The fallen

The room was sideways. It had been sideways for a few minutes. As she lay there on the carpet, she took her free hand and straightened the bottom of the bed’s valance. Below the bed she could see a dustball. Annoying because she’d vacuumed that day.  She vacuumed every day.

Turning her head she could see the dressing table. The gold on the mirror had been largely rubbed away. They’d had somewhere around twelve moves in their life together, her and Donald. How many fingers must have touched the surround of that mirror? How many shipping boxes had it sat in? It had got lost once. They’d arrived in Cardiff at Christmas, 1979, but the mirror hadn’t made it; it didn’t get there until the January of 1980. Vivian remembered how she and Donald had laughed about it being a decade late.

Below the mirror was her stool. A now-faded green velvet covered it. She remembered her mother sat there, elegantly spritzing herself with perfume. She thought of her daughter kneeling there playing with her lipsticks, and how her two grand-daughters had done the very same thing. They’d all root around in the drawers and come up triumphant with something she’d long forgotten about, then proceed to cover themselves in it. Once they were satisfied, they would dive into her wardrobe and come out balancing precariously on a pair of high heels. Her wardrobe wouldn’t dream of housing any flats.

Four generations, she thought. We’ve all sat at that dressing table and looked into that mirror. And the mirror had seen the same features reflected back at it.

She tested how much she could move. It wasn’t a lot. And too much movement was painful. I’d better call him, she thought.

“Donald.” She called, lifting her head. That hurt a little.

Downstairs, Donald was in the kitchen finishing off the crossword. He wasn’t sure about two across and 14 down, but he was sure Vivian would know. He heard her call. He knew that call. There was something wrong.

Vivian had tried to make herself sound normal, as if she were calling him to dinner. The same way she’d called him to dinner for 54 years. A sing-song call. “Do-nald.” High first, then lower.

But Donald heard her shout and thought of when he’d heard it last. She’d been in the kitchen, he was just outside the stable door. “Do-nald.” She’d sung song. He hurried in. “I’ve seen a mouse.” She said.

“Where?” He’d looked around and came to rest on the frozen profile of his wife.

She was looking at the window sill. He looked at the sill. There was the little blue jug they’d brought back from Rhodesia. He knew it was Zimbabwe, but he’d only ever known it as Rhodesia. The jug had been a leaving gift after seven years out there. They’d brought back that jug, a box full of happy photos and memories that were now fading to the same sepia.  He thought how many houses they’d carried that little jug to. It had always come to rest on the kitchen window sill. He didn’t know why. But as he looked at it, he considered that this window sill would be its last resting place.

There, half-hidden behind the jug was the mouse. It was looking straight at Vivian and she was looking back.

That was the last time he’d heard her call like that. This time he started out of the kitchen and into the hall.

Upstairs, Vivian looked at the portion of room she could see. Her little gold slippers were neatly lined up with Donald’s indoor slippers. His were blue suede. This must have been their fourth or fifth pair each. They always got the same. They always put them just there. She looked to the wastepaper basket and could just see the packaging from the M&S shirt she and Donald had bought the day before. He’d gone down another size. He wasn’t unwell. We’re just getting on, she thought.

Donald was coming up the stairs; he was in his other slippers, the ones he used outdoors. He wasn’t meant to be wearing them in the kitchen. And he wasn’t meant to wear them in the hall or on the stairs. But he knew that call.

He got to the twelfth step, and on it he caught the heavy rubber sole of those outdoor slippers. He tripped and stumbled, and came down heavily on to the half-landing.

Vivian could just see his head and shoulders on the floor. She called him. No sing-song. Just “Donald!”

“I’m alright Viv.” He said.

She knew that voice.

She had broken her hip, he his collar bone and arm. They both left the house sideways that day, but only she got upright again.

by Charli Matthews

The Deadline

With twenty six minutes to go, I realise I hate the internet.

That’s not actually true. Normally I’m a staunch defender of the wonderful world wide web. It’s benefits are numerous, and the availability of information and instant communication are essential to my career. But right now its foibles may be about to cost me that job.

I have twenty five minutes until THE DEADLINE (note the capital letters for emphasis).

I write proposals for people. That means my whole life is nothing but a series of deadlines. This has even permeated my personal life, and my wife has realised that unless she sets target dates for domestic tasks they won’t happen. The daily ‘washing up’ reminder on my phone testifies to this.

One of those deadlines is only twenty four minutes away, and it’s important.

I became a consultant  a couple of months ago. It seemed like a great idea. I decided now was the time to take those talents I knew I had and bet them against the financial security of my family. At the height of a recession. The rewards would be worth it, and my wife had agreed.

