'It's classified, I could tell you
but then I'd have to kill you'
but he's no Tom Cruise
as he swaggers round the bar
thinks he's the big I am.
He takes a call, finds a quiet
corner where he hunches
looks up every few seconds
to check if anyone's watching
because he wants them to watch.
'Every message I get on this device,'
he says to the woman by the bar
that he thinks the most gullible
'every message is encrypted
with military grade security.'
When her boyfriend returns
he snarls as if to say:'I'll get my own
back on you later, mate'
but he'll be sitting alone in the park
eating a greasy kebab
Out of a newspaper with words
that he doesn't understand
that takes a political stance
that he neither rejects nor accepts
because his views are classified.
ATTACK AND RECEIVE
Clicking with weapons and slimed with sweat,
We hurry headlong upon the fortified foe
Swimming through flames of the bog-ablaze peat
Spear-blades glitter in the shimmering heat
We strike: six hundred, seven and score
Plunging knee-deep through the octopus mire
Swarming up ladders at the palisade walls
Enemies pouring from the wattle-daub halls
And fire; javelins and sling stones fly
Zipping through the midges and the dragonflies
We crest the spikes and fall into a murderous scrum
Eleven hundred bodies in the smoke-red sun
Exhausted: sweat-slathered shields and pikes
Twist amid the soldiers with their splattering gore
The terrified, bellowing masses of men
Stabbing and slashing, wavering, then
Collapsing; the enemy is staggering over
My warriors advance upon the village in flames
I seize my foes' prince and kick him from his feet
Begging for his life through his chattering teeth
I accept: his servitude with nine score slaves
Added to my queendom with his sheep-shorn hills
He wails and crawls before me to his wattle-daub home
I receive my reward: his wicker-wove throne.
The Light Within
A glow from the lantern shows a promise of a tomorrow. Tonight, in the darkest of memories, one light exists for me. When I see more faces, I see more light shaping hope for each other. The strength of light from the lanterns in a procession accentuates the love and comfort received. Those paper lanterns mean the festival is once again alive in this town that has survived a mass shooting. I can't put off those ugly memories that eat into my life. But there's a need for me to move on.
Holding my sky lantern slightly above my head, I see its mellow light dancing inside a bamboo frame. But I need to see the light on your face especially in your eyes. I look for you in the crowd. I look for you in the alley, but I only see black cats stretching their legs and yawning under a street light. The darker side of the night is on my back with sombre clouds trying to creep up behind me. Images of you sheltering me keep flashing on my mind. The bloody attack on students in the school cafeteria should not have occurred. I feel an anxiety attack coming on. I just need you to hold me close to your chest. I just cannot find you when I need you the most.
A fortnight ago, he pointed his gun at Christopher who had never harmed anyone in his life, not even a fly. He was not a stranger. He was just another student whose philosophy of life juxtaposed Christopher's candour. He was suspended from school for misconduct. And he came back with a rage that took the lives of my seven schoolmates. He shot Christopher with the first bullet grazing his skull and the second penetrating his heart. It was a bloody sight.
The attack is still vivid on my mind as if it had just happened. I stare at my trembling hands. I was under a table hanging on to my dear life. He had seen me with his cold eyes and he held his gun in both hands aiming at me. Christopher's lifeless body laid behind him. You stood up and faced him. You whispered to me to lie low while you engaged in a conversation with him. You confronted him fearlessly while I was shaking like a leaf on a tree whipped by wind in a storm. I could sense the numbness in my feet.
It was a chaotic sight with students fleeing to take cover with food trays dropping, chocolate milk spilling and corn on the cob being squashed. I caught sight of his smirk smile as he approached you. He stopped a rolling red apple with his soiled black boots. He could have just shot you there wincing from an emotional pain after the death of his mother.
You called him by his name. Both of you belonged to the school computer club. You once told me that he was a geek, rarely engaging with others and that he preferred to be alone. You attended his mother's funeral, and you said that it was odd that he wore a straight face, showing no emotion at all throughout the ceremony. I told you that people mourned differently. We never spoke of him again. When you mentioned his mother to him, he broke down right there at the cafeteria, but the gun was still held firmly in his right hand.
"She was all I had!"
"I'm sure she was a beautiful person."
"Yeah, she was."
"I'm going to see her real soon!"
"Put down your weapon!". I heard a voice of authority. I could not see the face.
"On the count of three, throw down your gun!", said the police officer.
He went berserk.
The police took control of the situation. Officers from the forensic department counted the bodies. After the heartless attack, I received news that you left with no traceable address.
Letting go of my lantern in the night sky, I see it glowing like the other hundred lanterns. I hope mine reaches heaven so that you would receive my heartfelt thanks for saving my life in the attack. I feel a radiant joy in my heart.
In a small town on the northern coast of France, two street performers lean on a rail of clothes two minutes before the start of their show. He takes a bright red dress and holds the hanger in front of his face but his eyes say 'this would look good on you'. She stretches out her index finger and moves it from side to side, and frowns theatrically. He takes a tiny pan and brush and scours the roped performance area for small pebbles and grit, fragments of daily life. She purses her lips and tilts her head because she finds this funny. He's not impressed. He takes a plate of peanuts and hands them out to the waiting audience, reaching as far over the rope as he can without falling. She mimes pushing him into the second row. She taps him on the shoulder and passes him a maroon tie, the sort he might have worn at school, which he knots roughly in a practised manner. She smiles then mouths 'no', loosens and removes the tie, then replaces it on the rack. He picks up a mirror to check his face. She places her hand on the back of his shoulder and pulls her green ballet shoes over her heels, running her finger around the edge of each shoe to ensure a perfect fit. He ducks but she catches herself. She walks over to the record player and puts on an old jive tune. She smiles. He smiles. They go behind opposite ends of the clothes rail and when they emerge they are perfectly in time, mirror images of each other's movements.
Red Poppy Boy (gets what's coming to him)
Out on the streets
keeping your head down
staying hid after dark
until the pain poured through
until you got that street baptism
& seeds fell on you, like holy water
growing a hypnotic sleep in you
Now yeah yeah your like all the rest
an A1 stealer
all state receiver
a total syringe believer
fulfilling everything they said, at your birth
as your mother shook
Tracked forever by those blue flashing lights
your inky fingers spread
reprocessed front & side
attacking attacking, denying denying
A slope they called it
But they weren't running were they.
On and on
Up and up
The last water gone
with nothing left
except blisters, cramp,
tiredness beyond enduring
inch by inch
lamp post by lamp post
until the road levelled
and a sea breeze
cheered as beautifully as the crowd.
So I attacked
with all my 'I can do this'
as the line began to call
and I received a medal
The Great North Run
To die for …......
As I approach the finish line all I can see is Jed. He's shouting something but it's so loud I can't tell what. I can hardly think and I don't want to look to my left, to see if the person next to me is still level or if I've passed her. If we're level, we die. If I've passed her, she dies. If she's passed me, I die. Only One Winner, claims the banner and they mean it. Two winners means nothing. You can fight and fight to the very end but if you cross together... one of you dies. If you can take out the person with the grip on you at the very end... you claim riches beyond imagination. Safety. Freedom from hunger. Everything.
In Jed's eyes I see fear. I see terror. I turn, finally, forcing myself to look. She is exactly next to me, every fibre of her being matching every fibre of mine. Every movement. There is no rule to say I can't still attack her. But we are so close to the end - if I miss, I could fall, and she'd win.
The Guards have their weapons ready.
I fix my Semi eyes on the Guard at the front. His weapon is trained on me. Right on me. His finger, I can see, is straining on the trigger. And I see there is a Guard next to him, with his weapon trained on her, the woman next to me. I fix my eyes on Jed's, and I push myself as hard as I can, harder, harder, reaching for him.
The Guard's eyes are on me.
My life, such as it ever was, flashes backwards, streams out behind me.
For a second, she's ahead of me, but I launch myself at her and drag leg, legs first, to the ground. Every bit of me hurts, every part of me wants to give up. But I bring her down and I get up and I run on. I hear her grunting behind me and I know I am ahead, for the very first time. I turn, and this is my mistake. Something hits me square between the eyes and I feel myself thrown sideways. I believe I'm shot for a second, before seeing what's in her hands: rocks she's picked up from the path around us.
Crowds close in. I fight my way back to the surface, I haul myself up and I stand and I run. We are level. I can feel her breathing, changing the molecules of the air around me. Stealing my oxygen.
The roaring around me intensifies. People yelling, everywhere. Jed's family will be watching this in the bar. They didn't want to be here. Only Jed travelled with me. Jed who I'm doing this for. Jed, who will lose me if I don't win. Jed, who will lose.
The clock changes as I pass underneath. Screaming around me gets louder and I see why - the woman who overtook us (when there was still an us) is within my sight. She is stumbling, but her arms are raised. Celebrating early? Fool, I think. It's just she, and I. She is in the way of me winning. I feel my legs charge forwards, pulling the rest of me. My training has paid off - all of the pain, all of the effort is worth this ability to speed up, right when I need it.
I go as fast as I can, climb the wall, down the other side, over the water crossing, and up the other side. I catch her. She claws the air behind me - I swear I feel her fingers like ghosts as she misses.
I go, faster and faster. I hear her screech of anger and she launches herself after me. This is what neither of us wants. Two of us means-
Lungs are burning. Players have fallen all around and been held down, for one, two, three minutes. What happens is this: You bring someone down, keep them down and when you rise, they stay there. They have to. It's the rules. Then a Guard comes up and shoots them with that weapon; the one that wipes us out. Switches us off. Makes us nothing but a pile of organic scrap. But we all play the game. If you fall or are brought down for more than five seconds, you have to stay there. It's the rules. Only once, last Race, did someone try to run. It wasn't good, what happened. Rules are there to protect us.
And we don't break the rules. Except Jed and I. We have broken the rules. But nobody knows this. As far as the world knows, Jed is my owner. I am his worker. It is for Jed I race. Jed who owns nothing except me, and who is struggling with the payments as it is. Jed who has family in the red zones, who wants to get them out before they die. He clawed his way to the green zone but his time's almost up. Miss one more rental, and he's out. And the rental is due next week.
People say we Semis can't think, you know? Well listen. Listen to my thoughts as I run for my life - whatever it is - and Jed's life. I love Jed. It's not allowed, but I love him. It feels real. It feels like all the people describe.
Semis and People aren't allowed to do what we do. Jed says I am as real as he is. Make of that what you will...
I'm in the middle of the pack. I've kicked off several attackers. Nobody can bring me down because I'm strong. I've brought down several. No remorse, It's them or me. Them or Jed. I'm his only chance. For the last hour it's been a battle over obstacles and a battle over myself. I beat myself and I focus and I run. And I run.
The starting pistol is a foreshadow of the weapons that would take us down. It's a pop in the air, a crack and a pop and a bang, but not innocent like those sounds can be. A gunshot like the ones they hunt with. It's the thing we are most afraid of; a weapon that wipes us out. We begin and I focus on not dying. On staying here. Staying in the Game.
The biggest difference is that we don't sleep. To the trained eye you can tell us apart, but it's subtle, as we look as different from one another as People do. But we don't need to sleep. That's why we were made: we do the jobs that People don't want to do, at night, as they sleep. Only those in the green zones and upwards can own us. We're a privilege, a gift, something to be proud of.
Jed was given me by his employer, for meeting a bunch of targets. Right away, there was something. I felt it and he feels it. I work for him. I do everything he doesn't want or have to do. And if I'm finished, I learn and I train.
Several years ago, somebody dreamt up the Games. We race, and the winner gets everything. The losers die - although they don't say it like that, the games organisers. They say terminated. We are terminated if we lose. But one wins, and if she's the winner, her owner gets everything. That's how Jed described it to me. Everything, for himself and for his family.
Jed has taught me old world words like 'sexist'. It's why you're all female, he says. Sexist. There should be men-Semis as well. But the world developed like this and we 're created female and it doesn't bother me, not at all. It bothers none of us, actually. But it seems to bother more and more of the People.
These are what my thoughts are like before the Race. So that I don't have to think about Jed and what will happen if I die.
People say we can't think, beyond what we're programmed to do. Try listening to my head, I want to tell them. Not only do I have conscious thought, I have the capacity for love. And I love Jed. That's why I'm doing this.
Less than an hour to go til we start.
ATTACK and RECEIVE
Lady Bellamy wore diamonds.
"No well born gel would choose anything else!" She paused, "Of course, if he offered matched pearls that would be nice too!"
Jenny sat mute. How could she tell her mother what Jack had given her?
"But there are lots of other lovely jewels!"
"Such as? "
The interjection stifled any reply. How could a ruby ring match up to her standards? But Jack was so sweet and kind. He looked so dashing in his scarlet unifom and he swore eternal love. Anyway, the ring was the envy of the other girls.
"I hope you bear in mind the family name? Your father was a dear man and died in the service of our Queen. You must never forget he was 'The Hero of Mafeking.'
"No Mama, I think of it daily! How could I forget when you remind me every hour!"
"Go to, you pert child! Such common instincts! You'd do better to emulate the sweet young Dora who is the picture of decorum and virtue. Besides, she's the daughter of an Earl."
That meant a lot to Lady Bellamy, the widow of a mere baronet.
Jenny ran upstairs to her bedroom and sat down at her dressing table. A petulant image looked back at her. What could she do? Her fingers crept unbidden to the secret draw where she kept her most precious things. The ruby ring sat there nestled in its little mahogany box.
She jumped with fright. Dorcas, her maid stood at her elbow.
"Sorry Miss, I couldn't stop myself! It's lovely isn't it?"
"Don't tell Mama! She doesn't know I have it."
'Course I won't! Be more than my place's worth. And he's a lovely young man!"
"Do you think so? Yes, and he admires me so!"
For a moment, Jenny forgot herself and exchanged her inner most thoughts with her maid; the gifts he sent her and how they met secretly. All the while Dorcas smiled and encouraged her to talk. Soon conversation turned to her mother's resistance.
"Her Ladyship is a very firm lady. And she needs to be."
Jenny looked askance at her . "What do you mean?"
"It's no matter." Said Dorcas.
"Yes it is! You must tell me at once! Why should my mother be 'firm,' as you say?"
"Well, I don't know hows to put it," The old lady paused, uncertain how to go on, "mayhap she feels tardy about the past."
"About the past? Tardy? You know something to make my mother 'Firm'?"
Dorcas fidgeted; her fingers twisting her apron strings into a hopeless knot.
"Well my cousin Nancy came with her when she wed
"Yes I know, but this was before my time and the girl never stayed long. I know all that."
"Too true, she never stayed long! Your mother was firm indeed!"
"What do you mean? Out with it!"
Dorcas looked down and the last shade of a blush tinged her faded cheeks.
"Nancy was her dressing maid, like me to you. And she kept your Ma's jewellery from before she married. When she left, she was given all your mother's old jewellery, to be rid of."
" Nancy kept the best bit which was a garnet on a pewter ring. Not even silver!"
Jenny sat mute for a long time, then she spoke in quiet voice. "Who has the ring now?"
Dorcas said nothing but left the room. Within a minute, she was back and handed a small cardboard box to her mistress. Inside wrapped in brown paper sat a steel coloured ring with a crimson stone.
"Happen you might want it yourself?" Jenny nodded and without a word, took the ring and slipped it onto her finger, it fitted perfectly.
That evening, guests were invited. Lady Bellamy enjoyed her reputation as a hostess. The Fanshaws were there and most of the county families were represented at the table. Jenny came down after they had arrived. She looked dazzling in an evening dress of white silk and long white gloves.
"My Dear! What kept you so long? The guests have already arrived. Where were you?"
Jenny smiled. "I misplaced my gloves." She said, and moved to greet Bertie Fanshaw. Her mother's eyes followed her as she drew off her gloves to give her hand to him. The cheap garnet ring glittered in the candlelight.
"My Word! Where did you get this ring?" Bertie held her hand up for all to see.
Jenny smiled and turned to her mother.
"It's a family heirloom, isn't it Mother?"
Earth under siege:
We notice that the meadows grieve
Each summer that the swallows’ swoop
Is interrupted by the new-felled trees
Missing the myriad glint of insects dancing.
Yet we, inheritors, receive
As if the fruits need poisoned by our touch
And would not grow themselves
-Or by the hand of God if you believe-
Fruition may be freely given:
Climb up a northern hill
The constant blaeberries!
Blue fingered fruits sweet on the tongue...
My easy life
Jumped at me
A long year back
First people of the land , Dakota,
Gathering as they need,
Fight water’s safety
For our whole earth’s balance
Held for untold years
Despite the devastation of the plunder
Of an unthinking younger brother...
Oil slides to soil their rivers now.
I weep my futile tears
As they...they fight my cause
A cause they don’t deserve to have to fight
Or I deserve to win...
That was never a fight
Before this measured time
Simply a way to love to serve in safety.
My childhood sacred text instructs
The guardianship of kings
That cares for
We –with our plastic-toys,
Bombs that kill the earth with the children-
We have lost the way.
That in these darkening days
The visioned may prevail-
The earth itself deserves your ways.
Beside the wire the driven fields are stabbed,
A thousand daggers ranked against the soil.
No room for poppies here, or swifts, or voles
To find a shelter in the busy wheat .
An upturned mistle-thrush lies where it lived.
A small child told me solemnly
How caterpillars have no place
“Because I farm and they eat up our food”.
At six ,an eyebrow raised
At thoughts that they might share.
I tramp the barren tracks
The tractors made
And wonder how we turned
The giving earth our slave:
Packed earth admits no green
From this assault comes sweetest bread to share,
The joy of porridge at the winter’s table.
My place is fortunate, is laid.
The aching land keeps yielding harvest home.
And so I get
To walk beside the promised peaceful waters.
We build our hope, our gains are set
Against the famine that we might not meet,
We kill, we pray,
We thank what gods we may
“So hit him back” my Dad said.
I didn’t fancy that idea.
But I was fed up with picked on by Grimes, the tall boy with the pimples and the grey skin like he’d escaped from the graveyard. I suspected the mud on his shoes was from his very own grave.
So, the next day, I faced up to him.
“He’ll respect you for it” Dad said. “You hit him back, he’ll not do it again. Neither will anyone else, they won’t fancy being hit, either.”
Dad’s words seemed far away as I looked Grimes in the eye. He was tall, I was small. I felt even smaller than usual.
His eyes had a strange expression in them, amusement, slight interest.
“So what you looking at?” he said to me, half sideways to his cronies who smirked and stared me in the eye, in a small circle.
Between their sweaty heads I could see the rest of the playground, life carrying on as usual, ignorant of my little world crowded in here amongst these humid beings.
What would Dad say now? So, “You, I guess”, I replied to Grimes.
“You guess? You couldn’t guess your way out of a paper bag.”
Grimes continued mumbling, inconsequential meanderings, the cronies sniggering at his non-clever comments.
Then, the inevitable “So do you know what I’m going to do to you now?”
Whether I answered yes or no was of little consequence.
I decided I would let him hit me first. After all it was wrong to be the one to hit first.
But, I also decided, on the spur of the moment, that I was fed up with being hit.
So I hit him.
I hit him as hard as I could, the way they do in the action films, arm flung back, then follow through on the forward swing with my full weight, crack into the jaw. My fist exploded with pain and for a moment his eyes registered surprise. Then, he laughed. He had not been thrown back through the window of the classroom to fall to the ground two storeys below, outside beyond the shattered glass. He had not even fallen backwards. He had not even given me the satisfaction of just slightly rocking on his feet.
He just looked at me.
He was going to hit me.
So I hit him.
And still he stood there, no reaction. There was no satisfying blood, no terrifying crack of bone.
He was really going to hit me now.
So I hit him again, and again.
I rained blows against his head. He chuckled. His bony chin, his pointed nose, were sharp on my soft fist. My little, soft fist burned and my knuckles shrieked in pain.
I stopped, breathing hard.
He was going to kill me.
He turned to his cronies. He said, “Did you see that, boys?”
They grinned and nodded their heads, silently.
“He attacked me. He shouldn’t have done that, should he boys?”
They grinned and nodded their heads, silently.
No, he was not going to kill me.
No, not him.
He was walking away, hands jauntily in pockets.
I was left alone, facing the cronies.
He didn’t need to hit me, with his cronies there. He didn’t need to dirty his hands, with his friends to do the dirty work for him. His own delicate hands would remain undamaged.
They, his friends, his sweaty friends, advanced towards me.
That’s the last time I take my Dad’s advice.
“Why do you always have to leave crumbs in the butter? Is it really so difficult to remember to scoop them out when you’ve finished making your sandwiches? And can’t you empty the bins when they’re full? I do all the cooking and the washing up and the laundry on a daily basis, on top of my job. Is it really so much to expect you to complete your one chore regularly? Last summer, when we had that maggot infestation because it was so hot and the bin wasn’t emptied, who was it who had to deal with it? Me, of course! The toilet seat was up again when I went into the bathroom just now. You know how much I hate having to put it down before I go. Can’t you just remember to do it? And you left the window open again. If it had rained overnight, the upstairs flat’s overflow pipe would have flooded right into our bathroom. And then the downstairs neighbours would have been on to us to pay for their repairs. It’s not like it’s difficult to shut the window before you come to bed, is it? Speaking of which, do you really have to make so much noise when you finally decided to go to sleep at 2am? You know how light a sleeper I am, and it takes me such a long time to get back to sleep once you’ve woken me up. It doesn’t help that I have to listen to your snoring while I’m staring at the ceiling. And I tripped over your shoes again when I was getting ready for work this morning. Why do you have to put them exactly in my way? Isn’t there somewhere else they could go?
“And speaking of things being out of place, what’s this envelope doing on the dining table? Is it something you’ve forgotten to post? Not a bill, I hope. I don’t want an angry letter from the electricity supplier because you’ve failed to send a payment. Why are you grinning at my like that? What’s so funny about not keeping up with the bills? Oh, for heaven’s sake, I’ll just open it and see for myself, shall I? What’s this? Tickets for something? A two week Scandinavian cruise? Oh my god, really? And what’s this note with it? ‘I know you’ve been having a tough time lately with your brother being in the hospital, so I thought some time away would be in order now that he’s better again.’ Wow, that’s amazing! You’re so good to me! I don’t deserve you, really I don’t.”
Escaping to Mars
Copy and paste the stars
Coral reef's dead
3 d print one instead.
Attack and receive,
What’s that aroma?
Park after dark
Not hurricane ready?
Get out or hold steady.
Draft dodgers remarks
Only for laughs
From sessions intentions
When shall we leave?
And enter the forest
All that’s forsaken
Ailing capital nation
Won’t pay her workers
Never ending furloughs
Attack and receive
If you're paying attention
Just click donation.
His words are on mine, pushing violently against the screen. The tension is enough to make my phone crack - but it doesn't.
I want you.
All of you.
Lungs feel crushed under miles of arousal. Room tastes of hot stars. We are not allowed.
I receive these attacks, these forceful blasts of passion, because what else can I do? What else can we be?
It's like this for hours, vowels pushing up into the glass, lightning fast. Forbidden.
My thumbs work double-time, pushing hard against the touchscreen that can't be touched hard enough. The deeper I press, the deeper I NEED to press.
I want to ...
... so hard that ...
Glass flies up into my face. Eye whites bleed. Nose stings. Lips suffer.
I wanted this. I wanted this.
His barrage of words strikes like a snake
as she turns her soft ear towards his
list of petty charges, tasks undone,
nods as if giving his complaints weight,
her possessions grasped in an everyday mugging,
she gifts him more.
He invades her space, steps on her toes
she can't match his dance, shrinks at each touch,
his onslaughts are unprovoked but
she has forgotten how to take offence
or shelter from what is now a blitz
her soul shrapnelled before the killer blow.
Little mother, dear sister, beloved daughter,
the kindest of friends, broken, possessed,
he’s made this martyr, this furtive shadow,
a scurrowing thing - his perfect wife.
Mother, you grew me from a tiny seed
You'd sacrifice a meal so I could feed
You gave me the air to let me breathe
The person I turn to in times of need.
Mother, how on earth can I thank you
For all the selfless things that you do
Not giving up on me, seeing this through
Planting a foundation, on which our love grew.
You were my medication
Without any hesitation
My saviour, my salvation.
Never did you give up on me
The good in me you forever see
Just like you, I long to be
You gave to me my heart's key.
If the sky was dark you'd make it bright
When I couldn't see you gave me sight
If I surrendered you'd make sure I fight
When my tears fell you'd hold me tight.
Mother, you showed me right from wrong
Held my hand down the road so long
The bond we share has grown so strong
In the hall of best Mom's you do belong.
When my tears fell like autumn rain
You'd dry them all to ease my pain
Washing my worries down the drain
At times, your own feelings you'd feign.
One fine day when you are here no more
I know you'll be waiting at heavens door
The sunshine in the sky will forever soar
My mother, gave me love from her very core.
Come with me, out
the winter shadows encroaching
but we still have time
ticking ticking, to plant
Let me see your hands, like mine
calloused from previous failures
But we still remember, a fierce scented garden
fruits heavy, lush vegetation
& us, our arms outstretched
touching the endless sun
GONE TO SEED
It was all but a wilderness. Where once grass had grown, pristine and proud, flanked by bordered beds whose obedient shrubs stayed dutifully within their allocated square of soil.
Birds had flocked to feed and children laughed as they had looked for newts and fish who swirled and swam in ponds protected by a heron made of plastic.
Roses rambled carefully against wall and trellis and butts collected water when it rained. Tomatoes never failed and plums aplenty fell in time for jam as runner beans fed family and friends and even won a prize that year when....
When did it go to seed?
When did clarity get swamped by weeds of fear and snails slither over all the leaves of certainty?
When did colours blur, blooms die and fragrance fade beyond recalling?
When did blight begin to bite and bindweed choke and why can't I remember when the garden started failing.
And Dementia dug in roots and thrived.
Whatcha whatcha watcha. Haha. Ha ha.. ha ha!
Get away from there. You don't belong here, you.
His hair was gone from the top of his head, and the grey strands that remained upon its sides were not easily distinguished from the dust in the room. A grandfather clock ticked in one corner, the only thing that still existed from the time before. I had made sure to wind it, it was my only task beside that of the feeding. But now this stranger had come, this dark thing which shone my situation clearly upon me: for how perfectly he fit. I wished he would go away.
'Don't touch the glass.'
His face turned and I pulled back from the sight. He frightened me, and I was no longer in charge of my own room.
He raised his claw and I scurried away, into the dust cupboards left untouched. I began to weep.
'There, there, pal,' he said. I wondered if he wanted to call me large, but that would have been too much a compliment. If he were candy he'd be not the type to say it. If he were candy...
'Ha ha ha! You're pretty deep, and going deeper,' it said.
It did not mind existing here, maybe it was better than the place it had come from. But why did it have to come. Things were becoming worse than before. Things were beyond redemption! Why did I stay so long?..
It wasn't Mary's death that brought me here. I was bad before then, and I didn't get much worse after- I don't think. I stopped going out, I remember that much. I never went out again, not even to her funeral. I feel like I should have gone, but there was no question of it. I gave up, I came into the basement, I went dark far away from the old stuff. I ran away, and I stayed here. The light from the top of the staircase, from the little triangular window, frightens me. The wood all along the staircase if frightening. I don't go near it. I stay in my corner, near the desk where the computer sits and used to work. Behind the meshed rolling chair I hide in the cramped space beneath the desk, sometimes looking at the wood to shield my eyes.
But now that new one is here. He has long claws, and he doesn't mind being here. I think he likes it. He doesn't want to leave. I saw him lighting a pipe, but he looked at me and I pawed up against the back of the desk. I don't know how often he uses it. Most of the time he doesn't move, I don't think. But it's hard to tell when I don't look. He has frightening eyes, and he's a killer. I can't die like this, can I? No, no, no no no. mmm. Why did he have to come? I needed more time...
He ripped me forth yesterday, or the day before. He stuck a white needle in my arm, injected me with drops of his foul mixture. I struggled hard, and the needle pierced deep into my arm, not releasing its content but ripping and twisting inside. I screamed horribly, twisting and flailing in jagged pain. It was horrid, horrid. I'm still out of breath.
The thought of escaping him to the surface is unthinkable. First I would need to escape him, and he would surely lunge at me as I went. Then was the staircase and the kitchen. No... I caught a glimpse of him when his back was turned. His skin is brown and grey, like mine, but he hunches more, and he isn't afraid. He moves in ugly ways, not caring if I see. When he notices me he flings toward me, and oh how I hate the sight. I wish he would go away. I really wish he would go go go away... But he won't... I can't look around, I can only watch the wood of the desk and the bit of grey floor beneath. Noises shudder through me, and when I let me head vibrate against the wood it soothes me.
Winter is coming
We spend the last days, lifting dead things
a sign of things to come
you nod distracted
in the corner cattle gather nervous
their breaths cooling the branches of a dying sycamore
We walk slowly to the house
behind the walled orchard
crows feed on fruit, left too long in the autumn air
In the yard all is oil, grit & old tyres
but we know soon, vast clouds will come
drowning our fierce black soil
leaving us alone, seeded in our own damp thoughts
In rooms eaten dark, by endless winter
The wind blows. The shadows darken. Night begins to fall.
A seed drifts on the breeze, skittering and skirling on its wayward path. There is nowhere here for it to take root. The city sprawls in every direction, offering only tarmac and concrete as a bed. The seed starts to drop, but another gust of wind give its flight new life and it carries on its journey.
The seed had no agency. It is at the mercy of the elements. It can only go where it is taken, land where it falls. It takes each flurry and twist as it comes, never questioning its fate or struggling against the forces that shape its movements. It does not know where it will eventually come to rest, nor does it care.
Nature has a purpose, but this seed is unlikely to fulfil it. That doesn’t stop its progress through the twilight, though. It floats on, ready to burst forth in all its tremendous potential if given the slightest chance. All it needs is a crack in the pavement, a sharp left turn towards the park, a bird to snatch it from the air and deposit it later somewhere life might find a way.
Watch the tiny seed as it wends its way. Invest in its future. For, if such a tiny thing can survive in this hostile world, surely there is hope for us all.
Like Penelope, each home I weave
is soon unpicked.
It is difficult to live young
and uninterrupted in this city
when you are pushed to new places,
your relationships as sudden and consuming
as algal blooms, as delicate
I can’t say we’ll meet again;
a fact we spent weeks with.
We hoped knowing would be enough
to turn our aches lukewarm
like tea left too long to cool.
When I hesitate at the door
you tell me heartbreak is a fever,
that I need to starve
to break it.
You found me at a time I needed to be found.
I found you at a time you were broken.
Two broken puzzle pieces that could not fit until mended,
but where's the glue?
I found mine but my glue cannot work on you.
You found my core and you took a seat.
You left your print with permanent pen and said see ya later.
I tried to erase that pen but it didn't come off.
I tried to erase that pen with another pen by colouring over it but that pen rubbed off.
That pen was weak.
You found my weakness and I found yours.
I read books and my weakness became my strength.
You let your weakness define you to the point of destruction.
You found excuses and I believed them.
I found a way out before I sank.
~ Grown Siblings / Arriving at Everything ~
Your first words were also mine,
Found near the tree, in the mud,
Given up to be polished and smoothened
In our Celtic flesh and blood,
Until moods broke across our rooms,
Thrashing waves, a high bright moon,
Then the floating and sinking,
The cigarettes and the drinking
Raised us up, eyes closed tight -
Oh! Awoke us to horror of the night.
Grown now, I see your knotted face,
Folded in secrets from this unwinnable race,
Our empire fallen, things put up again,
Smiles mounted to reach the other's unknown game,
I want to see you though, by the copper beech tree,
When I was you and you were me,
Just before you caught the butterfly, or did I?
All above us our secret sun-moon sky,
Once more, among the fallen autumn seeds,
Before I went to get a jar as you set the insect free.
Gone To Seed...
I'm looking into the distance, yet see now view,
I am clenching my fists but feel nothing but air escape my lonely fingers,
My strength has filtered through my pores and left me.
What's beating in my chest is cold and displaced,
Broken pieces crumble, rattling around the cage that is my ribs.
A prison of pain and trapped emotion.
I have lost myself. I have gone to seed.
There's an ache somewhere - I cant explain it. Crippling my senses.
I smell only burnt feelings; an ash of a once fiercely burning fire.
I hear only emptiness, the echo of a silent scream.
I taste only regret and bitterness; a self mutilation.
My feet beneath me provide little support to their weeping corpse,
Connected to bones that are weak - brittle.
I am walking into the distance, no path, no direction.
Yet... I am standing still.
Someone She Used to Be
Her parched naked skin
sat helpless like a hapless
torn, tattered brown dress
drooping, sagging worn out breasts
that once a soldier's, husband's
fiery, brooding nest
swung lowly, lonely haggered
without the marked respect they once wore.
Her bony fingers fallen like Autumn leaves
lay wrinkled and lifeless on her unmoving lap.
Fragile, feeble feet barely touch the floor
that once she trod with trying trepidation
and danced daintily with glee
when her husband returned from war.
Eyes once a glistening, glowing grey
now lulled soulless, lost
in transition of a life once lived
to one demising into a diminishing memory,
a glint of someone she used to be.
It seems my ways don’t suit you said
packing your mournful expression
into my old, ripped bag
thrown over your shoulder
both of you familiar but
bolted, gone to seed.
Like the words I wanted to spew out,
embed in your flesh
but I could not mouth them
while they still burnt.
You must have struggled
getting free of me
you aren’t big enough
to make this hole.
Even in the stretched afternoons
when we lay bellies exposed
our needs nestled
like sleeping puppies.
You offered yourself knowing
your core was empty, blown away
only your outside was entire.
Streamed in then out
pledging tidal permanence.
You lay me down
if I struggle at all
it submerges me.
Taking your time decoding/coding every line
url smile is oh so alphanumeric
as you break & infiltrate
slithering down snakes n ladders
talking that machine talk, to your friends
your zero ones
Reprogramming history, the present
relegating voices to still mediaeval forests
de-sending the written Word
You rising are the future
have total control
I test it every day, every hour. The way it responds to sound, light, trauma. The taste of food and sadness. The smell of wine and insincerity. Traffic and souls breaking. Sometimes, red is the colour of him leaving, sometimes rust. Scraping noises can initiate childhood, while buttery textures press heavily on the most unwanted parts of time. All these hours, these responses, these causes. Cores. These sharp cores of memory, reaction. This core is like the core of a fruit, but sweeter, stronger, deeper - distressingly - and shimmers in the gold of night. It goes like this:
suffer in pools of dim light
or flashing darkness
See how it works? I test it every day, every hour. This machine inside that can't be a machine because how can something industrial feel like stars with scalpels set on fire that twist maniacally through every organ with flesh still intact? How am I intact? They say it's the brain so why do I feel it
Songs play at 2am in venues lit with dreams. Dreams are an accelerant. They light the starry sky of consciousness. They accelerate. People rust in private places. I am a person. I am a place. The site is not being tested, it is being lived.
The tests are not tests. They are in-breaths of lash curls and coffee dates. Splinters of sleep and corners of a sentence I'll never recall. You can't test something so unstable.
At 22:37, I feel alive. All these perfect syllables.
TESTING THE SITE
Hushed mutters as the wise woman arrived
Head in antler helmet, wrapped in rags of
Hare skins, feet leather-clad,
The crowd settled and stared
She gestured and a brand of ash,
Smoking and gleaming red in the glooming dusk,
Was passed to her hand
Streaming a line of smoke behind
She hunched, and silence spread
As she huffed breath on the ember, and sparks
Flew from her fingers: white-gold first, then amber,
Scarlet, violet, grass-green fire
That whirled and twisted thrice around her,
Probed the grassy flattened heathers
Tested, tasted, hither-thither
Sought for magic in the rain-damp meadows
Testing the site for spirits
Testing for gods and goblins
(The old farm withered so the family'd moved
To the heathery hills by the gushing river)
The sparks settled and the field fell to dark
But one spark, emerald-bright, sputtered
And the ground shivered, opening dark
A woman’s pallid face peered from the earth
The crowd gasped, but the wise woman stilled
Them with a wave and signalled a huntsman
To approach, a clutch of pheasants by the throat;
She seized one and flicked a blade from her rags
Slashing the dead bird and splattering blood
To the night-blackening grass
She bowed, murmuring in the tongue of the dead
To the peering lady in the earth
The woman within blinked assent, vanished,
And the turfs sealed. The wise woman sighed,
Staggered slightly and steadied herself
The huntsman rushed to spill a cup of water on her
Bloodied fingers and then
She pointed to the soil and spoke:
‘One sleeps here who would not be woke,
Spill blood each new moon and her wrath
‘Will be stilled. Your family are safe
In this heathery field.’
The crowd relaxed like a loosening bow
And chattered, moving to and fro
To their tools of bronze and stone
For the wattle and thatch
And by the rising star-light
They raised the home’s timbers.
In her mind, she was never going to be ready. As the train passed by the estuary, the knot in her stomach tightened, and the earache she’d been suffering from since that morning flared. What was she doing? The eccentric site manager had told her everything was fully prepared, but she was painfully aware that didn’t include her.
A group of teenagers further down the carriage pulled her attention to them with their flamboyant dress and rowdy Ebonics. She wondered where they were going. Was there some Eden for disaffected youth along this line? She glanced at her watch. They probably weren’t heading anywhere productive at 11am on a Thursday. Especially not since two or three of them were wearing elf ears.
Her stomach roiled. She regretted the eggplant lasagne she’d had for dinner the night before. The packaging had looked enticing in the store, but it had barely been edible.
Her phone squawked. The message notification was supposed to be the call of a majestic eagle, but the tinny speakers made it sound more like a constipated emu. She glanced at the screen. It was the site manager, checking she was on her way. She passed the phone from one hand to the other a few times, musing on her options.
It was an important test, and she was an integral part of it. But she was having serious doubts about what they were trying to do. Ever since that construction worker had disappeared the night they first broke ground, she had started to wonder if they were doing the right thing. But there was so much time and effort involved now, not to mention the money the investors had been pouring into the project. She couldn’t turn back now. Not with so much at stake.
She tapped a few keys on her phone.
“Be there in five. Make sure we’re good to go as soon as I get there.”
The Diabetic Dragon
Injections don't burn
as much as others’ reactions;
their faces when they hear.
They think I'm a tethered
maiden, bound to be
I'm learning a
that no one likes, blood
glucose, ketones, hypos
these words keep spilling
into your blanking void.
rejection, your face
as the needle glints.
Have I become
Now I don’t share,
speak, breathe without
checking if it will hurt.
The circle spins.
My call is important.
My patience is appreciated.
Plug the router cable into my computer.
From before he was born; stretching, pushing against, folding himself up, testing the site, the parameters, the womb encasing him, the body.
He stretched, spine uncoiled, arms hung low with heavy hands, now pushing against horizons.
Occupying a body, both internal and external space, muscles and arms, organs, a face To have control and not; heart beating in his sleep, racing as he runs; rhythmically and then irregular. A gash is felt across his hand, tumours and diseases grow pain free.
His body ages, its gorgeous youth -- its wealth, wilts. The body becomes merely functional, to move things from one place to another, a dry mouth to rearrange all the words that he has already said.
How do you test this site? How can you stretch your body beyond your height? Think thoughts wider than the dimensions of a heavy brain? Skyscrapers, taller than giants on the shoulders on giants. Dwarfed, unable even clean the windows of such a nauseating unnatural height.
Limited, his body cannot carry him across distance or water, limited in his inability to exist alone, his inability of photosynthesis. Not sure if evolution has started to regress. His weakened immune system, the promise of old age accompanied with rising tides, levels of dementia.
How can he fulfil, make the best of this body and place, this site? Is there a way to feel the landscape? To feel the body. A kind of irony, only being able to feel the body through the body. Other bodies through his body all sensations through the body. He only knows the feeling of a rock through the feeling from skin, the feeling from skin, through the nervous system. Something calming about the limitation of the site. If cracked, unhinged, he fears the infinity that would ensue.
Miriam gently tapped the side of the glass bottle to keep the three items in a perfect rectangle, admiring her freshly painted
nails, just as the checkout conveyor moved forward. She always used self checkout except when buying alcohol, they're all so young at this store and it takes so long to confirm what she knows, that she's well over eighteen. Of course anyone interrogating her shopping would jump to conclusions. But what they couldn't know was that she had perfected this, maximum pleasure with a cast iron guarantee that it fell short of making her sick. She had a phobia about that physical act, had done ever since her sixteenth birthday.
