It contained a syringe.
‘This was in the toilets.’
I was silent. What could I say?
‘Matt says it’s yours.’
The back-stabbing bastard. The toilet door was locked – he wasn’t sure it was me. He must have followed me in. Or searched my desk.
‘I want the truth, or I’ll involve the police.’
It was true. He would. I’d seen the consequences often enough.
‘I’ve not got a drug problem.’
‘Then explain this.’
As I opened my mouth, I thought of my job and the lonely trips to the toilet cubicle. I couldn’t hide it any longer. Strangely, I wasn’t afraid anymore. Whatever I said, from now on I was officially a Goliath statistic.
‘Here, have this.’ I said, my voice hoarse.
Pulling a box of insulin capsules from my pocket, I threw them onto Reinhardt’s desk.
‘I’m not a druggie, Reinhardt. I’m a fucking diabetic.’