Monday, 8 June 2020
It was my wife Rachel's idea to stay at Talland House, once the holiday home in St. Ives of the Stephen family but now converted into holiday flats.
We'd been to the town before, my parents having taken me and Rachel as teenagers (our first sunburned fumblings) and we having stayed there with our kids. They in turn take theirs - our grandchildren - and sometimes invite us too, just for a few dutiful days.
Now we go ourselves mostly out of season, when the place reverts in the imagination to Victorian times. Fish oil flowed in the streets then, and it was a long haul by road to St Erth. It doesn't matter if it rains: in fact, the more weather-beaten the better.
We'd never searched hard for it, but all that time Talland, which looks out on Godrevy Lighthouse, retained the facade in photographs taken when Virginia and Vanessa Stephen played cricket in the garden, Vanessa holding the bat with awkward correctness and her sister (later Woolf, of that ilk) somewhere else at silly mid-off.
We had one of the back studio flats. Little bits of old Talland peeked through like pentimenti, but scarcely enough to be redolent of times past. Unlike Rachel, I believe literary landscape is geography of the mind.
However, on the third night, Rachel woke with a start. At the bottom of the bed she saw something, someone. Not a dream, not a trick of the light. There was a movement, a motion focused for a mini-second. We had a laugh about it at breakfast. But the spectre failed to re-appear.
Later that day, we found the exact spot on Porthmeor Beach where my father, one morning in 1957, had sculpted a sand mermaid. By late afternoon, the sea had claimed her.
Of course things are the same as always. Michael makes light of our relative family rankings. Ella-The-Elf-Wife contradicts herself to be agreeable. Jeannie pulls ‘help me’ faces over forkfuls of pond-life.
Impossible fish and spinach pie is apparently our absolute favourite although nobody remembers saying so. Mum joins every dot for us on a neighbour’s recent illness. Dad’s deaf when Michael mentions insurance. Now the cricket scores. Weather reports from Florida, never mind the devastating floods closer to home. We bowl overripe resentments. Fire answerless questions. It’s funny how the house still smells of safety, despite years of casual emotional vandalism.
“Your Dad’s lost so much weight,” Jeannie whispers in the hallway.
I straighten a dimming family photo. “He’s old.”
“But he’s approaching skeletal,” she insists. She’s become attracted to the dramatic.
My brother’s touting his latest cochlear implant device in the lounge when the hospital ring. Isn’t that strange, 3.42pm on a Saturday? Dad’s snoozing. Michael takes the call, quicksteps Mum into the kitchen. As he passes me, Michael places his hand on my shoulder. Squeezes like he’s checking for irregularities.
“I should dry the dishes,” I hear Mum say. There’s a splutter. A percussive tremor on the slate tiles. When we were kids, I was scared of the Big Wheel. Once a year Riley’s Funfair would roll up and butcher the playing field out back. Michael bet three week’s pocket money I was too chicken. As our car creaked and swung at the apex, he snatched my robot coin-bank, then opened his fingers. Eighty-two feet. Why should I remember that now?
On the bus home Jeannie files her nails furiously. I think of Michael’s hand on my shoulder. How if he hadn’t done that, I might still feel safe.
|Artwork by Linda Irish|
Write a story set in an unfamiliar bathroom, or where a bathroom features. Why is your character here?
For an additional challenge, write from the POV of the room.
|Artwork by Linda Irish|
Arriving - write a story inspired by this picture
For an additional challenge, write a story where there is something inappropriate about your character’s arrival somewhere.
I feel content like this, with our backs to the village. From here, my eyes run past the millstone, across the fields to the sea; and look back over the years. Through distant clouds, the trees on the horizon, the merging of sea and sky; the farther I look, the further back in time I see. And all that has happened exists still.
In spring I watch the greens unfurling: ferns, grasses, leaves. Delicately tinged with the hope of summer, I wrap the colours around me and hold them there for as long as I can.
With the hope comes longing, a lament for all the good things that did not last long enough. Happy memories I wish to keep for always. But memory is fluid, and the world is full of distractions. Here though, it is just us. The walls keep me safe and shield me from sadness.
This is where I feel closest to everything I love and have loved. Here I feel everything. I breathe the scents of the earth; inhale the blue sky. I smile, and the house smiles with me.
Floating sticks and leaves down the stream, seeing who reaches the bridge first. Perhaps that’s what I remember?
Walking along the beach, wind in my hair, salt spray lashing at my face. Probably collecting sea shells. Perhaps that’s what I remember?
Eating chocolate cake, my favourite flavour. Perhaps that’s what I remember?
Sitting at my table making jewellery, or sewing something, or making resin shakers. Perhaps that’s what I remember?
Watching Netflix, curled up on my sofa, just me and the cat. Perhaps that’s what I remember?
Going to meet my friends at the pub, before heading into town. Perhaps that’s what I remember?
Getting a little drunk, unsteady on my feet. Perhaps that’s what I remember?
Walking along the pavement, bright lights, loud noises. Perhaps that’s what I remember?
A shout, a beep, a screech. Perhaps that’s what I remember?
Flying through the air. Bouncing off the roof. Splayed out upon the floor. Perhaps that’s what I remember?
Crowds gathered round, people crying and holding each other. Perhaps that’s what I remember?
Yes, wait, I do remember.
What was the last thing I remember before waking up here?
Dying. That’s what I remember.
It was not supposed to turn out like this.
Two guards were now standing in front of me.
“I am afraid you cannot travel madam,” said the man at the check-in desk handing back a passport not my own.
I shift from one foot to another, fanning myself with the booklet, as the bags inch forward.
A tingling feeling runs through me as I get to the tail end of drop off.
I move towards the board, my eyes scanning the exotic destinations before resting on mine.
We scramble to reclaim our possessions and get off the floor.
“Sorry!” bags and purses collide as contents spill out along with apologetic smiles all round.
Getting out of the cab, I sashay into the enclosed area, my suitcase trailing behind in compliance.