There was a symmetry to how the items filled the carrier bag too, so when the checkout girl put the crisps in first she involuntarily pushed her hand forward. Wine first, she wasn't fussy, but someone had advised her that six pounds was the perfect compromise between quality and price. It looked French. Then the ice cream. Always the one where you knew the couple were going to have sex back in the nineties. Vanilla. In the space that remained, crisps, but only paprika flavoured. Why were these so hard to find in England?
The film was always the same, the Breakfast Club. She knew all the words. She knew that she would follow the dance around the library with only her arms, her body warm under the green blanket that was already a year or two beyond its useful life. She knew that at the end she would raise her - ah but she always wanted that final scene to be a surprise.
Only then, filled with the four things that gave her the greatest pleasure in life, would she allow herself to check the site - she used only one - to see if her new photo had elicited any messages. It wasn't as if she were trying to be misleading, she just wondered whether she would get more replies if she used her younger sister's photo. Everyone told her they looked the same.
Miriam checked the clock on the dashboard and worked out that she could log on at five to eleven. She pressed her foot hard against the accelerator pedal.
TESTING THE SITE
I turned on the monitor and saw the bulbous face of a Neb appear on the screen. He was reading something with his front feet propped up on the desk.
"Come in Commander. Report your position."
He swivelled two of his eyes towards the screen but I saw his third eye was still scanning the script out of sight below the desk. Nebs are inquisitive creatures and we have to watch them carefully to stop their minds wandering.
"All good here Chief." His voice came through the translator box with a cheery tone. "Just passed Orion and looking smooth."
I hate this nebular slang but the machinery cannot convert it to proper Martian speech so I have to put up with it.
"Give me co-ordinates please."
I tried to keep the irritation out of my voice but who knows what it sounds like at his end of the system? The trouble is, we can't fit in the flight deck of the space craft, so we have to employ these Nebs to fly the thing.
"Well, I reckon we're about half way to Earth at this point of time," --- Where does he get these expressions from--"and may land in a few hours’ time."
"You do realize that this is a vital mission, don’t you? The fate of the Martian race depends on a good landing and restocking with nutrients.."
I hoped that might stiffen it up, but its blobby shape wobbled a bit and I took that for a nod but maybe it was just wobbling. It's so hard to read their minds.
"Pass me to the Supplies Director."
It rolled its upper eyes and leant forward in the control seat, reaching for the transfer button. Another round moon shaped face appeared on the screen, this time it wore a blue earing and I recognized Neb Three.
"Step back from the monitor," I said, "I can't see around you, and stop shouting into the microphone."
His voice was blaring out from the translator and his words seemed slurred. As he moved clumsily away from the screen, I caught a glimpse of a canister he was pushing out of sight.
"Have you been drinking Officer?" There were red patches on its cheeks and the top of its head was pulsating.
"Not a drop, Sir. I was just checking the shtock and slipped - thatsh all."--the voice seemed slightly indistinct but I put that down to the translator box.
He gave a salute with one of his flaps and then sat down suddenly on a barrel of neutrant stacked against the spacecraft wall.
"I am watching you. You realize I will be reporting every detail when the mission is concluded?"
I thought it said “Whatever...” but the transmission cut at that point and the screen went blank.
By my calculations, the ship should have been within two hours of Earth's surface and I sent out the exact co-ordinates needed to bring the craft down on the ground. Then the task would be simple enough even for the least efficient of Neb workers. All they had to do was scoop up as many earthlings as they could find and head back to Mars quick as a flash.
When the screen revived, I saw the shape of the planet looming in front of me. It was bright and mainly blue which meant that there was plenty of water and oxygen on the surface. Just what we wanted, well-nourished earthlings to fill our containers and restore our fading organisms.
I watched as the screen filled slowly with the image of this wonderful planet. I could hear the babbling voices of the crew in the background shouting with excitement in their primitive Nebbish way.
"Now!” I shouted into the intercom, “Activate the landing sequence!"
There was a flurry of action in the space capsule and much shouting and squealing among the crew, but the image of the planet seemed fainter with every minute that passed. Soon the blue orb shrank in size and faded from the screen.
"What the hell has happened?" I shouted into the intercom.
A Nebbish fat face loomed up on the screen. Its blob wore a stupid expression.
"Well," It said, "The Earth moved."
Marmalade crusted leaves trail blaze
September's soddy equinox.
Tumbleweeds fall head over heels
stumble over each other
fumbling like a newly wed lover's
faux pas, falling helplessly
to feed their unappeasable palate.
Galoshes crunch sycamore's
golden syruped tapestry
fast fading façade.
Rustic butterscotch melts into
milk chocolate and burnt orange rays,
while pumpkin pastel palettes
blend fresh mango marigolds
mingled with chilli and
sundried tomato leaves.
Autumn's soliloquy omits
no secrets in her harvest of
comforting cosy cornucopia trails
and heartens our hope for change.
I based the following poem on a true story - that of PJ Haverty, a survivor of the Tuam Mother and Baby Home, in Galway, Ireland.
PJ is a close friend of mine who has spoken openly about his search for his biological mother on numerous occasions.
The Tuam Mother and Baby Home is subject to investigation see www.mbhcoi.ie
Do you know who I am?
Three knocks on the door,
“Don’t answer that, its Maureen”
The young nun opens anyway,
“You signed the document, I cannot aid”
Sobs Sr Carmel, an 18-year-old maid.
The teenage nun closes the door on Maureen,
And Maureen screams;
“I just want to know where my baby is!”
“He’d be seven years old today”.
Later that night Sr Carmel sneaks out,
To the hospital where Maureen works,
She leaves an envelope with a name and address.
Later that week, Maureen drives east of Tuam,
and enquires as to the name and address,
enquires of a farm boy – his hair and clothes in a mess,
and then realises that’s who she’s after.
She turns the car and stares at him,
And drives into the sunset.
He puts the milking cows back in the shed,
Perplexed by the strange lady he met.
Maureen then hits for Holly Head.
That was nineteen and fifty eight,
She never came back,
That was her fate.
She married and had family,
But she never forgot her ordeal in Tuam.
On one September day,
Many years and miles away,
At the age of eighty seven,
She attended Mass in London.
On one September day,
Many years and miles away,
A sixty-year-old Irish farmer,
Boarded a plane in Knock.
Knock to Gatwick.
In duty-free he resists with all his might,
The temptation of whiskey,
Somewhere between day and night,
A news-bulletin sounds,
"They are testing the site,
Where 800 dead babies were found in Tuam".
While he dodged his way through airports,
Maureen prayed to St Anthony,
On the last day of the novena,
Her son to see,
Before she went to heaven,
Terminally ill aged eighty and seven.
Having crossed over the foam,
He bought some flowers in a supermarket,
As his family over the phone,
– relayed directions.
She got out of a taxi and made herself tea,
Then tended to the roses.
Inside a small garden,
Behind an old rusty gate.
She prayed once again for an end to her wait.
A breeze blew the leaves,
As she takes from the roses,
The ripe rose hips.
She pretends she doesn’t notice,
The man up the road,
Diligently following google maps,
As he stares at her.
He is one side of the old rusty gate
and she the other.
“Do you know me?” He asks.
“I knew you” she told,
“Since the moment you turned the corner at the end of the road”
"Sir, when I grow up, I'll like to play cricket for my country."
"I meant a real job. What's your ambition?"
"To be a professional cricket player."
"You mean a professional cricketer. You got to pay attention to articles 'a' and 'an', Ginger. Ah, there goes the bell! See you all next week."
Rushing out of Mr Timothy's class, the children were soon outside the whitewashed Intermediate School building. Their sturdy legs carrying a globe of knowledge fuelled their senses with wonder while some dragged their thoughts and lumped them to the ground as soon as they saw their parents. Some got on an amber school bus while others were whisked off in their parents' cars. Ginger had to wait for her mother who was always late to pick up her and her brother, Jim. She had to keep an eye on her brother who loved to wander off. One minute, he was tying his shoelace and another minute, he was pretending to fly with his arms spread out. Ginger sat quietly on the swing reminiscing about her English lesson. She had to do a presentation on Monday. Parents were invited to the class to watch their children present, and Ginger felt unease thinking about it.
Her mind wandered. She imagined a commentary of a cricket match: here's Ginger taking a shot. Oh, what a shot! What a dramatic end! White Ferns wins the World Cup!
"Ginger, where's your brother?" The voice startled her.
Jim with a sunny complexion came running into his mother's arms. Ginger heaved a sigh of relief. Jim was talking endlessly about a puppet play at his primary school throughout the journey while Ginger watched her mother drive through a busy street passing by a sushi restaurant, Turkish cafe and Korean eatery. She loved the blend of international cuisine in this part of the town.
"Hey sweetie, how was school?"
"Nothing exciting ever happens, huh?"
"Oh, I've got a letter inviting you to my presentation on my ambition on Monday."
"I don't think I can make it. I'm on morning shift!"
Ginger's eyes sparkled with delight but said in a hoarse tone, "Oh, it's okay, mum. Not a big deal."
"Perhaps, I'll ask Wendy to switch shifts with me. Yes, I'll do that!"
"But mum, you need not do that. It would be over before you could even spell my name."
"Oh dear, you need to polish on your performance and practice and practice!"
Ginger mumbled under her breath that it was a presentation and not a performance.
"My daughter, Dr Ginger Oliver!"
Her mother was struck by excitement, while Ginger's shoulders drooped.
Back at the school, Timothy was munching a crisp Gala apple that he had bought at the Wellington Farmer's market. While marking his students' essays, he lifted up his reading glasses and made eye contact with the new physical education teacher, Lydia.
"Lydia, care to join me for tea?"
"That would be lovely. I like mine with milk."
"The pantry is all yours. There's fresh milk in the fridge."
"I thought you -- ah, never mind. I'll make you one if you like."
"I'm good here. I've already a cuppa here. You'll find biscuits on the shelf."
"Thank you. Timothy, how was your day today?"
"Well, there was an incident in class."
Mrs Meddlesome stopped typing an email and cried out, "Mr Timothy, you must tell us all about this incident!"
"Yes, you do know Ginger, don't you?"
"Of course. The tall girl with sun-kissed freckles who sits at the back of the class. Her mother never turns up on time! What did she do?" Mrs Meddlesome dropped her weight on the red sofa.
"She wants to be a professional cricketer! Imagine a girl wanting to be that!"
Lydia was flabbergasted upon hearing that. She sipped her tea before giving a resounding reply. She dropped her china teacup onto the floor, and it shattered into pieces. Mrs Meddlesome jumped up quickly to avoid the tea staining her white blouse.
"Oh, Lydia! You got to be careful with those cups. They're Mr Timothy's wedding gift."
"I'm sorry, Timothy."
"Don't worry, Lydia. My wife wouldn't need them in her grave! The mop is over there. You do know how to use it, don't you?"
"Yes, Timothy. I can certainly make tea and mop!"
"Sorry, Lydia. You remind me of my daughter. Her mother--bless her soul--had done everything for both of us and we are quite lost without her!"
Mrs Meddlesome cleared her throat. She had to get back to her email but since gossips nourished her day, she wanted to hear about Ginger.
"Mr Timothy, you were saying something about Ginger."
"Yes, Ginger has a presentation on Monday. All the children in the class have some decent jobs to talk about while Ginger could only think about playing crickets!"
"Goodness me!", said Mrs Meddlesome.
"Aren't teachers suppose to encourage their students to be whatever they aim to be?"
"Look here, Lydia. Teachers have to guide their students to be on the right path."
"I'm afraid I've to agree with Mr.Timothy. He's a senior teacher who has seen his students graduate from universities and take up high posts in the government sector and corporate world. Cricket has no future! I cannot imagine Ginger running around in a courtyard with a racket, hitting a fluorescent yellow ball to play and doing that for a lifetime!"
Lydia and Timothy looked at each other and said simultaneously, "That's not cricket!"
On Monday, Ginger was feeling nervous as she waited for her mum who was still not around. Her mother's absence had taken a toll on her that made her feel melancholic although the classroom was filled with enthusiasm, as children and their parents took their places. As Ginger started to speak, her mum wearing a black t-shirt with a white fern logo walked into the classroom. Ginger's eyes welled up in tears. She recognised immediately the logo representing the New Zealand women's national cricket team. In high spirits, she delivered her presentation of her interest in becoming a professional woman cricketer. Loud applause rained in the room. Mr Timothy walked up to Ginger and said to her, "I'm proud of you today! Perfect delivery. But, mostly I admire your courage in speaking what you believe in!"
"Mum, how did you know that I love cricket and that I admire White Ferns?"
"Oh Ginger, I received a call from Lydia, the cricket coach at your school. Lydia said you could join the cricket camp this weekend. I'm sorry I didn't ask you what you like and assumed that you still liked becoming a doctor. "
"It's okay, mum. I love you. Shall we move to Auckland where I could study at the secondary cricket school in Auckland?"
Chuckling, Ginger's mum said, "Did you say Auckland? We'll see about that. First, let's go home and watch a cricket match together while enjoying a sushi takeaway."
"Oh yes, marvellous!"
I've never done anything like this.
I'm shitting myself, if you want to know. But I don't think I've got a choice, have I? I've been trying to think of another way but there isn't one.
I found the card in the lobby of the cop shop after they'd interviewed me. God knows what they were doing there, a pile of cards for a medium. But it was just what I needed.
'The Curtain' is on Church Street, which seems pretty ironic to me. Churches and mediums don't get on that well, do they? I dunno. Not my bag, either of them. But here I am, outside a medium's front door. Looks ordinary enough, chipped blue paint, door knocker, letterbox. I decide I'll do a little test - if she's psychic or whatever, she'll know I'm here, right?
I stand there for five minuted before deciding to leave - she's never opened the door so she must be crap. Just as I'm turning away, though, the door opens.
'You not coming in, Steve?' says a voice from inside somewhere.
Now I'm shitting myself even more. I never told her my name, see.
'Come on. I won't bite.'
A face appears, a white face with shitloads of make-up. Hair's all over the place. Like a crazy birds nest. She's short, with necklaces pulling her down even more. I can't tell how old she is. Somewhere between thirty and fifty?
I swallow, and walk back to the door. She disappears ahead of me down a dingy corridor and I, against my better mind, follow. I shut the door behind me. She leads me into a room off to the left and holds the door open, indicating a chair with her other hand.
'Sit down,' she says.
We sit either side of a small round table, with a - yes, honestly - crystal ball in the middle. I almost laugh.
'Tell me why you're here,' the woman says.
'Um,' I begin. I've forgotten, for a moment, which version of the story I need to tell.
'My gran,' I say, and feel shit all over again. She shouldn't have died. But... She was old.
'Your gran?' prompts the woman.
'My gran died. And she, er, had some money, and I need to know where to find it.' I could kick myself so hard. How bad does that sound?
'Right. What was her name?'
'Mary. Mary Knight.'
The woman takes my right hand and holds it in hers. She shuts her eyes for a moment, then opens them and they flutter a bit, almost in time with the flapping of my heart. Feels like it wants to fly right out of my chest.
'There's a Mary here. Mary says... that can't be right. Was your grandmother - murdered?'
Oh, fuck. She knows.
'No!' I say. 'No, no not at all. She fell and slipped in the bathroom and hit her head and was left there because we didn't all go and see her until it was too late.' I'm aware I might be babbling.
The woman's gaze is piercing. She looks straight through me.
'She knows you had something to do with it. She's not stupid, she says. You and those no-good friends of yours. The drug friends.'
'It wasn't me,' I say.
The woman appears to be listening to the air in the room.
I feel my arms prickle into goosebumps. I want out of here, but my hand's still caught in hers and it's like steel.
'Your grandmother says she knows it wasn't you, she knows you'd never hurt her. But she knows you told them there was money in the house. And that's how she ended up dead, wasn't it? Your "friends" went to find it. You've got some nerve, coming here. But here's the thing, your grandmother is very forgiving, and she would actually like you to have the money.'
'Yes, I thought that too. Crazy woman. She says you have to look under the patio. But when you find it, you've got to use it to do good.'
I nod. Yes. I'll tell her anything at all. I don't care, I just want the money. She looks nuts, anyway. Half not here.
'She wants you to give half of it to charity. Said that's what it was for, she just didn't get around to doing it.'
I nod. 'Anything she wants. Can you tell her I'm sorry?' And I am. I never meant for any of this to happen. And she'll never know if I don't give it away, will she?
'And you need to give me the names of these friends of yours. No, don't worry, they'll never know it came from you.'
'Um.' I think. Telling them would be my death sentence. But then, once I've got the money I'm outta here. Gone. On a lane. They'll never find me. So I give her the names.
I give her double her usual fee, too, when I leave. I walk out of that front door, and leg it to my gran's, where I get a spade from her shed and begin the job of lifting the patio.
'Absolutely disgusting,' I say down the phone, seconds later. 'Honestly, I've never felt such bad vibes off of someone. Can you believe he sold out on his own grandmother? Beggars bloody belief.' I hang up. That's one half of the job done.
The names are slightly harder, but I've got contacts. I track down the pub they go to, call and lo and behold, they're all there. My lucky day. I tell them, via their 'leader', Steve squealed. Like a little pig. Squealed them all in. The leader swears a lot, drops the phone and there's the sound of running feet in my ear. I hang up the phone. That's the other half done.
Only then do I take off my wig and raise some of the necklaces over my head. They bloody weigh me down. I chuck the wig and the jewellery into the bin. I won't be seeing Steve again and I doubt he'll have time to tell anyone about what I look like, but still. Don't take unnecessary risks.
I ring the police back to confirm I've got the little shites. Hopefully it'll work like this: Steve starts digging. The 'friends' turn up. The police catch them all. I've done what I can. Let's hope they don't stuff it up, be nice to get scum like that off the streets.
I ruffle in my drawer of everything for the next batch of cards.
What do you need to know, from the other side?
Come to Mystic Mags to find out...
There's a new phone number for a new SIM card. I'll drop these off at the courthouse and pubs, later. I know where to go, where the scum hang out. I follow the cases and if the police and I agree, we make sure the right people find me. It works fine.
There's just one bit the police don't know; the real reason I gave up police work all those years ago.
'Mary? Are you here...? About this money...'
Shackles of Love
The tangerine smells heavenly especially when I peel the skin with my dainty fingers painted in henna. Each segment of the orange tastes sweet with the juice filling my mouth and running down my throat. I spit out the seed and it lands inside an empty pizza box. I drink up the remaining cold coffee just to feel its bitterness on my tongue. The aroma of the fragrant tangerine lingers as I pick up what is left of my life after Raj's betrayal. The reality of the fruit's sweetness contrasts with the bitterness I feel in my heart.
Tonight, I will leave the dishes undone. The greasy pots, pans, ladle, plates and glasses fill the sink. I will even leave the kitchen as it is with crumbs on the cutting board, bits of dough stuck to the side of a bowl and a wine glass rim stained by my ruby red lipstick. In the dining room, a table has been set for two. I had placed two plain white dinner plates and wine glasses on a white linen table cloth. An unscented white candle in a glass holder is in the centre of the round table. Its mellow candlelight on white rose petals in a glass vase elevates the romantic presence. I simply love the combination of white and glass. The dinner will be a pleasant surprise for my husband, Raj. I wait eagerly to celebrate my second wedding anniversary with him. The time is 7.00pm. Raj is not here.
A year ago, I caught him talking for hours on his phone and he said they were business deals. I believed him. But the calls at late nights became too frequent and I grew suspicious with the manner he spoke. He lowered his tone to a low pitch and sometimes his deep voice varied to be a sing-song tone.
I remember clearly it was the month of June last year. Raj was in the shower when a ring tone 'Hello' by Adele was getting louder. My heart beat faster when he came out of the shower with a bath towel tied around his waist. He grabbed a hand towel to squeeze his black hair dry. Then he dried his wavy hair with a hair drier while staring at his reflection in the mirror. Raj had well-toned muscles. He caught me staring at him.
'Sunitha, I need to head back to the office. I've a case to prepare for tomorrow.'
'Who is Lola?' My voice trembled.
'How do you know Lola?' His face flushed and he quickly turned back to face me.
'I answered your call while you were in the shower.' I tried explaining to him.
'Don't you know better than answering my calls? Don't ever touch my phone!' his voiced turned ugly, 'Now get out of this room!'
He shut the bedroom door with a loud bang and locked it from inside. He was conversing for a long time behind the door. Before I could apologize, he left home in a rush and I saw him driving off in his car. From the 7th floor of our apartment, I gazed at the silhouette of the night skyline of Kuala Lumpur where Petronas Twin Towers stood out. I was trying to make sense of the skyline, the neon lights, the black cat crossing the road and my life.
The drama did not end there. The next day after a long tiring day at office, I came home to a shocking sight of my bedroom with shirts, pants, socks, papers and coins scattered all over our bed and the carpeted floor. His closet and drawers were empty while his luggage and sports shoes were missing. It seemed like a hurried get away. His phone was dead. He did not leave me a note.
I called up my papa and asked him if I should lodge a police report on "missing person". Papa advised me to leave the matter in his hands after I told him about Lola. The detective whom papa hired reported to him on Raj's whereabouts. He was still in town and was commuting to work from a hotel. He was spotted with a woman at several locations in the city. Black and white photos of Raj and Lola were spread out on the coffee table. The close proximity shared made me cringe. Papa had made an arrangement to meet Raj at his hotel lobby to confront him on the matter. I did not want the meeting to turn ugly. I begged papa to allow me to join him but instead he asked me to prepare for my first wedding anniversary. I decided to celebrate it with a romantic dinner. Papa promised to bring Raj home. I told myself I could forgive Raj and take him back into my life.
I cannot believe a year has passed. Tonight is my second wedding anniversary. I braid my long hair, pin jasmine to it with the stringed buds falling slightly over my right shoulder. I wear a pink sari with gold embroidery and place a red bindi on my forehead. I look outside the window and see oil palm leaves rustling in the wind. This oil palm estate is miles and miles away from Kuala Lumpur. My eyes sweep across the untidy kitchen. I glance at the pizza box. I can still smell the aroma of the tangerines despite the musty smell of the dining room. Then my eyes linger on the white candles on the table set for two for the candlelight relaxes me. The wall clock shows 8.00pm. I am ready to meet my husband.
I walk downstairs to the basement where a step of the staircase creaks. It is not pitch dark as a faint light from a bulb falls on a figure behind iron bars. I meet my husband's cold eyes who takes some time to recognize me. His cage of bones jitters and his lips swear. His dark eyes were sparkling in fury.
Raj has been locked up for months now in the basement after he refused to come home on our first wedding anniversary. Celebrating our second wedding anniversary together seems deeply moving to me. But he looks so distraught that I cannot have a proper conversation with him. He chokes back tears while speaking to me. I stare at the shackles around his ankles. I glance around at the sunless room equipped with a wooden bed with no mattress, sink and toilet bowl. I feel overwhelmed by the severe condition he is in and actually feel pity for him.
'Let me out, Sunitha! It's been a year! Please forgive me!' he said. His voice changes from a gruntling harsh tone to a pleading tone.
'You did not come home last year! You humiliated my family by taking a mistress.'
'Lola is ..I mean.. was my girlfriend. I agreed to our arranged marriage because of my mother. It was her dying wish that I marry you. I had no choice,' he said.
'I need to know whether you love me.'
'No...,' he said.
Raj's reply came too quickly and he realizes to his horror his mistake.
'Well, I'll see you again next year. You're safe for no storms visit here and no man too except of course for the faithful workers whom I've hired to take care of you!' I said.
'Wait..don't go...please..please don't leave me here!' He cries in anguish.
I go up to the kitchen, peel a tangerine, put a fleshly carpel in my mouth, crush it and lick my lips. The flame of the candle has long died. As the clock strikes twelve, I leave the bungalow, drive out of the oil palm plantation and never return. No one needs to know that my husband is paying a price for his betrayal of my love and trust.
Steve was sitting inside the screened veranda of the hired cottage just short of Taho in California. Steve and Edith had rented this cottage to spend a month of summer among the beautiful surroundings of Lake Taho. Steve was now touching seventy and had retired from active life as an electrical engineer, Edith had also retired from her school where she used to teach maths. Steve could see the meandering trail in front of the cottage going down to the tiny valley. Fir and pine trees lined the path on both sides. Wildflowers like Yarrows covered the ground, Pussytoes and Arnica. He could see the dull sun just above the winding pathway in between two mountains. As he looked, he thought he saw a fried egg sunny side up kept on a vertical plate. A small boy ran past the cottage and headed down to the valley in his grey shorts and bright yellow tee, and he had a small cap with some logo and a bobbing red scarf around his neck. Behind him, was an old man, in a black jacket trying hard to keep the boy in sight.
He remembered the days when he had combed the beach at Taho and dared to swim in the strong winds that lashed the surface. Edith had kept a watch on him and had forbidden him to venture far from the shore. He recollected that a swarm of Lahontan trout had started chasing him and had even nibbled one of his toes before the rescue helicopter crew saved him. Edith had kept screaming at the trail of blood from his foot till the doctors reassured her that he would be fine in a couple of days. He was taken to a hospital but could not recollect its name. He looked around searching for Edith. He hated the crabs on the shore they always bit him, he could not remember a day when they had not had a go at his feet, the purple ones were nasty. He saw Edith just outside the house collecting the wildflowers to put in the clay pot on the dining table. He wondered why the water turned violet and even started bubbling when the flowers were placed into the bowl. Edith always made broth at night and put wild mushrooms and turnips in it along with small fish and eggs and served it with garlic buns dipped in butter. He wondered what had made so many silk moths fly around his house? It was not so dark yet, and he could still spot the roses five cottages away as they swayed hither and thither in the wind. The pattern on the ground made by filtered sunlight changed with the breeze, a bit troubling at times and it made him squint and wince.
He could see the yellow of the egg sliding down slowly as the plate turned dark. He wondered about the orange glow at the far end of the trail it did seem to get brighter and brighter. He wheeled his chair for a better view and realised it could be a forest fire, undoubtedly it was, as he could see the commotion among the Jays and Chickadees flying past his cottage. He frantically looked for Edith and manoeuvred his wheelchair out of the wicket gate shouting. He heard a low thunder as some raindrops slammed his face, what the heck! Hailstorm, relieved he rushed back to the safety of his veranda. He wondered if he saw a bear Crisscross among the towering trees….he shouted: “Verdammt Edith wo bist du!!”
steve...steve…he thought he heard someone calling him …
(Steve had been admitted to Westmead Public Hospital, Sydney, Australia for a neurological disorder, all his tests were normal including the dream mapping which had been done during the day. Sylvie was trying to wake up Steve from his induced dream state. Steve had never set foot outside Australia, he was being clinically investigated for a language disorder…he had started speaking German one fine morning, a language he had never learned. Sylvie had no idea who Edith was, during the past 51 years of their marriage she had never heard of her.)
There is a need to know what we ought to know about what we do not know…
They call him twenty-six, it’s not his name or even his rank but those details are private - held in a top secret file by the men upstairs - on a need to know basis, and me? Well I didn’t really need to know did I? he’s at least four years my junior, though the crows feet in the corners of his eyes and tense frown lines between his bushy brows tell me he’s seen a lot - a lot more than any of the other younger recruits. There’s a softness to his eyes that isn’t visible unless you look for it, behind the scowl and stubble lies the expression of a man that’s tired and worn, but was happy and free once upon a time. He reminds me of my sister, carefree and full of life - she’s waiting back home for me, the brother who probably isn’t ever coming back. It’s not the first promise I’ve broken.
He calls me thirteen, as do the rest of them - except he says it in more of a friendly way unlike the other recruits addressing me in a formal manner because I’m the only thing between them and deportation. I remember being one of them, a nineteen year old fresh out of training with my eyes to the skies and aspirations for a brighter future. A few months on this battlefield and they’ll all look as tired as twenty-six, he’s been here the best part of a year and though it took him a while to learn his place in the ranks he’s doing better - no longer a scally lad out to cause trouble, instead a dedicated part of the force. It wouldn’t surprise me if he had my job one day, though I don’t plan on getting my head blown off any time soon.
Each night one of the lads is on watch-duty, sitting outside the camp observing the landscape, fully armed and waiting for any unsuspecting mods to try and creep up on our sleeping crew. It’s not unusual for the rest of us to be woken by the sounds of gunfire ripping through an alien body, the unmistakeable sound of a dying mod screeching. It’s enough to make every hair on your body stand on end, the only thing scarier than a mod zoning in on you is the inhuman sound it makes as the life is ripped from its shell. Twenty-six always finds an excuse to join me on my watch, something about being too wired for sleep or needing a smoke. It’s pleasant company and I quite enjoy listening to him ramble about everything and nothing, it takes me away for a while - takes me back to the village where I grew up, where twenty-six would be my best friend and we’d play football and tell jokes and we wouldn’t be looking over our shoulders for the next attack.
It’s a quiet evening in the third-quarter of the year when he tells me he’s going home with me. He says that once our service is up and we’re dismissed from the ranks we’ll set up home together, that all of this will be just memories and we can have a decent chance at a life outside the battlefield. It’s the first time I’ve genuinely smiled in the best part of a decade, it fills my entire being with hope and ambition. He breaks the code, whispering his birth name quietly over the thick silence of the desert and I don’t hesitate to tell him mine, ignoring everything I’ve been taught to just share this moment with him, its ours and it’s set in a quiet corner of my mind as one of my best memories.
He’s gone by the fourth-quarter.
Body mangled and charred from the deadly rays of a mod neither of us had seen coming. I watched the life drain from his eyes and his skin desaturate before he convulsed and never regained consciousness. One of the youngsters - thirty-two with a keen sight - blew the head off the enemy within seconds as I dropped to my knees and willed myself not to cry over the remains of my best friend, soul-mate, future. The lads let me have a quiet moment, they don’t ask and it’s probably because they already knew that this man had half of my heart and I, his. He’s buried in an unmarked grave, it’s standard procedure so that any remaining mods don’t locate the body and begin to harvest his organs and any other remains. They’ve done it before but apart from it feeling disrespectful and wrong, it would completely break me to know they’d tampered with his final resting place.
By the time we reach the final leg of the desert it’s fourth-quarter again and it’s been a year since I lost him. We’ve had new recruits since then and the original crew have either been discharged or killed, I don’t have a reason to leave now - no future to go home to and so I stay when they all change over. I feel colder, more hardened since his death - like all the life has gone from my eyes and my heart is a stone, it’s clear in the way the lads look at me that I don’t have the care that I used to, there’s no passion - it’s just a job, a duty. There’s a bright-eyed blonde who transferred a month ago, he’s constantly at my side like my own personal shadow and if I hadn’t had my heart ripped in two I might have been a bit more interested but he seems oblivious to my nonchalance.
He’s taken to partnering up with me on my night-watch, it reminds me of twenty-six but I never mention it, just let the new lad ramble on about anything he wants and feign interest. It’s when he asks my birth-name that I’m thrown, it’s nostalgic and something warms inside me as I remember the moment we shared a little more than a year ago. But then I’m reminded that I lost him and I couldn’t save him and if I’d only paid more attention maybe he wouldn’t be lying in an unmarked grave and instead we’d be setting up home together. My heart grows impossibly colder as my eyes flick up at the expectant blonde, muttering my response with no emotion
“That’s on a need to know basis, and you don’t need to know.”
An hour to live and I dreamt of Myrna.
That dream evaporated when a priest entered my cell and sat on the solitary chair holding his Bible with as much reverence as I once held Myrna. I swung down off the top bunk and hit the floor. I stretched my legs a little, trying to exercise the stiffness in my knees. Pulling out a pack of Camels the priest handed me one and lit it.
“What’s your story, son? Where you from?”
“You get paid for this Father? The small talk…the smokes?” He didn’t reply. I took a long pull and lay back on the bunk. “Small Plains, Wyoming. Picket fences and apple pie.”
“Could’ve been, should’ve been.”
“How’d you find yourself here?”
I blew a smoke ring and watched it hit the ceiling.
“I met the devil, Father. A devil with red hair, cleavage deeper than hell and legs that never stopped growing. Her name was Myrna."
He smiled. "Tell me more."
"More? You're a priest. Why do ya need to know anymore?"
"Curious, I suppose. The Bible is full of such women but I've never been able to understand the hold that some women have over men."
"That's why you're a priest. Huh, well I was sixteen first time I saw her. The heat of that summer made ovens out of parking lots but Myrna looked as if she’d stepped out of a cool box. In High school, she never noticed me. No-one did until it became evident that I could strike a baseball. In my first season, I hit nine home runs, my second, sixteen. Big fish. Little pond. A year later I had a summer job at a local ranch. The rancher’s son Mitch was my buddy. Detroit Tigers were sending scouts and people began to look at me different. One of them was Myrna. Mitch had feelings for Myrna too but we were all friends, you know. When the Tigers finally decided to give me a trial, Myrna and I’d dated a couple of times. Mitch seemed okay with it but then one day he gave me a new horse to ride. Said it was broke in except it wasn’t. Damn horse threw me and broke my arm. I could never swing a bat again.”
“You think? Mitch swore it was an accident but…” I winced. “Tigers flew me out to Detroit. I had three operations. They gave me time to heal, put me up in a hotel but I couldn’t swat a damn fly. When I got back home, Mitch and Myrna were an item. I was just a hired hand. College didn’t want a guy who couldn’t win the Pennant but the Army took me. I could still shoot straight. Did six years, mostly Korea. Left there and served time in two bit bars with just a bottle for company. Whisky and barkeeps are good listeners, Father.”
“They’re probably old priests.”
“Got word my mother died and wind blew me back.”
“God works in mysterious ways, my son.”,
“God or the devil? The town seemed bigger or maybe the people had gotten smaller. It was Mitch’s town now. Had his finger in almost everything. I kept a low profile, got myself a job fixing cars. Then one day, Myrna walks in. I had my head stuck in the hood but I knew she was there. She wore a perfume call sex. You’d never forget it. Auburn hair ran over her shoulders like Niagara with a tan. She seemed glad I was back, said they’d both missed me and invited me over for dinner. It’s not easy acting out the part of a prodigal when you’ve feelings of love and hate Father, but I did it. I did it for Myrna. For the next few weeks Myrna kept stopping by, making coy excuses about her car, but I knew she wanted more than an oil change. It happened fast and I ain’t apologising for it, to you or God.”
“An affair? I can’t condone it.”
“Give me three Hail Marys. Myrna talked about the past, about me and how unhappy she was. Mitch didn’t love her; never had. Only married her to rub my nose in the dirt. She convinced me that we could start someplace else but there was one problem. Mitch might let her go but he wouldn’t give her a damn penny. I couldn’t see Myrna taking to life in a one roomed apartment.”
“It was about money then?”
“She played coy and chewed on her hair. No man with blood in his veins could refuse her anything. Said she hoped he’d die but she couldn’t wait till he was eighty. That’s when I suggested we kill him. She got me to say it, but I think she wanted him dead from the moment she married him. I was her chance and I fell for it.”
“You killed Mitch.”
I dropped my stub and ground it under my shoe.
“No but I was as responsible for killing him as she was. I hated him. That trick with the horse screwed up everything. Trouble was, when it came to pulling the trigger, I couldn’t do it. I tried reasoning with him. He laughed and said I was welcome to her but that she wouldn’t get a penny. That’s when Myrna grabbed the gun and shot him. She told the cops she came home and found him dead. Wisconsin police are stupid but they got a tip off. I always wondered about that. Found the gun in the garage with my prints on. Don’t know how but at some point she’d put the gun back in my hand. I confessed but she played the grieving widow. Looked good in black. She said I wanted revenge and denied ever loving me. I was the spurned lover who’d lost the chance to go big time. She does crying real good.”
“Plausible…but you argued your side of the story”
“Eventually. I thought she'd have something else to say, to get us both out of this mess but she knew what she was doing. She turned up in court each day in black. Real demure. No make up. You'd have thought she was Pollyanna with tears. The jury thought so. She'd planned this from the day she walked into the gas station. I was a means to an end. Now you know.”
“God help you, my son.”
“Save God for the next guy she gets her claws into, Father. Women like Myrna are never satisfied. If I’d made Major League, she’d have chosen me. Without that Myrna was always going to choose Mitch, but she was a possession to him. A woman like Myrna always needs a guy like me for the grittier things in life.”
A bell rang and the cell door slid open. The priest crossed himself as the warden approached.
“Was she worth it?”
I turned towards him.
“Fairy tales don’t always have a happy ending, Father but someone like Myrna will always be worth it.”
Tickly sickly block,
the hand ran up the frock,
the frock cried out
hand said it was nowt,
tickly sickly block.
Tickly sickly block,
the hand ran up the frock,
the frock now knew
down the hand flew,
tickly sickly block.
Tickly sickly block,
the hand ran up the frock,
frock cried don’t touch me
hand didn’t flee,
tickly sickly block.
Tickly sickly block,
the hand ran up the frock,
the frock cried more
as they hit the floor,
tickly sickly block.
Tickly sickly block,
the hand ran up the frock,
when the frock dived,
the hand revived,
tickly sickly block.
Tickly sickly block,
the hand ran up the frock,
the frock cried six,
that hand it split,
tickly sickly block.
Tickly sickly block,
bloody hand ran up the frock,
frock froze for seven,
8, 9, 10, 11,
tickly sickly block.
Tickly sickly block,
the hand ran up the frock,
as twelve bells twanged
the frock unhuman,
tickly sickly block.
Tickly sickly block,
Such silence said the frock.
Hand laughed: You tease me so
this is need to know!
Tickly sickly block.
The oil painting of sunflowers was radiant with brilliant yellow strokes resembling the sunflowers in my garden. Ten tall stems with with large flower heads attracted birds and insects. I was roused to embrace a celebrated mood because I could finally do a painting of these flowers just like Vincent Van Gogh who painted them using vibrant chrome yellow. But I won't make the same mistake that he did when he used white pigments to lighten the yellow that eventually turned to brown. Surely there were better quality of oil paints today than in the 19th century. All I was thinking was to go out to the garden, cut some sunflowers, place the tall stems in a glass vase and start painting. But first, I had to go out to buy milk and eggs. When I returned home, I saw no sight of my sunflowers!
I called my son, John who rushed to my house. I had to make chamomile tea to calm my nerves. I offered him a cup and began telling him what transpired last year after his father's death. I recalled very clearly the morning when a heavy downpour did not stop me from making an appointment with an art tutor. Alan was a retiree just like me but I knew nothing about him apart from that. My wet shoes squeaked as I rang the doorbell of his art studio.
I tried to make a good impression on Alan. I had my floral dress with lace collar pressed with a borrowed iron, got my hair permed and, dyed black. I had painted my thin lips with a rosy hue to make me look youthful but I could do nothing about my wrinkled face. My petite body and slightly hunched shoulders did garner unwanted attention from strangers who thought of me as a helpless old woman. I didn't want Alan to think of me as one either.
I wanted to learn about composition, texture, colour, light so I could produce an oil painting like Van Gogh. Alan was surprised that I only wanted to learn to paint sunflowers. His composed face made him look younger although his shoulder length hair was grey. Alan showed me a workbench yet I eyed the easels with mounted canvases. He handed me a charcoal pencil and a drawing paper.
'Mastering an oil painting takes years but if you're only interested in painting sunflowers, I could certainly instruct you but first, let's see you sketch some sunflowers for me.' He left me alone to draw sunflowers using my imagination.
Framed works of minimalist paintings hung on the four walls of the studio. Large glass windows let in the morning sunlight after the rain had washed the broad streets. Some of the window glass pieces were in shades of red, blue and green. The beautiful architecture of the front studio connected with the landscape. Through a glass window, I saw maple trees shedding their leaves and standing naked while the ground was scattered with yellow, red and orange leaves while some were turning brown. Raindrops and dew on the leaves would make a perfect canvas but I stubbornly devoted my heart in painting sunflowers.
Several art students were working on a still art arrangement of green wine bottles, a glass bowl of black grapes and, a white linen napkin. Soon they left after picking up their coats and umbrellas. Only Alan and I were left in the studio with an instrumental music playing softly in the background. I concentrated fully on my sketch. Working on this art was like a therapy as I could keep loneliness at bay. Being a widow was not easy for me as I missed my husband.
Alan lifted his round rim glasses to his forehead and said, 'Are these sunflowers? They look more like daisies to me.' He heaved a sigh and said, 'Come back on Saturday at sharp 9.00am, not a minute late.' I was kind of perplexed because I still had half an hour more. He apologised saying he had to close early and asked me to bring a bouquet of sunflowers next week if they're still available in fall. I heard him say under his breath that daisies cannot bloom into sunflowers in a day or ever. I walked out as gracefully as I could. I contemplated on quiting but I was determined to learn.
It was weeks before I could actually master drawing sunflowers that looked "alive" with their own characteristics and I loved the ones that tilted their flower heads to soak up golden rays of light. I also fancied the flowers that drooped shyly. I admired the pencil sketches but I could not wait to paint.
One evening when I stepped into his studio, I noticed that all the framed paintings were missing from sight. I closed my eyes and imagined the minimalist painting of squares of different sizes and lines on the bare wall. I startled when I saw just one easel in the studio and there were boxes piled at one corner. I thought Alan might be redecorating his studio.
'I'm ready to paint in oil,' I said.
'Yes, I think you are.' he said and led me to an easel with a white canvas. There were tubes of Ultramarine Blue, Cadmium Yellow, Titanium White and Burnt Sienna alongside turpentine, palette and paint brushes. Using a charcoal pencil, I sketched the sunflowers that I've mastered. I was excited in doing my first painting.
After instructing me on painting in oil, he said, 'I'm afraid this will be our last class.' I was dumbfounded.
I fumbled, 'I've not even started painting yet and even if I do, I won't be able to finish my painting.'
'Girl, sorry..Freda, tell me what you see outside.'
There was a blanket of snow, rows of trees dressed in snow and a Christmas tree adorned in lights. A family strolling by with their hands full of shopping bags. I didn't describe what I saw instead I waited for him to continue.
'I miss that!'
'You miss snow?'
'No, I miss my family in London. I'm closing my studio to be with them.'
My eyes once again glanced at the almost empty studio. I asked him, 'Are you not coming back?'
'Yes, I've sold my studio. I'm sorry. I'll refund your money!'
We said our farewells. I did not paint that day! I felt the biting cold wintry weather as I lumbered along the snowy street with a heavy heart.
In spring, I received a delivery from a florist here in Manchester. They were sunflowers from Alan with a message saying: 'When you've finished your masterpiece, let me know. I would like to exhibit your work at my studio.' My eyes welled in tears and my legs sprang to twirl around.
John interrupted my thoughts, 'Did you call me over to tell me your sunflowers were gone? I left my job because I thought that something dreadful happened .. I thought you had hurt yourself!' He did not stop but continued nagging for the next two minutes.
I stared blankly at him.
'Someone stole my sunflowers!'
'So, what's the big deal?'
'Stealing a million pieces of my heart!'
John felt sorry for me and comforted me. We went out together to the garden.
'Are you making a police report?' I asked.
He scratched his head and said sheepishly, 'If that makes you happy, mama.'
'Mama, why do you love sunflowers very much?'
'The best thing that ever happened in my life is your father. He always got me sunflowers. He left me a letter saying that even when he was gone, he would still be here in spirit in the presence of sunflowers!'
I stood in admiration of a painting at an art gallery in London. It wasn't as good as Van Gogh's Sunflowers but I felt it was a masterpiece, my one and only love-abiding work.
When we were children we talked about ways of stealing a million. I had strict rules. No one should get hurt so the million couldn’t belong to somebody. That was impossible so maybe a very, bad person you said. We thought of the baddest person we knew. That person changed, bad seemed to get darker as we grew older. At the beginning it was a gruff teacher we called Mr. Gremlin but that was when we didn’t really understand how rich you had to be to have a million.
In our teens we turned our attention to Mrs. Davies. She and her ugly daughter lived alone in a big house with a long. thin strip of garden to the side. If you so much as played on the pavement in front of the house she shouted at you. She threw things too turning annoying her into more of a challenge. Several times a week we would dash to the bottom of her garden and back ducking the stones she lobbed. The daughter never left the house so we didn’t actually know she was ugly but why else would she sit inside with the curtains drawn and her face obscured by a hood?
The stones got sharper, more like flints and when one cut your cheek we began to plot in earnest. The daughter worried me but you said she would probably be glad to get out of that house, she was a prisoner there. Once we got the money we’d pay for her to have surgery, make herself beautiful. That made sense. Sometimes people have to be made to do things for their own good. That’s what Mum said when they took Dad away.
What I couldn’t work out was how to make Mrs. Davies give us her house. Whichever way I came at it she didn’t seem to be in the picture anymore. She wouldn’t do it voluntarily – she hated us. I thought we’d better check what her current will said so I broke into her house at night. I didn’t take you because someone always seemed to get hurt when you were around.
It was easier than I’d imagined. There was a spare key under a hideous frog plant-pot by the front door. You’d have thought she wanted to be burgled but I took nothing, just rifled through the papers in her desk, got lucky again and found her will. The next day I showed it to you. As we’d expected it left everything to her daughter. The witnesses could have been a problem but we knew both of them died last year. ‘So Ugly Daughter gets it all.’
‘Not for much longer,’ you said and got to work creating a will that favoured you and me. By the time you’d finished it was only the names that distinguished the genuine one. ‘Now,’ you said, ‘all we have to do is make her like us so people will believe she meant this.’
We never worked harder than we did that summer. We trimmed her overgrown hedges, did her shopping, washed her car but nothing softened her attitude towards us. It was your idea to try and befriend the daughter. I’d left school and was doing nothing so you sent me in. I waited for Mrs. Davies to go out and knocked on the door. There was a shuffling sound like something inhuman was creeping down the corridor.
She was nothing like I’d thought. Her hood covered a frail elf-like face but she was pretty. Too pale and thin but she gave no impression of illness. ‘Hi,” I started, ‘my name’s Jess. I’m doing door-to-door friendship.’
She didn’t reply but shrank even further back from the doorway to indicate I should enter. I went into the dark house. It smelt of cooked cabbage. I followed her into the front room. The curtains were drawn. She stopped and faced me. ‘I’m Ellen. This is my house.’
It felt as if she knew what we had planned. Her stare made me face the part of the scheme I hadn’t wanted to think about. In order for us to inherit Mrs. Davies would have to die. You were planning to kill her. All that rubbish about imprisoning her daughter was a fiction. I had no idea why Ellen was housebound. ‘Why do you never go out?’
To my surprise she laughed. ‘Have you made up stories about me? I used to do that when I was young. I can’t go out in daytime. I’m allergic to sunlight.’
‘But can’t they do something? Give you some drugs?’
‘They’ve tried but nothing’s worked so far. It’s awful for Mum always having to sit in the dark. She’s petrified kids like you might break a window or something, put me in danger. I’m sorry she shouts so much.’
‘That’s OK. We didn’t know. If we’d known we wouldn’t have.’ I meant it too but I didn’t think the same was true of you. As we got older you'd changed. Sometimes your intensity scared me. My friendship with Ellen took over from my hanging out with you. She and I started writing stories together. At first you did the illustrations but you soon got bored. By the time we were published you’d left town and we'd dropped your rubbish drawings.
I heard you were in prison for a while. I tried to get in contact but I was so busy at the time. Ellen couldn’t do any of the publicity because of her condition so I seemed to live in hotel rooms in big cities. I thought of you but I never made contact. Then last night Ellen called to say her mum had died.
Ellen and Mrs. Davies never moved despite all the money our books made. I wonder what happened to that forged will. I'm not too worried because I’d put the genuine will back in the desk ten years ago. If you turn up and try to make a claim I only have to confess to our childhood prank. There's no reason for me to feel this dry-mouthed panic.
Somebody is hammering on my door.
STEALING A MILLION
Monte Carlo? Listen! I'll tell you about Monte Carlo.
I'd set it up good. Everything seemed just right; the timing, the punters; the setting. How could it fail? The casino was full and the croupiers on duty. The Cote d'Azur never looked brighter.
I planned this for over a year. Finding the right player is always the difficult part. I need glamour and skill; star quality and good knowledge of casino games.
After months searching the gaming houses of South America, I found Mario in a flophouse in Buenos Aires. He was thin and dirty but I could see his style had not deserted him. He still possessed that spark he had as a first class gigolo. He smiled when I outlined the game to him and I'd found the man.
Alexia was never a problem. Her auburn hair and full breasted figure had been a feature of six or seven magazine covers before she fell out with Harvey Weinstein and lost her contract in Hollywood. When I rang her she was 'resting' in a motel in downtown San Diego, a long way from the bright lights. She had been 'resting 'for quite a few years.
"You sweet man! Of course I can make it to Monte! I'm having a break from filming and would be happy to help. What's the gig?"
I outlined the plot and she jumped at the idea; two days later she was in Nice looking at dress shops at my expense.
As they sauntered along the boulevard leading to the Grand Casino, I knew they looked the part. Mario wore his tuxedo with elan, his long black hair pulled back into a shiny knot like a bull-fighting torero and his slim figure completed the image. He smoked a cheroot in a jade holder and strolled with the studied ease of a rich sportsman. Alexia took his arm and they made the picture of a celebrity couple as they walked up the long flight of steps to the main entrance. I was their chauffeur in black cap and dark suit, carrying an aluminium briefcase.
"Good evening," The major domo bowed and presented an orchid to the beautiful Alexia, "May I ask you to sign in and I will take you to a table."
His smile was warm but his eyes were like flints. I warned Mario that the staff would check on them and I provided him with the name of a Spanish bull fighter who was fighting in Mexico at that time.
A dark suited clerk took me aside and examined the briefcase; it contained one hundred thousand US dollars. His fingers flickered over the notes like the touch of a butterfly, then he nodded to me and I closed the lid. We were in.
The money belonged to me. If you think I have a hundred thousand dollars -think again! It was made for me by Luigi Macron in Lille. Of course it would not fool a Treasury Official but good enough for a quick show at the guichet of a casino and it worked perfectly. The clerk issued a chitty for chips to that figure and I drew them from the counter and handed them ostentatiously to 'my Boss.' They made a pretty pile as he sat at the big roulette table. I positioned Alexia at the far end of the same table with a few chips so that when she leant forward to play, she accidentally showed her cleavage . When she did, no man could watch Mario and no woman would take her steely eyes off her.
My role was to spend time in the basement like a good servant, chatting and gossiping with the others. I held the briefcase tightly since the Company would not accept responsibility for punter's assets. I sat apart and no one watched me as I pinpointed the fusebox for the lighting system. The plan was to switch off the interior lighting and 'top hat' the winning numbers at the best table.
Give me a moment and I'll explain.
If you can quickly add extra chips to the winning counters, then you can make thirty five times the stake on each coup. It takes quick hands and good timing but two working together make it easy. How do you make the switch? Kill the lights for a second and it's done. We had set it up for midnight plus five minutes and I watched the clock.
Just before I moved to the switch I felt something was wrong. The staff around me began to gather round the screens showing the gaming tables. Then one screen zoomed in on the table where Mario sat. His hands filled the screen; in his fingers you could see three 100 dollars chips ready to flick onto winning numbers as soon as the lights went out.
What could I do? What would anyone do? I pulled the switch. There was uproar in the basement and I slipped upstairs to the Gaming Salon, holding the briefcase. Within a few seconds, the emergency lighting came on and I confronted bedlam.
What had been the sophisticated social scene, was a madhouse. At every table glamorous women old and young were grappling with each other or stretched across the green baize to reach any chips still lying on the table. A man in a wheelchair barged through the crowd to reach one of the Baccarat tables, scooping up chips on his way.
Alexia? I found her under the gaming table, half naked, struggling with an ancient crone who managed to snatch the chips Alexia had pinched from the croupier.
There was no sign of Mario. His chair was empty and his pile of chips had disappeared. The Casino staff were struggling through the swarming mass to reach the tables and rushing to close the doors to the Gaming rooms. I squeezed out just before they closed and ran downstairs with my briefcase.
Before I got my head together, a burly Gendarme grabbed me by the arm and pulled me out into the street.
"What's up Monsewer?" Says I.
He gave me a sickly smile, "About five years, I reckon."
He pointed to the briefcase and the fake dollars.
"But I can explain," I said.
He shoved me into a van and we drove off. As we passed through the square, I peered out of the window. There, at a café, sat Mario with a large plastic bag; it bulged with what I knew to be casino chips. He looked content.
You see, it all depends on the staff you pick. I struck out this time but in a few years I'll be out and give it another go. You've got to keep playing the game, haven't you?
The battle cry was heard in high spirits on my own land but now with the raining of arms, the heart was not as valiant as it should be on this foreign land. I did not join the army to kill soldiers although they were my enemies. My aim in my life was to be of service to my comrades here on this battlefield and to anyone who needed medical aid.
My heart sank when I heard of the Kandahar massacre that happened a week ago on 11th of March, 2012. A US Army Staff Sergeant murdered sixteen civilians and wounded six Afghans. Nine of them were children. I knew him since we came from the same neighborhood in Ohio but I had no contact with him until I met him in February. I had been here since 2011 being assigned by the US Special Operations in Afghanistan as a cultural mediator but my core work was to serve as a trauma surgeon at the medical camp here. I racked my brain wondering whether I could have seen some signs to stop the terrible atrocity. My whole body trembled as I felt as if I was bare-knuckled out of the ring of humanity. The punches that knocked sense into me were buzzing in my ears. Why did I feel cold perspiration running down my spine? Why was I blaming myself when I had nothing to do with it?
A heavy air of gloominess hung in Panjwai where the killings took place as mourning prevailed after the Muslim burial rituals. The lips of relatives voiced out the dying of their loved ones as fate but grief-stricken hearts could not accept it as such because they blamed the presence of soldiers even if they were there to fight against the Taliban's uprising in Afghanistan. I remembered the words of the mother, Safia, who had died in the brutal slaughter: 'Sufferings have been embedded in our lives. Here, the music of joy does not come from the heart because even a lullaby is sung in fear. Sound of blasting rockets and explosions have instead become the cursed music in our lives!'
In January 2012, Safia's family had welcomed me into their house. It was their custom to welcome guests with respect and to offer food and drinks. I removed my shoes at the door. I was invited to sit on the floor and to dine with the family. It was a simple hearty meal of naan, a flat bread; Badenjan, an eggplant dish; Shorba, an Afghan soup; Lassi, a sweet yogurt drink and tea. I was not used to eating with my hands but I managed somehow. Her son, Azfaar who spoke reasonably good English, Pashto and Dari worked as a translator at the medical camp. I would be at a loss without Azfaar, an eighteen-year-old lad who helped me to communicate with the Afghan community and learn their customs. We had grown to be friends though I did not treat him as a buddy when working.
The head of the family, Abu-Zar shared stories of his life as a farmer before he became disabled after being shot in a crossfire. He spoke of the hardship experienced under the Taliban rule. Abu-Zar said, 'My daughters had to stop schooling because girls were not allowed to pursue an education.' He looked at his girls with loving eyes and continued, 'Sanaz here wants to be a doctor. She wants to be like you giving service of life.' His voice trailed off to a whisper and then bloomed with excitement. He kept pouring tea into my cup.
Just days after the tragic episode, sorrow had changed into rage for the villagers blamed the rich countries with power of creating a war whereby innocent people, their flesh and blood, were wounded or killed. Like in a game of chess, they were pawns that were sacrificed in a game of war. They were casualties of war in which their existence were merely recorded as numbers. I wondered how many lives had to be perished before peace had a chance to sweep across the land.
Sergeant Jasper who brought in a soldier with a battle injury to the medical camp warned me of violence from the local people. And he said, 'You should realize by now that you don't belong here. Why put yourself and others in danger here? The military has made a wrong judgment by sending your kind here! But you're welcomed to my quarters, at least you could put yourself to some good by entertaining the boys!' He laughed mockingly.
My eyes blazed and I told him,'Go screw yourself!' I left in a huff to see to the soldier with a bullet wound.
After performing his Fajr prayers at his mosque, Azfaar, wearing a long white cotton shirts that hung over his baggy trousers and a kufi cap came to the medical camp and met me saying he would not be returning to the camp to work. I wanted to hug and wish him my condolences but he was in a hurry and never looked at me in the eye. He even returned the books I lent him. There was a deep sadness that came out from his throat as the hoarseness of his voice was a testimony of a wounded heart. His cold demeanor cut deeper than words.
It was midnight and the temperature had dipped especially when a cold breeze nestled in the medical camp. Like Florence Nightingale, I moved from a soldier with an amputated leg to another who was blinded in his left eye. I did not carry a lamp like her but there was something that glowed here and I think it was hope. Some faces grimaced in pain, some had blank looks and some revealed a serene hue while fast asleep. After the routine check, I was ready for bed. My eyelids closed but the sound of footsteps woke me up. Walking to the doorway, I stood there peering into the darkness. The sky was a blotch of dark blue ink bleeding and spreading out wildly. In this part of the world, quietness was a rare joy at night with the silence being broken by the howling wind passing through the desert; whimpering cry of the men in my care; or sounds of gunshots. I heard the calculated footsteps again and I caught sight of a shadow. I was about to raise the alarm when I recognised the lean figure.
'Azfaar, what are you doing here? How did you get pass ...?' He hushed me with a gesture.
'Dr. Lily, I cannot be seen here. Can we go somewhere?'
'Sure, let's go to the room at the back,' I said while pointing to the room where I did my surgeries.
'No, I cannot be seen in a room with a woman.'
'We keep the door open,' I said with an authority in my voice and he nodded.
On my way to the room, I caught a glimpse of me in the glass door of the white medicine cabinet. The reflection took me by surprise. Auburn hair was styled into a pony tail and my blue eyes stared back at a stranger where I had changed from a scrawny timid girl in my teens to a bold trooper but now I did not seem to recognise myself. I must not reveal the trembling of my hands.
When we were seated facing each other, he said, 'My heart hurts a lot...' At that point, I tried holding his hands but he pushed my hand away. I steadied myself on the chair while feeling remorse because I could not cure his pain. His tears flowed wetting his cheeks and lips. And I cried with him. He then let me touch his fingers and slowly I clasped both his hands. Calmness filled our hearts softly and gently as time passed.
When Azfaar finally left, it was past 3am. Sergeant Jasper caught me by surprise. I was not sure how long he had been standing there.
'What was he doing here at this hour?'
'Were you spying on me?' I asked.
'Don't reply a question with a question!'
'He's mourning. Half of his family members are dead.'
'I know that. I asked you what he was doing at this hour. What kind of solace was he looking for?' He jeered at me.
'Don't you go there! That's beneath you. He wanted to talk to me without being seen by others.'
Jasper came closer and licked his lips. I could smell his strong body odor. I squirmed my way out and went straight to the ward.
'I can report you.' His voice trailed to an echo. I did not turn back and I whispered to myself, 'So can I.'
The soldier lying on the bed with his head bandaged said, 'Don't worry, ma'am. I won't let no man take advantage of you.'
I smiled and said, 'That's sweet of you. Living my life as a "combat woman" comes with all these undesirable advances. It's no big deal.'
I thought to myself, 'I can surely protect myself. I won't shoot to kill but I can still aim especially if it's an enemy within my own...'
Be Life's Worst Enemy
"Do you work for Life?
I don't. Life works for me."
Life puts me in
my overalls and
sends me off
She whispers in my
make sure I get
He makes me climb
and then fall all
Once Life asked me:
Do you care?
I said of course.
I used to FEEL the face
but now as well as that
That makes it so much harder
when I say:
Of course I care.
Life drops me off a precipice
only to haul me up again:
no harm done -
but really, what was that FOR?
The impact of the sea below
sends shocks all up my spine,
and every time the rope comes down
I wonder should I take it?
Life fills me up and
sucks me out, but every time
I'm empty, she bribes me with:
One day when I fell down again
I thought of all things that
I could tie.
I tied a noose.
He pulled me up in time to see
me throw it round his neck.
"I don't work for you,
but you DO work for me."
Are you in the Service of Life?
You should let life be free.
SERVICE OF LIFE
Dr Glendenning was old. He was so old he was called Norman, he reflected sadly.
Dorothy had always told him he looked young for his age, but she was gone and there was no-one now who loved him enough to lie to him.
That autumn evening dusk was falling as Norman said a brief and final goodnight to his practice receptionist – young and new to the job. He picked up his battered old Gladstone bag and carried it for the last time out of his surgery to his car. He was a cliché-ridden old fool, he knew, but he had feelings for that bag. It was like a faithful friend who had served him day in day out as he tended his patients, working tirelessly to extend their lives, to make them more comfortable, more liveable.
“We’ve devoted ourselves to the service of life, you and I. That’s what we’ve done, my old friend.” And he placed the bag carefully on the passenger seat.
Now his own life felt unliveable, and he knew there was nothing in that bag of tricks, faithful servant though it was, that could change that. Over the coming days he would do his best to downsize. That’s what they called it these days, wasn’t it? No point hanging on to stuff. Dorothy’s belongings should have been gone through 3 years ago when she’d died. Now it would be far more painful; but it had to be done.
Dr Glendenning was facing a lonely retirement.
At the other side of town Jean Barker was carefully wrapping up her old dinner service in newspaper and placing the little parcels carefully into two so-called Bags For Life, though it was never clear to her quite WHOSE life - hers or theirs. If it was hers then, yes, they had served her well for a couple of years now, and played their part in saving life on the planet. But, like the dinner service, they were going to the local charity shop with her this morning.
The service had been her wedding china, first wish on Joe’s and her wedding list back in the days when people still asked for such things. It was meant to be her dinner service for life, but since Joe had gone she couldn’t bear to look at it, and in any case all she needed now was a single place setting. Her meagre pension didn’t stretch to dinner guests and anyway she had so few friends left. No-one she could share a meal with.
So, arriving at the High Street, she pulled up sharply and drew in her breath. She knew she shouldn’t have been looking in the shop window, let alone swiftly digging her purse out of the depths of her bag, but she’d spotted a briefcase. It was beautiful. Crafted from the butteriest soft tan leather, pre-owned, clearly well-loved and, like a favourite pet, regularly fed to keep it supple and with a glowing patina to its coat – “Well,” Jean thought, “I mean its hide, of course.” Endowing the bag with puppy dog properties before she’d even touched it was a sure sign of love. Yet it was twenty pounds, her food budget for the week.
The bell over the shop door tinkled like pennies falling from heaven and Jean watched herself walk in. There was no-one at the counter, neither in front of nor behind it, but she could hear rustling and busy chatter in the back. Clearly the assistants were sifting through sacks for treasure and she wondered whether every morning for them was like the Christmas mornings she remembered from being a child, so long ago. A sturdier bell sat on the counter, more redolent of For Whom The Bell Tolls. Jean rang it and thought, “it tolls for thee”. She was beginning to feel rather jaunty.
A busy, smiley woman appeared, looking as though she had just found the treasure of Tutankhamun’s tomb. She greeted Jean cheerfully, and in response Jean carefully handed over her donation and received the woman’s effusive thanks.
“Also…….could I look at the briefcase in the window, please? The lovely soft tan leather one”.
Jean breathed in deeply, feeling the desire to describe it to please her own ears, even though there was just the one bag on display.
“It is twenty pounds, but isn’t it beautiful,” said the assistant, and she carried it carefully from the window and laid it before Jean, who made a show of opening it up, looking inside and checking out the zips and closings. She knew immediately that even had every fastening been broken beyond repair, it would have made no difference to her. Once she held the case it was hers and, flinging caution to the wind, she thought, “Food! Who needs it anyway!”
“No need to wrap it,” she said. “It’s fine just as it is. It’s a bag so it’s made to be carried.” She paid up with her weekly budget, said a very cheerful goodbye to the woman and strode off, swinging her purchase as she went.
Briefcase and Jean continued to swing happily along the High Street home, both of them tipping a wink at any passing stranger whose eye they happened to catch.
Once back behind her front door, Jean touched the bag again. Stroked it. It was her bag now and, although she might go a bit hungry for a few days, she had no regrets. She knew her parents had always hoped for better things for her. A career where such a bag might be a requirement. A solicitor or a teacher. But she’d ended up being an ordinary school dinner lady, serving hot meals to the children in the hope she was giving them nourishing food for life, just as much as the teachers themselves were.
Jean drew herself back to the present, placed the briefcase gently on her sofa and considered what she would put in it. It didn’t really matter. She had fallen in love with it. That was all that mattered to her. She finally had the bag that might have been an accompaniment to a glittering career.
Jean’s lunch that day was a banana. Dinner was a tray meal of beans on toast. Most enjoyable, and she felt perfectly satisfied. The bag watched from the sofa and it felt like they were instant friends. The zipper seemed to turn up at the corners and form a smile. Jean’s bag was as happy as she was.
As the week wore on her kitchen cupboard began to look rather empty and her stomach felt the same way. By the time Friday came, she was reduced to an old can of asparagus soup a year or so past its sell-by. She had no bread to dip in it and as her bag watched her its zipper now turned down as if to say “Look what I’ve done to you by coming to live with you.”
Jean and the bag both knew it wasn’t the bag’s fault, but only she knew she had to return it to the shop and get her £20 back. She still had the receipt, though she hadn’t expected to need it.
That Friday night Jean comforted herself by hugging the leather to her one last time. She went to bed sad and hungry and waited for the morning to come. When it finally did come it was a sunny one, and Jean placed the bag carefully into an ordinary carrier. Returning it to the shop felt like a betrayal that she didn’t want the bag ever to see. She needed to hide its face.
Jean hung her head on their walk down the High Street and, reaching the shop, opened the door and stepped inside. Pennies from heaven tinkled, and For Whom The Bell Tolls and Tutankhamun’s treasure would await them inside. The mood of the shop would be unchanged, but impressions can fall on one in such different ways.
Jean’s mouth, this Saturday morning, was downturned and she daren’t even think about the bag’s zipper as she took it out of the carrier. So it was a surprise to her when, removing it very sadly, she saw that it was again smiling. “Unbearable,” she thought, and, returning to the puppy dog imagery, “like an unwanted Christmas pet, it doesn’t know it’s going to be returned.” And she waited for its zipper to droop as she approached the counter.
This time there was someone both in front of and behind it. Behind, the assistant had clearly not just found treasure this day, and was shaking her head apologetically at the man who stood in front. He was an unremarkable man, the most noticeable thing about him being the set of his shoulders as he clearly took in some bad news. He paused, and then he turned to leave, passing Jean without a glance, looking only at the floor. Pennies from heaven sounded again as he opened the door and left. It was her turn now. The assistant’s eyebrows went up interrogatively.
“I’d like to return this briefcase, please.” Jean lied. She didn’t like to at all, but she proffered the bag and the receipt.
“This is unbelievable,” said the assistant, and Jean could see it was, for the expression on the assistant’s face clearly said that the unbelievable had indeed happened. Jean couldn’t say she was really surprised, as it also seemed unfathomable to her that anyone should be returning such a beautiful thing. Then the woman was turning and running out of the shop, leaving the tinkling door open behind her. Jean stood perplexed, the bag still there on the counter quietly awaiting its fate.
There was some shouting in the street and – did time stand still? Did the universe hold its breath? Whatever was happening out there, the next thing she was aware of was the return of the woman shop assistant. She looked happy; she looked radiant; she beamed at Jean. Jean beamed back, out of sheer politeness, as she knew of no other reason to beam on this dismal day.
She cast a tentative glance at her bag, soon to be hers no more, and its zipped expression was inscrutable. However, she had the distinct feeling it was looking over her shoulder beyond her. Jean turned around and there behind her stood the man, the unremarkable man, who had left the shop minutes before in such obvious disappointment.
“I understand,” he spoke to Jean, “I understand that you are returning this bag to the shop.”
Jean inclined her head. “I love it,” she explained, “but I can’t afford it.”
He smiled his ordinary smile. “The bag was a cherished possession of my late wife, Dorothy. It sounds whimsical, I know, but she always felt that bag devoted itself to the service of her life. She was a teacher, you know. And, well, she just got these ideas. Anyway,” he said, suddenly recovering himself,” I thought I could part with it, but it turns out I can’t.”
Jean’s heart felt as though it would burst with compassion as she watched him buy back Dorothy’s faithful old briefcase with a crumpled twenty pound note. A charity shop never loses. The bag settled itself happily in the man’s hand and he smiled at her, a grateful smile and then a welcoming smile. It was sad but somehow hopeful.
He seemed to her a very unremarkable man. As ordinary as beans on toast. And yet, he looked most enjoyable. Yes, Jean felt sure she would be perfectly satisfied.
And the briefcase? Well, its zipper was hidden from view, but, as they told each other some years later, Jean and Norman had known it was smiling again, knowing it had once more been of service.
This one is different:
Caria has birthed him herself - she's quicker each time; it's a boy; she is alone and is holding him.
The midwives will be here any minute, along with the Corp, to take him away, to give him to the family who've been successful. She never knows their names - just in case all of the security doesn't work, and she ends up going back on her agreement - so she cannot ever find him. She doesn't usually ever get to see their faces.
She gazes at the tiny fists, bunched together; she drinks in his features, committing them to memory. She strokes his soft downy head, drying already. There's a cloth next to her and she begins to wipe him clean, before an overwhelming urge grabs her. She unbuttons the birthing gown and places the baby against her chest, breathing catching in her throat, an ache for him beginning deep inside and radiating out to every single part of her body. She wraps her gown around him and tears fall fat and wet down her cheeks. This in itself is a miracle; she's not cried properly since she arrived and she wonders if the drugs are wearing off, perhaps affected by the rush of hormones, the rush of womanhood that is usually staved off by the injections they give her, the moment they take the babies away, the moment the midwives-
-the midwives! They will be here, any second. But as the thought hits her with a sickening crunch, she hears her tab beep with an incoming message. It's right there next to her and she twists around to reach it.
It's from Lulu, the head midwife: LATE. DUSTSTORM. HOW IS LABOUR PROGRESSING?
Caria looks down at the baby. His mouth is moving, his head wobbling, in search of her breasts which are aching in return. It's entirely natural as she helps him nuzzle towards her and take her nipple in his tiny mouth. She cries harder - with wonder, with joy, for she's never been told about any of this - as he sucks. She lays back, and thinks.
Quickly, she messages back: Slowly. Nowhere near birth. Do not worry.
She lays the tab aside and looks around the room, her eyes flicking side to side, taking in everything she owns. Then she gets the urge to push again and she's confused; there was only one fetus inside her this time?
It's the placenta. It lands with a plop on the floor and the cord, slippery against her stomach, tightens. She doesn't know what to do - they never tell her anything and there's always a green cloth in front of her so she can't see.
She tries to sit up and pain makes her gasp, pain between her legs, in her muscles, in her arms where she pulled on the birthing rope above the bed. She grimaces and pulls herself to a sitting position; cradling the baby inside her gown, not interrupting his sucking. She looks at the cord. It is pulsing with a life all its own and she watches, fascinated. What is she supposed to do with it? She wriggles to the edge of the bed and peers over, feeling woozy at the sight of the huge burgundy lump at the end of the cord. She knows it is the placenta; she's heard them say it in previous births, but what is she meant to do with it?
Her underwear and trousers are on the floor where she threw them as she felt the baby begin to come. She stands, and feels ill again at the rush of blood that slides down between her legs.
The midwives bring everything. Pads, cloths, towels. She has nothing except what she herself owns. Still holding the suckling baby - as if she's been doing it all her life - she grabs a small towel and holds it between her legs, pulling her pants up over the top. She gets her trousers on - too large for her already - over the top and stands, trying to avoid the blood. The placenta lurks on the floor but she notices the cord has stopped pulsing. She knows the cord has a job and she knows what it is, but the baby is breathing and crying. They don't tell birthers much, - possibly so they don't understand enough to try and keep a child - but she's worked a lot of it out. Her own navel, the cord attached to the baby (she's seen it twice, as the cloth lifted, caught on a sleeve, and she saw a glimpse of wet, shiny, tiny stomach, with the cord still attached.) She's never seen what happens next but it must come off somehow, or she's still have that thing - that large, bloody placenta, still attached even now. She shudders, and dizziness overtakes her.
The baby has stopped suckling and looks as if he's asleep. She puts him down on the bed and lays one of her t-shirts over him, tucking it in at the sides. He is very quiet. In the past, she's heard them scream. She gazes at his face, at the tiny nose, the crescents of his closed eyes, his soft cheeks. And that ache inside her comes back.
They've told her this will be her last. She's given twelve living children to the corp's families. They call her a miracle. When they died, the babies, and there were seven that did (she thinks of this differently, now, looking at this boy) there was a hush in the room, and an extra efficiency behind the green cloth.
She's treated well. Here on this new planet, she is treated better than most corp's employees. She gets a large apartment and a car, so she can drive herself to see the midwives. She is allowed quite a lot of freedom as they tell her she must stay fit, so she's allowed to walk in the 'streets', between the 'buildings'. She walks and thinks about this new world and in the past, she's felt happy that she's a part of it, happy that she's playing a part in its creation.
Lately though, she's felt mostly tired. Mentioning it to the midwives meant an increase in injections, which meant she'd feel better for a few weeks, but then it came back and back. And they said she was finished, thank you very much, and that she'd be driven to one of the outlying settlements and given a different job.
The idea arrives so fast it's as if it has always been there. First, she grabs a cooking pot and scoops the placenta into it, placing it next to the boy on her bed. Then she hefts down the bag they've given her to pack (she was meant to be leaving next week) and stumbles around the room, dizzy and sore, filling it with as many of her possessions as she can. There isn't much and there's still space in her bag when she's done. So on to she laces all the extra towels and cloths she's allocated, the pots and knives, and the gun. She always had a problem with the gun, given as extra protection - against what, she had no idea - but they insisted she learn how to use it and they insisted it stay in her apartment.
There's a beep from the tab.
ETA = 10 MIN
She rushes faster, grabs the keys to her vehicle, runs outside and throws the bag in the backseat. Then she panics: where is she going to put the baby in the car? Her gown is flapping around her shoulders and she flings it off and onto the back seat. She rummages in the bag for an outer shirt, runs back inside, thanking stars she lives on the edge of the settlement and has no near neighbours, and gently lifts the t-shirt from the baby. She puts it on and slides him inside, back close to her where he belongs. He is still quiet but she's no time to worry about this. She pulls on the outer shirts and buttons it tightly, wrapping the baby in against her skin. The cord trails out of the top of her shirt and she pushes it to the side, grabs the pot with the placenta, and leaves, getting straight in her vehicle and closing the door.
A wave of dizziness hits her and she realises she's not eaten for hours, that she's hungry, that she's forgotten to pack food.
She grabs the pot again and stumbles back inside, finds the small bag she arrived with and fills it with everything from the kitchen that she can fit in.
Surely ten minutes have gone. Her heart is hammering a frightening, off-beat rhythm and she hears the whimpering sound before she realises she's the one making it.
She gets back into the vehicle, checks the tiny face tucked against her, feels his breath, and starts the car.
She looks at the dashboard and sees the wrong colour lights:
There's no fuel.
'No no no no no,' she mutters, thoughts wild. Why is there no fuel? Unless... do the corp DO this? Do they make sure, each time she gives birth, that she is, essentially, trapped? 'WhatdoIdo, whatdoIdo?' she tried to arrange her thoughts but she's so tired, so sore. The feelings take over the thoughts inside her.
And then instinct kicks in.
The search takes five minutes.
'Sir, she's gone. Birth mother thirty-five is not here. And there's evidence of a birth.' The head midwife's voice shakes. She listens.
'No, Sir. There was a dust storm in section five. Nothing we could do.'
She listens again. She hangs her head. 'Right, Sir. I will be there in fifteen minutes.' She turns to the second midwife and the corps' employee, only on his second ever birth job. She takes a breath.
'Although not our fault, this will not go down well. We could end up in Malland. Nobody messes up like this. We should have known she would go quickly. We should have been here this morning.'
'What's Malland?' says the corp's employee.
The head midwife stares at him. 'Where were you in part two of the training? One Chance Only, that's what the lesson was called. No second chances, not up here on Earth Two. Malland is a huge, barren lump of land past the outer settlements. It's where you get sent if you fuck up. And we just fucked up. Now come on, we have to go and lead for our lives. Malland is death. No food, no water. Well, we don't know. Nobody ever comes back to tell the tales. One way flight, they drop you and that's it. Cheaper, and a good lesson, apparently.'
Caria waited until their vehicle started up and silence came back. The baby, directly below their feet, had stayed silent.
She climbed out of the storm shelter, pulling the pot and her bag after her.
Now she knew where she was going. All she needed was some transport.
'It'll be okay,' she whispered to the tiny, downy head. 'It'll be okay.'
And she started walking.
Channeling Mother Theresa
How can you help?
Not that way because
if you help
you make me feel
a lesser thing than you.
Clear that I’m in need
but even though I fell
I’m not yet broken
by the concrete of depression,
not in need of fixing,
I’m as whole as you,
perhaps greyly more so.
I watch you channel
we both suck it in,
you think then say
how can you serve?
Those words, that giving
yourself unknots me.
You loan me your strength,
feel my drowning,
cup your arms under mine,
pull us back to shore.
I choose not to hear
your labored breath,
ignore the sting of salt in eyes,
don’t feel your feet kick
but lie quiet in the lifejacket
of my best friend’s soul.
Burn The House
Nicholas flicked the salmon-coloured lighter in his left palm. The heady bursts of flame kept his mind distracted off his nerves and his brow only tinged with sweat.
His eyes peered up as he walked across the carpeted landing to the mocking portraits of old headmasters. If they could talk, would they speak at this act of undoable vengeance? Nicholas knew exactly what they would say and on that thought, his head filled with the words of the teasing, the jeering, the berating, the chiding and then the exuberance of what he was about to do.
Barr his shallow breathing and the patter of his shoes against the floor, there was only a dull silence and Nicholas noticed the pattern. Corridor, wall, stairs. Corridor, wall, stairs. Corridor, wall, stairs. All the doors were closed at night but they were always closed to him. He shuddered with each step as he crept down the stairs and caught sight of the main doors, the varnished wooden arches making it seem further away.
Nicholas remembered coming in those same doors when he first began at school here. He was only in second year, how had this happened to him? How had this happened to him so quickly?
His first he had come through overwhelmed with the hustle of the boys bustling around, laughing, hoking, the older ones smoking. Going to and fro, finding rooms, re-uniting, introducing themselves. The only dis-ordinary thing about Nicholas compared to the other first years was the worn gold, leather-strapped wristwatch. He had scourged it from his father's pile of ''old clutter''.
Finding his room was quick and upon entry, he saw his roommate had already arrived and unpacked. ''Jack Frederick'', the young boy stuck out his hand. ''Nicholas West'', he shook it back. It was an instant friendship, at first it was because they were too nervous to not get along but they shared many common interests and saw each other as brilliant conversation partners. Overtime, Jack became ''Jackie, my boy'' and Nicholas became ''Alright, Nick?'', the school's way of claiming them as their own.
Even though only their classes were scheduled; curfews, wake-up calls, set meal times and the distance to the nearest town from the school lulled them into a silent routine. From Monday to Friday, after homework was completed, evening were spent a certain way for each weekday, the same way each week.
Monday and Thursday were spent in comfortable silence over cups of tea; hot chocolate on the good days, and good fiction books. As with every school, new students were encouraged to join as many social clubs and societies as they liked. Nicholas had been forced to attend piano lessons since the age of five, but grew a love for it and his ''natural affinity'' brought him to the school's orchestral society every Tuesday. Meanwhile Jack proved himself to be a skilful painter and sketch artist in the Art Association. All boys were ''encouraged'' to play one sport, particularly for the school. Nicholas spent as much time as he could in the pool when abroad, not really wanting to do it for the school, he was cajoled on the team when caught by the swim coach in the pool one evening. Jack, bless him Nick thought, had the same urge to run after a ball as a dog, this lured him into training with the school's football team every Wednesday evening. On Fridays, both boys united at the school's writer's society, which being some distance away from their dorm gave them a fifteen stroll to discuss and immersively debate on their preferred pieces, styles and lives.
The weekends had been so great. Saturdays were for trips into town, where they would often go to dances with girls from the sister school. Lively, long-legged girls and the music was just so brilliant. Nicholas hadn't realised how good those days were while he was living them. Every Sunday morning, like a ritual, he and Jack would play a game of chess against each other. Both intellectuals, Nicholas delighted in awakening Jack's competitive streak. Sunday afternoons were spent in the music chamber, a dusty, dimly-lit room where Nicholas would practise playing piano, Jack sketching and painting internal reflections and Edward reading, but the former two would take breaks to write.