I was dreaming away when the jerk of sudden brakes brought the Departures into view.
The cab ride was smooth, my head buzzing with numerous possibilities.
I was meant to be flying alone for the first time.
The older woman’s heartbeat, pulse and blood pressure returned to normal. Panic over. He was gone. The man who had grabbed her ankles from beneath the car had been there. The shock of it lingered. Replay. The purse hit the floor and disappeared as quietly and as quickly as the two hands had shot out from underneath the car.
She fell to the floor. Cold sweat had collected above her top lip - in a fractured second. The breath stolen from her lungs.
‘’Ma’am. What exactly was in the bag? I need to know for the report….Look I need to file this thing and get to my next job. I don’t mean to be rude. But it’s a homicide, so they really need me there.’’
Time stopped. Dry mouth. Pulse definitely still racing. Heart in chest, apparently no longer pounding.
‘’Lipstick, cell phone, bank cards, a tiny Halcyon Days music box and my husband’s teeth.’’
She pushed out the words as raspberry compote might push through muslin. Concentrated. Smooth. With a uniform consistency.
She drew her shoulders up, thanked the officer, pointed her torso in a westerly direction and hoped she would remember which one was her car, and that the keys were still nestled high above the left rear wheel.
It was white. Definitely white. Like her husband’s teeth had once been.
Funeral teas are good for my business. Lots of cold, hungry mourners gasping for a cuppa and keen to snaffle my famous sausage rolls. About a fortnight ago, though, the bookings dried up. Suspicious that someone had phoned Environmental Health again I gave the kitchen a bit of a wipe down. Hauling the fridge away from the wall I could see plenty of evidence of my little lodgers. Fresh and a bit smelly. I thought someone must be on to me so took care to grind my special ingredients to an even finer paste. Cashflow began to get tight. Too many bills were landing on the mat. I needed a second wave, a spike in cases. Occasional heart attacks and natural causes weren’t going to get me out of the hole with the bank. Not to worry though, turns out the Crematorium was just closed for refurbishment, everything’s back to normal, lots of hungry mourners tripping in, eager to snaffle my famous, tasty sausage rolls.
The burgers leap off the tarmac and up into our hands. The driver’s head bounces back from the windscreen as it un-shatters in ear-splitting tinkles. Blood crawls up into his forehead, the cuts sealing shut. The crumpled lorry reverses, metal screeching, unfolding the back of the caravan like a concertina door. The smell of diesel. Then the lorry snakes back onto the road, erasing tyre marks. The driver’s head bows down to tune the radio.
Dad and I turn back to the counter, lifting the buns and drawing the ketchup upwards into the container. We hand the burgers to the man and he sets them on the worktop, wiping grease off his apron onto his hands. The burgers are dismantled, the money passed from the till back to my Dad. My Dad’s words come out in reverse, unordering the burgers as he pockets the money. A delicious onion aroma wafts from my nose towards the burger van, my mouth un-watering in anticipation. Dad and me walk backwards into the caravan, pulled back into our seats, Mum safely nestled between us.
I linger in that moment. Before the tears ravaged Dad’s face and hunched his shoulders and took the light from his eyes. When we could have decided to stop at the next burger van, at the next lay-by. When we could have carried on driving, the three of us singing along to Madonna. Mum and me miming the actions to “Vogue”. But however many times I rewind it, I can’t undo it.
“Feed me!” That’s what that squeal means.
Like, there isn’t a garden full of grass outside.
All the Guinea pigs wanted to do was eat.
Stay inside and eat.
Haven’t they heard of the great outdoors?
Flowers, plants, grass, waiting for them the other side of the open door.
“In case you hadn’t noticed,” I said, “the door is open, you can go outside and feed yourselves.”
Couldn’t understand me, obviously, as they just looked up at me and squealed even louder.
Teeth showing, ears flapping, rising up on their hind legs.
“Ignore us at your peril,” I thought I heard them say as they wheeeked and squeaked, squealed and begged.
“OK, OK, but only a small piece of cucumber,” I said.
“Now get your furry, fuzzy little butts outside and eat – my – grass.”
"So, what's this news you wanted to share?"
"You know that guy I've been telling you about?"
"The jogger you met in the park? Aaron?"
"Eric. Well, I think he's ready to get serious."
"I thought he was living with someone."
"Yes but he hasn't been happy for a long time and he's finally going to move out."
"Really? Poor girl."
"Well, she only has herself to blame. She's always working. And she's super needy."
The waiter brought over two glasses of wine.
"Would you ladies like anything else?"
"No, thank you."
"Ok, well enjoy."
The two women took sips from their wine glasses. They didn't notice who sat at the table next to them. They didn't see her knock over her glass as she reached to take her wallet out of her purse. They didn't see her quickly wipe up the spill and toss some money on the table before rushing to the door.
As she walked to her car, she felt her phone buzz and took it out of her purse. It was a text from Eric.
"We need to talk."
"We're banning guns, will you let everyone know?"
"Do I look like an idiot?" said the messenger. “Send someone else.”
"It's a shame," you said to me, once, as we watched two doves squabble on a branch, "but you never hear anything about carrier pigeons these days."
Emily stood at the window and watched as her family got into their car and drove away. She nodded her head, trying to shake the tears as she watched them disappear down the road.
She walked to the kitchen and sat, just sat and looked around her.
She looked at the chair the other side of the table and cried.
Abruptly, Emily got up knocking a chair over as she did so. She ran into the front room and stood at the window again. She stood there, looking out, waiting. She had been doing this all week, waiting, as she always did.
It was getting dark now, she must have been there for hours. At some point she sat down. At some point she lay and slept for a while. But then she was alert again and stood, waiting, staring out of the window.
She didn’t need to be able to tell the time to know when Martin would be home. She just knew. But he hadn’t come home. Not last night, not the night before.
Emily had noticed that the others, the rest of the family, were really sad. They cried a lot and hugged a lot. She recognised Martin’s name as she listened to their conversations. She didn’t understand why he wasn’t here.