Edward, yes - Edward! Edward the high-riding prefect who caught everyone's attention with the air of mystery that hung around him like the deputy headmaster's cloak. A walking, talking stereotype Nicholas thought: rich daddy and hot mommy had a privileged son who acts artistic and illusive in his pathetic attempt to be non-conforming and rebellious. He hadn't always seen Edward in such a bad light, when the older boy had taken them under his wing, there had been no questions, no doubts of ulterior motives.
He had first noticed Edward on that first day, head perched on his hand, elbow resting on the banister, coy as anything. He seemed to take a shine at the other two boys' quiet artistic intelligence, deeming them good enough companions. Was it weird a boy in his final year should spend time every Sunday with a pair in their first? Yes, but neither of them could have guessed what was coming.
That shook Nicholas out of his nostalgic daydream, back to flickering the lighter. He tried it on the edge of a burgundy crushed velvet curtain but it just scorched and smouldered and turned, why couldn't he make it ignite? Why couldn't he start a flame? Why did it just turn black, representative of apathy that wasn't in his nature but forced upon him by the demented circumstances of his school and therefore his life. His head filled with the haunted echo of that song, the horrid school anthem meant to band brothers together but only succeeding in setting him apart. ''The flame of our house will never been down. We'll stand like King's underneath the house's crown''.
''Nicholas? Queen? What are you doing up?''. Nicholas turned around and there stood Edward, just closing his door behind him. It came back then - the electric sound of the firework and the deafening sound of the scream. His blood ran cold and his heart pounded in his ears, there would be no point in burning down this lest Edward was there to see it . ''Nothing'' was all Nicholas could utter, what a stupid reply. Bringing himself to look Edward in the eye, he could just about muster an accusing glare. Suddenly all the anger rose to his eyes and he clenched his right fist, not that he would've thrown a punch. Or maybe he would've if pushed.
And that dreaded nickname - Queen. His peers cruelly hooked their talons to any vulnerability they could find, transforming heaven to hell in a matter of instances. Mr. Willingsworth, a slightly sadistic science teacher in Nicholas' opinion had an annual competition to see which of the first year boys could dissect a rat the fastest. Sounds just slightly abnormal, right? Well, no-one sold rats in the nearest town, so they boys were left to hunting for them in the woods. All was well, until the boys grew bored and decided to come up with more inventive ways to kill them, some of which were rather enduring. Nicholas couldn't quite stomach it, and called them savages, one of the boys laughed ''Men, be chivalrous in front of the queen!''. The nickname stuck, but in comparison to the ''kings'' the boys believed they were, it became a rift between them. ''I think you did it'' Nicholas, finally managed to speak. Edward tensed and then his face softened ''It's okay, you've every right to be upset''. ''No...no, I know you did it! I know you did it you lying -'', Nicholas trailed off ''I have no proof, no-one would believe me''. ''It's normal to want someone to blame'', Edward stepped back, ''but I would have never tried to hurt him''. ''Shut up! You're a liar!'', Did his voice really just break? ''Look, I'm not making this any better for you, I'll go back to my room''. Nicholas stayed silent as Edward crept back in.
Then went back to navigating through the halls and corridors of the residential house, he caught a glance of white outside the window and saw snow-covered fields where Jack played football and they both walked across to the writers' society. There had been no white outside on the night of the incident, just heavy darkness.
Nicholas remembered it quite vividly then: Jack leaving, saying he needed to empty their bin into the one outside. The two silent minutes passing. The screaming sound of the firework and then the actual scream of pain from Jack, ripping the atmosphere. He remembers running downstairs, boys coming out on the hall to see what ad happened. Running out the door and seeing the shape of young boy lying on the ground - Jack.
The local newspapers went crazy for the story ''Schoolboy dies in tragic firework prank''. Had it been an accident? Had it been intentional? Had it been targeted at Jack or just left for anyone? Had there been been that full the night before or was Nicholas just paranoid?
''Nicky''. Nicholas froze, only one person had ever called him that and he wasn't around anymore. ''Nicky, don't do this''. And there he was, the translucent figure of a young boy with charming features and a lotto-winning smile. Nicholas hadn't noticed he stopped breathing until he gulped in some air. ''I have actually lost the plot''. ''Nicky, it's okay, I'm happy''. Nicholas laughed ''Happy! How could you be happy? You're stuck here''. Jack just shook his head, ''I enjoyed those days last year too, we may have been trapped, but it was the most freedom I'll ever know''. Nicholas hesitated and then asked ''Tell me then, was it an accident or did someone set you up?''. Jack shrugged ''I can't tell you, but no-one wanted me dead Nicky''. Nicholas felt his throat choke up, this was just too much and he went back to flicking his lighter. ''Please stop, I love this place, it was everything to me!''. ''Love it? It's made me miserable!''. Jack just smiled at him ''Here, where I am, it's still those days, they don't end, you'd be happy here too!''. Nicholas turned on him ''You're in some weird heaven, I'm in the real world, this is what it's really like!''. ''It's nice and bright where I'm standing'' Jack had a glazed look in his eyes, like he was truly contented with life.
Nicholas chose to ignore him, still failing to burn anything, just singeing the fabric of the tapestry. He was at a loss ''I can't burn down anything, How could I burn down the school?''. Jack looked at him sympathetically ''You couldn't, but it will you''.
Suddenly Nicholas saw a flash of bright fiery light, then everything went black. When he woke up, everything was painted in a golden hue and he felt happy like never before. When he turned around Jack was laughing ''Come on Nicky, we'll be late for the writer's society!''.
Edward would find Nicholas in the morning, no bruise, burn or injury exactly as he was when he saw him last night.
BURN THE HOUSE
Eyes meet and lips touch
passion ignites, together
we burn the house down.
BURN THE HOUSE
I don’t care. I don’t know how to. But I’ll just keep watching........
I’ve heard a story that in the old days there was something called “insurance”- house insurance, or house and contents. Whatever. Apparently you paid money every year to some people you didn’t know and you never saw, but who promised to give you back enough to replace your house and all your stuff if you happened to burn it down. And people fell for that! Seems getting your house burned down wasn’t a thing that happened very often at all and so a good living could be made out of taking money from all the people who were AFRAID they would burn their house down when very few ever did. Can you believe it? I reckon myself that that story is highly improbable, . I mean what’s “afraid” even mean? Seems to me that THEN there must have been a thousand and one reasons your house might burn down. Today there’s basically just the one reason. And nobody’s house ever got burned down for any other reason.
I’m told that in years gone by people would move house fairly regularly, just for a job, or a school or maybe just to be near family. I don’t suppose you could exactly say they didn’t think twice about it; no doubt there were still things to consider. They must’ve thought, “Can we afford it? Does it have enough bedrooms for all the family? Is the garden big enough?” Even, “Is the aspect suitable?” You can hardly credit people gave such things headroom, can you?
Life must have been so different before THEY arrived. Nowadays all anybody has ever considered in living memory is would THEY like it. Would THEY think to move in. Would THEY want to inhabit it. Would THEY want to take it over.
It’s said they prefer some houses to others, but nobody seems to know why that is. So nobody knows whether to expect them in their own house. Everybody keeps a bag packed.
One thing’s for sure – if they do want your house, they WILL take it. And the only way to be rid of them is to burn the house and everything in it. Including them. Then you just have to move on and try to rebuild your life.
I asked my mum once whether people couldn’t just share the house with them. After all, they’re barely visible. Barely there at all. She looked at me like I might be going mental or something.
“Callum,” she said, “You don’t share your house with these things. They do say one or two people have tried it, and………” and she shook her head as though the end of the world was just around the corner.
“What, mum? And what?” These were the days when I still had questions.
She looked at me with her empty eyes.
“When they take over your house, what people used to call your “home”, it becomes unbearable to be in it. You can so easily catch the infection from them. There are things called grief, joy, despair, anger, love, sadness, fear, anticipation……….oh a whole bunch of stuff that they bring with them, that would eat away at the very bricks and mortar and eventually bring about the collapse of the whole structure. You’re still young, Callum, and it’s hard for you to understand – hell, it’s hard for ME to understand - but a long time ago it’s said that these love and grief things, and the rest of them, whatever they are, would bring about the collapse not just of the house but of a human being too if we got infected with too many of them inside ourselves. People used to get broken, apparently. Like they were THINGS. They called it ‘breakdown’”
She closed her eyes and I wondered whether she would sleep. Then she spoke as if in a dream and she told me about a time, before either she or I were born, when we actually FELT things. She said we felt these things like joy, fear, curiosity – oh and many other things.
I didn’t know what she meant really. I never “felt” anything in my life, other than cold, hungry, tired maybe. She said the things we felt were called “emotions.” She said she knows emptiness and has to eat or sleep when she remembers my great-grandparents and how their faces would change sometimes, and sometimes funny noises would come from their mouths, like the sound of drains gurgling, and sometimes water would come from their eyes and run down their faces.
She’s dead now, my mum. When she died I slept for a long time. When I woke up I was cold. I turned up the thermostat and I was OK.
So, here I am on my own, and I think I’ve got them in the house. I think I’ve seen their odd little faces out of the corner of my eye. They lurk and multiply in dark corners just waiting for the time to be right.
I met a man once who told me he’d had them. He’d burned his house and taken to the road with his one bag. Even his spare shoes were now worn and leaky, but he just kept walking. It was all there was left to do, he said. If he hadn’t burned his house the neighbours would’ve burned it for him……..with him in it! Nobody wants them in the neighbourhood. They might be catching.
So, now I reckon I’ve got them……..and I don’t intend to burn any damned thing. And I’m keeping it dark from the neighbours. They’re not to be trusted. I learned that from the walking man.
I won’t burn my house down.
I feel the matches in my hand, but I won’t use them, will I.
My mum told me that one night the Emojis just left our screens. When people woke in the morning there were no Emojis left to be seen. They went and they took our “emotions” with them. And then they invaded our homes. I dunno. It seems about as improbable to me as the insurance thing. I mean, that they ever lived on our screens!
So I’m sitting here in the dark wondering what their next move will be.
I don’t care. I don’t know how to.
I’m just sitting here………..waiting.
My mum would have done it this way. My mum’s dead now.
I can feel water start to come out of my eyes and run down my face.
He packed tobacco in his Billiard Churchwarden pipe and lighted the top layer using a lighter with a name engraved on it. After charring the tobacco, he tamped it. Mason puffed, drawing slowly and deeply while seated on a rocking chair in late autumn. He looked up at the drifting clouds and assumed that the moon peeped behind the veil of clouds. When silence crawled up to his feet, he gave a sigh and contemplated on one particular night that was painted vividly on his mind.
It was an autumn night thirty years ago when he was coming home after being away for three months on a roadshow. Mason was the lead guitarist in his band that mostly played love ballads and the band was popular with many young Australian fans. Their last stint was successful with a big turnout of fans at their live performance in Sydney. But his joy was short-lived when he arrived at his house in Brisbane.
He stared at his smoldering house with the last gold sparkles of flames teasing and dying. The fire department had done their best but nothing could be saved as Mason looked helplessly at his mansion which had burnt down to ashes. Fortunately, there were no casualties and that relieved Mason. He was warned not to go near his house as it was not safe to do so and since he could not do nothing there, Mason decided to put up at his grandparents' house which was at Currumbin Valley, ten miles from the main road.
His grandpa, Noah was a grumpy old man and complained almost about everything. But when he learnt of Mason's loss, he was lost for words. Noah made a pot of black coffee and smoked his pipe. The kitchen was filled with a vanilla flavour of the tobacco. They did not wake up Mason's grandma who was fast asleep upstairs. They walked up to the front porch where Noah sat on a wooden swing while Mason leaned back in the wicker chair with a red pillow cushion. Few words were exchanged between them and Mason just needed that to feel the comfort of the presence of his grandpa and the silent night, well not entirely silent with the creaking sound of the swing and the wind ripping off the last leaves.
Mason woke up to the song of a lyrebird, a mixture of its own song and mimicry sound of koalas. He drove back to the site where only three months ago, his house had stood tall and tears welled up in his eyes. Wearing black gumboots, he walked around the site and each part of the house gave him a memory to hold on to. It was where he shared fond memories of growing up before his parents moved to Perth. Being the only son, the house was given as a gift to him. It had four rooms and his favourite was the living room where his mother would play the piano and he would strum his guitar. She had taught him music and that was the most precious gift he treasured. His mum had tried calling him several times but he was not ready to speak to her. Mason knew he would break down.
He wanted to know desperately how the fire started but it was just all too soon for the fire experts to come to a conclusion. There were reports to be made and a lot of paperwork to be dealt with and a lot of time spent just waiting. He met up with his lawyer and then his music manager. Two of his band members joined him for lunch to help him sort out the problems that arose with the recent misfortune. He had to also meet up with some fire inspectors who had a long list of questions for him. Mason suspected that it was a case of arson and the investigators were trying to pinpoint that the arson was committed by him because Mason was the one to benefit as the house was insured for a large sum of money. Although they did not accuse him, they were building up a case that Mason was responsible for he had debts and was facing financial crisis.
'Where were you when the alleged incident occurred?'
'I had told you and the police that I had flown in from Sydney.'
'Yes, but you had flown in four hours before the incident. We've checked with the airport authorities. There was no delay. How did you travel from the airport?'
'My manager picked me up in my car and I dropped him off at Blue Lagoon pub. I headed straight here.' I was annoyed answering the same questions.
'Mmmm...you should have reached your home before 10.00pm.' The fire inspector gave Mason a hard dark look.
'I was too tired. I pulled up not far from a farm ...Billy Joe's and I slept off. I woke up when my phone rang... and I rushed here but it was too late!'
'Is there any evidence to support your account of what happened?' The guy in dark blue suits and tie queried him in a monotonous tone.
The man in long sleeve check shirt interrupted, 'Mate, my daughter is a fan of yours. She loves that song "Why me?". We need to ask you these questions because as you know it's a part of the procedure in our investigation. Would you like a drink?'
'No, thank you.'
'Can you tell us whether you have an alibi?'
'No, I was alone.'
After a few more questions, they let him go. Mason headed to a pub and downed Bourbon Collins served in a tall glass with a straw before driving to Noah and Mia's home, a house built near a creek.
He was met by Mia who hugged and kissed him. She invited him for tea and served him lamington which was dipped in melted chocolate before being covered in desiccated coconut, just the way he liked it. Mason asked Noah to go for a walk with him along the creek where the flowing water had washed and smoothed pebbles and rocks over the years.
'What do you have on your mind, son?'
'Is this yours?' Mason asked while handling him a lighter with Noah's name engraved on it. He had found it on the site and also found a tin of kerosene in Noah's truck.
Noah turned pale. He swept his forehead with his shivering hands and he fumbled for words.
'I did...did it for you!' the words were slowly uttered.
'Why..for goodness sake, why did you burn the house?'
Noah sat down and balanced himself on a rock. He said, 'I had no choice for I did it because I thought it was the only way to help you out of your debts. Your money lender came knocking on my door and said that he would harm Mia and me if I do not pay the interest you owned them. I cannot afford to live in fear. I know you would never sell the house. I didn't think thoroughly and acted based on my feelings. I regret doing it!'
'You should have come to me or gone to the police!'
'There was too much at stake. I'm sorry...I'm terribly sorry.' He wept like a little child.
'I'm sorry too for giving you such anguish that you'd to resort to destroying what I loved the most!'
'Will you forgive me, son?'
After a few months, the case was closed due to the fact there was no evidence. Mason was paid a sum of money by the insurance company that helped him pay off his debts. He left the band and opened a music studio in Perth where he taught music. He never returned neither to Brisbane nor to Currumbin Valley.
Rocking his chair, Mason puffed out his clouds of thoughts and they became entwined with the autumn breeze.
The House with a Mezzanine
When I was a child, Iza was my best friend. We lived on the same street, in small houses without facilities, as was the case in Poland at the time, in the 1970s. The difference was that we had a farm, an orchard and plenty of farm buildings where one could hide and play, while there was not much space around Iza’s house. The lack of space was do with the fact that her father, who was a builder, kept extending the house with verandas, balconies and other such additions, which ate into the already small garden and courtyard. He also made sure that the whole property was as saturated in concrete as possible. Concrete was his personal signature. He played with this material in the same way children play with plasticine. Even his way to render their garden unique was to erect a miniature concrete chapel dedicated to the Holy Mary, decorated with plastic flowers. Trees were of little importance to him, so he never pruned them, unlike most of his neighbours, but despite that, they had the best plums in the neighbourhood and their branches bent on the street, inviting the passers-by to pick them.
Inside the house walls were always in transition. Floors went up, ceilings went down or vice versa, to allow for an extra room, to extend a ceiling or divide a pantry into two areas. Needless to say, the house did not look particularly well-proportioned and made his wife and daughters restless. But they could not do much about it, as he was a tyrant, and Iza’s mother took pride in enduring her husband’s building excesses. I called Iza’s abode ‘the house with the mezzanine’, borrowing this title from Chekvov, partly on the account of the shape of her house and partly because she reminded me of Leda, one the characters of the story. Iza was not as stern as Chekhov’s Leda, but like her, she was filled with a sense of rightness. She was a natural social conservative; she condemned homosexuality, prostitution, and letting children to play unsupervised. Looking back, I cannot understand how we survived as friends, given that I could not stand such behaviour. The answer might lie simply in the physical proximity of our houses; we had nobody else to play with on our street.
True to her vocation, Iza became a teacher, and later a headmistress in a large school in a different part of Poland, still in a province, but more affluent than our region. Since her promotion she acquired various habits, which reflected her new bourgeois status, but also confirmed her provinciality. She no longer went out of the house in slippers or with wet hair, and what we called Sunday clothes became her daily attire. She stopped visiting neighbours without telephoning them first, and she got herself a car, which she used even for short distances. Asked why she did not use a bike, she replied that she forgot how to cycle. No wonder, she gained weight and even looked older than her real age. Her matronly look fitted her views, which she presented in a solemn way, indicating that under no circumstances would she change them. Because we both lived far away from our family homes, our contact became less regular. Still, we tended to see each other every summer, when we visited our families. Usually Iza came to our house as she did not like me to visiting her. When her father was still alive, I was thinking that this was because of her father, who in old age started to talk nonsense. But even after the death of her parents, she did not like me to go there. At the time I was not sure why, but didn’t dare to ask her. I told myself that maybe she did not like the atmosphere of the empty house. At this stage, she started to call it her ‘summer retreat’, suggesting that she went there in the same way the townies go on holiday, although for us it was not going away, but coming home. Since the death of her mother the main reason to return were her visits to the church and the graveyard. She paid handsome money for church services for her parents and in summer she used to leave for church as early as half past five in the morning, to make sure that the priest did not squander her money, which she expected him to do when she was not checking up on him.
For many years Iza tended to visit our village with her husband, who stayed there for the whole duration of their holiday. Later his visits got shorter and then he stopped coming. We learnt that he lost his job, but the rumour was that he survived financially thanks to playing the stock market and engaging in some shadowy businesses. Eventually he left Iza for a younger woman who lived in the same tenement block. The year it happened Iza did not come to our village in the summer and the next year I was there so little that I missed her. When we met up again, it was already over two years after her divorce. On this occasion she invited me to her house, most likely because she did not want my mother to listen to our conversation. As I expected, she wanted to talk about her ex-husband misdemeanours, going through them with a precision of an accountant. She mentioned that he was poor with money, unreliable, he easily got into conflicts with people, he had a younger brother who was even worse than him, and he had diabetes and was infertile. He was not good from the start and things only went worse with time.
I showed Iza sympathy, but then told her:
‘Almost every woman on our street wanted her husband to die, including our mothers. And you managed to get rid of him before he died. Shouldn’t you be happy about it?’
‘No. All my life was about putting up with him, like my mother was putting up with my father. Now there is nobody to pay me for my suffering. And he is lucky twice, even though this woman is obviously a whore, and a stupid one, for that.’
There was no point to tell her to find another man. For women in our village men were like purgatory, which for the lucky ones might lead to a heaven of widowhood. Only an idiot would like to go through purgatory twice.
‘Who knows? Maybe this woman will make him pay for your suffering. This often happens in life.’
‘This never happens to me. People always harm me and get away with it. You too’, said Iza.
‘What do you mean?’, I asked.
‘Do you remember the copybook with silver and golden paper for making cutaways? You once gave it to me and then changed your mind and wanted to get it back and you sent your grandma to take it back. She told my mother that I stole it from you. So my mum spanked me for thieving.’
‘I don’t remember it. Anyway, it must had happened forty years ago, if not more.’
‘But I remember it well: the shame, the humiliation. And you never apologised. You always did what you wanted and your grandma defended you no matter what, so you grew up moody, spoilt and condescending. You didn’t even need to say anything. It was enough that you came to our house and looked at it in your patronising way, like a princess visiting the servants’ quarters. You were always so selfish and insensitive, yet you always had such an easy life.’
‘I wouldn’t say my life was so easy’, I said. ‘But never mind.’
I tried to change the subject as the atmosphere was heavy, but it took me a while to find a new subject. Eventually I asked:
‘What will you do with the house?’
‘I will sell it. I never liked it. These small rooms and silly extensions are embarrassing and there might be even asbestos in these walls. I always wanted to have a house with large rooms, a proper garden and grass around the house, as you had. Maybe I will buy the house of Szs., as it is also on sale.’
‘What you do if nobody will buy it?’
‘I will burn it. I cannot live with this monstrosity.’
I did not find the house monstrous. On the contrary, on this occasion I liked it as never before. With the small rooms and low ceilings and filing cabinets full of crystal glasses and decorated plates, it felt like a doll’s house. Only now I realised that Iza’s father’s grand ambition was to build a simulacra of a manor house. Probably Mr. B. got the idea from watching Polish television series where one could see frequently such houses. This was reflected in the appearance of the house front and the style of the furniture and pictures hanging on the walls – he was trying to buy ‘vintage’ stuff before it was fashionable. Just the house’s smallness and the fact that it was always under construction obscured this fact.
I planned to pick up some plums from Iza’s plum’s tree which, despite being very old, still produced plenty of fruit, but after learning about the debt of silver paper lost my courage to do it. Back at home I told my mother about Iza’s plans to swap her house for that of the Szs., and she was very disapproving, as she disliked when people from our village did not know their place, metaphorically or literally.
It turned out that Iza’s plan could not materialise, because the potential buyers of her house did not have enough cash and could not get a mortgage due to its ceiling being several centimetres too low to satisfy some health and safety requirements the bank required. Iza was thus stuck with it for time being. I thought it would add to her sense of injustice and made her even more bitter, but when I met her two years later, she was much more content with her life. Her ex-husband got stroke and was now semi-paralysed and Iza discovered the pleasures of travelling. She even mentioned that in-between visiting Barcelona, Paris and Milan it was nice to visit the house with the mezzanine to chill out. Even the plums tasted better after comparing them with the fruit elsewhere and she planned to plant new trees in autumn.
At night she sat on her bed, worried what would happen if her father knew. She couldn’t imagine making him angry, she felt like she could bury herself in an earth hole instead and never return. Just like the stories. ‘The earth opened up and swallowed Sita’ Grandma had narrated once.
Shinu too would ask mother earth to swallow her.
When her father smiled it felt like all they said about God and angels was real. He could fight all monsters. He was strong. He sang her lullabies on most nights before putting her to sleep. She loved daddy. That’s why she couldn’t disappoint him. Mama rarely acknowledged her, it felt like he was all she had.
A throbbing part of her, shuddered under her skin, the other parts turned into Jell-O. Under all the squirming fluidity that got stuck and yet continued to run scared inside her, she slept. The blanket of night stars wove dreams above her, they were like shadows she was too afraid to touch. She slept like a hollow dark pit beside a patch lush green land. In the morning, she wet her bed. Again.
Shinu was almost five years old then. ‘Just’ almost five years old
Pre-school had begun and mornings in their house-hold were rushed. Mama would cook, be busy in one thing or another, daddy would get Shinu ready for school, make sure she drank milk and take her to catch the school bus. Daddy would often carry her on his shoulders and run, propped there she would look at the road that raced behind her fast running father. Once she would get on the bus, he would wave at her and she would wave back at him. It was the same thing each day, Wake and run. She liked sitting by the window, air breezing on her face, her mind always ran with the clouds
‘Study well’ Daddy would say. And when she would, he would bring out a bar of five-star chocolate from his pocket. Its sweet taste would fill her for days.
School was fun, daddy made sure she studied well. Shinu scored well in all her tests. She liked to draw, learn math, and most of all she enjoyed stories. Story books for children, anecdotes, short stories- she would want them all. Daddy would recite them to her in the evenings, slowly, often making her repeat words, or write spellings. The evening smell of spices and incense would fill the drawing room where they would sit on the floor beside a wrought iron bed.
‘Because – write- B.E.C.A.U.S.E’ he would say in his baritone
And Shinu would scribble with her pencil on a squared notebook
Words were forming in her mind and stories were making their way in her heart.
Every day, after school Shinu would go to a day-care centre. Her parents, both had full-time jobs and would pick her from there after their work. An old couple- day-care grandparents and their son. There were two other children at the day care- much older, they too would sit around the house until their parents came from work. They were too old to play with her, so she would be alone. Shinu didn’t like staying in her school uniform, she would want to change from it as soon as she returned. The old man, who she referred as day-care grandpa would change her out of her school clothes and into fresh ones. She would wander from one room to another or sit on the floor and draw on an old slate till her parents would return to fetch her.
‘Where is my darling’ Daddy would shout from the door of the day care centre and Shinu would run to him.
She rarely got permission to play outside. Afternoons had a dreary light about them. She would watch from the window; tall coconut trees, a small empty enclosure with children playing and a street out front with vehicles passing. Day-care grandma would rarely let her outside. So, she would watch.
‘When you get older, you too will be able to go out and play. So, grow up already’ Day-care grandma would say. Shinu would hate that she was small, she would envy others and she would wonder when God would make her grow.
Day care grandma was kind but strict, she would feed her everything she would otherwise be picky about.
Every evening around 6 pm her parents would fetch her from day care, she would get to play outside for a short while until it would get dark, which would be too soon, according to Shinu. Then, there would be homework. Loads of it.
One afternoon, day-care grandpa asked her if she would like to go out to play. Of course, she wanted to. Day-care grandma wasn’t home that day. Shinu was overjoyed, she wondered what it would feel like to be everyone on the playground.
They walked out of the apartment, he held her hand while crossing the road, she jumped up and down excited. The skies were clear and it was breezy. Daddy would be back soon, she would tell him all about her day. They left the ground on the other side, she asked day-care grandpa, ‘where are we going’?
‘You’ll see, there, you can play as much as you want’, he replied.
There were trees, it wasn’t a park but a dense unkept enclosure of trees, it wasn’t far from her house. There was a tiny temple somewhere in that wilderness. Logs of wood. That was it. No children, nothing.
Where do I play? Shinu asked day-care grandpa confused. There wasn’t a ground even. Fallen leaves everywhere, dried leaves, wet soil. It was a strange place.
He looked at her with his cold grey eyes and pulled her close, pressed his mouth on hers, it smelled like foul betel nut, she struggled under his firm hold, he slid a hand inside her skirt it kept grazing her thigh, her waist, her buttock.
Shinu squirmed and said she wanted to go home breaking into a scream almost. Mama had warned her ‘Never let any strange man touch you. Never let anyone close to you.’ Surely it was her fault. She cried again.
The wilderness kept her scream. Her small body died many innocent deaths in that helpless moment. Her small heart would remember it all in the years to follow. Over and over again.
‘I am playing with you. If you tell daddy, he will punish you. They will throw you out of your house. Then where will you go? He will hit you. He will never love you’, said the old man nonchalantly.
‘No, daddy will never do that’, she cried
‘Wipe your tears, and don’t repeat this to anyone’, insisted the ‘day-care grandpa’.
Evening closed Shinu gravely in the darkness of her dark wings.
That night, she sat on the bed worried. The next morning, she wet her bed. The next day, she stayed close to day-care grandma.
‘Come, play with me. Or else, I will tell daddy’, said the day-care grandpa again a few days later.
Shinu refused to go.
‘Common, we are friends. I won’t tell him if you go with me’
She didn’t want Daddy to throw her out, she wanted daddy to love her, she didn’t want him to be angry, so she went.
The day care man would touch her and do things with his hands to himself. It made her nauseated, it made her uncomfortable. She could never tell anyone. She had no siblings. Her mama was indifferent and Daddy was strict. She was ashamed.
Days ran like the speeding school bus. They stole her playfulness, took away her shine and her need for attention grew. Unfortunately, the world was too busy to notice, Mama was pregnant, Daddy was busier and her own grandparents who adored her were away. She continued staring out the window, looking at children playing – vehicles passing.
The new term at school began amidst heavy rains. They were taught to make little paper boats in school during the craft hour.
‘Children, make a wish and release your boats’ their class teacher instructed
‘Wishes are boats, they carry your messages to God’ teacher told them.
When Shinu left little paper boats into small streams, she knew what she wanted. She wanted to be away from day care grandpa. She prayed, she wished, she wished some more. She wanted to become like she was before he touched her. She didn’t want to feel ashamed, she didn’t want daddy’s anger.
That year, Shinu’s brother came into the world.
They had to switch from that day-care into another one. Once, then twice. In the years, she forged friendships, scored good marks in school and received five-star chocolates from Daddy. Shinu was seven then, almost eight.
When she entered the new day-care premises, she saw: A swing, a garden, and a vet clinic. It was like a dream. Surely, she would get to play here, she thought.
The house, in her first week she realised was filled with mean aunties, and lazy uncles. The premise was large, the house was big, it smelt of burnt wood and fallen wet almonds, it had a dark room in the corner. A back-yard where aunties washed utensils with ash. Shinu dreaded the darkness of the room. But, it was a good place for hide-and-seek.
She hid there once, while another girl searched for her, there in the dark she didn’t notice uncle sitting on the floor. When she did, he smiled. She saw he was wearing only an underwear and the smell of his sweat dampened the dark room. He pulled her close and touched her. Nausea gripped her insides like a loose damp cloth, it clung to her throat.
‘You like it’ he asked
‘No’ she said and ran. It began all over again.
Shinu would play outside, near the cotton tree, on the swing. He would call her inside, blow cigarette smoke on her face and squeeze her arm.
‘The swing you play on, its mine’ he would say pressing his mouth onto her small lips, he would bite them push his tongue inside her mouth. He was too strong, too tall, what if he crushed her arms? She would close her eyes shut and wish it over. Later, her lips would feel numb, she would rinse her mouth again and again. She didn’t want daddy to notice.
She was too scared to tell anyone. Who would believe her? She was only eight.
That year she made many paper boats. When it rained, she released them in tiny streams and wished –Burn the dark-room, Burn the house.
When the rain drenched her, she let it. That day she had stayed out in the rain for too long. Little Shinu fell sick.
Her parents decided that the day-care was irresponsible and they pulled her and her brother out.
Many years later, she would pass the houses that broke her childhood into pieces. ‘When you get older, you too will be able to go out and play. So, grow up already’ she would hear each time she passed. It had been long, she would smile sadly at the irony. Each time.
Even years later she would wish. ‘Burn the house that buried my childhood…’ In the following rains, a little heart missed many dreams. Shinu grew older, she understood the world and its workings. She understood her past and learnt to release herself from the shame she carried as a child.
Over the years, life taught her many lessons. The past is the story that makes our present, she realised in her late twenties, therefore, only we carry the power to release our past from the story of our present.
Shinu changed cities, grew older but she never told daddy about what happened. Once in a while, she bought herself a herself a five-star chocolate. Its sweetness hadn’t changed in all the years.
For a split second the crowd pixelates back into individuals. There’s little Eve in the middle, all angled bones and darting eyes, her spiky hair spraying sweat as she dances. A gleaming droplet hits Sean close to his lips and he rubs it into his own solid face before his tongue claims it.
His girlfriend, Gwen, points her chin away from him and drops her shoulders back as if she’s summoning something. Demons, perhaps, to do away with Eve and her liquid charms. Gwen’s movements become an eruption of arms and legs, uncontrollable, possessing feet of space in front of her. Ben moves closer to Gwen, slips into her rhythm, dodging her wind-milling limbs. Something contagious is on the dance-floor tonight, it’s spreading and I’m the only one who sees it.
Now it’s reached Nick and his feet stomp the beat along, punctuating the bass notes. His facial expression reminds me of a two-year-old who’s just discovered they can do something. Poor Nick, I'll let him have this freedom tonight, let him believe he has decades to dance. I turn the volume up a tremor to pull them closer in, give them relief from their lives.
Mona sways with her eyes closed as if she doesn’t want the outside world to be there, as if it’s safe only in her own head. She hasn’t yet realised her mind will destroy her. She should keep her eyes open and never hide inside. Already she’s missing the beat, nodding on the downs, adrift. She's lost, even I can't reach her.
James moves away from Mona flinging his head round and round as if trying to throw it off his neck. He senses something, I can tell, he’s trying to clear his ears of the tune but it's a bug burrowing deeper inside. His mouth opens and closes on no sound.
My friends morph back into part of the heaving, undulating crowd. Their features indistinct, their faces inhuman. They slam the floor as hard as hailstones, whirl like dervishes, become other, not themselves. They flit in and out of the music and the lights as if someone shot a film that’s been ripped into pieces and patched together again. They aren't people, they are dance moves consumed by the dark frenzy of sound. It is eating them alive. The noise builds relentlessly and their breaking bodies coil around it, tighter and tenser than flesh should get. Nobody’s breathing, talking, drinking. All they are is carriers of this parasitic dance.
You think I’m a devil, the devil perhaps, the pusher of the drug that transformed these kids, the corrupter of innocents, a predator. You’re both right and wrong - I’m just the DJ.
When Helen saw the ring she knew straight away it was for him, though he'd never worn one before. Maybe it would get in the way. She worried - briefly - but bought it anyway. They had a special ceremony at home before the wedding. Wine. Candles in the candelabra he'd fished out of a skip for her in their final year of music college.
It was a joke. At the time it was a joke. "With this ring..." Amazingly, it fitted perfectly. Patrick had beautiful hands. Agile fingers, always warm, alive. Well, they were his livelihood. Those hands were what had attracted her to him. Cupped round a cigarette as he lit it for her in the flapping wind. Lightly holding the stem of the glass as he poured the wine, twirling it as he held it out for her to take. Stroking her. And of course on the piano.
She made him close his eyes. She loved him then. "With this ring..." His eyes, laughing, then suddenly solemn, brimming. He kissed her. They stood for a long time. "It's a magic ring... when you twist it, I'll be with you - even when you're on the other side of the world." He twisted it, and Helen tickled the back of his neck, bringing up goosebumps.
Turning round, he wound his hands in her hair. "What else can it do?"
"Oh... it'll keep watch over you. Punish you if you hurt me!" He kissed her hard, scraping her with his bristles.
After the separation she kept the candelabra and he kept the ring. But moved it to the other hand. She'd become weepy and vindictive. they both should have seen it coming. With the amount of travelling he had to do and his career had really taken off even more than they'd anticipated. Only, she had wailed that he shouldn't have lied to her. He hated to cause pain. Of course he had to lie. What else could he do? But she couldn't forgive him. Sometimes she phoned him. Sometimes they still slept together.
Back in town tonight, he was looking at her through a long beer. She asked "How is it with - Simona?" and smiled her pained smile. Heavy with misery. "Let's not talk about her tonight" said Patrick, raising his glass.
Being with Helen made him feel lighter by contrast. Still young, still agile, buoyant and carefree. The glow from the golden beer bubbles seemed to light up the black slippery streets as they left the pub. "Not that way... this way... there it is." A radiant yellow skip floating on the dark tide of the November night. "Oh Patrick" she said, a little wearily... "are you still into this?" But Patrick was already in. A muffled exclamation, rummaging.
Patrick appeared at the lip crouching, turning, hooked his fingers under and swung with one easy motion up and over. Hung suddenly suspended by his right hand for a frozen moment. Till something softly gave. "Ack!" he had said, and landed roughly on knees and elbows mooing like a cow. "MMMmmmmmnnnnggg.... NNnnnngggg."
In the hospital they'd sedated him. Simona was going to come, but Helen would stay till then. Patrick shouldn't be alone. While she was waiting, the finger arrived. They'd sent one of the ambulance guys to look for it. It seemed as if she was expected to identify it. She had to bite the inside of her cheek not to smile. They couldn't fix it back on, they explained. It was too messy.
The finger was on a piece of cotton wool. The ring was there too. "Must of got caught on the metal rim" said the ambulance man, grimy from the skip. "Dead unlucky. He'll be OK though."
WITH THIS RING
Nigel held the ring in the palm of his hand feeling the weight of it. The weight of pain and blood, anger and fear, crimes past and present.
He hated that ring. Just to look at it turned his stomach. Typical of his Grandfather, the old bastard, to leave it to Nigel in his will.
“Did I ever tell you how I got this ring lad?” he’d ask, every time Nigel was taken to visit him.
“Yes Grandad, lots of times.” But it didn’t stop the old man and he laughed and told the story yet again. “Me and me mates had got separated from the rest of the company and we was tryin’ to find our way back to the others.”
“Trying to find something to pinch you mean.” Muttered Nigel’s dad under his breath but the old man ignored him and carried on. “Well, we found ourselves in this ruined chateau, nothing left of it really, just a few walls. We was poking about in the rubble when I spots this bit of cloth so I pulled at it and a few bits of brick fell away and there was a bloody dead Nazi and I was pullin’ at ‘is uniform!” He laughed. “A dead bloody Nazi! Can you believe it!”
“Yes dad, a dead bloody Nazi, we’ve heard it a thousand times,” Nigel’s father got up and stamped out of the room. “I’m going to the pub, I can’t be bothered to listen to all this crap again. I’ll be back in an hour. Just behave yourself.”
”Dad, dad, can I come with you? Please?” But the door had already slammed shut, leaving Nigel alone in the house with his grandfather. The old man held out the signet ring to the boy. “Here y’are, lad. Take it.” Nigel shrank from the heavy lump of gold in his grandfather’s hand. “Go on lad, take it, it’ll be yours one day. When I’m dead.” Then he laughed and carried on with the story he told Nigel every time the boy was brought to see him.
“He’d been dead a fair while and the rats had had a good go at ‘im. I was pullin’ ‘is sleeve, and I saw this flash of gold on ‘is ‘and – well, what there were left of it- and there it was, a bloody great signet ring. “You won’t be needin’ this any more my lad.” I says to ‘im “So I’ll ‘ave it thank you very much.” And I pulled it off ‘is ‘and, but ‘is whole bloody finger comes off with it!” The old man roared with laughter, as he always did.
Nigel sat, petrified. He knew what would happen next. What always happened next, when he was alone with the old man. When his dad was down the pub. His mum never came with them on these visits. Nigel had heard her telling his dad that wild horses wouldn’t drag her to “that disgusting old pervert’s place!” Of course, an argument followed when she told her husband how his father had repeatedly groped her whenever she’d been to his house and she refused to see him ever again. So Nigel was taken 4 or 5 times a year by his father and he dreaded every visit, particularly those when his father went off to the pub for an hour or so – which was just about every time.
Nigel had tried for so many years to block out those memories but when he saw the heavy ring with the double-headed eagle design it brought them all flooding back. He still didn’t know why he’d kept it all this time, hidden at the back of a drawer. He hadn’t looked at it for a very, very long time but developments at work had stirred up dark thoughts and when he got back home he’d taken it out of its’ hiding place.
The weight of it, physically and emotionally, bore down upon him, as his grandfather had, all those years ago and now, now what? Revenge? Impossible. The old man was rotting in his grave. Retribution? Maybe. Drawing a line under it all? Who knew? He’d joined the Police as soon as he was old enough and when he’d been asked at his interview, why? Why did he want to join the Police? He’d answered “I want to protect the innocent and bring offenders to justice.” They’d thought he’d given that answer because he thought that’s what they wanted to hear, but it was the pure, unadulterated truth. It still was.