Emily lay down on the floor again, next to the window, and waited; a devoted loyal dog waiting for her master. She couldn’t understand that he wasn’t coming back.
Lockdown has interrupted relations with his flock for too many weeks; he is keen to return to this, his favourite duty.
A thin ray of sunlight shines diagonally across the box, picking out particles of shimmering dust that pierce the darkness like an arrow.
Suzanne, a long-time favourite, is first to attend; bursting, anxious to offload her murky thoughts.
Holy water drips from her red-spotted headband and trickles across her bowed forehead as she struggles to speak.
Fidgeting, Father Grundy breathes hard into his ironed cassock, sweating hands clasped together in his lap.
It’s so good to hear your voice again at last.
Catching her breath, she pauses to stroke the gold, embossed letters that decorate the cover of her tiny, white Bible.
The seeds have been re-sown, generous specks of rice falling into flooded fields.
Is it strange they’ve taken so long to germinate?
Opening the window fully, he offers the sign of the cross as he speaks.
Naturally I’ve missed our regular sessions, Suzanne, and am, as always, happy to listen and of course confirm your forgiveness.
“At least she didn’t feel anything.”
But, are you sure she didn’t?”
“Course I am, that’s what they said.”
“Did you definitely ask them? Are you sure?”
“Extra sure. Extra sure with knobs on.”
“For God’s sake, no need for that.”
“Great Scot, don’t be so touchy.”
‘Hang on. Let’s not do this now.”
“I’m sorry, we’re both stressed.”
“Just so, tired and stressed.”
“Kickboxing. When I’m like this, I go kickboxing.”
“Lord above. Kickboxing?”
“Many’s the time it’s stopped me hitting someone.”
“No way. And does that mean you want to hit me? Me, your sister?”
“Of course not. Not you, not family.”
“Pleased to hear it.”
“Quite pleased to be able to say it.”
“Right then. Let’s get on. We’re wasting time. They’ll be here soon.”
“So, you’ll go in the first car with the others when they turn up and I’ll go with ... with her.”
“That works, yes.”
“Unless you want to go with her?”
“Very happy for you to go.”
“Whatever you say.”
“Xavier’s coming with the others?”
“Yes, yes he is. I’ve told him not to wear his—"
”Zoot suit. Well remembered. Thank you.”
‘A bigger birdwatching book would be good too’ Frank said between laughs, ‘one like Dad’s.’
She stopped laughing and the sad look came back, making Frank sorry that he had spoiled everything again. He just wanted to see Dad, sit on his knee, look at pictures of robins and wrens, make plans for trips to see puffins. Frank loved puffins, short and fat, orange feet and beaks, how they rubbed beak to beak, looking to have a friendly chat.
‘I’m sorry son,’ Dad whispered the last time Frank saw him, and he didn’t know why Dad hugged him so tight, his face sad like Mam’s.
‘Cameras are expensive, Mam, binoculars would be enough,’ Frank said, hoping she might laugh again, but she stared into the distance, eyes open but seeing nothing.
Today Frank had packed his birdwatching bag; torch, notebook and pencil in the front, easy to hand like Dad said, banana and crackers in the main part. It won’t be much fun without Dad, he thought, trying not to worry about finding the way to the hide, but maybe Dad was missing him too and would be waiting there for him. Outside, Frank looked down the street, moon-dark, startled by a hooting owl, suddenly aware of the gap left by the binoculars.
Now as he walked back up the front path, his Mam stood against streaming light in the doorway, arms outstretched, and her heart thumped against his ear as her wings enfolded him, and Frank wondered did puffins have cosy nests.
You say to the guests at your grandmother’s funeral as you bring the gifts upward to the altar.
Thank You For Coming.
You say to your father dropping you off at group therapy in Ohio on intake day.
Thank You For Coming.
You say to your girlfriend lying languid on a pillow nest in the sweat of queer creation.
Thank You For Coming.
You say to yourself as you blink your eyes open and wake up to another day.
Two lovers in their 90’s, a park,
any kind of weather,
the miracle of hands,
A basketful of gin and petals
Soft and ancient hips,
the press of cracked lips
Prep Time: Five minutes
Cooking Time: Two lifetimes.
Remove from a care home
with the promise of champagne
a trail of biscuits, and Sudoku.
Settle on the bench and wrap in silk rugs.
Sprinkle with hope, heat with sunshine
Stir with lemon balm and diesel oil
Add bunting, dancers, hummingbirds, Carmina Burana
Watch, until hands clasp and heads settle on shoulders
Wait for the first, slow, kiss.
Lipsticked, perfumed, powder-blue crimpolene two-piece, black court shoes, fake pearls, she was a different woman. Floury apron and hairnet hung up for ‘a good night visit to the club’. The ‘coven’ were loud and raucous, Mum cackling her ‘If that happens, I’ll - ’ refrain in response to comments.
Who knows where the years go? In a blink of an eye she was eighty, no longer able to rub butter into flour, hands bent and gnarled. Her memory wasn’t as sharp, but her delight in a ciggie and Babycham was undiminished. On a trip to Leeds we’d wandered into the new Victoria Quarter and were browsing cosmetics, when Mum was offered a makeover. Praising Mum’s ‘youthful complexion’, the assistant said she should be modelling for them. Mum laughed, ‘Aye, if that happens, I’ll -’. I cut her off, knowing what was coming. To distract her, I suggested we have a nosey in the clothes department.
I was searching through the Per Uno section when I heard a kerfuffle. Looking round, I saw a crowd around the nearest window display, many of them sniggering. Turning back, I began to talk to Mum, only to discover she was nowhere in sight.
‘Madam, please!,’ a woman boomed. ‘It is most unladylike. Come out of there.’
I felt my heart plummet. I wobbled over, hearing a piping voice address her audience.
‘She said I should be a model. And I said, “If that happens, I’ll show my bum in Lewis’s.” Well it has, and I have.’
And she did.
Likewise, the intoxicating tease of a sandalwood-based aftershave.
Surging forward, I hoped chivalry and discretion would prevent him from pursuing one of the seats as I don’t like sharing a table with strangers.
He staked his claim opposite me and removed his hat to reveal surprisingly thick, tousled salt and pepper hair that stirred something deep in my subconscious.
‘Ingrid,’ I replied as our fingertips touched and a forgotten sensation tingled its way up my spine.
‘Can I get you a coffee?’ he asked but I declined…I don’t like feeling obliged to anyone.
To distract myself I rummaged in my handbag until our drinks arrived, mine in a large cup sitting off-centre in the saucer and his in a tall tapered glass with a handle two thirds the way down that looked too small for those perfectly manicured, large hands of his.
I like to savour my treat, but I willed it to cool so I could drink it and not feel obliged to make small talk…I’ve never seen the point.
On any other day I delight in spooning out the remaining froth, but I didn’t like to in front of him, and this made me feel a little resentful as I stood and draped my scarf round my neck.
Negotiating the tight space between the chair and table, more dormant sensations tumbled into the present as I looked into those deep, brown eyes…and hesitated.
We were none of us kids who could brag about new cars. We’d only got one car between three families up our end of the street. We were lucky, though, because our Mums and Dads were pals, so we kind of shared the car. Although, officially, Evanses owned it, our Dad paid the insurance and Ashley’s Mom paid the tax and petrol.
We shared meal times, too. It was usually something like fish finger and chips or sausage and chips. Basically, anything and chips. We’d eat in the back kitchen, all six of us kids. Sometimes the grown ups would be in the front room. Sometimes they’d be in one of the gardens. Most of the time they were all together. Just occasionally, a couple of them were missing. We never took much notice.
Our Mum put the plates down on the grubby cloth. It was supposed to be wipe clean but we never bothered with that. “Anything interesting back at school?” she asked us.
“Not really. Jerky Joel’s got a new car.”
We all laughed. Our Mum had the worst potty mouth. That’s where we got it from in the first place.
“Where are Ashley and Stephen?” Mum didn’t like food going to waste.
“Think they’re upstairs, playing Mummies and Daddies, like Ashley’s Mum and Stephen’s Dad.”
We wanted to be the same as our parents. That’s all we knew.
Will it be obvious enough?
Should I wear lipstick?
Choose the red the colour of Snow White’s apple?
Choose the peach the colour of expensive silk lingerie?
Has she noticed me in the background of the video conferences?
Has Andy noticed that I’ve started working from the dining room table?
I wonder if he thinks it’s strange that I don’t leave when his boss calls?
Do his colleagues notice her too?
Do they see her serious brown eyes?
Do they see her perfect nose?
Do they hear her intelligence, and her laugh like music?
Does she have freckles?
If the webcam was higher quality would I see russet splashes sprinkled across her cheeks?
Has she ever touched Andy? A gentle squeeze of the shoulder perhaps?
Has he noticed how, at the thought of that, I am more eager in bed?
Can he tell I’m thinking of someone else?
Will we ever meet?
Would she be able to tell?
Would she like to know I think of her?
Does she think of me?
Could I arouse her?
Do I know how to arouse her?
Has Andy ever mentioned my name?
Has she ever asked after me?
Does she know my name?
Has she ever said my name?
'Some things I’d like to know about the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics' by Sam Payne
The commuter scrum was unpleasant and unfamiliar to Lexi. One chap, in particular, seemed to be taking a special interest in her. She moved down the carriage, much to the annoyance of those around her. Her day was not going well.
At Euston, Lexi caught a mainline train and noticed that the man from the tube was sitting nearby. Was this a bizarre coincidence?
When he got off the train at her stop, alarm bells rang. Lexi was pretty feisty, not a scared mouse of a person.
‘Are you following me?’ Lexi asked. ‘And if so, why?’
He looked flustered. He hadn’t anticipated this. He spluttered, ‘Well …yes…I am.’
Lexi was quite taken aback by this response, as she’d expected him to deny it.
‘So, are you a stalker?’ she ventured.
‘I live opposite you, and ever since you moved in, I’ve been kind of watching you.’
‘Why be so weird, you’ve really unnerved me’.
‘I dunno, I’m shy I suppose. I didn’t mean to follow you today, but I just got curious.’
‘What’s your name? I’m Lexi by the way.’
‘I know. I’m Jamie. I’ve honestly never done this kind of thing before.’
‘Should I be flattered?’
‘Can I take you for a coffee?,’ asked Jamie, feeling brave.
‘Well no, I’m already running late, but this is my number, call me – and stop following me.’
And with that Lexi headed off.
Lexi was pleased with how she’d handled it and Jamie seemed genuine enough. Not someone to be scared of. Lexi didn’t frighten easily. But clearly her cloak of invisibility was flawed.
Here we see the very wall in question. Visitors are often surprised by how low it is, but people were so much shorter then. The hen that laid Humpty, on the other hand, was considerably taller compared to today's breeds.
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall
Popularised by Hadrian, freestanding outdoor walls soon sprang up all across Britain. For egg people, the writing was very much upon them (and, naturally, for the chickens that laid them too).
No, sir, the chickens laid eggs not walls.
But climbing walls was not the problem, it was the dismounting — and perhaps, too, more crucially, a curious failure to learn from the mistakes of others.
All the king's horses and all the king's men
We are talking about the king of the egg people and his men — that’s right, madam, you’re very well informed — not the king of England — a common misunderstanding, even today.
Contemporary reports suggest 160 men were sent to Humpty's aid. However, the word 'all' can be misleading: sadly, there were not nearly as many horses.
Most of the horses, understandably, collapsed en route, overburdened, and had to be put down; while a number of the men, having fallen, suffered similar fates.
The rhyme glosses over it somewhat, yes.
Couldn't put Humpty together again
By the time they reached Humpty, barely ten men were left; none survived the dismount. And while the horses showed willing, hooves, alas, proved ill-suited to the task.