Then yesterday he’d heard that a notorious but time-served paedophile had been released and was coming to live in the area. Of course, his exact identity and whereabouts were supposed to be a closely guarded secret, for the man’s own protection, but again, of course, everyone in the station soon knew. “If the bastard does get himself done in I’m not going to be crying at his graveside.” Andy, Nigel’s sergeant had spat in disgust. Another copper agreed. “Bloody pervert! Deserves a bloody good beating.” Nigel stayed silent.
Three days later, a body lay on the slab in the mortuary whilst the Pathologist and the Officer in the Case went over the list of injuries. “Somebody really went to town on this one.” The Pathologist remarked, “Ruptured spleen and kidneys, broken bones everywhere and his face is beaten to the proverbial pulp. Interesting thing though,” the pathologist pointed to a photograph he’d taken of marks occurring all over the body. “Looks like whoever did this was wearing a very heavy ring. It’s rather distinctive, see the imprint of the double-headed Eagle? It’s quite obvious in some places.”
WITH THIS RING
The advert had seemed harmless enough.
Do you need an additional income? Ring us on..........
And an impossibly long number followed.
Jack noted down the number and turned disconsolately away from the newsagent's window. He found it hard to believe he'd reached his thirties now and things had come to this. It seemed no time since he'd been a child and had had no responsibilities at all, other than to be the good boy that every parent wants their son to be.
He was a young man of some talent and skill, but a young man in need of an income. Any income, never mind a second one. The market in homemade furniture that had kept him going had dried up, and there was no longer a living to be made out of it; not even online. He'd do anything really. Well, almost anything. So as soon as he'd got home and made himself a coffee he'd called the number from his ageing mobile, and talked to this bloke who ran a delivery firm, with the strapline "You ring, we bring." OK, it was cheesy, but the bloke sounded like a genuine guy and they'd hit it off on the phone and, in short, that's how he'd found himself, that particular Friday, charged with delivering this huge package to some address he'd had difficulty deciphering, and for substantially less than minimum wage.
He was, in fact, struggling to remember the details of the job, and exactly what the remuneration would be, and the more he thought about it the more the facts seemed to elude him. But then he'd had a hard night that Thursday. It was enough to make anybody feel a bit hazy about the task in hand.
He'd been meant to be meeting his mates at the pub, but fine mates they'd turned out to be, as not one of them had turned up! Well, one or two had, but they hadn't wanted to sit with him and they went off and drank at a different table, away from his. Not bloody one of them wanted to know him now he'd hit hard times!
Jack felt bitter.
Anyway, what he did know was that it was a bloody hot day, and this shapeless thing he'd picked up from the address he'd been given was weighing him down fit to kill him. He hadn't bargained for that. And he didn't know whether he was imagining it, but the damned thing seemed sometimes to writhe and squirm as if it would suddenly burst loose from its wrapping. And once he was convinced he'd heard it groaning.
But sometimes it was still, and at those times it felt to Jack as if it got lighter to carry.
"What the Hell's in it?" he wondered. "Well, as long as I get paid, it makes no difference to me."
And yet - here he paused and scratched his head in puzzlement - and yet he seemed to think some sort of deal had been involved other than just a monetary one. Jack felt shit scared.
"Oh,man! Think! What have you started here, mate? What have you let yourself in for?"
His heart sank further as he heard his mother's voice pipe up, "Whenever you engage with a stranger you shake a dice. Just saying........" Mothers,eh! So why had he felt so inclined to shake that dice? Well, his mother knew a thing or two about human nature, but he knew better. Or so he'd thought......then.
Jack decided he wanted out.
He delved in his pocket for his mobile, found the number that had been in the ad and dialled it again. He didn't need this job. Whatever he'd been promised, it wasn't worth it. If only he could remember what he HAD been promised. He'd just tell the bloke. He couldn't MAKE him do it.
The number wasn't recognized. He rang it a few more times and it was always the same. Then he lost connection. And then his battery packed up.
So Jack felt he had no choice but to press on. He was tired and he was thirsty. He wished for the umpteenth time that he'd never started the bloody job. And to make matters worse there was a horrible smell coming from the package now. It smelled of rotting flesh. It smelled like death, really. But it HAD to be got to where it was going and then everything would be OK. Jack thought he could remember being told that much.
"Well," he thought to himself, "God knows, I need the money! But I suppose there's a limit to what I'll do to get it." And he wondered whether there actually was. He didn't want to get mixed up with the police, though. He came from a decent family and he'd kept himself out of trouble so far.
Jack felt trapped, and as the day wore on it seemed to him like an eternity. He shifted his load from shoulder to shoulder, but he felt like his back was breaking. He put it down from time to time and took a breather. Then he thought he might poke a small hole in the wrapping and take a quick look at what was in it.
Plucking up his courage, he stuck a grubby finder where he thought he could make a way in. It felt disgustingly moist and putrid in there, and as he pulled his finger out he thought, "Something's gone off. Well, I'm not to blame for that. I should never have been given the thing to deliver on such a hot day if it was liable to go off!"
But still he felt the responsibility of it on his shoulders.
He picked the package up again and carried on his way, ever more exhausted and thirsty in the heat.
Once he bumped into this bloke and thought he would ask if he'd got anything to drink on him. But when he did the bloke just spat on him and carried on. "Well, I only bloody asked," he shouted after him. But the bloke never turned round. It was like Jack didn't exist.
So when, dripping in sweat, he finally saw a crowd of people up ahead, instead of thinking. "One of these might take pity and help me," he found himself thinking, "Screw them! I should've listened to my mum."
Now the crowd was pressing towards him, surrounding him and jeering at him, and Jack finally sank to his knees under the weight of his enormous burden. "I've really had it now," he thought. And he let go the package as he prepared to die.
As it hit the ground the wrapping burst open and, as the crowd stepped back in shock and horror, it spilled its contents for all to see.
The creatures were nameless and faceless. There seemed to be millions of the buggers and they all ran and hid their shame in any corner, under any stone, they could find. The smell was rank and they were hideously formed, beyond imagining. Jack closed his eyes fact, but he could still smell them. And see them.
And then suddenly it happened. And he couldn't.
Jack never saw it coming, the ring of thorns they forced onto his head, It was agony. The blood ran freely down his face and blinded him, and he cursed his employer for the lousy liar he was.
"Why have you done this to me?" he cried out. "I only ever asked to be like every other bloke and earn an honest living."
And then the Heavens opened and Jack looked up through his bleeding wounds and saw every human soul. And he heard the answer come back,"With this ring we crown you King. You are dying for us, so that we who were dead can have eternal life."
Then Jack bent his head and remembered. Ordinary, ten a penny bloke that he was, he had been carrying the burden of the sins of Mankind through time and space, forever. Had it been worth it? You bet your life it had! And he would do it again. And again.
And down all eternity he heard the voice of Man cry out to him in its torment and loneliness, "Help us Lord." And He heard Himself reply, "I will be with you always, to the end of the age." Then everything went black. And it was OK.
In fact, it was all just as the bloke had promised.
‘Should I say “cheer” or “cheers”, Madison?’ The young man was unsure since Portuguese was his first language.
‘ “Cheers, Paulo!” But it’s cheering up I need now.’
‘Cheers, Madison’ Paulo replies, and they clink the mugs of hot drinking chocolate.
Paulo laughed at Madison’s choice of farewell drink. However she received advice it was better not to eat before the long journey and the nourishing drink would keep hunger at bay. Besides, the July evenings were cooler in Rio de Janeiro and that evening she felt the cold more than usual. It was made worse by thoughts of the return flight to England.
They met three months previously in a nightclub in her native Wolverhampton. Paulo was visiting from Brazil, with a profile of his ideal girl. Girls with money did not appeal, and neither did he want a well-educated young lady. Before they finished the first drink together, he knew he had found just the right one. That night he did not ask her to his hotel but took her home by taxi. Back to the small terraced house she shared with her mother, Tracey, and three younger brothers. They parted with a farewell kiss and a promise to meet again.
Madison lost her job when the cleaning company she worked for went bust. Paulo was a godsend. He took her out of the smothering smallness of home and gave her a good time. When he visited he was the essence of charm with her mother and took her brothers out to teach them to play football ‘like a Brazilian’. Madison got the blessing of her mother to take a break from her work search for the duration of the visit. Tracey felt that Madison deserved a little light in her life. She could not give her a holiday or nice things since her husband walked out when Madison was fourteen.
Soon Paulo was talking about taking her on holiday to his home in Brazil. Madison was not too keen. In her twenty four years she never felt the urge to travel, despite her moans about the dreariness of life in her native city. Tracey had carried the excitement high and persevered in persuading her to take the opportunity that passed by her mother. Paulo bought an expensive designer suitcase and when she opened it she found the ticket inside for a return flight.
Madison Bailey arrived in Rio de Janeiro on her twenty fifth birthday. They hailed a taxi, and she hardly noticed the long journey to the city suburbs with a carnival of new sights and sounds to take in. He had talked about the favelas but nothing could have prepared her for that first sight. The buildings seemed to have helter skeltered up the steep hillside in a wild higgledy-piggledy rush to the top. Paulo reassured her she was safe there; security had improved since the government embedded police and military to keep the drug gangs in check.
Finally she arrived to where he lived, in a lower part of the favela with his mother and three younger sisters. The more accessible house with water and electricity was the reward for his work on behalf of his family. He explained it was now impossible to provide electric cables or water pipes; even roads to some higher level dwellings. It was easy for Madison to settle in; with Paulo’s mother and three younger siblings it felt like her own family. Except better because they could talk fashion and all the girl’s stuff she missed with her brothers.
He proudly walked his new English girl around the favela and took her to see the city sights. They returned from the tour and sat on a wall with a clear view of the favelas.
‘We once lived near the top of that hill,’ Paulo said pointing so high he might have been talking about the sky. ‘The house was not good, and we had no electricity or running water. I was like you, without a father to provide. But my mother, she made sure I learned English. I worked for the things we have, and now I will tell you how you can do the same.’
Gently Paulo introduced her to the story of the ring. It was the tale a drug ring with contacts in England. He explained how he had carried enough drugs inside his body to pay for his holiday, and to bring her to Brazil.
'You bastard, you brought me here to be your drug mule’ Madison exploded,
‘No, no it’s not like that. I love you Madison and I want us to have a life together’
His sweet talk smothered her anger, and he convinced her she could carry enough drugs inside her body to transform her family fortunes. He would also smuggle a stash to set them up in a nice home in England. Then they would get jobs and forget about drugs forever. He got down on one knee, took her hand and placed a sparkling ring on her finger.
Too soon the day arrived. Sitting there in the airport lounge a cold chill came over her making her shiver slightly as she sipped her hot chocolate. They told her not to eat as it might cause her to pass the precious packets too soon. Paulo snapped a selfie on his phone as their mugs chimed, and her ring sparkled in the light. It was the look they needed; another happy couple returning from a holiday in Brazil.
After the arrests the tabloids got hold of that selfie and red headlines screamed with delight. The caption beneath the photo read “Mugshots,” and in the body of the front page article they trumpeted the details.
“There is one mug in that picture contains more than hot chocolate. That mug is Madison Bailey. She was duped by her Brazilian ‘boyfriend’ into acting as his mule in attempting to smuggle 1kg of cocaine into Britain. He convinced her it was easy money. She swallowed. In total she swallowed 80 carefully sealed condoms but customs officers arrested her coming through the airport on their return. Recent arrests show that clever drug dealers have turned over more British mugs than an Oxford street gift shop, in their efforts to meet rising demand for the white powder…”
When I defrosted you,
snuck in to your hard, white zone
I shrunk to fit within
a different name, a shadow on myself
imprisoned by this ring.
My fingers will never bloom again
as your boxes are all ticked,
I’m red-ink stained.
What of you who wear it too?
I know now you are not gold
You stayed outside our rings
flashing circles of cheaper metals
at strangers when you choose.
You seem alien, external
in this arrangement. Sharp-angled,
the more I’m flat-floored,
I clean, you dirty, you smear, I lie.
My sanctuary now scares me.
Marriage was meant to lift me
to security, not suffocate
my vocal chords squeeze
I scream my longing
for something real, comforting
out of that old marshmallow
pink and white dream.
From The Dead
The phone rang in the middle of the night, cleaving the silence in half, dividing her life in two: before and after.
Even as the news was being delivered to her, she knew with absolute certainty that the argument would be the focus of her grief. She would unpick their last conversation and unravel it until it was impossible to put back together. The words would be turned over in her mind until her brain became fogged with anxiety and fear. Every person she met, every condolence she received would not be able to get through the leaden wall of her obsession. Now that he was dead she would be intent on keeping that last argument alive like a penance. In the morning she would repeat it to herself as if it were a mantra and at night it would lull her to sleep. In her dreams she would tunnel into the meaning of their exchange, attempting to find a glimmer of light in the peculiar darkness they had created between them.
It was an accident. So they said. Only she know how often they had driven down that particular stretch of road and remarked on the tight bend, the wilting bunches of flowers and handwritten notes. “If you’ve imagined writing a suicide note, does that mean you’ve contemplated suicide?” he’d said on one of their first dates. She’d taken his arm and wrapped it around her shoulder, pressing her body closer to his. At that moment, closing the gap between them, she had felt is if they were the centre of something; that the wind only existed to encircle them and that the waves crashed only for them to experience the taste of saltwater on their lips. She felt the strange sensation of almost immediate nostalgia. The warmth of his body, the coarse material of his coat, their fingers entwined in a way that was almost painful: in that moment it was all too much and yet just enough.
How it began to change is hard to tell. It was a silent, gradual opening of distance between them, punctuated by deafening moments of anger and sadness. As they grew, they grew in opposing directions. Like branches on a tree they reached for their own piece of sky, until their limbs were fixed in midair, no longer able to meet. Perhaps it was inevitable, life had never been easy for either of them. If one of them had been able to anchor the other, maybe they could have survived what the world had in store for them. She had not been strong enough to be that anchor. Their love had drifted to the point of drowning.
As it was she didn’t find the note until much later. Clearing out a draw, her fingers stumbled on the soft edge of his passport. Her breath caught in her throat. She closed her eyes and breathed deeply. She braced herself for the small square image that captured nothing of the truth of who he was, only the memory of getting their photos taken and their laughter at the strange unsmiling faces that stared back at them. Opening the worn leather cover a small note fell to the carpet, as light and as startling as a butterfly wing.
“I’m sorry,” she read.
She drops the empty Lucozade Sport bottle by the side of the road. Her fourth today. Rumbling HGVs rattle her thoughts as they pass. Sara used to limit herself to one Lucozade Sport a day. The dry dusty fug from the hot road mingles with the fumes of hot exhausts and she can taste it in her mouth. Now she was drinking a multipack of Lucozade Sport each day. Because what does it matter. It makes her mouth feel clean and fresh and she likes the acidic sweetness of it. That’s six Lucozade Sport. 3000ml. 840 calories. 42 bottles per week. Enough to live off. Not enough to die of though. 21 litres. 5880 calories of Lucozade each and every week. Sara enjoys doing maths in her head. It makes her feel safe.
Another truck rumbles by. Sara walks on.
The fat receptionist peers over her glasses like Oh, here comes trouble. Sara knows that look. But she’s got an appointment this time.
She sits in the grey waiting room plastered in posters about chlamydia testing and jabs to stop the flu and wished she could get either one. But nobody would have her now that she’s dying and now that she’s dying she never gets ill. She flicks through her phone. Darryl is in Bali. Marie and Shaun got married. Marie looks fat in her dress. Maybe she’s pregnant. Lateesha is talking about her eating disorder. The bitch certainly doesn’t look like she’s got one. Hayley checked in at Westfield Stratford. Birthday shopping trip excited face dollar emoji dollar emoji dollar emoji. Marcel’s ranting about UKIP.
Miss Finnegan-Clark to Room 6 please.
‘There’s nothing medically wrong with you,’ says the doctor.
You’re lying. I know my body.
‘I’m afraid there’s nothing more that I can do. I could perhaps have you referred to a psychiatrist?’
It’s my body isn’t it it’s not my head.
‘Sometimes things that go on in your head affect how your body feels…’
But Sara’s up and walks out and gets another Lucozade out of her bag. It’s still cold from her mum’s fridge but not as cold as it should be and anyway Sara doesn’t taste it.
She knows she’s dying, she can feel it in her bones.
And she’s told everyone so it has to be true.
Sara slumps on her bed in the corner against the two walls and the dusty evening light streams in. Scrolling. Hayley: kooky new shoes tongue out wink smiley. Brad: massive workout now beers with the lads pumping iron emoji. David: Look at what these money-grabbing…
Sara puts down the phone and looks at the wall. Trinkets of childhood. Storybooks on the shelves. She can feel the weight of death pulling down on her bones and on the darkness in her heart. Overwhelming tiredness. The fatigue of emptiness. She picks up her phone and goes back to that first post. Six months ago today.
22:07, 7th October 2017, Sara FC wrote:
Hi everyone, got some sad news :( I went to the hospital today for more tests, Ive been having lots which is why I missed some school at the end of last year. They said Im very sick and there isn’t anything they can do and Im going to die. I know its sad but please stay strong for me. Dont talk to my mum about it please its hard enough for her. I don’t really want to talk bout it either. U can inbox me if you like.
Two hundred and seven people responded to that. Most with crying emojis. Some people she’d known from school messaged her inbox and she replied but after a while the conversations stopped. People didn’t know what to say to a dead girl.
Nobody asked what was wrong with her. As though it would be prying.
So Sara carried on posting updates. At first, she did it because she was bored. Because other people always had interesting and clever things to say. Because why the hell not. Because maybe it would show who cared. Because it passed the time.
But she noticed that her posts gradually became less popular. E.g.
11:00, 22nd November 2017, Sara FC wrote:
Hey guys, having a really tough time. Have stopped going to the doctors because what’s the point. So many tests its getting boring. Just want it to be over now
Which only got 47 responses. For a dying girl! So Sara started mixing things up a bit. Like:
15:07, 10th December 2017, Sara FC wrote:
Having a really gd day today. Managed to get to shops in town with mum’s help and saw so many xmas trees! Looking forward to festive times and want to make the best of them even though might be my last!!
And she’d rounded that off with a Christmas tree emoji. It got over a hundred responses, lots of them likes. Sara realised that people want good news, not just bad. They need hope.
She began to take her followers on a rollercoaster journey. She built her followers up with hope, hinting at novel therapies and signs of improvement, and then brought them crashing down with failure after failure reaffirming the tragic reality of her imminent death. Word spread, and friends of friends began to follow her story. She was liked by cancer pages (who assumed she had cancer), heart health pages (who assumed she had a heart defect), even HIV/AIDS support pages (which Sara thought was silly because everyone knows nobody dies from AIDS any more).
She did nothing to disabuse them of these notions.
Slowly, though, a change came over her. She began to drift. To sway. In short, Sara began to believe her own hype.
The change was gradual. At first, it wasn’t manifested in actual pain. Rather, a kind of unfeelingness came over her. A sense of floating through the world, at a distance from unreality.
Then her bones began to ache. It was subtle at first. But slowly that ache became pain. And the pain became unbearable. More than once, she had confronted the beleaguered receptionist at the local GP. Demanded to be seen. To be heard. They’d given her tests, scans. Evals. Second opinions. Just like she had said. She’d thrown caution to the wind, and began drinking three litres of Lucozade Sport each day. Because what was the point. She was going to die anyway.
Except, of course, there was nothing wrong with her. At least, that’s what they said.
At 21:37, 7th April 2018, Sara FC writes the following scheduled post, at 07:00, 8th April, 2018:
**FROM THE DEAD** Hey guys. As youve probably noticed, things have started to get much worse. The pain is becoming unbearable. I dont think I can cope any more. The thing is, what I’ve been doing for the last six months. It’s true, but also sort of a lie. I am in a lot of pain. I think Im depressed maybe. But the doctors say there isn’t anything medically wrong with me. I don’t know what to belive. I do want to say im sorry to u all. I think I misled a lot of you and I know there are people out there going thru things that r real and they r really suffering and dying. Im sorry if you think what Ive done is not senstive to those people and just looking for attention. But all I can say is what I feel now is real and I cant see any option but 2 end it. Bye xx
After scheduling the post, to go online tomorrow at 7am, Sara puts on a sweat top and her trainers and walked out of her mum’s house. Orange streetlights glow all along the way but what she feels is darkness. The weight in her bones grows and it feels like she can barely move.
She finds herself by the busy road. HGVs rumble past, scattering her thoughts. She shuts her eyes, steps out. Brakes screech.
Bright lights float into her vision. They seem glazed at first. Noises echo. A trolley. The foetal warmth of opiates soothe her pain.
‘She’s awake, Ms Finnegan – your daughter, she is awake!’ cries a man’s deep voice.
‘Oh, thank you nurse!’ - Mum. She’s here. In heaven with me, thinks Sara.
Consciousness fades in and out. Mum’s hand, holding. Squeezing. Reassuring pressure.
After some time, minutes or hours, Sara is able to speak. Confronted by rising panic.
‘What day is it? Mum?’
‘Wednesday, darling.’ Her mother smiles, wrinkles at the corner of her eyes. She looks so tired. And old. But pleased.
‘Wednesday? Mum – where’s my phone?’
Her mum nods to the side table, a plastic ziploc with Sara’s keys and her phone, screen shattered.
‘Smashed in the crash. But you were lucky – it was a car. The driver saw you in time to brake. You’ll make a full recovery, they say.’
Sara turns instinctively, tries to grab the phone. But her body feels heavy, medicated, and pain surges up her side.
Sara’s mum touches her arm, gently. ‘It’s broken, Sara. And – we’ve seen them. Your posts. You were still logged in on the computer at home.’
Her mum smiles sadly. Sara begins to cry. The enormity of her deception begins to dawn on her. ‘So – they know? Everyone… knows? About – the lies?’
‘It’s okay. I’m not angry. No-one’s angry, my baby. I just want you to be well.’
Sara nods. The tears keep coming. She feels as if something’s breaking inside, something hard and nasty. Breaking, but also – mending. Soothing. And, despite all the pain, her bones don’t hurt any more.
‘Me too,’ she says. ‘Me too.’
Can scarecrows die, thought Henry Grandhomme as he waved goodbye to his father's entourage. The old man had come with his usual bunch of lackeys; the silent, glibly stoical younger ones who hung back and attempted to reflect the gravitas that his father had generated wherever he had roamed throughout his eighty-seven years. The middle-men, who had worked for some years for the old man and were politest and most personable of them, or as far as they could be when working for a man with a heart as blackened as his father's.
And of course, the two chief lapdogs, Marius and Romanie. They had wilted Henry's goodbye wave with as much thorough disgust and distaste as they had shown to Henry throughout his father's life, whilst seeming to remain immune to the ravages of time that had eventually brought down the old man. Marius had remained clean shaven for the fifty-three years that Henry had feared him, dark, bruise-coloured swathes of stubble had seethed under his jawline every last day that Henry had known and feared him, whilst Romanie had had little else for Henry except a stern, unsmiling face and open contempt, both of which she silently admonished Henry with now as she led the entourage around the corner of the ruins.
Leaving Henry alone with his dead father.
A week earlier, one of the middle-men had been good enough to visit Henry and let him know that his father had died a fortnight before.
Henry had gone blank. He had lived in a vivid fear of his father and his followers since he could remember and knew that around this wretched corner of the country, months of mourning would be observed. His death would not change his fear of the old man. It surprised him not that he had been not made aware of his father's decline, and eventual death until a week had passed. His followers had elevated the old man to a status that surpassed plausibility and reason, objectified him to the degree that his name was a law, a cult, a religion, an atmospheric gas that anyone wishing to prevail in this part of the country must inhale and exhale.
And now his decaying body had been bent into a chair and carried to his son, who would undertake the final phase of his passing.
Henry's legs began to shiver violently. The old man's face had died long ago, and been replaced by a slab that resembled a spreading of fungus that you would only expect to find in the darkest pit of the deepest woods, with no light or love to be found within its rank contours. And dying had only served to make his father's face resemble the scarecrow of death that Henry had come to see him as with an even greater amplitude.
His father's clumps of grey and black hair rose to a sudden wind, revealing a scalp riddled with pus, boils and something that seemed to be moving independently.
An anguished sob broke from Henry as he continued to regard his dead father.
'The scarecrows are just the dead amending for the past, boy.'
These had been the words his father had uttered to him when a young Henry had cried upon seeing a scarecrow being erected onto one of his father's cornfields.
'That is a dead... man, father?'
'Yes, boy. A pointless man who only toiled when drinking. So now he has to stand in a field and use his afterlife to keep the crows away from the fields.'
Henry had cried some more, attracting a look of particular disgust from Romanie, who had been tailing Henry and his father with Marius.
'He had his chance, boy,' continued his father. 'He could have eaten the death away before it took him. Any man who eats the flesh of his father when he dies is granted a blissful afterlife. Any man who refuses to perform such a noble task will end up, I'm afraid...'
Henry's father gestured towards the scarecrow, then bent down to his sobbing son.
'You will eat me when I die, won't you Henry?' asked his father, a rare smile growing across his already damned face like a dagger in a kidney.
Henry falls to his knees, his hands splaying across his father's lap.
He looks over towards the decaying row of scarecrows, their clothing flapping desultorily in his father's fields.
Henry claws a chunk of face from his father's left cheek and begins to chew.
From the dead
As she turned the key in the ignition, a charge sputtered from the dead battery, cracked winged and then in a ‘nothing left to give’ spurt—stopped. And then full stopped. Now she could hear the total silence, and her own thoughts – a kind of nakedness because with only herself to talk to she felt self-conscious. As though she could be judged mad if she were to speak out loud or start singing
Sitting down on a rock she acknowledged to herself she was stranded off the Canning stock route in of all places the Gibson Desert, with no way of alerting anyone to her position, no map and only a few packets of crisps. Two litres of water also sat on the front car seat. She gazed at the car bogged in red dirt with its wheels shredded by spinifex and then at her hands sweating. She felt a panic rising in her and started to run away from the car in a direction she believed would take her back to the stock route.
Part of her could analyse her behaviour as hysteria, but it seemed powerless to stop her altogether. She turned back to the car lead by the logic that she did not have any clue which way lead out. Simultaneously a strange shout came out of her mouth
‘somebody anybody! Jesus Shit oh shit’.
She kicked a rock near the car, hurt her big toe and fell down on the ground sobbing. In the late afternoon swelter, the red Gibson desert sand sprayed into her dry mouth but stuck in her tears.
‘I do not DO NOT want to die. Somebody anybody.. ‘
She marched herself back to the car and tried again to get the car moving. But like Max, her driver laid out near the spinifex, it was lifeless. Later she would learn he had died of an aneurysm on the brain. For now, all she knew was that he had no pulse.
Feeling hopeless she curled up in the shade of her rock alternating between whimpering crying and shaking. Within fifteen minutes above and all around her, a black sky enveloped the flat country, so only the southern cross twinkling south bore witness to her existence.
Kylie Faulkner an English girl from near Bath doing a stint of hairdressing at Halls station was no bush girl. In 1999, for a backpacker, the money from the station owners wife for a wash, set and blow dry was just too good to pass up. Max, her chauffeur from Wiluna, was the station owners driver, and he claimed to know the Gibson Desert like the back of his hand. It was just a pity that he also liked to travel light. He didn’t want to fuss with extra water provisions, flares torches and the like
In the growing cold, she awoke. A significant drop in temperature allowed her mind to function, a benefit given she could hardly see in the black night. She decided on saving the crisps for morning and went to sleep in the back seat of Max’s four-wheel drive.
By five am the next day the heat was already making her uncomfortable. She searched for a cover of some sort in the boot and found nothing. Her fair skin would burn to bits this much she knew, and so she needed to put herself in the shade. Other than that she felt utterly helpless and was unable to think of anything to do but wait. She ate a packet of the crisps and drank half her water. At nineteen she was not a big decision maker and lived from day to day pay to pay cheque one party to the next. Someone would turn up.But then thoughts of Monty her white Stafford terrier at home sent her into an extended sob
After a few rounds of shaking crying, she went again to her rock and lay down in the shade of mulga.
Out of the corner of her eye, a strange clumpy little yellow grey weirdly spiky rock appeared. For some reason, she started to laugh. On taking a closer look, it moved. A thorny devil dragon lizard the side of her hand had joined her. He looked up at her as she watched him amble and guzzle at least six ants. His bony ridgeback was spectacular as were his little dragon-like paws. Rocky as she called him ate ants and more ants! His camouflage excelled and was probably a good weapon against some of the circling desert birds.
When Max’s body started to smell she decided to follow Rocky away from the car. Away from the dead toward somewhere Rocky knew had life. This place turned out to be a massive boab tree where Rocky had his watering hole and a large ants nest. And much to her surprise, it was where the Canning stock routes Well 33 could just be seen in the distance. She walked herself to the well and the next morning after a night shared with Rocky some travellers found her.
One wet day in the middle of a gloomy November, I find myself thumbing through a very old and tattered copy of the King James Bible, and I hear voices coming to me from the dead of more years than I care to number.
They are speaking of Florrie Taylor, whose story was told to me by my parents many years ago. It begins on a day that Florrie will not forget for the rest of her life, and it plays itself out now before my rapt gaze.
It had been her wedding day and she lay, quiet now, on the ruffled sheets and considered Charlie. She couldn’t say he was handsome, but then she was no oil painting herself. She was slightly built and without curves. Her teeth were rather bucked. Her hair, artificially curled for this her special day, was by nature straight, and it was mousey. She felt she resembled nothing so much as a small and timid woodland creature. Charlie, on the other hand, was powerfully built, and the undulating strength in his arms and shoulders had seemed to extend itself into his head and features, giving him a lumpy face, like a rag doll that had been over-squeezed in some places and not enough in others.
When the call had come to defend his country, Charles Edward Gouldthorpe had banded together with other young boys from their small market town just across the River Humber from the city of Hull, and been sent off as a hero to the rat-infested trenches of Northern France. In a quiet moment together he had made a solemn and heartfelt promise to Florrie, before he left, that they would be married when he came back victorious, and he had sealed that promise by shyly, but devotedly and earnestly, placing a very tiny diamond on her ring finger.
The ring had been his mother’s, left to him, as her only child, when she had died of tuberculosis when he was 2 years old. It meant the world to him and was all he had left of her, her wedding ring having been buried along with her. Now the ring would mean the world to his own wonderful girl, beautiful as she was to his eyes.
And so he kissed and took his leave of her.
When four long years later he did come back victorious, as he had promised, it was as though he had been returned to his loved ones from the dead, for he was one of two boys, the only survivors of their original band of fourteen, the others forever lost to parents, friends and future lovers.
Her tiny, precious diamond had been the last thing Florrie had looked at before closing her eyes against every lonely night of those years of separation. There had been letters, but they were very few and far between, and many of the words had been blacked out by some faceless interloper that destroyed their intimacy and rendered them meaningless.
As I watch, she looks at her ring again now and thinks about her wedding day.
It had begun early, and the little pendulum clock in the tiny parlour was chiming six when her mother had woken her with a cup of tea.
“Come on, luv. Up you get. This is the most special day of your life.”
Florrie had sipped the sweet tea as she washed herself in the rose sprigged basin that sat on top of her simple chest of drawers. Usually she would fetch her own water, but on this one day her mother had brought the water for her, as if she were a princess at least for the day.
She sang softly and happily to herself as she slipped into her chemise and then soon enough she heard an eager knock at the back door and there were her two bridesmaids chattering excitedly as they came up the wooden stairs and made an appearance in her bedroom, ready to help her into her dress.
It had been her mother’s own wedding dress, but Florrie had herself painstakingly cut and re-styled it into something rather more suited to the fashion of the day and her diminutive and plain figure. There had been much giggling and skittishness as the girls got themselves dressed, and she wondered aloud how Charlie was faring at his end of things. Would he be nearly ready, or would he be running late as young men often are.
Eventually everyone was ready, her bridesmaids in their matching frocks and mobcap headdresses, her father’s unruly hair plastered down to his scalp with water, which Florrie knew from many Sunday mornings’ experience, would not do the job for long, and her mother in her best Sunday Go To Meeting hat.
I see the excited wedding party as it makes its way along the pretty little road that runs beside the town’s pond. There is no need for any conveyance, as the walk isn’t far. Just far enough for the excitement to give place to a level of anticipation and apprehension. What girl isn’t nervous on her wedding day? What bridesmaid doesn’t wonder whether she is looking her best and might catch a boy of her own to make a husband of? What parent does not feel a certain sadness at the passing of the years that has brought their child to this grown up state.
The little church is full as her father draws back his shoulders and walks his daughter slowly down the aisle, his hair already beginning to fight back, and Florrie is nervous of all the eyes that are on her. And yet she feels proud. She knows she looks her best and she can’t wait to see Charlie in his suit, saved up for and bought new, and at some expense, for this day.
As I watch, I want to reach out and hold her back. I want to warn her; to save her. But I am powerless across the barriers of time that separate us.
As the little wedding party makes its progress, Florrie hears “oohs” and “aahs”, but she knows there will also be some disgruntled murmurings and waggings of heads from one or two aunts whose own daughters have not been so fortunate as to find a chap as lovely as her Charlie, or indeed any chap at all. For, unsuspected by those hopeful bridesmaids, future maiden aunts were being created in those post war days. So many young men had never returned from the dead as Charlie had. True, he had been quiet, withdrawn and occasionally out of temper since coming home to her from the War, but time and Florrie’s ministrations would put him back together again soon enough. She does not doubt it for a single moment.
And then she is there at the altar and he is beside her.
“Truly beloved,” begins the Vicar, “we are gathered here today…..” but he gets no further, and I hold my breath as Florrie looks up at his shocked face. She wonders why he has hesitated, and then she turns to Charlie and sees that his bumpy face has gone deathly white, and even in the seriousness of the moment Florrie cannot help the thought that it resembles a bag of flour that has sat too long on the pantry shelf and has got the damp in it.
She would smile at the thought, because this is a face she has loved for so long. But Charlie is speaking, and his words chase away all thoughts of smiling.
“I’m sorry,” he is saying, and I hear him stumble on his words. “I’m so very sorry, I just can’t,” and he is turning, running down the aisle and fleeing from the church, watched from their pews by the astounded wedding congregation.
The next Florrie knows she is being hurried back down the aisle and away from the church, where the “oohs” and “aahs” and waggings have now turned into whisperings, tuttings and shakings of heads. She is led, dazed, up the street, where there is no sign of Charlie, and, as her legs fail her, she is carried up the stairs to her bedroom and laid gently on the bed, where she tears at and wrings the sheets and sobs until dusk falls and her mother, who has never left her side and has sat there, still in her best hat, finally lights a candle to bring some light and warmth to the room.
Exhausted and crushed, Florrie picks up, considers and lovingly strokes the one photograph she has of Charlie, which his fond father proudly had taken of him before he had joined up. No, he wasn’t handsome, but he had been hers over four years now. Her own Charlie. She could not and would not understand why he, one of so few who had returned from the war to their loved ones, had now left her so cruelly. She would never now be Florrie Gouldthorpe, as she had imagined herself, but always plain Florrie Taylor; for as she recalls to her mind the image of Charlie’s desperate face as he fled the church, she knows, as I, now silently watching, have always known, that he will never be hers; that they will never have a life together.
It is this Florrie Taylor whose well-thumbed and clearly well-loved Bible my parents and I find in her lonely, sparse council flat, 60 years later after we, as her last known relatives, are contacted by the Coroner’s Office, upon her death. She has been lost to us for almost 40 years. Now it is as though, like Charlie before her, she has, in her way, returned from the dead to her own loved ones.
And so the characters in my story are swallowed up by time, and my own parents have since followed Florrie into whatever afterlife awaits us.
The Bible now rests in my hands, opened at random. An old fashioned pendulum clock hangs in my hall and chimes the quarter hour. Over the years it has clearly been the focus of Florrie’s ministrations with clock oil and lavender polish. And a rose-sprigged china basin graces the chest of drawers in my bedroom. These are her only remaining possessions.
I am told my father’s cousin Florrie never left her bed for 20 years after that day, other than for the call of nature, presumably. She was clearly much loved and much pitied by her parents, who brought up her meals to her and who lived through a time when nothing was known of depression nor of trauma.
Of Charlie, I know no more of his life after his flight from church on his wedding day that never was. I can guess that he was as much walled up in a prison of mental torment as was his would-be bride.
You will see I will take one last look at Charlie, but in my imagination only, as he can make no further active appearance in my story, as he himself found he could not in Florrie’s.
When the first bombs landed on Hull in March 1941, I am told that Florrie left her bed and came back to her parents in their small back kitchen – a miracle return from a self-imposed death. I think she was afraid to die in an air-raid, alone in her room. And so it was that Hitler, who took so many lives, had given back to Florrie a life, of sorts.
I do not imagine Charlie’s life was ever given back to him. No, for Charlie, so many years ago, there can have been only one return from the dead. If he did indeed return at all.
And so I close the tattered Bible, I close my eyes and I give thanks for the sacrifice made all those many years ago. More lives lost than we can count. Lives lost by the living as much as by the dead.
'I'd love a shot of Bailey,' I said while rubbing my palms. The chilly wind had curled into the inn.
'Sure, son,' said my deaf aunt and began to serve the man next to me a mug of barley.
As usual, I did not complain for I was rather afraid of her smacking my head. My aunt who wore a smirk quite distinctly on her wrinkled face dished out piping hot shepherd pies. Again, she served the heavily built man who did not even bother to thank her or nod in acknowledgment. That man looked familiar, much too familiar to my liking. I scanned him from head to toe and stared at his bulky belly. I tried very hard to place him and then I broke into sweats when I realized who he was. I calculated how fast I could reach the exit. But I stopped short when I realized, I was not prepared for the tormenting weather. The roads were closed till morning.
The man turned around but he did not meet my eyes. It was as if he was peering through me and then I realised that he was much more interested in the young lady seated on the far end near a fireplace. She was making an Irish crochet lace; attaching lace roses to picots and finishing with clone knots. The traditional edging reminded me of baby breaths and spring. Her eye lashes fluttered very little, giving full attention to the intricate designs. It was as if a giant lumbered passing me by when he moved across the room to sit opposite the woman. She shyly nodded her head and smiled at him and I knew that very moment that he was smitten by her. I had to do something for I knew he was not right for her. I too found a snug corner near the fireplace. But the lady hardly looked at me.
Icicles were forming on the upper frame of windows and they were growing longer as the sun melted the snow on the thatched roof of the inn. I felt my heart getting icy cold when the lady in braided chignon let the man caress her work of art. I wondered whether she had laced her dreams with her nimble fingers. I had to watch silently. I had to be in a shadow as I did not want him to recognise me. But as time passed, I was beginning to suspect that the man did not know me.
'You create something magical. You remind me of my mother. She loves creating laces. But, she is no more. Bless her soul!' said the man in a husky voice.
'Oh, I'm sorry to hear that. I'm sure she had great pleasure in making them,' said the lady.
'Oh, yes. She would always give away her work as gifts.'
I simply had to join in the conversation. But the door opened and two guests entered with the blatant northern wind trying to make its way into the inn. One of them walked to fireplace and while another ordered potato stew, roast stuffed turkey and ham, chicken Caesar salad and beer. There was not much choice on the menu. My aunt served the couple promptly. I admired my aunt for running this pub and restaurant in a traditional Irish ambiance for almost twenty years. She had kept this inn cozy and homely.
'Yes, the roads are closed. Dublin is still a long way from here,' said my aunt in a slightly louder tone addressing the couple who were on their way to Dublin.
'We're grateful for the food and shelter.'
'What did you say?'
The man repeated his words, a little louder and slower than usual.
I always wanted to travel to Dublin. Being a seventeen-year-old lad, I never had the opportunity to travel out of my village. Perhaps I could hitchhike a ride from this couple. My aunt would surely be cross with me if I ever mentioned it to her. She would get tired easily nowadays and expected me to be around. I should be grateful to her as she took me under her care when my mother died from pneumonia. I was torn between my love for my aunt and the need to explore life beyond my village.
The couple found a sofa near the fireplace and sat with their hands locked in each other. They started off introducing themselves. The big size man was Cormac while the lady was Arlene while the couple introduced themselves as Mr and Mrs Lorcan. No one bothered to ask for my name.
I felt like marching off out of this inn but I came to my senses. I quietly formed the right words in my head to persuade the couple to give me a ride to Dublin.