These few fragments — displayed here beside Humpty's favourite eggcup, for indication of scale — are all of him — or them — that remain.
The king? Yes, went into exile, as you put it, sir.
But I fail to see the amusement.
9. Check-in at the counter. A familiar face: David. You went to school together, remember? You don’t, but smile back. Not too much.
8. Take complimentary pen to bathroom, “Escape Oldholme” down its side. Dig out receipt. Stand up straight in the hall, as he spits pet names into your ear like broken glass.
7. Close the door to a room painted castle—outlined bricks, windows to black Neverland. In a small room attached, see a mannequin under glass, sleeping and porcelain.
a. You must wake her to win. She has hair like yours.
6. Decode the seven rings. Not real gold, of course, but plastic and as light as straw. Inside them, all the right words. He is good with these, but slow. One down, and his teeth still grin handsome and wide. The lights dim; this time you are sure.
5. Help him solve, but not too much. Let him find the apple—although you saw it first—red shellac flaking away as he twists it open, the next clue in its core.
4. Watch the camera, the clock, as time siphons away—faster than he’d like, while you will its haste. Scream in blinks to the lens. David seems nice.
3. Try to breathe through tightened ribs when: He can’t find the right key. When the countdown chimes. When he grabs your arm, plum-tender still. Don’t cry. Not yet.
2. Leave receipt on the counter, while his back is turned. Say please with your eyes, thank you with your mouth.
Sunday, 7 June 2020
Lying prone in the hospital bed he mentally surveyed his body; could have been worse he supposed.
Arms bandaged with gauze, one leg in plaster and raised, muscles sore and aching, head throbbing.
Someone was coming towards him, a navy clad nurse, backlit by the lights from the corridor outside the ward.
Hello, I’m glad to see you’re awake, you’ve been asleep for a while, how are you feeling, do you want a drink, any painkillers?
Feeling groggy and I ache, yes I’m thirsty, maybe ….
I think you should have something, for the pain, it’ll help with the healing; the police are waiting to question you if you’re up to it, apparently you’re in a bit of trouble.
Cycling away for the last time, the incriminating documents safely despatched, he’d been feeling relieved.
The car had clipped him, hoping to tip him into the path of the lorry, but he’d managed to push himself in the opposite direction, unfortunately that had meant a tumble down the embankment and knocking himself out.
Inez watched as the expressions of fear, doubt and worry moved across the face of the vulnerable looking young man in the bed before her, holding his wrist she could feel his pulse speeding away and hear his breath becoming rapid.
Ok, you need to calm down, I can’t stop them talking to you, but you won’t be taken anywhere, not while you’re in this state.
No, it’s fine, I knew the risks …
“Who you looking at?”
He doesn’t answer. Bobbie is standing halfway between him and me. She’s looking down, studying the pavement, careful not to look at either of us.
“You looking at my bird?”
“Who says she’s your bird?”
I hope Bobbie will say something, but nada. We’re still setting up home, to be fair, but he doesn’t know that. I hope she’ll move towards me, but she’s as still as a statue. Scared.
“I said, who said she’s your bird?”
He stares at me. Says nothing.
“Think you’re Cock of the Walk, don’t you?”
“Yeah,” he says. “Cock of the Walk, that’s me.”
I feel myself going into fight-mode, straightening up, puffing out my chest, making myself look bigger.
“Come over here and say that.”
“Cock of the Walk. Cock of the Walk! Nah, mate. You come over here.”
“Don’t go,” Bobbie says quietly. “Leave it Rob. Let’s just get on with what we’re doing.”
But I fly at him, faster than he can think. And then I see he’s only young, just trying it on like I did at his age.
“Rob...” she says again.
And now, it doesn’t matter. Before I reach him, he’s high-tailed it.
She’s right. What we’re doing is far more important. Making a home. Building a nest. I pick up the beakful of dry grass that I’d found for us and swoop over, land next to her.
She snuggles into my feathers. “Oh, Robin,” she says.
We drove home.
She had walked past him. Stepping across the lawn, she pulled the For Rent sign down.
“Hello, I rang about—” my father had begun.
The woman walked past him, my mother, and me. Daddy said, “Excuse me ma’am, I called earlier—”
The front had door opened.
My father rang the doorbell again.
“Daddy, I saw a lady inside.”
My mother said, “Let’s go.”
No one came.
Daddy rang the doorbell.
My skirt scratched against my legs but I made sure to look polite, hands by my side, my pigtails still had ribbons in it. We had walked up to the door, got out of the car, my mother adjusting her Chinese dress, a spring cheongsam, with myriad green leaves of different shades. A woman with a blonde bouffant bubble cut had pulled aside the lace curtain, peering out. She saw us.
The green house had white trim shutters and a realtor’s board on the lawn. So pretty. A diagonal sign across it said “For Rent.”
“She said to come over,” had smiled Daddy, parking. “She sounds like a nice lady with a smile in her voice. We’ll soon have a house to live in. The land of the free, home of the brave. Green card now, next year, citizenship.” He smiled to Mommy. “We’re in America now.”
We sat in the car, breathing.
As the afternoon sun warmed the earth, the barn creaked, readjusting itself for comfort. The sound of hurrying footsteps down the path interrupted the bird song which filled the air.
Izzy placed her hand on the barn door and cast a glance over her shoulder to see if she had been followed. Listening, she was content she was alone - the only sound being that of a wasp scratching at the wood. She watched it for a few seconds before swinging the door open and then pulling it tight, sealing herself inside.
Sunlight peeped through cracks in the wooden sides of the ‘shack’ as she called it. Sitting cross-legged on the floor, she tucked her hand in her pocket, withdrawing a cotton handkerchief. Unfolding it carefully, she picked up a brown tipped, white stick and striking a match, as she had seen her mother do, lit it. The end glowed red and fizzled. Placing it in her mouth, she inhaled deeply.
The bitter taste made her feel sick and as she coughed, she could hear someone outside.
“Mum’s going to be so angry!”
Izzy’s younger sister ran up the path and as she did, Izzy threw the cigarette to the floor and pushed the door open, running after her.
The old barn gave a deep sigh. A thin curl of smoke reached up from the floor, as the red glow wrapped itself round the wood. Outside, the wasp continued to pick at the barn until it became too hot and the flames too close.
I walk through the small opening in the wall of the stone dome, stopping to let my eyes accustom to the gloom. Away, now, from the blazing heat of the sun and into cool darkness, I pause and slowly open my eyes, standing stock-still before moving again. I catch my breath as I see that, just one step in front of me is… nothing; in front of me the stone floor gives way to a deep, dark pit.
Slowly, I begin to look around. The walls are covered in dry, green algae, dead for centuries. Light strains in through small openings in the side of the dome above me. The bottom of the pit, maybe 5 metres below, is covered in dark mud, cracked and peeling. This must have served as a water chamber at one time, filled from the mountains above.
I feel like I am not alone. It feels… foreboding; like something once lived within the waters; it is still here but no longer keeps form, dried to dust. It once was strong and claimed the waters of the dead, calling to others to fall within its grasp, drowned, dead, drained.
I can feel it calling me further, wanting me to fall. It wants me to bleed, wants my water to give it life, to rehydrate its desiccated soul, give form again to the bone dust that lies within the mud beneath. That cemetery outside was never filled with flesh, just bone and skin and desiccated corpses. All moisture reclaimed, human life extinguished, daemon fulfilled.
I’ve had the sense of being below sea level for many years now... Everything in my thoughts is in flux, swimming about on its own in the deep, while I, almost incapable of autonomous movement, am swept by powerful currents and lulled by passing, magnificent sea creatures.
It is as if I dwell below the surface, in secret caverns in the sea. I feel no intimacy with anything sensual, those things almost repel me. To me the sensual forms become diminished and distorted and my connection to the world of the senses is almost severed: only a few worries, vague hopes and indistinct ends remain.
In stark contrast to that, to the deep, where my thoughts perpetually wander, I am bound by a very sturdy rope which stretches out the full distance, with its other end firmly tied around my waist.
Sometimes I think that I am only expected to touch that rope, and pull it even a little bit towards me: Whatever lies at the other end will thus be signaled and begin its journey to reach me. Then, regardless of the massive distance originally separating us, the gravest of stirs will be instantly felt in the waters around me...
1. Spend at least 3 evenings a week with your friends.
2. Fill your days off with individual chores.
3. Go out to dinner with your partner.
4. Argue over your partner’s choice of restaurant.
5. Return home in silence.
6. Sleep in spare bedroom.
7. Continue silence for days/weeks.
8. Move into spare bedroom.
9. Search internet for studio flats.
10. Book short break for yourself and your partner.
11. Argue over your choice of destination.
12. Return early from short break.
13. View studio flats.
14. Sign contract.
15. Hire storage facility.
16. Pack belongings.
17. Ignore any/all attempts to change your mind.
18. Leave house.
19. Post key through letterbox.
20. Leave your baggage behind.
He clutched the pistol in his pocket tighter. The cold metal stung, but it was as if the pistol was fused to his hand, urging him towards the inevitable end. Soon, very soon.
Then, something caught his eye. It was a little white spider. Blank like my life, Ethan murmured to himself. Balancing daintily on its long legs, the itsy bitsy spider crawled up the water spout that trailed the wall all the way down from the roof. Ethan looked at it spellbound. At least the spider had found a secure place for itself.
Suddenly the sky turned dark and down came the rain, and washed the spider out. It curled into a ball and rolled away. What chance did it have, after all!
Then, just like that, the skies cleared and out came the sun, and dried up all the rain. Like the parched earth had greedily sucked up all the water and everything in it to slake its thirst. Poor little spider, Ethan thought. Nothing going your way, is it? But there it was, crawling out of a tiny crack in the ground. It uncurled its legs, and the itsy bitsy spider went up the spout again. Ethan looked in wonderment. He found his fingers around the pistol had loosened somehow; he pulled the offensive load out of his pocket and flung it away.
It was time to crawl out of the hole.
There is a cine film of me, the overwhelming colour of which is orange. I am turning a cartwheel. Or maybe it’s someone else in the film. I don’t remember ever being able to turn a cartwheel and I’m not about to try it now, just to check if I have any muscle memory.
What I do remember is an orange glass dish. I am looking for it in the film when the cameraman, my mother’s uncle I think, sweeps round showing us the table and the picnic rug. There are Tupperware boxes of filled rolls and tinfoil parcels of cooked meat. You can’t see any of the vegetable salad but I know it was there because I can taste it, the orange and green and white of it, the bits and pieces squashed between teeth and tongue. There must have been lemonade. I want there to have been lemonade, but we were never allowed it.
The orange dish I am remembering had trifle in it; swiss roll, tinned fruit and jelly. It tasted of love. It had no place at a picnic. I am probably remembering wrong, mixing up Christmas and cartwheels on the beach that actually might just be a back garden. I don’t know all the adults that were there. One of them died not long after. One Aunt went back to Canada and we never saw her again. The other children, our cousins, grew up and away.
There must be a video somewhere that isn’t orange, that has our children turning cartwheels too. And eating picnics on beaches that are gardens. I don’t know who has that old orange cine film now. I’d like to see it again, just to see if I am in it after all.
Let sleeping dogs lie they said; no good will come of waking them; they’ll rise dribbling and barking, red of eye and sharp of tooth and come for you pinning you to the floor and breathing hot and heavy into your face as you screw your eyes shut repeating this isn't happening this isn't happening this isn't happening this isn't happening we told them to sleep we told them to lie down we told them to lie we told them to close their eyes and lay their head down and leave it to us and everything will be OK.