'We just got married and we're on way for our honeymoon in Dublin,' said Mrs. Lorcan.
My plan to travel to Dublin just got crushed. I murmured, 'Congratulations!' To ease my hurt, I curled up in a corner and listened to the clock ticking, glasses clinking, people chatting and Celtic music playing.
As morning arrived without a hitch, the guests were preparing to leave. I was feeling sorry that they had to leave especially Arlene. Cormac was very eager in pleasing Arlene by helping her with her belongings. I was afraid of Cormac as I remembered seeing him at an icy pond last winter and another flash of memory of me suffocating. I wanted to warn Arlene about Cormac.
Then I was hit by more vague memories of Cormac. I saw him again at the icy pond where a sheet of thin ice had caved in under my feet. The memory began to be clearer by the minute. I thought Cormac had pushed me inside the frigid cold water. But actually, he had tried to rescue me by pulling me out with the help of others. There were tears in his eyes as I did not survive. I realised that I had died in the incident. I had also seen him being detached from reality for a few months. I tried to converse with Cormac to convince him that he should not feel guilty for not being able to save me. Unfortunately, he could neither hear or see me.
I was a ghostly figure trapped in this inn. I had come from the dead to pay homage to my aunt and ever since, I could not leave this inn.
I dropped in to see my Mom today. She's doing really well for eighty. She was busy making my favorite pie- sour cream raisin! I tried to help her, her arthritis makes it hard for her to roll the dough - she has to stop and rub her knuckles every so often.
My sister and daughter came along, too, and we all sat down to eat Mom's pie. My daughter Amanda, who is 17, looks exactly like me when I was her age. She and my mom and Amanda have always been close.
Now mom reaches over and strokes Amanda's long auburn hair. When we finish our pie Mom suggest we visit the cemetery.
"This is the anniversary, you remember, don't you?" she asks Amanda.
"Of course, Nana. Can I pick some flowers out of your garden to put on her site?"
"That's a wonderful idea, sweetie," and Mom pats her face.
We all make our way to the cemetery. It's just on the outskirts of our small town. At first the sun hid behind the clouds, throwing shadows across our path. But as we reached the gate, it burst through and lit up the narrow walkway in front of us. We find the grave and Amanda kneels down with the bouquet of gladiolas and sweet peas. She gently places the bunch of flowers on top of the stone.
"These were Mom's favorite, weren't they?" Amanda asks, glancing back at my Mom and sister.
"Yeah, kiddo, she loved them," says my sister, wiping a tear that's rolling down her cheek.
The date on the stone marks the day they found me- the day the Mountie knocked on Mom's door to say they located my broken body, dumped on a lonely back road, like a piece of trash, left for the coyotes to eat. After the police came I remember seeing my mother sink to the floor, my sister and daughter cradling her, that precious trio, clinging to each other, their tears meshing together to form rivulets flowing down their faces. I hugged them close to me then, and now I watch as they move slowly away from my grave, out the cemetery gate and back down the road. I'm not going to be following them because I know they're going to be alright without me. But I left a reminder of me on Mom's kitchen table. When they get back there, they'll find a single sweet pea. I'm not sure they'll understand- but that doesn't matter. I'm going to keep leaving hints that I've been around, and one day, I know they'll figure out it was me.
We’re old friends, the kind that knew each other at eleven so there’s nothing much can surprise us about each other. Or so I thought. I’ve been through their mean patches, their struggles in work and at home and their flamboyant, foolish times. But I’ve always been on their side. Until tonight.
It started out as an average evening. Ben, Melia, Simon and me, probably the best part of a bottle each by this time, some good food although I say so myself, everyone staying over so no outside pressures, no need to project false images of ourselves. We do it every three months, always have, believed we always would. Even when Simon was married to Liv, who loathed us, he still snuck away for the Best Mates’ Reunion. Or maybe it was just me she loathed. It was certainly mutual.
Ben just asked if we could bring people back from the dead who would we choose. True to form Melia named her recently departed spaniel, Moss. None of us pointed out that Moss wasn’t a person because to Melia, perhaps to all of us, he was. We nodded one by one and I put my hand over hers and squeezed. Touching her feels like a reciprocated luxury. I really think we’re lucky Melia still bothers with us when these days it’s animals that take all her time.
Hardly surprising after what Jason did to her. I don’t know how you can trust people again when someone has shafted you so completely. Long-standing affair with a family friend. Declared himself bankrupt so he wouldn’t have to support Melia who had worked day and night to market his company for no pay and no rights. No child support either and they had four under ten.
Three years later he reemerged with a different, sharp wife and got custody of his children. Claimed they were being brought up in squalor. Then he cut her access claiming Melia was insane, likely to kill her kids. She hasn’t seen her babies in fifteen years. His cruelty chopped her mind into tiny pieces. I was the one that might have killed somebody if I’d seen Jason.
Or Ben might because I think he still loves Melia. They went out briefly in our teenage years and every reunion he goes a bit gooey-eyed and seems on the point of saying something. Yet he never does. Nearly forty years of swallowing a declaration of love, what might that do to you? Eat your voice-box away. Poor Ben he’s had no life really.
Local council job, visited his parents every night for the last ten years. No relationships to speak of, not many friends. He told me once that he felt more alive and real in our company than at any other time. It’s odd because we tend to revert to our teenaged selves together and what kind of reality did we have then? Certainly nothing to base your whole life on.
‘A second vote for Moss.’ Ben folds his arms across his chest as he speaks as if he knows he’s crossed a line. Melia’s eyes widen but she shrugs and reaches for the wine bottle. Something invisible and lost slithers down between the cracks in the floorboards and I sigh. Nearly, Ben, nearly but not quite.
‘Well,’ I say and my voice cracks, ‘I’d go for Martin Luther King. Think what the American political scene would look like with that young voice restored. I mean it would be all of our dreams, wouldn’t it?’
Simon does that thing that drives me bonkers and shakes his head with a superior smile. ‘You should know, Jo, you can’t inject any part of history into the here and now. It’s like Doctor Who, the universe would explode.’
So he’s trying to trump me intellectually with Doctor Who? I mouth the words ‘Sci-fi freak’ at him and he gives me that smile. Melia clasps my hand again as if she’s trying to distract me from him. ‘Yes. That’s so brilliant, Jo. I’m sorry I just focused on my comfort, what I’d like.’
‘So,’ Ben says, ‘we’ve been a bit small town, Melia and me. You always had the wider vision, Jo. What with all your travelling and your big city jobs. So round us off, Simon, try for Jo’s largesse, who would you go for?’
I watch his mouth contract, the movement in his throat as he swallows. I need to trace a finger down his elegant neck, to know how it feels to rest my head on his 90 degree arm to shoulder angle. I’m another Ben. I haven’t told them about the cancer in my larynx and I'm running out of time. I have this silly idea that telling Simon how I’ve always felt might cure me. Or it might kill.
Simon coughs. ‘I can’t match Jo. I never could. I just wish Liv was alive again.’
From the Dead
It had been called off. The sniffer dogs. The posters. The candlelight vigils. The media conferences. The orange lines of rescue volunteers trudging through the bush. All the resources we had at our disposal were exhausted and public interest was waning. She went from the headline, to second lead, to a comment between sports and weather. The police told us they would keep investigating, but after two weeks the probability of success drops. I’ve always heard it was hopeless after 48 hours. We were in that tortured spot beyond joyful rescue but before 'at least we have closure'.
I remember after that final visit from the police all of us sitting in the lounge room. Nobody was talking. For the first time in a long time we simply did nothing, we could do nothing. We were together in that room, myself, mum and dad, but each of us alone in our thoughts. Do we go back to work, to school? Do we prepare dinner instead of having takeaway every night or just not eating? Do we vacuum? Do the laundry? People were so eager to help in that regard when things were hopeful.
We sat silent for a long time. Until there was a familiar knock on the door. Playful and rhythmic, it was her knock, the secret language of family. We exchanged looks to one another, hopeful yet guarded. I think mine was fear. One second later we were at the door, Dad nearly ripped it off its hinges.
It was Amy. Dirty and tattered but all in all complete. I stood back and watched Mom and Dad envelop her. Alternating between hugging and inspecting. Dispelling disbelief through their senses. Touch, then sight, then touch again. Rationality came in spurts against enormous emotional power surges. We checked her for injuries and called an ambulance and the police.
In the chaos of emotions she exhibited none. She didn't cry, she didn't laugh, she didn't scream. She didn't say anything or do anything. The opposite of our hyper emotion. The doctors gave a similar diagnosis to our initial reaction. A little banged up, but all in all completely fine. The police would work with what they could, but Amy brought no evidence with her return. Until she talked, the case was stalled.
Now some weeks later she still hasn’t said a word. The doctors said it would be best for her recovery for us to try and keep things as normal as possible. The rest of the family couldn’t be more pleased to have her back, to have the everyday back. They accept she will take time to recover. She will tell her story in her own time. But to me she is a ghost just following the habits of her former body. I watch her awkwardly navigate the house, I see her eat things she normally wouldn’t, and she doesn’t sleep. When she catches my eyes I look away. She fills me with dread. Perched up on the bay window looking out into the moonless night.
All those search parties and prayers were in vein. All the doorknocking and police work a waste of time. When she first didn’t come home our thoughts became progressively worse. It started innocently as ‘she’s lost track of time’. That became ‘she’s staying late at a friend’s and forgot to call’. Then it changed to ‘she’s runaway and she’s hiding somewhere to punish us’. Before finally turning to something more sinister which we never could verbalise. At reaching the runaway phase of this worry I went to our spot, hidden away in the bush nearby. A makeshift cubby of sorts. I was hoping to find her there pouting or kicking cans angry at mum or school. She was there silent but not sulking. She was twisted, pale and cold, partly hidden under the brush. The police told me I was traumatised that they had searched that area thoroughly and I was just desperate to find her. They also threw in that it was a good lead and important to tell them things like that. I know what I saw. She’s dead and there is something else living in my sister’s room. My parents want me to go to therapy, they think I’m having some traumatic reaction or emotional overload, that’s why I don’t talk to her. I don’t care what they say I’m locking my door at night and keeping my bat under the bed.
The divorce was at the behest of Susan, and not something I wanted. However, she attained her desired status of being my ex-wife.
“I don’t love you anymore.” She imparted the news with all the decorum of a bull shopping for fine bone china, trying to make it sound like a huge loss. The reality was she couldn’t get away fast enough since she got smitten by a new love. The fact that her new love was a mutual lady friend had brought its own baggage.
Gail was another mutual lady friend, and she had rallied to my cause. My square frame became a round peg in little cafes, drinking loose leaf tea from china cups. She knew I was more at home with a pint of real ale down the ‘Duck and Swan,’ but believed times of stress were best endured alcohol free.
“I know how you feel Gabriel” she told me and repeated the most painful parts of her own divorce. But there was no comparison. She had grown weary of her dependant husband.
“How is Harry?” I would ask her back when they boiled the same kettle, knowing her reply would never reflect well on horrid Harry. But her answers could be amusing.
“Poor Harry is tired after a long day looking for work in bed,” was one answer I received.
Harry wasn’t lazy, and he proved it by getting a good job the week after his divorce. We talked about it when we met for a pint after we lost the two women. He was gracious enough to acknowledge that I had the bigger loss. It turned out he wanted out of the marriage but believed it might be better if Gail decided it was her idea since control was important to her. Perfect passive aggression became his successful strategy. Since he had already relinquished his role of bringing home the weekly bacon it meant she walked away almost empty handed.
“Almost,” he explained meant she kept the time-share in Ibiza which cost a thousand a year in maintenance and was her idea. That same time-share took centre stage in my next episode with Gail. She knew my pain and grew convinced a week in her apartment was just what I needed. Right there I saw why Harry took the passive route in his exit from the marriage. I found I could not refuse. Still raw from my divorce, I didn’t feel that a week alone in Ibiza was what I needed, but three weeks later I boarded the flight at Stansted Airport.
Much to my surprise Gail did not appear the week before I left. Neither did I receive any texts from the woman who had cluster bombed me with messages as part of her aerial support strategy. Not that I was complaining because the act of packing and organising brought back painful memories of the many holidays I had shared with Susan. Besides, I had an abundance of Gail’s precooked dinners in the freezer, since her supply line seemed to assume that I ate several dinners a day. If forced to say one nice thing about her, it would be that she is a good cook, and her duck legs a l’ orange are divine.
The time at the airport brought more pain with memories of our little routines, like relaxing over a drink with all the rumpus of check-in completed. I had a quiet pint, but I hadn’t yet acquired the taste of drinking alone. Even the promise of blue skies and sunshine did nothing to raise my drooping head. I thought with my current luck Ibiza would get its first snow in forty years.
The sun shone when I arrived and during the scenic transfer to the apartment my spirits lifted; perhaps Gail was right after all. I might not be ready for a holiday romance but the week of sun might well be a turning point, and this feeling grew stronger when I saw the beautiful setting Gail had chosen as her time-share.
“Apartment 666, sir. Yes, a lovely view over the ocean.” The friendly receptionist enthused about my accommodation as if I was a prospective buyer and continued to gush like she had newly discovered the gift of speech.
“Mrs Thompson has spent the past week making it all homely,” she said. “How did she say? Yes; ‘Feathering the nest’,” but my English is not so good.”
In fact her English is not only good but far too specific in its meaning for my bruised soul. I know of only one Mrs. Thompson and she is the owner of that week’s time-share in apartment 666. That particular Mrs. Thompson is better known to me as Gail.
“Is she still there?” I asked.
I swigged water so fast and fulsome it looked like an attempt at self-drowning.
“Don’t worry; of course she is. She came to reception two hours past asking me to suggest somewhere special where I would take the love of my life.”
“And what did you suggest?”
“I suggested the ‘Frutos Del Amor’.” She said, making a circle in the air with her thumb and index finger.
“Frutos Del Amor.” I repeated.
“It means, ‘The fruits of love’.” She said, cupping her hands as if fondling a giant melon, and then continued to her sad conclusion when she realised I did not share her enthusiasm.
“But I lost something in the translation.”
Tea and Sympathy lived at 'Come In Cottage' 23 Rose Lane Barkham. Their real names were Mildred and Maureen Mitchell, but everyone called them the 'T and S twins' There wasn't a man or woman in the village who hadn't knocked on their pretty front door to share secrets or to unburden themselves. Mildred brewed the tea while Maureen listened and smiled, made all the right noises and said all the right words.
The spinsters, now in their late sixties had been inseperable all their lives though they couldn't have been more different in temperament. Mildred was a mile a minute, never happy unless she was doing or sorting or running. She still jogged three times a week averaging four miles each time and was a distinctive sight in her pink leggings and lime green lycra top. Maureen, slight and floral, would wave her off, content to watch the world go by as she sat in her rocking chair and gazed out of the cottage window, writing an occasional entry in her journal.
While Mildred made cakes in the kitchen, villagers made confessions in the living room and left feeling lighter in spirit if not in body. For in truth, for all her keeness, Mildred was no Mary Berry.
She was the eldest by three minutes. In a rush even then, desperate to get out of the womb. While Maureen, had she been able to, would have quite happily stayed within its' warmth. Got out a book and given the world a miss.
As time went by, visitors came from further and further afield to visit the wonderful women and each of them in turn was delighted to receive a letter from the pastoral pair one Easter Saturday morning.
The twins had bided their time.
Maureen had filled her journals
and each recipient had been sent an invitation to contribute to the twins retirement fund.
Pay or we tell.
One by one the cheques started to arrive through their door and one June afternoon the twins packed up their bags, sold off the cottage and jetted out to the Bahamas where they had bought a house on the beach.
Mildred gave up running
Maureen gave up journalling
gave up tea.
An Octopus has a beak and a mouth at the centre of its arms. Every time I saw Arnold's face I thought of one. He gesticulated all the time so it appeared he had many arms. The first time I met him he came to fix a leaking tap.
I don't know how he got into that tiny space under the sink but I know Octopi can wriggle through anything. It was fitting that I associated him with water. Wrong that I thought he could help me, mend things, make life better with his company.
He came round often after that, lived just a couple of flats along the balcony.Things (and people) went wrong so often in these old council flats. There was something for him to help with almost every week. He was a good listener too. I told him about my childhood, my kids and stuff I hadn't realised I felt. At first I talked too much, gave him tea and dog-eared tenners to thank him. Then the notes went plastic and he started talking back.
Tea and sympathy but it was more than that. Sympathy could do nothing against the force of his sadness. His lost wife, missing daughters, even his name was gone. He said it was too difficult, he called himself Arnold Smith here. It was only later I wondered difficult for whom? What does it mean if you give up your entire name? I'd felt strange enough taking on Bob's surname when we married. It was like dropping part of me. I changed it straight back after he left. My maiden name's good, solid and very English.
There was nothing English about my visitor. Emotionally Arnold had no skeleton, everything had been shattered the way his homeland had been destroyed. He stopped doing the odd jobs, sat on my sofa most of each day, chatting and sobbing away. Not like a man at all. That was how he got into the tiny space in my heart.
It was because he had no bones, he didn't mind my fierce shell and he used to sniff and lick my hand as if he craved the smell and taste of me. It took some getting used to but I didn't mind as long as no one saw. It became automatic to make two teas rather than one. He blended right in while we were inside the flat but I felt odd going out with him.
Last night we sat watching a nature programme and there was an octopus. Arnold didn't react as if he couldn't recognise his own kind. I watched it force its victim's valves apart, its little stabs of venom. Thought of his careless comments about how beautiful his wife had been, how well his daughters did at school, how deprived his life here was. The way the octopus flipped the shelled victim over with its suction cups made me feel nauseous. There was something familiar about its every move.
I threw him out. My eyes have been opened. Even his passivity was an attempt to control me. I'd suggested redecorating to make my place more homely for him. He said I was kind and it grieved him that he couldn't ever feel love for me. I wasn't having that. Then that octopus appeared on the screen like a warning.
There is no hole in my heart now, I won't be made a fool of again. No one else will ever get in. If only that tap would stop dripping.
TEA AND SYMPATHY
Molly put on her green hat, the one she wore to Sheila's wedding, and locked the front door. It was just a short walk to the teashop but she took her time. Had it been a good idea to choose a spot so close to home? Anyway, too late now. He wouldn't know that and the shop was nice, she felt comfortable there.
What was his name? She wrote it on the back of her hand but she forgot as soon as she did so. Yes, Derek, an author. Quite a surprise, actually. His email looked written by a cultured person, he wrote well and seemed to have a sense of humour.
Mam always said 'You need a man with a sense of humour.' The only man Molly had known was the man she married, that Harry Picken, and he was no joker. Twenty four years of drudgery proved that. After he died, she never thought of a male companion again till Betty at the Social Centre talked about it.
"So easy to join up! Within a minute you can see who's online! I can show you how." Betty loved interfering; meant no harm but she did annoy sometimes.
Two days later Molly went to change her library books. She saw the internet machine by the front desk.
"It's called a P.C." Said the girl behind the counter. "Do you want me to show you how it works? She fiddled with the keyboard and a picture appeared on the screen.
" Now you can find what you want on Google" The word stared at her in a bold way. Below, a section with a blank space lured her on.
"Go on" said the girl, "type in what you want."
Molly sat down at the desk and waited till she'd gone. Typing had been her forte; thirty years in Mister Althorp's office taught her that, but she wondered what to write. The blank space challenged her. Her fingers hovered over the keys, awaiting commands. Before she knew it, the word 'meeting' appeared in neat script on the screen. She looked round quickly. Did anyone see? No, so she tapped Enter just like the girl had done.
Up came a list of names, and she clicked on the first one. The screen changed and a title ‘Partners Choice' took over; all the rest of the items disappeared. From then onward it became simply a matter of following the instructions and picking the name. She clicked on. Such fun! She was on the 'Internet' like Betty and by typing she could make things happen! When the name of Derek came up, the description ‘author’ intrigued her and she tapped a message so the meeting was arranged.
Sitting in the teashop, she felt it may have been a mistake. She didn't know Derek. Why had she done it? Perhaps the excitement of trying something new? Or was it a subconscious wish to make contact? Any contact? She fidgeted and crumpled a serviette beneath her fingers.
"What you want, Love?" A voice shattered this reverie. The waitress stood arms akimbo at her side. "Is it tea for one?"
"No I'm waiting for someone. It's tea for two."
The girl repeated the order as if she found it unusual, but Molly looked away and ignored her. The café began to fill up with mothers and children, older couples and a few single people. A quick glance at each single man was all she could do. She longed for the tea to arrive, at least then she could busy herself with preparations but she couldn’t catch the waitress's eye.
Then she noticed the blind man treading carefully through the maze of tables. He wore dark glasses and he held his stick in front of him like a waterdiviner. He tripped at one point and she saw the need to steady him as he approached.
"Are you alright? It's very crowded in here isn't it?" She felt a fool; how could he see ?
He nodded and said "Can you put me near a table with a single lady please? Are you the waitress? I'm looking for a Mrs Molly Picken."
She froze. Her mind went blank. She hesitated while she did her best to make sense of it. How did he write the internet entry? Why didn't he say he was blind? An author? He waited patiently by the table. He made no complaint but just stood there with his empty eyes fixed on her.
"Mind your back, Love!" The waitress lifted her tray high and put it down between them on the table. Then she looked at him for the first time and took his arm and sat him down in the chair facing Molly.
"There you go! Just make yourself comfortable and the lady will pour for you, won't you?"
She looked at Molly in a deliberate way as if to oblige her to speak or do something, then she marched away to deal with someone else.
"Are you Molly?" His voice was low and pleasant. He leant forward but she sat back in surprise.
"Yes. I'm Molly Picken and you are Derek?"
How banal her reply sounded! and added quickly,
"I wondered what you looked like!" She felt even worse.
He grinned. "I can't help you with that. Maybe you can tell me!"
He put one hand out gently to feel for the tray. "Would you like a cup of tea?" His hand touched the cups and traced the outline of the teapot and jug.
"Oh, Please let me!"
Like a spell, it woke her from inertia and eagerly she set about making tea and arranging plates for them both. He smiled and put his hands back on his lap.
"You're wondering why I didn't say I was blind aren't you? And how did I manage the internet?"
"Yes" She said and was surprised how easy it seemed to chat with him.
"Well, I knew if I said so, no one would reply, so I got the Warden to write it for me and see what happened. Maybe I did wrong?
"Yes I think you did wrong! But never mind now, here's your tea."
He took the cup and they sat for a while without saying a word. Molly examined her mixed feelings of surprise and recrimination . He was here and real. What was the point in brooding over what had passed?
She looked at his clothes, the grubby jacket had buttons missing; his trousers were frayed old cords; he was a mess. It didn't matter. She felt glad she'd come.
They talked about the town and the way things had changed; he told her he had been a sailor and a deep sea diver. How he spent years in the Far East and lost a fortune in India. She wondered at the contrast between her life and his, the wealth of excitement he had found and her quiet homespun history. He never told her how he’d become blind and she was too embarrassed to ask. It seemed unimportant as they chatted together.
The tea grew cold as they talked on and when the waitress came back, clearing the table, she looked at Derek.
"Nice cup of tea, my Love?"
She ignored Molly. Molly took out her purse and paid the bill. No tip.
There was some activity at the door of the café and two men moved purposely towards their table. They stood next to Derek and one of them said
"Come on Derek, you can't keep running off like this. You're causing grief at the ward. You'll lose you Leave-outs after this."
They pulled him up by his armpits and began to move to the door. He turned towards Molly. His face was bright as a happy schoolboy.
"See you Molly, thanks for the tea!"
She watched as they led him to a van outside and carefully guided his head into the back seat. He sat quietly as the vehicle moved and never looked back.
The key made that familar rusty noise as she unlocked the front door. The hall was dark and cold. She hung her coat and went into the kitchen to finish the washing up. Everything was as she had left it. She dried the dishes and for a moment, just one moment, she pictured his worn smile and frayed clothes that needed repair. Her eyes softened as she recalled the stories he told and how she had believed every one of them. Then she sighed.
Mrs McIlhenny was, I think, in her eighties. She lived on the High Street of my home town, in one of a small block of tiny flats that had been converted in the nineties from an old Toc H building. The building wasn't much to look at, and nor was she, though both of them had, in their day, been fit for purpose, or so I believed; attractive even, if I am to be charitable about it.
Each day, as I wandered up the High Street for my morning coffee at the local tea rooms, Mrs McIlhenny would be perched comfortably on her front garden bench. It was a small garden with a large seat, and she would be engaging cheerfully with the passers-by as she sat enthroned there. I was one such brief daily encounter.
"Morning" she would say. "It's a lovely day."
Or, "Morning. Nice and sunny today, but a bit chilly."
Often, "Morning. It'll be grand today, once it's stopped raining."
It was evidently always lovely, sunny, nice and warm when viewed from Mrs McIlhenny's front garden bench. Even on the rainy days.
"Yes, we need to make the most of it," I would reply, hesitating only slightly as I walked by, aware of the other morning shoppers behind me, who were waiting to receive her benediction.
Sometimes, when I reached the top of the street I would sit over my cappuccino thinking about Mrs McIlhenny. Slowly stirring the creamy froth I would wonder, was there, or had there ever been, a Mr McIlhenny? Children? Little McIlhenny grand- or even great-grandchildren?
Our acquaintance stretched to something over a year now, beginning when I had retired from my city job, which had kept me too busy to get to know people in the town where I had always lived, yet seldom dwelt. I wondered whether Mrs McIlhenny was lonely. I knew that I was. And there is no loneliness as deep as that you feel in your own home town, with no-one left there who could remember you growing up. Change happens, and we are meant to embrace it, but I was desperately homesick for a home that no longer existed and was not anywhere to be found, because I was already there. I feared my big mistake had been not to have moved away whilst I still had my youth. I would make the best of it, but I should not ask of myself the I should pretend contentment or peace of mind, let alone have the happiness I had hoped for.
One morning- rainy, but, and I tried to steal some of Mrs McIlhenny's bright take on life, it would be nice and warm once the rain dried up - I stopped and called over to her, from under my brolly to under hers.
"Morning. Do you fancy coming for a cuppa with me today?"
She smiled a toothless smile, shaking her head placidly.
"No, you're alright, love. I've just had one."
Not lonely, then. At least, not to the extent that she was tempted to sup a beverage with me. Nevertheless, I didn't feel rejected. I still felt blessed. Maybe I should not have chosen a rainy day for my invitation, I thought.
I tried again the next sunny day and her response was the same - a very amiably delivered refusal.
And so we passed our days, each of us, with coffee, tea and weather, until that day came, around the middle of August, when Mrs McIlhenny was not to be found in her regular spot, and I felt a chill run through me. This was not like her at all. I mused my way along the High Street, worrying, and sat disconsolately in the tea rooms at my favourite table by the window. I would often feel a small lightening of the spirits if the window table was free. It meant I might one day spot someone I recognized or, perhaps even less likely, who recognized me. Today there was no lightening of the spirits, as I began to entertain fears of the worst kind. Mrs McIlhenny had fallen ill in the night and would be dead and buried before I could find anyone to ask about the funeral arrangements.
I finished my drink, paid up, tried to look cheerful and made my way home, hoping I would see her on the way back, perched on her bench. Maybe she was just late up. But no, she was not there. And then I saw, nor was the bench. There was just a bald patch of earth where the bench had been. I had a sudden vision of Mrs McIlhenny and her bench rising heavenward, she still seated and nodding and waving to us all as she rose.
That evening, doing my regular trawl of social media to see which of my faceless "friends" had had a better dinner than me, was sporting a better hairdo than me or had a livelier social life or more valid politics than mine, I saw that an uncommon lot of people had posted on our Local Town and Surrounding Villages page.
"What's happened to Mrs McIlhenny?"
"Dunno. Haven't seen her."
"Did somebody tek her out for day?"
"She wunt go dunt like cars."
"Somebody said she died."
"Wot that luvvly owd lady."
"Nah, not her."
"Some gits nicked her bench!"
There was the perception of a distinct silence. Not so much as a whisper. Not even a "Lowlife sum!" nor an exhortation to "Share if you are AGAINST the gits that took Mrs McIlhenny's bench."
I scrolled down, but nothing. However, a picture was emerging. Mrs McIlhenny's bench had fallen to thieves. She had been unseated. She had lost her bench and it must be recovered, or a new one provided for her. And then, a plan began to be hatched and even as I watched I saw pledges of money starting to come in, all unknown to Mrs McIlhenny, who, I was certain, was a unversed in social networking of the electronic kind as she was versed in the face to face.
I went to bed that night, enjoyed a long, dreamless sleep, the first for many a month, and woke up feeling refreshed and ready for my daily walk. I could see from a brief look at the weather app that the day would be changeable. Changeable? Indeed it would. Mrs McIlhenny would not be on her eternal bench. But how could the weather app possible know that? A certain jauntiness and levity had crept into me overnight and it was coming out in wry observations. I had to smile, though there was no-one there to smile with.
I collected my sunspecs and brolly and made my way to the High Street. I thought it barely worth my while to cast a glance towards the old Toc H, but did so anyway, out of habit, and possibly a little burgeoning hope. And there she stood, Mrs McIlhenny, leaning against her front door jamb with her usual amiable, placid air. It was evident she had adapted, and if she could not be seated she would stand.
We exchanged our daily greeting and I carried on in search of my regular cappuccino. Really, it was as though nothing had changed. Yet something had. I ran through possibilities in my head as I stirred my froth. Yes, the bench had gone, but the important things, Mrs McIlhenny and her cheeriness, were still there. I mentally scratched my head and was still cerebrally itchy at bedtime.
Each day that week passed in similar vein. Mrs McIlhenny leaned, I scratched and bubbles seemed to rise and pop inside me. Apprehension? Stress? Anticipation? It was a long time since I had felt any anticipation. I had no clue and could only pace out my days until some clearer emotion surfaced.
Monday morning came, a sunny day but one which could go either way. I dressed accordingly and set off for my coffee in the expectation of seeing Mrs McIlhenny standing by her front door. As I approached the Toc H perhaps my gaze was fixed too high, for I did not spot her at once. I could see, however, that the person just ahead had lifted their hand in a friendly wave. I dropped my eyes a little and there sat Mrs McIlhenny on a brand new bench.
I saw it was made from beautiful beech wood, with a wrought iron inset back featuring vines, the leaves picked out in bright green paint. Mrs McIlhenny looked well on it. Rather like Cleopatra on her barge, I thought. But Mrs McIlhenny's bench was something that would not have done for the barge at all. It was bolted firmly to a concrete plinth set in the ground. The people of the town had made it stable and permanent. Not to be taken. Not to be messed with.
I looked at its occupant and she seemed to radiate lightness. She shone. As I looked, I felt all the chill of those long months leave me. These people of my home town were my friends even as much as they were hers. And these would be friendships that would support and last. Mrs McIlhenny had had her bench taken from her and, with kindness, generosity and sympathy, they had replaced it. I had lost myself somewhere on the way and they would replace that too, in time, without a word needing to be spoken. I stood there on the High Street and watched them go by, these friends of ours.
"Morning, Mrs McIlhenny. Nice day."
"Yes, it is. And they've said it'll last all week."
One after another the exchanges came. And then,
"Morning, Mrs McIlhenny," I said. "Do you fancy coming for a cuppa with me today?"
"Now, I would like that, love," she said. "I've had a few cuppas already this morning, but I'm sure I've room for one more."
And Mrs McIlhenny winked at me.
I carefully try to slide my hand into my pocket.
Turning my phone over and pressing the button to check the time as I hear for the fifteenth time since I arrived that Elvis is coming soon.
She's sure he must be on his way by now.
Outside in the corridors I hear a woman screaming, searching for her lost cardigan that has been stolen again.
I close my eyes and imagine the minutes ticking by as she tells me again that Elvis is coming, he'll be here any minute and I mustn't take my eyes off the door for a second.
She'll never forgive me if I miss him.
I ask her if she would like a cup of tea, a game of cards, an afternoon nap but no, she only wants to wait for him.
One of the nurses pops her head around the door.
"Is she being alright today?" She asks.
I nod slowly, still tired from yesterday's shift and dreading the long hours ahead as I drift from person to person introducing myself again and again to people who won't know me the next time I see them.
The nurse gives me a thumbs up.
Looking back across the room from my chair I can see she has fallen asleep on the bed, lying in her best clothes on top of the covers. She is snoring already.
I try not to move.
Within minutes she is awake again and staring at me blankly.
"Who are you?" She asks.
I tell her my name and explain that we have met many times before and that we enjoy chatting, sitting in her room and waiting for the nurses to arrive with her tea.
"Do we?" She asks cautiously. "What do we chat about?"
I feel the exhaustion creeping over me as I swallow and try to look as excited as I know that she will be.
"We like to talk about Elvis." I say wearily.
Her eyes light up as I mention the only subject that she knows - the only one that we ever discuss, talking about the same four or five facts over and over again.
"Do you like Elvis?" She asks me happily. "He's a lovely man, he's popping round in a minute."
I tell her that sounds wonderful.
She points to a picture of him on her wall, her most prized possession and proceeds to tell me how tall he is, what his favourite colour shirt is and she sings a few lines of Jailhouse Rock to me.
"Did you know he lives in a place called Graceland?" I ask, not wanting to shatter the illusion by explaining to her that Elvis died long ago and will in fact, not be coming to tea.
"No." She says looking at me with eyes imploring, wanting every little detail I can serve up.
I nod as emphatically as I can manage.
She isn't lying when she says that she doesn't know - it doesn't matter that I told her the same thing only ten minutes ago, or that we've had the same conversation at least eight times on each visit.
She doesn't know.
The old woman who lost her cardigan shuffles in, her zimmer frame scraping at the carpet as she approaches me with tears in her eyes.
"Can you help me?" She asks mournfully. "I've just killed a man and the police are coming to get me."
I ask her who she killed but she doesn't know.
There are no nurses around and the orderlies are hiding in the kitchen. There is no reassuring the crying woman, she can already see the flashing lights outside.
I look out at the empty car park.
A bluebird is sitting on the windowsill, his head cocked to one side as if considering what it might be like to be inside this big, brickwork prison.
"Have you seen Elvis anywhere?"
I am stuck between a rock and roll fanatic waiting for The King and a octaganarian murderer about to be taken to prison.
I touch my hand to the sides of my head and rub the temples.
"Are you alright?" The slipper wearing killer enquires, forgetting momentarily about her impending incarceration. "Do you want a gin and tonic?"
She doesn't wait for me to answer before she shuffles out of the open door and stands in the empty corridor, taking an invisible purse out of her nightie and ordering two gin and tonics from a non-existant bar man.
She shuffles back in and nods at me approvingly.
"Did you enjoy it?" She asks.
I smile gratefully and tell her that I did, thanks, but we probably shouldn't be drinking gin and tonics at ten in the morning.
She shakes her head at me as if I am an idiot.
"Don't be silly." She smiles. "It's Wednesday."
Suddenly she remembers her cardigan is still missing and leaves us alone, the two of us once more sitting in the tiny room - me on the chair and my companion on the bed.
"Who are you?"
We begin the cycle again as I introduce myself and she explains to me that Elvis really should be along at any minute.
I don't mean to tune her out but I do - it's unavoidable as we monotonously go over the same conversation again and again.
I pick up a photoframe sitting at her bedside.
It's a wedding photo, a beautiful sepia image of two smiling people in the sunshine - a woman holding a bouqet of blooming roses, gypsophilia and foliage.
There are petals scattered all around them as they wave to people hidden behind the camera lens, the picture of happiness and hope for the future.
I don't know what happened to the man in the picture.
I don't know his name, what he did or how long he lived.
Neither does she.
She remembers making her wedding dress though and tells me all about it - the long hours she put into stitching the hem and adding the lace. She laughs as she remembers pricking her finger on the needle and worrying about the tiniest dot of blood.
For a moment I sit and think.
I think about how strange it is that a whole life can be forgotten but the smallest detail of the most insignificant event can linger somewhere, lost in the back of your mind until somebody pulls it from you.
She looks happy for a moment and I wonder if somehow she is remembering him - if there is something left of her somewhere that can be found.
But then she looks at me.
"Who are you?" She asks.
I check my phone and realise that our time is up.
I stand and put on my coat, picking up my rucksack and slinging it over my shoulders. Placing my hand on her shoulder I tell her to try and relax, to eat something if she can and I promise her that next time I visit I will bring her a new photo of Elvis.
"Will you?" She grins with her eyes gleaming.
I nod and give her shoulder a squeeze.
Before I leave I slip the photo of Mr Presley that we keep for each visit under my coat hoping that she won't see.
It isn't cheating - I don't get a budget for this kind of thing and it makes her so happy each time she is presented with it.
She doesn't need to know that I've given her the same photo six times now or that next time I see her I will give it to her again.
I walk out of the building and stand in the sunshine.
I move on.
I have other visits to complete, forms to fill in and people who need my attention, my time. I don't have time to sit and dwell as my day is filled with hours of madness, sadness, grief and pain.
Families give orders for baths, medicines and endless cups of tea and I march relentlessly on, desensitised to the sights and smells.
The mess doesn't bother me.
I've seen it all before.
But no matter how I try, I can't escape the smell.
It's not the smell of urine or anything similar.
I try to describe it to my husband when I arrive home from my shift, try to explain how it lingers long after I am sitting in my pyjamas and dressing gown, freshly showered and clean.
How it seeps into my skin and I feel it in my pores.
It's the smell of dementia.
It's the smell of death.
It's cleaning fluids, mashed potatoes, porridge and bleach.
It's a grim glimpse into a potential future for you, me, anybody who ever had a life - anybody who was ever loved or loved another.
The possible end for a teacher, doctor, builder or circus performer.
My husband, my mother, my friends, my neighbours.
Once again the tears begin to roll down my cheeks as I curl up on my sofa - my dog jumps up next to me and licks my face, his fur warm and soft.
My husband sits next to me and hands me a cup of tea.
He wraps his arms around me and kisses me on the forehead.
He tells me he loves me.
I drink my cup of tea and when I am finished I go to check the washing machine to make sure that my uniform is ready for tomorrow's visit.
I need to make sure I leave early in the morning, I can't be late.
Elvis is coming.
Not My Cup of Tea
The wedding tea ceremony was to take place in two days. When buying longan and red dates tea, the Chinese grocer spoke of the sweetness of the red dates that symbolised a blissful life, and to have a child soon. Jia Li's sister-in-law could not wait to pass this worldly knowledge to Jia Li while giving her a gentle nudge. Jia Li's face was drained of colours of joy as she watched her sister-in-law rinsing red tea cups, saucers and teapot in hot water and then placing them carefully on a tray. Her sister-in-law was oblivious that Jia Li was not keen in marrying her brother Shuang, a widow with two young children.
Jia Li's village was on a remote hill surrounded by oddly shaped pine trees, twenty miles from Shuang's home. She had arrived early to Shuang's place to make preparations for her wedding. Her in-laws had offered their guest room to her which was immaculately clean and beautiful with crane printed crimson wall paper. She remembered her cluttered house where downstairs was the living room and also a makeshift kitchen with a ladder leading up to the one room upstairs shared by Jia Li, her parents and a brother while her granny slept downstairs. Their dog, a Tibetan Mastiff would be indoors, sleeping soundly even when there was a thunderstorm. The toilet was built outside next to a pigsty with only one piglet with a pink ribbon tied to its tail. Pin Jin, the bride's price was paid in form of two buffaloes and the entire wedding feast would be borne by Shuang. He had also found a dishwasher job for her brother in town which meant extra income for her family. Her family was indebted by Shuang's kindness.
While peeling the skins of boiled potatoes, her granny kept staring at her angelic, pale face. She knew Jia Li was not happy with the marriage arrangement. She said, 'We eat potatoes for breakfast and lunch and drink tap water before we go to bed. The weather has been unkind to us. This marriage means we could afford to eat rice, vegetables and meat, and not go to bed with an empty stomach.' It was a month ago after hearing those words, Jia Li made a promise to her granny that she would accept Shuang's hand in marriage wholeheartedly. Today, she felt differently about the wedding.
Jia Li knew of Shuang's affair with a woman whom his parents disapproved of becoming their daughter-in-law. The sultry woman was strikingly beautiful with a dewy oval face as if the moonlight glowed on her cherry painted lips and glossy black hair. Her apparels were of European haute couture. She worked as his assistant at his advertising firm and they worked late nights.