Let sleeping dogs lie they said, but no one thought about the children, the children poked them and woke them and now they are no longer lying, they're awake and they're angry and the box is open and the darkness is flying out and the truth is everywhere and it's loud, so loud that the headphones are not working and we screw our eyes shut but the light crawls in through the gaps and at the bottom of the box fluttering its tiny wings, like at the bottom of the heart of every one of the children, like at the bottom of the heart of every one of the dogs, like at the bottom, the very bottom, deep, deep down so deep it's almost suffocated but not quite, of our hearts at the bottom of all of this is hope. And now it's awake.
Lately he’s been saying that a lot.
“Are you experienced in handling spacecraft, then?” asks the seller, whose rickety looking semi sits awkwardly with her claim to be a master builder.
“Stand aside,” says Pres, unhooking the tiny hatch with a self-conscious flourish.
His hands are shaking slightly, and I wonder again if we were going about this in quite the right way.
Feet first, as my mother would have said.
It would have been so much simpler to send our vital essence instead, to Mars, or the moon, or as glitter sprinkles across the galaxy, but we kept missing the submission windows.
“Can you pass me a spanner, love?” asks Pres, from within the flimsy metal casing, his voice carouselling elusively around my head.
The seller loses interest and starts an air-video call with some ban-fake-green agitators.
Isolation pod holidays were popular earlier in the century, only falling from favour when so many of them disappeared into the Bermuda Triangle of space and never returned.
Other technologies took over, then; personalised and multi-flavoured security fields.
Nobody else wanted this patched up curio, but Pres and I made a vow: to greet our ancient Earth, just once, through the faraway prism of unbroken promises.
She traces her hand along its polished top and says “Hello.”
Winks at me. “One day he might reply.”
“He’s not there,” I say, knowingly. She kisses my forehead.
At night, Grandpa sits with me.
“Sorry,” he says. “Old ticker gave out.”
He tells me his stories and everything an 8-year-old boy should know.
“Mum thinks you’re in that box.”
“Nonsense! Look for me in the sky.”
Every morning, I search a big sky for telling cottonwool shapes, synchronised feathered flocks, spectral signs.
I see him everywhere.
Stephen, our leader, is surveying the sea cautiously: we mustn’t drift too far out into the bay. But the change in tide catches us unprepared and we are pulled further from the shore. As the sky darkens, we feel the wind whipping up into a storm; an angry swell takes control of the boat, steering us out to sea. Before we are even aware of it, the pale light of dusk becomes an eerie darkness and our tiny craft feels lost beneath an endless, starless black.
We are frightened now, unable to steer the boat, our rowing uncoordinated, fighting the swell. Suddenly the gloom is broken by a piercing light. Across the bay we see its reflection shattering the sea’s surface and illuminating the shoreline. From afar, the homing signal of the lantern draws us in, cheers our shivering bodies, brings relief to our anxious faces. Pulling now at the oars with all the strength we can muster, our arms burning with the effort, we feel renewed energy. We fight the waves and turn the boat back towards the shore.
'Come on lads, row hard now,' cries Stephen. 'Keep pulling, keep pulling, we’re almost there.'
The boat lands on the beach; we stumble out onto the sand, exhausted with effort, cold with shock; the lighthouse looming above, warming us back to life.
I thought our days in the sun
Would last for always
I thought we would climb the hill
And roll back down
We were born together
Reached womanhood together
I thought those days of joy and laughter
Of love and friendship would last
Everyone noticed you
But they could not have you
You were mine
Now you are leaving
Seeing the world, you said
Finding yourself, you said
But what about me?
What about us?
Just a distant memory to you
A heart aching of loss, to me
One last climb, I begged
One last tumble, I pleaded
One last daisy chain, I implored
One last time
We climbed the hill
Sat under the oak tree
We lay on our backs and watched the clouds
Held hands and kissed
One last time
Let me brush your hair, I whispered in your ear
One last time
Here, lay your head upon my lap
Golden hair glimmering in the failing light
A ring of daisies at your crown
You closed your eyes
You breathed in deeply
One last time
As the sun began setting behind the hills
I slowly raised my hand above my head
I brought the stone down upon the daisy chain with such force
A strength I didn’t know I had
You had no time to wake
No time to ask why
No time to beg
No time to say goodbye
I kissed your lips and stole your last breath
I brushed the blonde and red hair away from your face
I placed the reddened daisy chain upon my own head
You threatened to steal my life
So I stole yours
‘You what? Are you going to throw away your future on some boy you’ve only just met? You know you won’t be able to go to university now, don’t you?’
‘Have you not been listening to anything I’ve just said? Did you not hear me when I said I feel happy for the first time in years, maybe ever?’
‘You know that having a baby isn’t all roses and moonshine, don’t you? Have you considered–?’
‘Are you asking me to…? Surely not?’
‘No, just think carefully, eh? You’ve got the rest of your life to settle down, haven’t you?’
What was that? What did you say? You love me? You don’t, though, do you? You say you do, but when was the last time you meant it?
This was inevitable, wasn’t it, really? What is it that they say again? About ‘fools rushing in’? What? You don’t think we did? What house have you been living in?
Which house have you been going to? Hers? You think I didn’t know?
Oh, you think I care? You think I still give a damn about what you do? You think I still give a damn about you after all of this?
What? You think I’m making a mistake? Seriously? You mean a mistake other than you? I don’t think so, do you?
Well why else would I have packed up all your stuff?
Don’t let the door hit you on your way out, ok?
Finally it was over. Last night had been the end of all the nights, the culmination of what felt like a lifetime of peering through a dense fog. And don’t think it had been easy. She’d have done it years ago if she could only have figured out how. He’d seemed invincible, impervious to tears or rage, effortlessly manipulating her words, curving and twisting them into a smokestream, demonstrating black was white, leaving her stranded, gasping for air, fins flapping uselessly.
Friends had told her, some more kindly than others, that he was gaslighting her, that she’d be much happier without him, that she deserved so much more. It was impossible to argue with them - she could see that from the outside it must look like that - but what they didn’t see, couldn’t see, was the man she’d created from her romantic dreams, from her happy memories of those early days. Created and then immortalised in myth, in a million stories she’d told herself, stories that wrapped their words around her, pinning her arms, preventing movement.