Without anyone's knowledge, Jia Li took a stroll on a bridge where the moon rested on the shimmering river flowing beneath the bridge. The full moon was partly veiled in a wisp of clouds and the night breeze swept by as she leaned against the bridge rail. She could hear croaking of frogs and chirping of crickets that made her feel calm and relaxed. Jia Li had seen Shuang and his lover entering a bar with his arms locked in hers earlier that evening. The feeling of a sting of seeing both of them in loving embrace had disappeared. She saw a shadow hovering close to her on the bridge.
'Hi sister, I saw you leave Shuang's bungalow and I followed you here.'
'What a wonderful surprise. I haven't seen you since you left home to work in town.
Are you happy working here?'
Jia Li's brother stared at his coarse hands and he felt his body aching all over but he just said, 'It's a good experience. The pay is good. I don't have a high education to earn better. This will do for now. Tell me, are you happy to marry Shuang?'
Jia Li sighed and then quickly masqueraded her real feelings, "Oh, I'm lucky indeed to marry a rich man.'
After a brief conversation, Jia Li returned to her room. She combed her long silky black hair in a pensive mood while seated on a cushioned stool in front of an octagon shaped mirror. Her eyes fell on the high neck red cheongsam with golden dragon embroidery, and a gold dragon and phoenix bangle. Shuang's parents had presented them to her and their kindness overwhelmed her. They had explained to her that the dragon and phoenix symbolised a yin-yang balance in creating marital bliss. She smiled contemptuously at the thought of finding true love as she peered into the svelte figure in the mirror. The thought of speaking to Shuang made her body tremble; being only nineteen and he, forty. But she decided to speak to Shuang that very night. Her courage blossomed by the minute.
'What are you doing waiting up so late?'
'Shuang, I need to talk to you. Who was that I saw in your arms this evening?'
He laughed and revealed his stained yellow teeth. His breath smelt of beer.
He said, 'Oh you poor thing, Ai Bao is my sweetheart and she'll always be right here in my heart. Your job is to cook for my family and care for my children,' and his speech slurred, 'wash dish-es, sweep-the-house, yes-ss-and stay clear of--of my love life!'
Jia Li's eyes swelled in tears. No sympathy would ever wash away the hurt she felt in her heart. Meanwhile, Shuang had collapsed on his bed and slept soundly like her Tibetan Mastiff as the clouds spread her story over the sky. The gray clouds carried a storm and soon poured out its burden of an heartache.
The morning of the wedding day arrived. Soon, she would dress up as a bride and in the corner of her eyes, she saw her soon-to-be step children tying a pink ribbon to their father's hair and painting his cheeks with a rosy blush. Shuang was a dead log, not even waking up to the noise of tumultuous relatives who had just arrived. Jia Li smiled and tiptoed to her room.
Ai Bao stormed into Jia Li's room in Ennio Mecozzi heels without an invitation and hissed at Jia Li, 'You worthless thing, how dare you come between Shuang and me?'
Jia Li's sister-in-law who was in the room retorted, 'How dare you come into the house in your heels?'
Jia Li replied calmly, "Ai Bao, he is yours. You can have him. He's waiting for you in his room but wait, take these with you." She handed her two things.
When Ai Bao entered Shuang's room, he was waking up to a splitting hangover and saw pink ribbons and pressed powder blush compact in her hands. Jia Li heard some screaming and saw Ai Bao rushing out of the house with her piglet chasing after her.
Laughing, Jia Li's sister-in-law scuttled to the kitchen to prepare longan and red dates tea for the tea ceremony.
Jake's racing car can fly and he often soars above the town where he lives, lifts himself above the constricting streets and travels far above, feeling the wind in his hair and the whoosh of delight in his belly as he rises, up and up, higher than everyone he knows. Sometimes he takes his mum along for the ride, because she deserves it. She screams and whoops along with him as they fly. Other times it's just him alone up there, cloud-dodging and dipping so that his stomach does flips.
He can fire rockets of rice-krispies at people too, at the nasty people, the people who dare to do bad stuff to him while he's flying. He takes aim, fires and peppers them with his rice-krispie gun, which makes them laugh and say sorry and be his friend again. He takes on bullies, thieves and the boy who always looks at him and laughs. That boy, Kev, the one his mum tells him he must feel sorry for. He does, actually, because Kevin doesn't have a racing car and although he's named after his dad, his dad isn't there and has never been there, when at least Jake knew his a bit. Kev has to laugh at other people to make himself feel better, so Jake gives him extra rice-krispie shots to make him smile.
At school Jake has all the advantages of an ancient brain, won when he travelled back in time and fought the dragon on Dragon Hill, the dragon who guards the good brains and only gives them to the worthy. He sets riddles and brain teasers and though Jake had the advantage of Super Intel, the questions and riddles were hard and he struggled. But he won, took on board the extra brain power and now he's top of the class - top of the school in some things - and the teachers call him Super Brain (but only quietly, because they don't want the other kids to feel bad. Jake doesn't boast - his mum told him that wasn't nice - so he's quiet with his talents and he ever so quietly comes top in most stuff. It helps that he has an on board computer to help him convert his thoughts to words, but the power of those thoughts is strong. He has the Force of the Ancient Brain taken form the Dragons who guard all the ancient brains in the world and make sure only the most deserving get them.
Jake even gets extra days off because his brain is so good. No, he doesn't have to go to school every single day - sometimes he goes to his special place where his on board computer gets recharged and his racing car checked and his bionic heart monitored. On these days his mum reminds him how absolutely lucky he is, and reminds him that his mates at school will be stuck indoors doing too easy maths. And he's lucky because he has other friends, too. His friends in his special place and boys with super powers just like him, and they are all brilliant, lucky kids.
It's an extra day off today. He asks his mum if she wants to fly but she looks unhappy and her mouth is set in a line and her fingernails are more badly bitten than usual. He knows something is up but he doesn't know what. Shes doesn't want to fly so he drives instead, along the bumpy stained pavements, jerky movements hurting his car. Flying is better but Mum says no.
They get to his special place and none of his friends are there. This makes him sad. In the special room where he can play with extra special stuff JUST for him and his friends, there's a young girl, and she's crying, and she's all alone.
When Jake's mum goes to the big yellow desk to say they're here, Jake drives his car over to her and asks her if she'd like a go. Her car is much smaller. But she shakes her head and says her mum's in the loo and she likes her own car. But she says chair, which Jake's about to tell her is wrong when her mum comes back, and Jake can see that she's been crying too. Jake's mum - who has superpowers when she doesn't mind people seeing, comes over and gives her a big hug and they go and stand in a corner so Jake can't hear what they're saying. Jake's got supersonic hearing though so he can drop eaves, which is what his mum tells him he mustn't do with his special powers. He gives the girl his best smile and drives backwards just a little so he can hear them.
'...was our last hope but they won't... no further treatment options.... can't believe it... so angry and feel so useless... America... money... what do I tell her?'
Mum sees Jake and send him a telling off eye beam so he goes back to the girl, who's stopped crying.
'What's your name?' he says.
'Molly,' she says. She has a lovely voice; soft and serene, like an angel, Jake thinks. 'I'm dying,' she says, matter-of-factly.
'Of what?' Jake asks, after a while when he doesn't know what to say. He's going to live forever thanks to his on board computer, unless that computer breaks and he has to go and have it fixed, or unless the computer decides he's ready for the next level. That's what his mum told him would happen one day and that when it did, he'd not be able to see her again but might get another mummy. he told her not to say scary stuff like that and she said that he had to know. That was about the time his daddy left for cigarettes (that mummy hated) and didn't come back. Mum told him the cigarette God caught him and took him away.
Immediately he feels sorry for the girl, because his life is going to go on forever and hers isn't, so he thinks he'll tell her a story, to make her feel better.
'One day,' he says, 'your racing car will be able to fly, just like mine and you might get an on board computer, just like me. But the people who make the computers have special powers and they have lots of jobs to do and one day, you might have to go back and help them with something, or get it fixed, or get it changed. Then you get to go and live somewhere else for a while and it's all a big adventure.'
The girl's eyes are on his and Jake feels all funny in his tummy. Her eyes are deep dark brown and they are big and shiny and he finds himself wanting to look into them. He can feel his super powers deserting him because he doesn't know what to say, so he smiles back.
'I like that story,' she says. 'I'll tell it to my mum.'
'Jake Bradley?' calls a voice.
Jake's mum appears by his side and she makes as if to push his car. He drives away from her and she does an awkward little fall forwards, regaining her feet just in time. Jake giggles and so does the girl. As Jake drives away he looks at her and she's smiling, and waving with two of her fingers. A super power wave; it's the one he does. She'll be all right, he thinks.
Jake's mum laughs too and follows him, jogging to keep up, as he drives to the Superpower Office - his mum's name for the place he goes and gets everything checked. Last time they were here they took some of his blood away in a tube to see how his superpowers were doing.
'Hello Dr White,' says his Mum, and then in a rush she says, 'Are the results back?'
Jake's got too big to lift now and he can't levitate like he used to, so he has a special machine to make him levitate. His mum helps him into it and swings him over to his bed, where he finally gets to rest after his day saving the world and flying. His mum helps him get changed.
She sings him the special song she made up for him about what a magical kid he is but at the end she's crying, just like Molly's mum. Jake knows what this means. It means they want him to go back and get his computer checked out and maybe send him somewhere else.
'I don't want to go anywhere else. I want to stay here, with you,' he says. His mum leans across his super-high bed and hugs him, hard. It hurts, a little. He can smell her perfume, the one she's worn forever, that she only uses a tiny bit of, because it's expensive. But Jake has a super-nose, so he can smell it anyway.
'You're too important to them, the ones who made your computer. You're too important and they want you back, to help teach other people about building new stuff. Because you're so special. I want to keep you here but you're too important. I can only keep you for so long.' His mum's voice goes all wobbly.
'When do I have to go?' Jake says, quietly, into his mum's sweet-smelling hair.
'Soon,' she whispers, and Jake feels her body wobble as well as her words. 'Not yet, but soon.'
She straightens up and wipes her eyes, gives him his super meds so that he gets to fly at night as well, and then leaves the room, leaving the door ajar and the light on so that if he wants to go for a magic night wander, he can find the way.
Jake's mattress rolls gently under him so he doesn't get sore bits, the thing that turns his air to super-air hisses behind him and he thinks about Molly. She was nice. Perhaps if he has to go and she's there, it might not be so bad.
He falls asleep and his dreams are colourful ad vivid, as they always are. In them he's with him mum, running across fields, jumping over grasses that sway gently in a sweet breeze. At one point his mum lets go of his hand and he's off upwards, floating away, up to the clouds. She's smiling at him and he knows that she'll be okay, because he can see her, and he'll always be able to see her. He floats upwards and hears his name being called in a soft voice that he knows. There's Molly, floating towards him.
'You're right,' she says. 'It's magical up here. Look at me! Look at what I can do now!' And with strong arms she pulls him close and kisses his cheek, and then she pulls him fast, over the trees and the hills and the fields. When he looks back he can still see his mum standing there watching, so he does an extra twirl just for her.
It'll all be okay, he realises now, in his dream. It'll all be okay, when it happens. He knows he must remember this to tell his mum when he wakes up for another day of sorting out bullies with rice-krispies. It'll all be okay and she's not got to worry or be sad. I'll tell her. And he goes back to his dream, where he and Molly have landed in a field and are running with strong legs across the grass, laughing together.
Where I come from.
The small sleek craft bobbed to the rhythm of the turning tide. Brigid watched the men load the provisions onto the currach. The two men would row the boat with its pitch covered canvas to the small island. The crew were locals she had grown up with on the island, and they engaged with a brother’s familiarity. Loading complete they helped her to the small stern seat, out of the way of oars and flying brine.
‘One small step for Brigid, one giant leap for mankind,’ the boatman joked, trying to sound like the voice from the moon landing the year before.
She might have married an island man if things were different. However, they clung to superstitious ways, all based on the belief that Brigid’s great-grandmother was a selkie. The story of how the seal shed its coat and took on a human form survived the generations.
The story detailed her Great-grandfather fishing and each day a seal swam behind him back to the shore. It was a pleasant distraction for the fisherman who had lost his young wife three months previously. They had enjoyed only one year of married life and no children had yet arrived. Seals often follow fishing boats; sometimes they even help themselves to a fish from the lines. But that was different. The seal followed him in a consistent fashion and showed no interest in food.
It was the summer solstice as the sun set on a balmy evening. Her great-grandfather returned from his day’s fishing and secured the boat above the breaking waves. When he turned around to throw a mackerel to the seal, a woman stood there and she carried her sealskin. Some strange sense deprived him of shock or fear because he knew he had been chosen by a selkie.
‘Dia dhuit.’ Micháel Bán greeted her in his Irish tongue. The Irish welcome means ‘God be with you,' but he wasn’t sure if God was with such changelings. She smiled, waiting to follow him. He put his wooden framed fishing lines on top of the fish basket and hoisted it on his shoulder, turning for home.
‘Fág sin mar atá sé,’ he said, resigning to ‘what’s for you, won’t pass you.’ He knew there was no point resisting the power of fate. The selkie followed at a short distance, her sealskin a glint of silver scales reflecting reds from the setting sun.
When the story was told to Brigid as a child, by her mother, she never mentioned such things as courtship or marriage.
‘For seven years they lived happily, and were blessed with two children,’ was all she said. Brigid’s father said nothing because it involved his side of the family.
‘That storm came from nowhere,’ her mother said.
She referred to a day Brigid’s great-grandfather fished his familiar ground south west of the island. His selkie wife could sense weather changes unlike another person. The storm came sudden. She watched the black clouds roll by as the wind rose. By the time it howled over her thatched roof she was on the rocks below, looking out to sea. She sensed the danger and fetched her sealskin from beneath the bed in the attic. Her heart weighed as heavy as the box of lead weights by the door as she pulled the skin about her body. From once she entered the water she could never return to dry land again. But it must be done; Micháel was the breadwinner with two children to rear. She kissed the children as they lay asleep in their beds and left them in the care of Micháel’s mother who had come to live with them.
As soon as she slid beneath the salty brine, she felt a peace that relieved her of earthly cares. Some familiar sense took her straight onto the bearing of the currach. The man rowed hard in a rising swell but made little progress, being constantly tossed off course. She swam beneath the water rising at the bow. Unseen by her man, she steadied the boat and helped propel it forward on the correct course. When they rounded the sheltered side of the island she slid beneath the waves unseen. From there, it was easy work for a man raised to the sea; steering a course through the breaking waves on the shore until he felt the sand beneath.
From that day, whenever the two children of Micháel Bán went to the strand to play, a lone seal watched over them.
‘That tale grew from two children that got friendly with a seal,’ others said.
These people paid no heed to tradition and reckoned Micháel Bán had married a woman from a distant island after his wife died. They recalled how she grew restless for her own people and would climb the steep hill to the back of the lighthouse looking west to her childhood home.
‘The woman returned to her own place leaving him to rear two children. There was some loss came over her.’ The loss inferred related to the mind.
Whatever the truth, it is the power of myth holds sway, and the reason nobody down Brigid’s family line had ever married an islander. She found happiness with Manus, a mountain man, when she left home to work on the mainland. Her mother no longer talked about the past, on Brigid’s monthly visits.
Still, her eyes always turned to the rocky headland where the lone sentinel seal waited, whenever she arrived to her island home.
The Knowledge of Birds
The superstitions of our grandmothers have a weight. Ancient myths and old wives’ tales are often told to us, stitched together and warped from so many retellings; we all know the bad luck of the black cat as we toss salt over our shoulders.
But do you know about the birds?
Birds know things: they warn us of the approaching thunderstorm and take to the air before the ground begins to quake; we should listen for the canary’s song, for when it is silenced we must run. And, most importantly, we must remember that if a bird flies into your home then Death will soon ride out to greet you.
Early-warning systems, that’s what birds are. They are scientists and almanacs and psychics and if you know how to listen they always sound the distress signal. I’ve been a good listener, but the birds around me are not to be trusted. They are liars, all. Many birds have flown in through my window and battered themselves around in the corners of my apartment, their pupils blown wide with mania, before I was able to usher them back out into the sky. Death has not yet come for me. The frantic flapping and tattered feathers littering my carpet are false alarms.
No bird came to my grandmother before she died. All of my misinformed messengers had come to the wrong place when she had needed them, and so she left without warning. She must have been startled the night Death appeared, unannounced, in her doorway. And she must have thought him rude when he lead her out into the starry desert, hand-in-hand, but she was too stoic to make a fuss. She went quietly, and I like to pretend she walked with her head raised, eyes scanning the dark sky for owls.
After arrangements had been made and executed, after family had come and mourned and gone again, I sat on the floor in the front room of her empty house. My fingers trailed over the spiraled pattern of the rug that she had woven many years ago and I thought about how I would miss it.
A clack-clacking from the open doorway raised my head. A roadrunner stood on the threshold, head cocked and tail tilted downward to brush against the floor as it stepped inside, its proud crest deflated. It knew it was late, and had come to tell me it was sorry.
The bird and I had nothing to say to one another, but we sat together in silence as the sun lowered the desert into night. Then it gave another clack from its long beak and turned back the way it had come.
The birds have no sense of time; they’re always too early or too late. One day, perhaps, they will get it right. I keep my windows open and wait, hoping that they will remember me when it is my turn to go, if only so that I can pass on just one more tale to those who will miss me. I will gladly leave their scattered feathers in the corners of my room and sleep.
tread the surface
of our little sea, perhaps these are too easily explained
as the Truth—
like Abrahamic myths
which turn temple sandstone sacred
and alternatively, blasphemous
to their ears walled off
from loudspeakers at noon, their butchers beating out
correct, meaty stories
not to be eaten
near their explosive Gold Dome,
while on the flip side
our yellow, green desert
braced by the account of hope over death
shreds existentialism across the hills.
My mum used to say in the measured voice
that she reserved for important life advice:
'If you haven't achieved anything
by eleven o'clock, the day is wasted.'
But this is a myth. There are days, it is true,
when I taste bitter freeze dried coffee
and wish only for the infinite potential
of tomorrow, the new sun through the crack
in the curtains. There are days I squander
the hour before the bars open their doors,
knowing the only decision I need make
is whether to leave at five; I know every person
in the room by name. There are days I sit
in the park, observe the fragile, slender
stems of poppies swaying in the wind, petals
unfurling in slow motion. John Cage said:
'If something is boring after two minutes,
try it for four,' and I do. There are days I wander
the streets of this city, you know you have to look
up to see the real beauty of the buildings. I imagine
I am running over the rooftops high above,
leaping from balcony to balcony, looking for you.
THE DAY THE TOMB OPENED
One summer when I was eleven
I went out across the fields
Past the brimming orchard
Of wasps and tart green apples,
And on beyond the stream, to the tomb
Stone Age, they told me, a jumble of rocks
In a field. Grassy and grazed by cattle, five thousand years
Since its smoke-fumed funeral.
It was mentioned in myth, this place:
Warriors, queens, bards, battle, tragedy.
The sun was heavy on me
And the air still,
A silent afternoon, clicking with swallows
And early crickets, prickling with the promise of magic,
A wonderful sun-hot shifting of everything
I mounted the mound of the tomb
And a car passed on the road, my neighbours
The Ruanes, I think, before it grew quiet again
As I climbed around to the opening,
But started, for the briar-clogged stones
Were open, bright, tidy and clear.
I dropped to my knees and paused,
Afraid to crawl in, but thin beams of sun glare
Slipped through the gaps in the rocks and
I grew braver so on I went, bowing head,
And, crouching, ducked through the low stone door
Beyond; at once my head swam
And I feared, perhaps, noxious gas or something
So I reversed, but as I did I heard a sound
A solid and slow thump, or pound,
Something hard on wood.
I backed out and stood, but was stunned,
For around me on all sides stretched a forest
I in a grassy clearing, cropped short by a thin cow
Now standing by a small calf suckling.
Beyond them, still but singing with birds
In the sunlit heat, this wonderful woodland
Stretched, uninterrupted but for the thump
Of blunted axe on wood, I guessed, for I could see
That a single tree shivered
With each blow; then there was motion
Below, and the cow ceased her grazing to stare
Towards the dapple-dark forest
As a woman came stepping out, old and bent
Wrapped in furs; she looked with astonishment
Back. Then the air shimmered as in a great heat
And the forest lifted and it seemed I was again
In my own century, lush and green with meadow
With a white contrail raking the sky
Some lawnmower buzzing, the world bright
But I saw with surprise that I was not alone:
A girl stood on the crown of the tomb
Looking down, then a man climbed after her
And he seemed familiar, with his grey hair, broad shouldered;
He gasped when he saw me and said: ‘At last.’
‘Eh, hello,’ I said and the girl said ‘Hi.’
The man just stared, his eyes creased to cry or laugh
He said at last: ‘Do you know who I am?’
‘Well,’ said I, ‘indeed I don’t.’ But I caught his eye
And felt a strange emotion.
He said: ‘I am you, lad. I am you, older.’
I blinked, but realised that other things were different
Too; there was a white building on a distant hill
Some trees had grown tall, others fallen
And I thought I had passed in a passage through time
He said: ‘We don’t have long.’
I: ‘How do you know?’
‘Because I remember this moment,’ he laughed,
‘From long ago! It’s good to see you.’
I said: ‘And you! Time travel! Do you’ve any advice?
‘From the future?’ He blinked in a way I blink
Scratched his head as I scratch, as does my dad,
And he spoke with me as the girl picked daisies.
The sun baked the summer scene
Butterflies dropped to the foxgloves
And a wren watched from the hawthorn above
As he spoke and I listened, barely understanding.
He had warnings, but hope
‘Have courage, stand tall, and all will be well
Life will be rough, but good, be tough
‘Do the right thing, that’s enough.’
His eyes were wet and mine were too
I said with a choked laugh: ‘Have we hovercars yet?’
He laughed: ‘Not yet! But… lad, will you do something
And go to your mam and dad, for me, and just look out for them.’
I said I would and the world shimmered for a moment
I nodded to the girl: ‘Who is she?’
He grinned and said: ‘She’s my daughter. She’s your daughter.’
Then we both said: ‘Jeepers!’
We hugged in a strange embrace and the air
Shimmered again and I was back in my own time.
My watch had stopped on my wrist
Crickets clicked nearby in the grass
And I wept, a strange happy sadness
Leaving my sun-hot cheeks wet.
A Varied and Inconsistent Account of Woman
I am Medea or am I?
Direct descendant of the sun
predominantly divine but only as long
as I had Jason’s love. I am all mortal.
yet do I die or do I ascend?
A ritornello of slain children’s voices.
Did I give the hero an unguent
to protect against flames,
then burn him with my jealousy?
Did I warn him an army
would rise from his sowing
yet fall for his farmer’s hands?
Did I put the dragon of doubt to sleep
so drugged by love,
I sailed away with Jason,
scattered bits of my brother’s body
to turn my father’s head?
A ritornello of slain children’s voices
cry down centuries.
Had my brother, the monster,
long begged me for death?
Did Jason filch his fleece
only because of golden me?
Was I both helper maiden and fool?
They said I had prophecy
so I knew what you’d make of me.
A ritornello of slain children’s voices
screeching cellos overplay an act
that may, or may not, have been me.
I am Medea or am I nothing more
than Jason’s shadow
squid-inked by men’s fear?
Power of Myth
Sandra didn't call
She said she'd call today
But she didn't call
This always happens to me
Whatever the plan or event
Bad things always happen to me
Everyone's better than I am
No matter how hard I try
The whole world's better than I am
I'm really bad at my job
My boss and my colleagues don't see it
But I know I'm bad at my job
All my friends must hate me
They say they don't but I can tell
Everyone who knows me hates me
She didn't call
I might as well give up on life
Because Sandra didn't call
Always fighting Fire
He looked like a little boy holding his father's hand as he tried to keep pace. Not that I had any memories of Declan walking hand in hand with his daddy since he had scarpered when Declan reached four. He was handcuffed to the left hand of a prison warder as the black uniform steered a direct line towards the prison van.
“Declan”, came the shout of a girl’s voice from the pavement opposite. She considered it safer to keep her distance, even with Declan secured to the arm of the law. He had received a life sentence, which wouldn’t have warmed his humour.
“I wish life meant life. Every right-minded citizen will express disgust at your actions.” the judge said.
Chloe is his girlfriend, and she shouted his name again. I thought Declan blew her a kiss but then realised he was miming a request for a cigarette.
I wore my good walking shoes although I had knocked the good out of them with my six mile treks every evening for the past three weeks of the trial. One last stroll to clear my head; in that town where I no longer walked unknown since they showed me up on the television every evening during the trial.
"Showed me up," is right. I would return next day to my little village by the sea and from the kitchen window watch the same waves pounding the strand. Neighbours would express their sympathy with my situation but I know they will blame me when they chatter among themselves. Perhaps they’re right. The prison van pulled out into the traffic and I started my walk in the opposite direction. Reality of his plight would hit Declan that evening. He had the diversion of the trial for three weeks, but would now be cut off from the world for maybe fifteen years, perhaps a couple off if he behaved himself which seemed unlikely.
Hard to believe how it came to this. It only seemed yesterday he held my hand tightly as we walked to his first day in school. He was the big boy then. Christy, his father, had walked out the year before. That changed Declan, ever since he realised his father wouldn't come home anymore. It’s hard for a woman to manage a boy’s full blown tantrums on her own. Besides, I owed him because he blamed me for letting his daddy run off. I found it easier to buy peace than to demand it, so I developed my gimmicks and games to remedy his rage.
“Let Declan win and I will give you all a special treat,” I would say to the other children, out of earshot. We paid the days he lost. You would see the change coming in his face. He would throw or smash anything in his reach. The other children stayed out of his way; mainly his cousins because no other children wanted to visit.
I bought the little chair because it looked cute. I had no plan for its use. But that chair earned its way over the next couple of years. I made a little throne decorated with nice coloured cloths and cushions, and a little footstool covered in red leatherette. Cousins came over to play the day after I finished decking it out. He lost a game and erupted. I got from the kitchen to find pieces of the game scattered all over the room and a child howling with a lumpy lip. The chair came into my daft head; first thing.
“I’ve got something special for my little man,” I sang, and all the time I made foolish sounds like playing one of them shiny instruments, and Declan paused mid swing on the curtains delaying his intention to pull them down. He pulled down the curtains so often I had attached a Velcro hem at the top. He yanked down the curtains, and I put them back up again. Same way as I got unbreakable glass replacements every time he broke a window. Firefighting became my best game.
“Who’s the king of the castle?” I chanted, arriving back during the ceasefire having retrieved the chair from its hiding place.
“Who’s a dirty rascal?” sings his little cousin; and her innocent response threatened to upend the ceasefire.
“No, no, no” I panted.
Declan shook strands of his cousin’s hair from his hand, as I raced to the punch line.
“This is the special throne for the king of the castle,” I said. “Who’s the king of the castle?”
No mistake in the response when I repeated the question and the children cheered his coronation. For the next four years I worked that plan. I knew the other mammy’s meant well when they told me about their bold boy corners, but they could see for themselves the calm after every coronation ritual.
The wind blew before me and it chilled. I had walked further from the town than on the other days. With the trial over I allowed myself try to make sense of everything. I shouldn’t have let him leave school early. He stacked shelves in the supermarket in town for a while, but early morning didn’t suit him, especially after the late nights, drinking outdoors with friends.
At sixteen we had the first visit from the police, with Declan taken in drunk after breaking a window. For his seventeenth birthday he got his first court appearance.
"Interfering with the mechanism of a car" the charge sheet read. He didn’t like that.
“Makes me sound like a pervert," he said “I tried to rob it, except the fucking thing wouldn’t start.”
Next time, his friend Costello got behind the wheel and the car started. Costello got three months, which made him worse. He came home as proud as a college graduate with a first class degree. He now had a reputation to keep. That’s difficult. There’s always some knacker trying to knock the hard man of his pedestal. The local losers wanted to hang out with Costello, the hard man who had done jail. Declan’s claim to hard man status only stretched to killing the Kilcoyne girl’s rabbit and hanging it on the family clothes line. Besides, he was eleven at the time.
They hung out drinking and smoking weed in the woods overlooking the supermarket. Handy that, for drawing up drinks from the cheap off-licence. I joined the Tidy Town’s Organisation because I owed them for having to clear up the broken bottles after the drinking sessions. I helped Declan to show his best behaviour since he got a chance in court after riding with Costello in the stolen car.
“One wrong move and you’re serving a month” the judge said, and I slept easier at the thought someone might keep control over him.
Easy sleeping soon got broken when the cat incident brought a new low. I remember him restless that day, so I could imagine him pacing with a nose itching for trouble. He told me later how a black cat came down, attracted by the heat. Before anyone could stop his messing, he grabbed the cat and chucked it in the fire.
“That’s not cool, Declan” Costello said when the girls hanging out all cried and snivelled.
"You’re disgusting, Declan," Chloe said.
"Ah, Chloe, I thought you loved me."
The girls left, with Declan still trying to put a brave face on things.
“If you play around the fire, you’ll get burnt” he yelled after them. Turned out that cat belonged to a neighbour of one girl, and she had played with it as a child which wasn’t long ago. She cried and told her mammy, and they dragged the police into it. Declan got his month in jail and missed the birth of his baby girl over that cat incident. He would have got an extra month if he hadn’t promised to volunteer at the dog rescue place. The dog people didn’t want to have him, which was understandable given his history with cats and rabbits.
Costello got it right when he called the cat burning a bad call. Declan should never have proved his imbecility beyond doubt. Only for the same Costello stood by him he would have been a loner too. They had done everything together; played as toddlers, started school, smoked their first cigarette and drank their first can of cheap imported piss. That meant they understood why they did things that didn’t add up to other people.
I blame the sons of my cousin came over from England for a holiday; two lads his own age.
“You’re a chav” The English lads told him.
When they explained the working model of a chav, he bought in. Next thing himself and Costello are wearing designer label shiny tracksuits stuck into their socks, tartan baseball caps and white runners; except the labels were fake as the macho image. Declan stood outside the chipper spitting on the pavement, primed for trouble.
“What you looking at?” he said to a man, heading in for his fish and chips. The guy didn’t like disrespect and approached Declan explaining.
“Something a dog dropped, that I'm thinking of kicking outa me way”. He replied, and up so close his spittle was on Declan’s face. Declan ran home; probably needed to change his fake pants.
Ever since Costello did jail Declan got left behind. The business with the cat didn’t help.
“You can’t burn cats without consequences," Costello explained.
He was then called him Little Pussy after some character on television. He had a serious chip of the old block on his shoulder that led to disputations over small stuff. Except he usually got a beating, and that made the chip heavier to carry. That’s why he waited one evening for a lad that had shown him up. He knew the guy would walk home alone after the pub and he lay in the bushes for him, armed with a thick lump of timber that left his victim in the head repair unit of a city hospital.
After the episode with the wood he carried a knife. The incident had caused a certain disconnect between himself and the family of the lad in intensive care. He accepted nature hadn’t numbered him among her great forces, which left him entitled to reduce the odds with the help of some tools. I warned him where that knife would take him but I wasted my talk as usual.
“Don’t be talking soft,” he would say, of any advice that didn’t suit him. He said it like his departed father. Just like his father he had a jackass or two loose in the top field.
It came as no surprise when I opened the door to two plain clothes officers
"Your Declan at home," they asked.
“No, I haven’t seen him since yesterday. I suppose he’s in trouble?” I replied.
“Maybe,” said one, like he’s weighing up if I am lying.
“Do you want to come in?” I said, matter-of-factly to emphasise my truth.
“No, it’s all right for now,” the second one said.
“We’re investigating a fatal stabbing of an elderly gentleman. They found him with several knife wounds, down a back lane this morning. It looks like he was attacked as he wandered home from the pub last night. It’s early in the investigation, and we’re still waiting on the state pathologist.”
The detective played safe, but I knew it was Declan. After all it’s what he had been training for.
The fire had been burning now for 5 months, 14 days, 22 hours, and roughly 12 minutes. The residents of Little Haverley had stopped counting over a month ago, but Amy had a tally that she kept on a notebook hung beside her front door. It was easy for her to keep track; the fire was the first thing she saw when she stepped out of her house. Under duress, she would admit that the minutes were a guess, but she was pretty sure about the rest. She had been in the house when the fire started, waiting for a tray of cupcakes to finish baking. The fire was not there when they went into the oven, but by the time she pulled them out an orange glow was shining through her kitchen window.
The fire engines arrived a few minutes later, pulling up at the end of her driveway and blocking her view. They had stayed there for most of that day, and the next day, and the next. Amy had almost scratched the paint of her car trying to reverse past them to get to work on Monday morning. Returning that evening, the engines had not moved, but the mood was much calmer on the street. A lingering smoky smell hung in the air, but the fire seemed to be under control, and a light breeze had blown away a lot of the ash that had settled like soft snow on the road. A small group of firefighters were huddled by the truck, talking amongst themselves in low voices and glancing back every so often to the persistent flames.
A week later, nothing had changed. Every morning, Amy would carefully manoeuvre past the fire trucks and return later in the day to find the fire still burning, and the firefighters scratching their heads as they stared at it, more disgruntled with every day that passed.
Eventually, the engines left, and did not come back. Not long after that, Amy received a note from the council through her letterbox assuring her that something would definitely be done about the fire. They just didn’t know what yet. Since then, she had grown accustomed to the orange glow that suffused her kitchen at all hours, and the soft background crackle that she could hear when the night was still and quiet.
In the fifth week, with no firefighters around to stop her from getting too close, Amy went out to judge the fire for herself. Her first thought was that it was disappointingly small. She had seen bigger bonfires on the 5th of November. This one was no taller than the bungalow next door, and she could walk around it in thirty paces. It didn’t feel much like a proper fire either. There was no searing heat emanating from it to keep observers back at a sensible distance. There were no billowing clouds of smoke. There were flames, a gentle warmth, an oaky scent in the air, and that was it.
The only other person who knew exactly how long the fire had been burning was Christina Lee, who posted an update to her Twitter feed with a picture of the flames and the words ‘Still on fire’ at nine o'clock every morning. Sometimes, just as Amy was leaving for work, she would spot Christina taking the picture, always from the same spot. If she took a few moments to watch, she would see Christina poke around at her phone for a few minutes to upload her photo, and then put it back in her trouser pocket. Then she would scrape her hair up into a scraggly bun and set to work.
From her car, an old Mini that was held together in places with nothing more than duct tape, Christina would pull a backpack and a notebook. After a cursory glance at the contents of the last entry in the pad, she would pull a box of chalk from the front pocket of the bag, and Christina would set to work circling the fire, crouched low to scratch her chalk circle into the ground. Then she would proceed to fill it with symbols and scribbled words, consulting her notebook every few steps. Amy had watched this ritual every Saturday morning while she prepared her breakfast smoothie at the kitchen window. She hadn’t mustered the courage yet to go outside and ask Christina what she was doing.
Today, Christina was taking more care than usual. It always took several hours for her to complete the circle to her satisfaction, but this morning she was inspecting every inch like it was newspaper print. Amy almost expected her to pull a magnifying glass out of her backpack and kneel down until the tip of her nose was scraping the tarmac. By the time Amy’s berries were blended and poured into a tall glass, Christina had managed to make it another shuffling step around the edge of the fire. Amy drank the smoothie down in four large gulps, tried not to choke on the seeds dotted through the creamy purple milk, and went to find her running kit.
When she returned from her run, Christina had managed to make it a little further around the circle. Unusually, she was also smiling. Amy was used to seeing a whole range of unhappy facial expressions on the other woman’s face, but she had rarely seen her crack out any kind of grin. She showered, dressed, and come back downstairs with a towel draped over her shoulders to find that Christina had made significant progress. Amy did not know what had happened after those first few steps, but suddenly the other woman was nearly three quarters of the way round the circle, the notebook discarded back at the halfway mark. Amy had several chores that she had been putting off for weeks, but she found herself leaning up against the kitchen sink, eyes fixed to Christina’s hunched figure.
At full circle, Christina straightened, put her hands to her hips, and then threw them up in the air with a gleeful laugh that Amy could hear even through the window pane. The source of Christina’s sudden delight was a mystery. Nothing appeared to have changed. The flames still licked the air to their usual height, throwing off scattered sparks, no smoke, no sign of growing, no sign of dying. Amy pushed away from the sink and went to her front door. Her notebook was unmarked today, but she paused before adding the latest line. Instead, she pulled open the door and walked down to the end of her drive.
Christina did not seem to notice her approach. She was crouching again, her hands pressed down on the floor at two points on her chalk circle. She was murmuring under her breath, words that had the cadence of speech but were no language Amy recognised. As she spoke, the wind began to whip up, gentle at first and then to a thundering gale that sent Amy’s door slamming shut and rattled the street lamps where they stood. Amy’s hair whipped around her face, obscuring her view of Christina for barely a second. Before she could push it away, she heard a hooting cackle of a laugh, and the wind stopped. It did not blow away, or die down slowly. It had been howling, and then Amy’s hair was limp again, and the street lamps had stopped shaking. She could hear Christina’s exhausted breaths stark in the still air.
When Amy looked up, the fire was gone. She stared at the spot where it had been, and looked over her shoulder, wondering if she had perhaps managed to get herself turned around in the wind. But behind her was her house, as she expected, and in front of her was nothing. No smouldering embers, no smoke trails. Only Christina, and her smudged chalk circle.
“You did it,” Amy said, staring at the place where seconds before there had been dancing flames. “How did you do it?”
“A little patience, dear, that’s all.” Christina wiped a hand across her face, smudging a white trail of chalk dust onto her cheek in the process. Amy drew closer, and stopped at the edge of the circle. The symbols that Christina had sketched out looked like a hybrid of Egyptian hieroglyphs and Norse runes, as if she had seen glimpses of both and had merged them together just to see what would happen. The symbol closest to Amy’s feet was a cartoonish bird, with several lines crossing its stomach and a dot of an eye in the middle of its head. Beside it was a loosely outlined flame atop a candle stick, and another abstract rune that Amy noticed looked distinctly like a pair of cat’s ears. Where the fire had been was just a scorched circle of grass.
“What if it rains?” Amy said. “And the chalk gets washed away?”
“That won’t be a problem. The fire’s out now, it can’t just start on its own” Christina said. She reached out with the point of her shoe and scrubbed at the circle of chalk until a thin sliver of tarmac began to show between the white edges. A loud crack split the air, sending Amy stumbling back in surprise. In the middle of the scorched grass, flames shot high into the sky. When they settled again, the fire was back, burning steadily as if it had never been gone.
They both stared at it in silence for several long seconds. Then Christina stooped to gather up her bag and threw it into the backseat of her car, where it hit the upholstery and bounced off onto the floor.
“I’ll see you tomorrow,” she said, and climbed into the driver’s seat. Amy sighed, went back inside, and scratched another pencil mark onto her tally. 5 months, 15 days, 13 minutes, and still on fire.
A Game of Two Halves
Love is a game of two halves. It always starts the same; two people each playing solitaire and professing their love for the game. Everyone acts like they love being single but nobody really wants to be alone.
One of the first things children learn is how to play games. Rule number one, never cheat. Childhood games are just training for the real ones we will play as adults. Girls play house, doll’s houses or turning grotty old sheds into homes and playing house with fictional families; minus the mortgages and bills. Boys race around in boxes or toy cars and bikes - minus the tax and insurance.
Childhood games have more of an effect on us than we realize. Boy, girl, mom ,dad, husband, wife. Soldiers or nurses. We fight with imaginary guns, imaginary wars. Fighting fire with imaginary fire. Biology and common sense betray us.
Gradually we grow and the endless war between girls versus boys evaporates. Kiss chase the game nobody really wants to win becomes the game everyone wants to play. Goodbye childhood, hello hormones.
Boy meets girl they start to fall in love and then the real games begin. Now it's a game of poker. She cancels a date. He acts like he couldn't care less. Let's meet again? Let’s not meet up again? (pleassseeee let's meet up again) He texts her before she texts him. Damn. She wins.
Now its a game of scrabble the perfect words picked meticulously. Every text written then deleted and rewritten. Birthday cards, emails, flowers with silky sweet messages, hour long conversations late into the night. Words are weapons, words win wars, words win hearts.