Then it had happened. It was impossible, what he had just said; it was inconceivable that he could have said such a thing, yet he had said it, she had heard it. One moment of blinding clarity was all she needed. No, she cried, feeling the beloved myth dissolve, the bonds falling away, her arms rising from her sides, the pain and joy of life returning - finally, it was over.
He was far out at sea, too far to be detected by anyone on land.
He smelt her before he was able to detect her by sight, her scent was very distinctive, a mix of rosemary and vanilla, it's what attracted him to her in the first place. It had been a few moons since he'd last seen her, she looked different, changed. The difference was subtle, but it was a change nonetheless. Her wild hair appeared thicker than before, she was flushed, and he noticed the swell of her breasts and stomach. She looked upset, forlorn. Like she was searching for something but no idea what.
He turned away and allowed the tide to pull him further out. Without a backward glance, he dove into the shoals of shimmering fish.
It had been midsummer, he and some others had come ashore, the moon was full and impossibility bright, the air was hot and heavy. He found her at the fire pit, the glow of the embers made her look ethereal. She looked up and smiled in recognition, without the need for words, he took her hand and for the rest of the night and into the morning, their two bodies contorted and like the waves, crashed together in unison.
The first time, he had watched her dipping her delicate toes in the foam from afar. Her eyes were closed, her head was tossed back, exposing a long neck. He was draped over a large rock, drunk on a rare October sun. The barnacles dug deep into his skin, a little uncomfortable but it was the perfect spot for watching her.
He couldn't wait any longer, shedding his selkie skin, he made towards her.
She carefully applies lipstick the colour of cranberry juice.
She imagines it is for someone particular. Just for a moment.
He gives his moustache one last comb. He imagines it is for someone particular. Just for a moment.
She locks her door, modern PVC, lifts the handle and twists the key.
He locks his door, old-fashioned, Yale and keyhole, have to
have the knack.
She gets on at the end of the Metro where the trains run alongside the ocean, carving through salt mist and stinking of factor 30.
He gets on at the end of the Metro where the trains run below the planes, trembling under chainmail roars and stinking of duty free perfume.
She folds her newspaper back and tuts at the news.
He shakes his newspaper out wide and tuts at the news.
She avoids eye contact.
He avoids eye contact.
She gets off in the middle of the Metro where a stone duke stands tall, and wipes her hands with antibacterial soap as she steps carefully onto the escalator.
He gets off in the middle of the Metro where a stone duke stands tall, and wipes his hands with an antibacterial wipe as he steps carefully onto the escalator.
She drops her pass.
He picks up a pass.
She feels a spark as cool fingers touch her skin and a moustache smiles at her.
He feels a spark as warm fingers flex and a cranberry mouth parts slightly.
She walks in pace with size ten loafers. Just for a moment.
He walks in pace with size six brogues. Just for a moment.
Snap. Footsteps stop. I cringe back. They must be close. I breathe into the wall. I need to make a decision. I stretch my ears to find them. Desperately scraping the silence for warnings of movement. The night air is thick with anticipated snow. Bulging clouds lighten what should be a jet black sky. The faint barking of German Shepherds trickles into my cold strained ears. Before I realise my body is up and streaming away between the containers. My trainers almost silent as I try to run like a dancer through corridors. I have done nothing wrong except to be unable to prove I've done nothing wrong. It's true that I cannot remember exactly how all of this started and where the pieces go. Like an impossible jigsaw there are so many parts that I can’t fit anywhere but must fit somehow. How strange it is that something as invisible as knowledge can wreak such a final havoc onto someone's entire life. Just to know surely shouldn’t be a material enough thing to mean a bullet at dawn or a gibbet at dusk. But apparently we cannot escape our fate and all roads lead to Rome and I’m running out of solutions as I trip gracelessly forward. Held tenderly by the crisp concrete, my head feels hot and warm and I see him again radiating understanding and compassion, like a night-time sun. Through all the lies I see he is real, no matter what the law dictates or the populace want to believe and he was here. As the first flakes fall I smile in renewed tranquility, hear the dogs as they pass, and understand finally my way out of this life's mess.
I can’t help but look at him differently, my own brother. I walk down the blissful streets of New York and wonder, does that girl know? Does he? They can’t. The little things remind me of that night, the sound of a metal door opening, the ticking of a clock. It haunts me. Why me? Why? Why? Why? But I must stay quiet, they said so. Otherwise it will happen sooner. There’s still a look of innocence in his face, his eyes still glisten when he watches the sunset and his dimples still show when he laughs. I try to take it all in, whilst time flies by. All because of what I know, and the silence that I am with.
Enjoy their presence, before the evil takes them away.
She had to be the vainest woman I had ever met. Her hair was never out of place and she always kept up with the latest, most expensive fashions. What else did she have to spend her money on? Her darling only son had grown up and had the misfortune, in her eyes, to marry me. The barely concealed contempt that she had for me always carried on her voice in conversation. I pretended not to notice for Jack’s sake. The only thing that was going for me was the fact that I cooked and cleaned well enough.
When mum died, I stepped in as surrogate mother for my six younger brothers. Daddy worked constantly. I cooked, cleaned up after them, read to them and was their counsellor. When I left they were broken-hearted. I hope it was more than my housekeeping skills that they missed.
As I plumped the cushions in the sitting room, Jack had that imploring look again.
‘Can we tell her tonight Connie?’ ‘You are past the twelve weeks.’
‘Can I think about it Jack?’ I’m still a little bit nervous.’
He was about to talk me around but I cut him off. ‘I’ll tell you what, why don’t I make that apple pie that your mom loves so much?’ You know, with the cinnamon crumble?’ That seemed to sway him enough to put the pregnancy out of his head for now.
I busied myself with the pie and I resolved that I would not tell her tonight. If I had my way I’d never tell her.
As I sprinkled the cinnamon into the crumble mix, I thought I might add a little extra something this time. I could blame it on the hormones. Daddy always said my apple pie was to die for.