Then it's fancy dress: Hours in mirrors, makeup and preening, aftershave and hair sculpting. Perfumes picked and deodorants decided. Negligee and designer underwear. Shoes and high heels. Dresses and suits. Outfits taken on and off again, ten times before a final choice is made.
They spend the first night together. The poker face slips off with their clothes and they wake up in each others arms. You meet up again. I’ll message you she says (three days, seven hours thirty minutes) She message him before he messages her. He wins.
Then it’s hide and seek. Each of us hides who they are, as the other seeks to find out. She hides the fact that she's slept with one of his friends and had two abortions. He hides the fact he was a ‘ladies man’ and he’s cheated on someone before. She seeks out the person he used to be before she knew him - he does the same with her. They both hide the fact that neither of them can control their feelings.
Play pretend is such fun as a child - knowing how to play pretend as an adult is essential. She pretends to like a pretentious restaurant, he pretends to like a soppy film. She pretends she's not needy or clingy, he pretends he’s not jealous or gets insecure. He pretends to like her friends, and her friends pretend to like him. They both pretend to like each other's families, each others families pretends they like them. There Is no such thing as a neutral family! You never really gain a family you only ever borrow one. Families always pick sides in the end!
The world of employment. If you played Simon says as a child work should be easy. Just replace ‘Simon says,’ with ‘the boss says’
Now it's time to play Monopoly. Bankers, the property ladder and commitment.
Playing house was never this hard when you were a kid. Dolls are different from babies; they need real food not imaginary food. There's no off button when they cry. Their batteries never run out. Babies don't stay the same forever like a doll; they grow and grow and grow.
Grown up games are hard. It’s like playing Statues. Standing in the same exact position doing the same exact same thing. Don't move!
Thank God for Charades. He mimes the part of the doting father and loving husband she mimes the part of the loving housewife happy with her life.
Then comes Truth or Dare. He dares to lie, she dares to believe him. Once, he dared to cheat she dared to believe him. Once, he had the advantage of blind confidence she had the disadvantage of blind love. He obscured the truth in elaborate stories and simple lies.
Simple lies are always the best.
She dares to keep loving him, he dares to pretend to keep loving her.
She believed him once and he thinks she will believe him twice. He's a gambler on a winning streak. Gamblers get reckless.
She starts to hide the truth that she doesn't believe him any more and dares to bury it. Love makes a fool of us all but not her. She’s not a gambler. She knows when to quit. She's been playing eye spy for a while now. Women are the best at that game. She knows things.
Now comes Chess. The hardest game of all, a battle of wits and forward thinking. His mind verses hers. Some of the ways a game of chess will end. The options are: Checkmate no legal move to escape, or check which basically means a draw. Only civil people agree to draw - she's undignified.
Resignation either him or her may reign, conceding the game to the opponent. Bitter hearts will never concede. Forfeit: A player who cheats. That's the one she’ll choose. There were never lawyers or court cases included in childhood games.
Now he’s alone playing Blindman's Buff. He’s blind and disoriented. He reaches out to try and find his wife and children, but they are gone.
The first rule of any game is do not cheat.
He wishes he’d stuck to solitaire.
That was the trouble with living with a dragon, you were always fire fighting.
She did her best, she really did. But every time she coughed or laughed or sneezed, the whole house took a hit.
We tracked down some fireproof carpet on Dragonsbay and some wallpaper fron Scalytree and all the furniture was fire proof.
But occasionally a guest would be set alight which was at best a tad embarrasing and at worst rather dangerous.
We issued them all with a fireproof jacket when they arrived but even so it could be tricky to keep some of them from roasting. The fuel bills were great though and we never boiled a kettle so it wasn't all bad.
We had met by accident. There had been a lunar eclispse and for a nano second, earth and dragonland had been in the same orbit.
My wife, Granada hadn't heeded her mother's warning to stay inside their den and had fallen through the tiny gap that had opened up in space as the light and darkness had collided and had fallen into my back garden.
Fortunately she landed in the pond, otherwise I dread to think what would have happened. I heard the screams and went rushing out.
As luck would have it I live a long way from the village in a tumble down cottage, but I was terrified at first. But after we had both got over our initial shock, we began to learn each others language and as time passed we realised we were falling in love.
Exactly ten months to the day of Granada falling to earth, we were married.
The local Vicar took some persuading but so moved was he by our love that he graciously accepted our invitation to perform the ceremony in our garden with Sydney the bee keeper from up on the hill as best man and four good friends as witnesses and congregation. The Church warden gave Granada away and the only sadness of an otherwise perfect day was the absence of both our families.
I was deeply touched that Granada thought her father would have whole heartedly approved of her choice of husband and that her mother would have thought me charmimg.
No one had ever thought me that before so it was a very proud groom who took his bride by the arm and walked her to the reception in the old barn at the bottom of the field.
The press turned up at the last minute and our faces were splashed all over the tabloids but we didn't mind. We didn't go on honeymoon either. Happy in our own space, in our own home.
All the lonely years I had spent on my own were worth it.
I had nearly given up so many times.
Tired of the abuse that was hurled at me and the names I was called, I had moved out to the country. No one bullied me there or threw stones at me.
Fire hazard issues aside I couldn't have been prouder or more content. Who'd have thought it when I fell to earth all those years ago, that a little old troll and a beautiful young dragon could live happily ever after.
I' was shivering as usual on the station platform, making a mental list of everything I needed to get done that day at work, when I heard the mew. So high it was nearly a squeak, and I couldn't tell where it was coming from. There were no cats on the platform, which I wasn't surprised about, because would you hang around with a load of stressed commuters if you weren't forced to? Cats are much more sensible than people, I've always felt.
Another mew. Pulling my scarf up around my jaw, I looked down, and there it was. A teeny tabby, scrabbling at the sheer wall between us. It looked up at me, all eyes and scratty fur, and the next mew was louder and more drawn-out.
Everyone around me was numbing the cold with headphones or just phones; the hood of the girl next to me was emanating a tinny "tchhh, tcchh", her head nodding in time to the music. I checked the information board: still four minutes before the train was due. Occasionally other trains stormed past, too important to stop at the likes of this station, but they were usually on the middle set of rails, right? I thought they were...
The kitten mewed again; it was on its hind legs, front paws still trying to get a purchase on the brick. The nearest rail was just inches behind it's little tail.
I must have looked like a metronome, my head bobbing to the right to check for trains, then down to measure the distance. I was fairly certain I could get back up without any help, and if not, surely someone would break out of their self-imposed bubble to give me a hand.
One last check along the line, and I crouched at the edge of the platform, then dipped my legs down into the cut. The kitten startled, but perhaps it was too tired to run away. At any rate, it sniffed my hand and then allowed me to snuggle it into my arms. I stupidly landed facing away from the trains - although maybe that was a good thing, because it meant I wasn't going to waste any time here. For the fifteen seconds or so that it took to entice the kitten into my arms, plonk it on the platform (god, can you imagine if it just jumped back down?) and haul myself up on my bum, eighty per cent of my brain was screaming, certain I was about to be flattened and eviscerated by a train.
But that didn't happen, obviously. I picked up myself and the kitten, smiled at the guy next to me, who had taken off his headphones but made no attempt to speak to me, and marched along the platform to the exit. A guard strode past me, listening to a walkie talkie - they may have closed the ticket office, but I guess they can still get the staff out for emergencies. Assuming I was the emergency.
Back on the main road, I paused to text my manager to let her know I'd be late in. The kitten kept wriggling, so it took longer than usual, but finally I managed a coherent message with only one typo.
"Sorry," I murmured to the kitten, smoothing the fur over its head. "I'm all yours now."
This was a lie - I'd be heading to work as soon as I'd done something with the kitten - but my words seemed to placate it. Enough that we made it back to my flat without any problems. The kitten seemed exhausted, and my mind was buzzing with the enormity of what I'd just done. Memories of a friend who'd been threatened with arrest for crossing the tracks once to catch a train. And weren't the lines electric? I was sure I felt the vague memory of a pressure against my heel that might have been the rail. Then there was the voice, still screaming. "You could have been run over, you could have been electrocuted, you stupid, STUPID girl."
Mum always liked to pop back into my mind at times of stress. Which was all the time at the moment.
Too much going on. Too much work - ah, there was the buzz of a text message, probably my manager urging me to get in as soon as I could. I'd reply when we got back to my flat. The various love interests I was chatting to on various apps, but never quite got around to meeting. Not always my choice, but often. The gym I visited about once a month. The friends I was failing to keep up with. Dad...I needed to call him, instead of leaving it to Melly and Steve all the time. But not now, obviously.
I let the kitten go once I'd closed my front door again, and it shot down the hall and into the living room. I found it peeping at me from behind the sofa, and wondered what the chances were of it not having fleas.
"Are you a boy or a girl?" I wondered aloud. It didn't feel right, saying 'it' all the time.
Under the kitchen sink, I found a couple of tins of cat food that I'd kept after Maisie died. They were dusty, but well within date - not that I think the cat would have cared. When I returned to the living room with the bowl, it took about five seconds to come out of hiding and start lapping at the tuna-flavoured food.
I made myself a cup of tea and sat down with my phone, but the kitten jumped up onto my lap and settled in, purring.
Fleas? Who cared about fleas? I stroked the matted fur, and took the opportunity for a quick check under the tail. Probably female, then - she looked too young to have been done.
My phone buzzed again, so I swiped the screen to view the message.
"No problem, hon, just let me know when you can make it in. Hope all is OK!"
My manager, slightly more zen than I'd anticipated.
"Where are we re the Pappadocio contract? Update please?"
Co-worker one, less zen.
"Hear ur late, hope ur still ok for meeting at 12! Let me know. When are you coming in???!"
Co-worker two, even less zen. Always in a panic and getting me in a panic as well. He was the one who'd introduced me to the term "fire-fighting", i.e. only dealing with things as they turned into emergencies. The fact that he knew buzzwords like this didn't seem to make him any better at avoiding the issue. He was always fighting fires, and getting the rest of us involved, too.
I leaned back into the cushions and the kitten rebalanced herself on my thighs.
I'd need to take her to the vet, get her checked for a chip. Although by the look of her she'd been living rough for weeks, and she couldn't be much over a month old.
The vet was only round the corner, but the last time I'd been there was to have Maisie euthanised. I wasn't sure I'd be able to face that today. Certainly not if I dashed off to do a full day's work right now.
The kitten crawled further into the crook of my lap and closed her eyes. I looked at my phone again, and pressed Reply to my manager's text.
"Emergency a bit more complicated than I realised. Will have to take today off. Really sorry! See you tomorrow."
I sipped my tea, and on my lap, the kitten's purrs turned to snores.
'Muuuuuuuum! I dunnnapooooo!' The yell comes from the downstairs loo to where my second smallest, Evie, disappeared a while ago. I'd forgotten she was there. I'm stirring porridge and trying to breast-feed my six month old, Oscar, who's strapped into a baby sling, at the same time. The twins are fighting over a toy car and Sara, my oldest girl, has the look of contempt she often wears on these crazy mornings; the look which says, Why did you keep having children, Mum?'
I shoot her an imploring glance and nod at the porridge but she rolls her eyes, shakes her head, and bends back down over her cereal. I can't blame her. Days like this I ask myself the same question: why did I? Then there are all the magic moments that make up for it, the happy family chaos that is the soundtrack to my days and nights.
Dean and I always wanted a big family - granted, that was before he got his latest job that involves much longer hours but we need the money and he needed the promotion so-
'I'm coming,' I call back, turn, and promptly trip over the toy car which has now been thrown to the floor. I manage to save Oscar from being squashed and swear, softly, from where I've landed on my knees. Oscar, ripped from his breakfast, starts up an accusatory wail. I swear again, louder.
'I heard that,' Sara whispers.
'Sorry,' I mutter.
'Jesus,' I say, hoisting myself and Oscar back upright. He latches back on and is silent. The twins choose that moment to break into fist fighting and I grab Tom, the biggest and haul him out to the hall.
'Time out,' I say, placing him on the stairs.
'It wasn't me!' he says, indignant four year old voice full of fight.
'It doesn't matter, you two need separating.' I say, trying to be the firm but fair mum, when really I want to yell.
'MMMUUUUUMMMMMM!!!' Evie's voice has this incredible volume. It can make the hair on the back of your neck jump to attention. In supermarkets it's particularly effective at getting me to the front of queues.
'I'm here,' I say, managing the final two metres to the downstairs loo.
'My poo is huge!' she says, sitting sideways to show me and wiping poo onto the toilet seat. 'And I didded it in the toilet!'
'Evie-' I sigh, and bend over the loo. 'Well done.'
The clean up job is made more awkward by Oscar's hungry guzzling, but I manage it.
'Porridge is burning,' Sara calls flatly form the kitchen.
'Could you stir it?' I yell back.
'No,' she says. 'I hate porridge.'
'I told you, Mum, I didn't ask to be born into this madness.' She has the voice of a world leader when she wants to. She stalks past me and up the stairs.
'I'll remember that when you ask me for a lift to the park later,' I mutter, just loud enough for her to hear. I can't blame her, though. For eight years it was just her, and now she has four siblings under four. One day she'll love it, I tell myself, over and over.
The twins are rolling on the floor when I get back in and they scare the cat who runs under my feet at just the right angle for me to tread on her tail. She yowls, which makes Oscar cry. The porridge looks like a huge geyser, puffing itself about in the pan. The smell tells me it's beyond saving.
'Cereal!' I say to the room and grab all the boxes, several bowls and spoons and plonk them on the table. I take the burning pan outside and place it on the doormat where the chicken immediately appear, looking at me expectantly. 'Don't eat that yet, it's hot,' I tell them and lift it to the top of the log store. They'll get up there eventually but not until it's cool enough.
I turn to go back in and see two of the chickens behind me, running towards the cat's food bowl. One of them poops on the way.
'For goodness sake!' I say. Oscar has finished and is playing with my hair. I put him in his baby-bouncer and grab the kitchen roll, wiping up the chicken mess and chucking the kitchen roll in the bin in one smooth movement.
'Poo-pro,' I tell myself, and laugh. You've got to laugh. I tell Dean that often at weekends, when he has to face the chaos he's largely away from during the week.
The twins have got hold of the Frosties which means-
-Frosties all over the floor.
I open the back door again and in come the chickens, squabbling over the spilt food. I guess Frosties will be like speed to them but who cares. 'Express eggs,' I mutter, and laugh again.
'I'm glad you find this funny,' says Sara from the door. 'It's just... why couldn't I have stayed an only child?' She steps over the chickens and crunches through the Frostie mess and puts on her shoes.
'Have a lovely day, sweetheart,' I say.
'I will, because I'll be away from this,' she says, voice so full of disdain it drips off her tongue.
'I love you, Sara,' I say, fighting the urge to snap at her. As my friend Faye, mother of two teens tells me, this stage will only last for another six years...
Sara sighs and gives me a rare smile. 'I love you, Mum,' she says. 'Good luck.'
I'm still reeling in shock as she leaves for the school bus. She told me she loves me. A moment as rare as a hen's tooth, as Dean says. I smile. I'm doing something right, after all.
I step on light feet to the table to where Evie has poured milk everywhere except into her bowl, the twins are squabbling over the packet of cornflakes and Oscar has almost bounced himself off the edge of the table. I give myself a mental slap, lift him down and look for my coffee in the mess. I grab it and take two life-giving gulps. I glance at the clock.
Only 12 hours until the day ends...
After the twins have been dropped at Playgroup and Evie at Twos Time, I go home to deal with the chaos. Oscar falls asleep in the car so I park in the drive and leave the monitor on - safe in our small village - and go inside to sort out the house.
I make beds
and make a coffee, all before Oscar wakes. I bring him inside to a slightly less crazy house and play with him for a bit. Then it's time to pick up the other three and make lunch for us all.
It's a nice day and a picnic is always less mess so I put the chickens in the coop, pick the least chicken poopy bit of grass and spread out a rug. I bring out various healthy snacks, giving the twins and Evie jobs to do, regretting it instantly as Evie drops the apple slices, the twins spill the plastic jugs of juice and Petey, the younger twin, sits in the spilt juice to make mud pies.
I decides singing is the way to sanity so begin a slightly manic rendition of the Wheels on the Bus, to which my rabble join in at the top of their lungs.
By some miracle, I get enough food in them all to keep them going for the afternoon. They're all looking sleepy by now so I strap Oscar into the sling, stick the other three in front of the TV (I was never going to be the kind of mother who stuck kids in front of the TV but my God, the TV is my sanity). Then I face the clear up. I tip the rug's crumby contents onto the grass and let the chickens out again. I throw all the plastic plates into the dishwasher and switch it on. I remember there are some e-mails I have to send so whilst everyone's asleep or TV-drugged I grab my tablet and settle on the battered sofa in the kitchen with Oscar snoozing against my chest.
Whilst I'm typing I'm beginning to feel sleepy and I think, a quick nap never hurt anyone. I feel myself slipping away into the most delicious doze when...
'Muuuuummmmm! I dunnnnaaapoooooooo!'
I'm glad Oscar can't understand but I apologise to him anyway. He is woken by Evie's yells too, so I take him through to the lounge to place him on his rug where the sight I'm greeted with makes me want to swear Even More. Put it this way, the kids weren't sitting quietly watching TV.
The chocolate is everywhere. On mouths, hands, sofa, carpet.
Tom looks at me, brown smile gooey and happy. 'Yum yum,' he says.
'Where did you...?' And then I remember: last night Dean and I had left a family bar of dairy milk on the windowsill, after nibbling at it whilst watching a movie, during which we both fell asleep. I meant to put it away this morning but the there was porridge and Sara and poo and fighting...
'I'm coming,' I yell.
I grab the remaining stump of sucked-on chocolate and give the twins a wet-wipe each. There are wipes placed all over my house, always within reach.
'Clean. It. Up,' I say in my scariest voice.
Gulping, the twins grab a wipe each and wipe their faces and hands. It helps, a little.
'MMMUUUUUUUUUMMMMM!' We're back up to supermarket level. I run to the loo.
'Look at this one and I didded it in the-'
'Oh that's lovely now don't- Okay. Never mind!' I wipe my daughter, the loo seat, her bum. I wash my hands and her hands. I look at myself in the mirror for the first time all day and see I've still got yesterday's mascara decorating the area under my eyes.
'Bloody hell,' I mutter. I've been out like this. I take off my specs -
which makes me realise how dirty they are - and wash my face.
'Muuuuuuummmmm! Tommy done sick everywhere!' yells his brother from the lounge.
Somehow, I survive the rest of the afternoon. At around three I remember I've not got tea on and in a fit of domestic goddessness I conjure up a beef casserole. We eat it, I clear up the aftermath. Then it's another hoover, clothes in the wash, milk for everyone, Oscar to bed, Evie to bed, the twins to bed, all at different times with different stories.
Sara gets home from Drama in the middle of this and takes one look at me and pours me a glass of wine. I don't know whether to hug her or worry about what my daughter thinks of me but I don't bloody care because wine is exactly what I need. With the other four asleep I sit with Sara and look at her homework and talk about her day. With peace around her, Sara is lovely and chatty and my gorgeous loving daughter again. These are some of the best bits of my day. I'm doing okay, I remind myself. I can do this.
She goes up to have a shower and I fall into the battered kitchen sofa. The room is tidy; it smells like the house of a mother who cooks healthy food; everyone's still alive. I pour myself another glass and toast myself, put my feet up and lean back.
Dean arrives home in a flurry of cool air and practicality.
'Hello love,' I say.
He looks at me. 'Well, at least one of us has had an easy day,' he huffs. 'My day's been awful. I've never stopped. Wish I could just sit there with my feet up. You've no idea...'
Back in the days of the Timeless Ones, when the sky was black embers and the sun was too fearful to shine, there was a saying. It was taught to children as they grew; shared between friends over secret drinks; whispered in the darkness as a greeting. It was emblematic of the era. A true message of hope. Now, it is long forgotten. People have no need to speak it out loud - they have no need to think it to themselves, either. You may find it, if you are looking for it, graffitied in the back of some dusty old tome or scrawled on the wall of a crumbling building. But you will not know what it means. You will not understand its significance and will, very likely, just glaze over it with a mild disinterest.
It is a phrase lost to time. Lost to history.
"We are always fighting fire."
The origins of the phrase are unknown. The first to say it is certainly long-dead and those who spread its power to the world and who knew when it was first spoken have disappeared from this realm.
I am here to tell you, however, that an age is coming upon us where this powerful phrase will soon become needed again. There are signs that the Timeless Ones will reawaken. They will return to their thrones, with iron fists and crowns of flame upon their many heads, to rule us like they did once before. Relentless in their reign, it will become a new age of fire in which we are subservient. And I am very sorry to say, my dear friend, that you are the one who must fight back. You must fight the fire.
I am certain that this will make no sense to you. It has no reason to. That age is, as I mentioned previously, erased from history. You will not have been taught about it in school, nor will you have heard a war-scarred veteran mutter about it in the streets. But you must - and I mean this with the utmost urgency - listen to what I say and take it to heart. They are coming again and you must fight!
You are not, I'm afraid, the chosen one. You are far from it. But there has been, I will admit, a slight issue in regards to that. An admin error, if you will.
You see, the chosen one is currently unattainable. Unreachable. Potentially, possibly, very likely already dead. Our statistics and time management team made a calculation error that has thrown us off by a few decades. Well, not decades. They were about a hundred years off target. But that's not important. Not to you, anyway. What's important to you is that you are the next best thing we could find! I mean, okay, not the next best thing. The next best thing declined the offer and said she had quite a bit of laundry to do, thank you very much. The next next best thing was interested but wanted to bargain on his days off. We had to politely let him know that brave revolutionaries in world-saving battles did not get days off. He decided he would rather stick to farming as he could take the day off when he pleased.
That is all beside the point. We have found you! A glimmer in the oncoming darkness! A diamond in the rough! A fighter who will face fire! You will be our shining light in the violent, raging, horrifying war that is to come.
You will be given training, supplied with armour and weaponry, and - of course - given all the luxury treatments and gifts that a hero deserves. This includes, but is not limited to, a trusty-but-dim sidekick, a semi-tragic backstory, a romantic partner (your choice of gender) to rescue from the villains, and the respect of all across the land. I am legally required to inform you that you we will not be held accountable for any deaths that occur for the duration of this war, nor at any point shall we intercede if you or a loved one is on the brink of death. Your life is in your own hands.
Alongside this, there are some health and safety regulations which I have attached for you to browse at your leisure, as well as a pamphlet on the terms and conditions of your heroship which are a compulsory read. Please read them as soon as possible.
Legalities aside, this is an incredible opportunity which I am certain you will not pass up! As the final hope for humanity you will be able to do wonderful things. I implore you take up this position with great pride and honour. Your first mission, should you choose to follow us up on this offer, will be to rally a group of do-gooders and kind-hearted ruffians who are to accompany you on the first leg of your epic journey. Together, you will spread kindness across the world, leaving behind a message of hope (please refer to the beginning of this letter r.e. the message of hope) and beginning the revolution against the fiery darkness that is to come.
We will provide you with more information about your adventurous quest upon receipt of a response to this offer. If you have any further queries, please do not hesitate to contact us. We can be reached by letter (simply write it, seal it in a blank envelope, and throw it into your nearest woodland stream) or by throwing your arms into the air at night and yelling "why me? why was I chosen for this task?" We will ensure we respond in a timely manner.
Lastly, there is one thing you must always remember. We are always fighting fire.
Doorbell snaps an elastic thought
irreparable, it’s lost under the desk
will only be found when I move
furniture, brain still broken
I open the front door.
She’s almost in my face, passive-
aggressive pose owns my mat,
my time, my thoughts, my faith
pink tongue flicks past cratered skin
wrinkles built by pursing lips.
I want to talk to you about
a very important event.
I know Jesus is coming
her tone as weighty as an avalanche,
the same sense my anger must be buried,
stifled, whited out, I can’t shout
how dare you force your fictions
down my throat?
They’re everywhere, people who know
what I should think, believe
please just go away
how can I be sure there is no god
when she’s a komodo dragon
breathing venomous fire.
He cleared his throat bent down and spat straight into the bag ladies face. The green phlegm dangled from her eyebrow like a Christmas bauble.
“You will be judged,” she repeated in her monotone voice.
The man laughed hysterically with the other bankers all dressed in their designer suits reeking of whisky and expensive aftershave.
The little old lady sat hunched against the wall between two banks her trolley full of rubbish parked next to her.The bag ladies blue eyes sparkled out from beneath the wrinkled dirtied face and matted grey hair. Long on one side and short on the other like she’d hacked it off.
She wore a man’s baggy flannel black and white shirt that was two sizes too big, dirty dark denim jeans, and men’s oversized pumps she had found in a bin.
The banker sniggered and beckoned to his mates to follow him leaving the bag lady in peace sat on her cardboard castle. Four cardboard boxes spread out over the pavement.
The old lady raised her sleeve and wiped the spit off her eyebrow almost robot like oblivious to the weary bits of sleet starting to fall.
There was an array of selection of mostly chipped and stained mugs spread out in front of her cardboard island. Most of them were covered in silly slogans, ‘you don’t have to be mad to live here but it helps,’ ‘world’s best mum’ ‘world’s greatest boss,’ ‘I love dogging’ ‘I heart Boston,’most of the cups were filled with change from passers by.
A young blond girl with a side ponytial approached the bag lady with her much taller brown haired friend, both dressed in sharp gray trouser suits and carrying brown leather satchels.
“Awww,” said the blond haired girl.
“Don’t you dare,” said the brown haired girl.
“You could end up like her,”
“You do end up like her! After six vodkas.”
The blond girl knelt down and emptied all the change from her purse into one of the cups and gave the bag lady a warm smile.
“You will be judged,” said the the bag lady.
“Its snowing and you just gave our taxi money to a tramp. She’s probably a millionaire!”
“Don’t be mean,” said the blond girl. ‘Its freezing.’
“What happened the last time you brought a tramp home?”
The blond girl sighed wearily and repeated the story
‘He urinated over our xmas tree and electrocuted himself.”
“Have a nice night,” said the blond girl cheerfully.”
“Have a nice night!? She lives in a box!” C’mon you bimbo. She gives me the creeps.’
The girls linked arms continued their journey through the wine bars on the high street ploughing into the strengthening sleet. The bag lady watched them walk away and spotted the local charity worker a balding man in a beige trench coat ploughing ahead in the snow.
“Hello my sweetheart,” he said kneeling on her island of cardboard. He pulled out a flask from his rucksack and poured a cup of coffee and handed it to the bag lady. She sat it down at her feet like a dog dismissing water before its food. He pulled out the sandwiches and handed them to her. She pulled off the cling film hungrily and started to take small bites.
“Why don’t you come with me? He said. “It's going to be minus tonight.”
“You will be judged,” she said softly.
“You take care. I'll check on you later,” he said pulling down his hat and crossing the road.
There was lots of reasons people dropped money into her cups. Some people had been brought up to be charitable, some people seemed to see her as a toll unable to pass without giving money. Some people did it to show off, some people did it just to get rid of their change. Some people did it out of guilt, guilty that she was sat there on the street and they were not. Some people gave her money simply to make themselves feel good.
To some she was invisible to some she was ignored. People crossed the road to avoid her or hid behind their technology, some people fumbled in their bags or pockets looking for imaginary items.
The little old lady was a mirror, that forced people to take a good hard look at themselves. Some peoples eyes were filled with pity and empathy some were filled with nothing but disgust.
Every day she watched the conveyor belt of people pass her. She listened to the rumours and urban legends she heard about herself.
“I heard she took an acid tab and never came down!”
“I heard her husband left her!”
“I heard her husband left her with five kids! The social found 'em all starving in her tiny flat. Took the little kiddies into care.
“I heard she was a millionaire but she lost it all to gambling”
“I heard she lost it all to drink and drugs!”
The young kids called her a witch. The witch of wenton high street.
The bag lady heard the sound of a bunch of teenage girls laughing. She stared ahead and braced herself. The girls were always much worse than boys.
The ringleader sat next to the bag lady, “Alright darling,” she said in a mocking voice. “I love your hair! Can i have the number to hairdresser babe.”
The girl poked her tongue out and took a selfie next to the old lady with her mobile phone. Each girl followed suit taking it in turns in laughter to take a selfie with the old lady. Some made being sick poses. Some made a gun shape against her head. Each determined to outdo the last. The final girl looked around quickly and flopped out her breasts in the bag ladies face. The girls were all holding on each other by this point screaming with laughter like a pack of hyenas.
“Oi! Oi! You lot. Leave her alone! I recognise that school uniform. St Josephs is it?” It was the charity worker again. He bounded across the street causing a echoing effect of braking cars and beeping horns.
The ringleaders smile dissolved quickly. She flicked the man a v sign and strutted past him her posse of friends following suit.
“You ok?” The old lady gave no response. “Here is a card. Its a local homeless shelter. Just go there if you need! You can even bring your trolley.” He put his card gently on top of the crap in her trolley.
She gave a little nod. The charity worker gave her a smile that could melt snow. Happy to think that he was helping.
She watched the little flakes of snow land on her oversized shoes. Her island of cardboard looked even more like an island now. The snow had started to sprinkle on the uncovered edges of the boxes looking like white beaches.
“Hello again,” shouted the banker from earlier much drunker than the first time she had seen him.
“I’ll give you fifty quid if you say something else.”
“You will be judged.”
“No something else!”
The bag lady stared into nothingness. The banker approached her little island unzipped his designer trousers pulled out his flaccid penis and started urinating in her mugs of money. He went from cup to cup smirking all the while his mates egging him on.
When he was finished he zipped himself up pulled out his wallet and took out fifty quid in notes then threw them in her face. She grabbed the notes quickly as they started to blow away then tucked them into her flannel shirt pocket.
She could still hear them laughing long after she could see them. Her diamond blue eyes surveyed the steaming cups of urine and money she was so deep in tough she didn't see two young boys run past. the latter yanking her trolley over sending its entire contents flying onto the snow covered pavement.
She got up on her knees and crawled over to her possessions. She carefully picked up each item. Old magazines, last week’s local gazette three boxes of foil a few different sized water bottles, packs of tights, different sized shapes and colours of shoes, two little barbie dolls, a child’s make up set, a torch, a mirror, a few tins of stewed steak and baked beans the charity workers had given her, a bundle of aerosol cans bound together by elastic
Everyone looked as they walked past - nobody stopped to help. She pulled the trolley back up and started to place every little thing carefully back in as if each item was made of china.
She heard the clunk of one of the bank doors being closed. She knew it would be the female manager, surrounded by powerful men and hating every moment of it. She had dark eyes,a sharp dark bob and pointy features the bag lady knew what was coming.
Depending on what kind of day the manager was having it would vary from a load of verbal abuse to a bucket of freezing water.
She knew just what the bank manager would say as she approached her the bag lady knew a lot of things.
She knew that the manager was having an affair. The hushed calls to her lover leant against the wall in between lunch breaks to her lover furiously chain smoking then cheerful calls to her husband minutes later.
The bag lady never talked - she listened and she watched.
“What the hell have I told you,” hissed the bank manager. “Bucket of water for you in the morning! And don’t you even dare say it. You're the one who’s going to end up in front of a judge!” she hailed a passing cab then she was gone.
The bag lady finished picking up her belongings picked up the pieces of cardboard and tucked them into the side of her trolley. She took one last look at the cups then wearily started pushing her trolley through the slushy snow people everyone parting on the pavement to avoid her.
After a while she started to get tired and she stopped under a bus stop. The little blond girl from earlier sat slumped against the bus stop barely conscious. Vomit covered half her suit abandoned by her friend. The little old lady unbuttoned her top shirt pocket and took out a crisp £20 note she tucked it into the girls blazer pocket.
“You will be judged,” said the bag lady.
She gripped her trolley and started pushing it up the high street disappearing into a swirl of snow. Nobody knew where she came from, nobody knew where she went. Nobody cared.
Pineapple on a pizza-a monologue
My son David took me to one of those fancy restaurants in Cardiff the other day. I asked what it was in aid of.
“Just want you to see a bit of life, mum.” He replied. “Get you out of the house.
I’ve seen a bit of life, I said. I’m not keen on it. His wife didn’t come. She never does. Bit of a stuck up girl she is. Well, she’s English. From Gloucestershire. Never liked their cheese either. I asked him how she was, just to be polite.
“She’s working, mum. She’s very high up in the company. She got a promotion last year. She deals with PR but she sends her love.”
I’m sure she does, I thought. It would do her good to be a bit more public with her relations. I wonder if they ever get together or do they have to make appointments. It’s no wonder I haven’t got a grandchild. They’re never together long enough but that may be a blessing in disguise, I suppose. I can’t have them calling on me to babysit all the time. I bought my David up the old fashioned way, always home for him. I didn’t have a career, which is what they call it now. No, my job was to be head cook, and nanny. I didn’t mind, not at the time. It’s what was expected.
“What are you going to have Mum?”
I’m not a fan of pasta but I like pizza and they had quite a selection.
“Did you bring your glasses?”
It’s not like I’m a million miles away from the menu, I said. A lot of the pizzas have olives and I’m not a fan. What’s a Hawaiian? I asked.
“You’ll like that, “David said. It’s got pieces of pineapple on it.”
I looked aghast.
A pineapple! On a pizza. That’s disgusting. He tried to shoosh me but I wasn’t having any of it. I like pineapple, I said. Don’t get me wrong. A pineapple upside down cake is always a favourite of mine although at the last Church bring and buy, Elsie Toplisss’ wasn’t up to much. Too much upside down and not enough pineapple if you ask me although the vicar thought it was wonderful, then again he thinks gay marriage should be celebrated in church. I’m not against gays mind, each to his own I say but in church. It’s not really the place is it. That’s what registry offices are for.
I had a margherita. No extra topping. David had a seafood one, you know the one, prawns, anchovies and bit of squid. You wouldn’t find that at Greens teashop would you, squid. I paid. He argued not convincingly and he never gets his money out. He has plastic of course but he’d forgotten that. Bank of mum, that's me.
I had a gippy tummy the day afterwards.
I blame the pizza. It tasted fine but it was Italian and their hygiene standards aren’t really English, are they? It did have a 5 on the health notice in the window but there again if it’s the Council that inspects these establishments it’s a story in itself isn’t it. We used to have a Liberal Council here, David Steel types and tweed jackets. People who you’d respect and stop to talk to in the street. Now it’s Labour and the Greens who run it and everything’s gone hippy dippy. I had a lady call once, last election time. I say lady but I’m not really sure what it was to be truthful. Young girl, hair’d never seen a comb for weeks or shampoo either. She had dyed purple hair and a pierced nose. Said she was canvassing on behalf of Labour. I said she could come in if she took her shoes off. Poor girl had a hole in her sock but it didn’t bother her at all. My Geoffrey, God rest his soul would’ve been mortified. I insisted she have a cup of tea and a chocolate digestive. She said she took her tea black and that she didn’t eat chocolate as she was a vegan. I thought vegans were something out of Star Trek. My David used to love that programme.
I’m not Labour of course, but I’m polite. I even let the Mormons in occasionally for a chat. They’re so well dressed, much nicer than the Jehovahs. I think it’s their American upbringing. They do show respect and I think that’s where we’ve gone wrong in this country. Too soft. I’d don’t think we’d win a war these days not even against the French. She asked me if I liked Mr Corbyn. I thought she said Mr Corbett and said I preferred Morecambe and Wise. I realised my mistake of course but it may have been too late. She wasn’t best pleased. He’s got a beard hasn’t he? I said. I never liked beards. Our David grew one when he was seventeen but it was ginger and he shaved it off after a day.
“What about his stance on the nuclear issue and womens’ rights?” she said. I’m not sure, I replied. Is he still sleeping with that black lady, Diane something?
She didn’t think that was appropriate and excused herself. She never even drank her tea. I did offer her a pair of my late Geoffrey’s socks before she went but she mumbled something about not being a charity case which surprised me as her clothes did seem to have that charity shop odour about them.
I took milk of magnesia for my tummy. Disgusting stuff but it worked a treat.
David rang to say that they’re going through a bad patch. Are you off road then I said. He meant his marriage of course. I expected as much. She thinks they need some space and she’s going to stay with friends in America. That’s an awful lot of space, I said. Couldn’t she go into a spare room? What about her job, I asked. She’s left that, he said. Mutual consent. They gave her excellent references apparently. She may try to get work in New York, he said. Will you be moving too, I asked. I thought I heard him sobbing but I may have been mistaken. Not for now, he said.
I thought he said she told him she was in Lebanon but turns out she thinks she may be a lesbian. I really need to check my hearing. Doesn’t she know? I asked. You’d surely know if you prefer pizza with pineapple or without, wouldn’t you? He thinks I’m being disrespectful then says he thinks she may be but it doesn’t matter to him. He’d really like her back. I can’t think why. I just hope he doesn’t come back to live here. I’m used to living by myself. I wouldn’t feel comfortable with sharing again. Once a bird flies a nest you wouldn’t want it back, would you. It’s only a two bed semi and his bedrooms’ where I keep my knitting machine.
I’ve nothing against lesbians myself. I’ve read Women in Love and I’ve seen the film. I even had a girl kiss me once. I was sixteen. 1955. The girl in question lived at the top end of town. Pamela Roberts. Her father was a chemist. She was a year older than me, same school. Nice teeth and shoulder length blonde hair. She dropped her bag in the bus stop and I picked it up. A book fell out of it. I’d never really heard about D H Lawrence. She asked me if I’d read it. I said no. She asked if I’d like to come to her house that evening to read it. I’d have to ask my father I said. He said it would be good to make new friends especially with her father being a chemist so I went.
Their house was bigger than ours. They had a proper garden too. Her bedroom looked out over the river. Lovely it was. She started out with chapter one then I went back there once or twice a week and she’d read more. She had a beautiful voice. When it came to the kiss I think it was more a dare, I suppose. I think she put her hand on my breast too. They weren’t that developed. After that time I never went there again. They moved to Bristol six months later. I wonder what happened to her. An experiment, she called it. I remember now. I never told anyone. It wouldn’t do, would it. Some experiments are fine even if they don’t turn out the way you’d want them too.
I expect someone experimented with a pineapple pizza once.
Nothing but disgust in your eyes
the dancing laughter, love melts
understanding short-cuts flushed
out by bitter brine floods
as wormwood takes my tongue
I have swallowed gall
made my stomach somersault out
acrid waves that gorge my throat
cough up scunner on your pretty trust
I damaged, broke, made bleed
green-yellow of pigeon squit
arrowed beneath my clothes, porous
flesh lets it in, writes on my skin
in blood - betrayer, scum -
as I try to cover it with our quilt
of memories, each hand-stitched square
gets streaked with it, disrelished.
Awful warm sensation, not a hug a burn
as if I’ve wet myself in public, I burrow
behind reeking things, stuff mouth
with mud to stop more words,
yet it grits like old sand found
seasons later in summer shoes
I bury myself in shame.
NOTHING BUT DISGUST
All slick speed and bristling whiskers
Tail poised as a tiger,
Hips quivering in ready energy
Ears and eyes on the mouse before me
I was startled by a noise, my ears flew sideways
The mouse disappeared and I sighed
Resentment at the clattering mass
Of men, of course, staggering in full brawl
I darted under the boxwood bush
Pausing to sniff at another cat’s dish
Before vaulting with gymnast ease
To the garden shed roof, surveying the scene
Men, in odd clusters, bawling anger
One grabbed another by the shoulder
A third intervened and swift fists were flung
I sniffed and the reek of wheat-beer sweet
Rose from the night street
As the men stagger-danced, all flailing hands
And a bottle; one tried to hurl a wheelie bin
Which opened and emptied its filth upon him!
And I compared their clumsy squabble
With the wars of my kind:
All stalking ambush and blind fear
Slashing claws and standing fur
Furious swish of the pugilist’s tail
Hissed warning, teeth bared
All circling caution and stalking bravado
Then pounce and explode in splendid crescendo!
The drunkards below still bawled
One sitting down now, cradling a hand
Another dribbling blood and complaining like a child
A third slightly cut, the perfect imprint of mud on his butt
And the groups dispersed with the lingering
Stink of beer and queer shouted threats
I licked my lips, stretched, and pondered my many fights
All claws and teeth and daring assaults
And I felt, compared with the grand campaigns
Of cat – the routed rival, devoured rat –
Human fights must be the clumsiest and I felt
Nothing but disgust.