But now there’s only twenty three minutes until the deadline, and I can’t upload this proposal.

It turns out that in a recession people don’t have money to pay consultants. They scoff at the very idea in fact. This is quite demoralising, even over the phone, which isn’t really the medium for scoffing. Every day I call people who need my help and try to convince them of that fact, and fail. When I joined the agency the talk was of losses being a natural part of the job. Frankly I’d be happy to win anything.

If I don’t upload this in the next twenty two minutes, there goes my only client.

Since joining I’ve only managed to convert one client. We have a great relationship, and this has led to some superb work. What I’m trying to upload is the first stage of something which should take me through the next three months. If I fail then they won’t pay me, and I’ll be saying goodbye to all that future work. Then I’m truly scuppered.

In twenty one minutes, it’s all dust.

The website is still frozen, and I can’t tell if it’s working or not. I can’t risk restarting it in case it takes too long or locks me out. All I can do is sit staring at the spinning cursor praying to google gods and firefox fairies that they come to my aid and let me put these few pages of text onto this infernal website.

Twenty minutes until I start selling surfboards to pay for childcare.

At this point, my daughter decides to try and help. At a speed more common to the roadrunner than a toddler, she has left her toys and decided my laptop needs a good bout of abuse. I’ve obviously held this view for a while now, but I still leap from my near-comatose position of despair on the sofa and field her aggressively wielded toy elephant as it flies towards my screen. Doesn’t she realise that unless this works there’ll be no more toy elephants when that one breaks?

There’s only nineteen minutes left, and I swear the progress bar has actually gone backwards.

‘That’s a lifetime in the digital age’ I hear you cry from your comfortable, stable place of employment. Well, not for me. This has happened to me before, and I know the soul-rending anguish of spending two weeks lovingly crafting words, only to get a receipt that confirms you uploaded TWO SECONDS after the deadline, and were excluded. That time someone else was at fault, but even so it hurt. A lot. With every minute that memory gets more real and more painful.

Eighteen minutes, and each contains less seconds than the last.

This job was going to get us out of negative equity. It was going to buy us expensive holidays and all those other things people with money waste it on when they could be making the world a better place. In fact, we were going to use the money to make the world a better place. There would be charity donations and lavish sponsorship of those friends who incessantly run from one part of the country to another and expect us to donate money in recognition of their ability to punish themselves and sweat too much.

In seventeen minutes I’ll be asking them to sponsor my fuel bill so I can drive past them to the job centre.

We were supposed to be going on a day out today. We should be stuck in traffic on the M6 by now, complaining about idiots driving stupidly and taking up space on the road, while we take up space and provoke muttering in turn. We should be halfway to some attraction full of people wearing walking boots and trousers two inches too short. If this doesn’t finish soon we stand almost no chance of immortalising ourselves in the background of a German tourist’s holiday snaps.

Somehow there are only fourteen minutes left.

Time itself is now against me. It has conspired with the malicious inter-git to remove any hope I have of paying for that family portrait I bought my father for Christmas. How they can justify charging a four figure sum for a bit of plywood covered with a picture of five people with silly grins almost falling over is completely beyond me. But still, I’m sure he’ll appreciate it. He probably won’t appreciate me moving my family into his spare room when our house is repossessed though.

A fifth of an hour to go, and the client calls me.

“Just ringing to check it uploaded alright…”

I take a look at the screen, and the progress bar is still stalled. Do I admit to him that I haven’t uploaded it? Do I try and pass the blame to my ISP? Can I blame terrorist activity? Probably not in rural Leicestershire. I’m going to have to tell him. I’m actually going to have to say the words that prove just how badly I’ve screwed this up. I always thought that if I was going to say something which made me unemployed, it would be a justified stream of verbose but disgusting invective delivered at a high volume. Not a simple ‘No’.

With eight minutes to go, I decide to undertake a completely fatalistic action. With the client listening to my panicked silence with foreboding, I hit ‘refresh’.

Time stops, and I think of surfing.

When you catch a wave perfectly there’s a moment when you feel weightless. Balancing over the lip about to drop into a chasm of violent water, there is a split-second when you’re pinned to the sky, watching the wave unfold beneath you. I suppose I’m thinking about that because I’m about to get spun around and have my head bashed in.

Time returns.

“Tom? The line seems to have gone funny. Are you there?”

Five minutes remaining, and three sacred words appear on the screen.

‘RESPONSE SUCCESSFULLY SUBMITTED.’

I finally exhale.

“Of course it is. The confirmation hasn’t come through yet though.”

“No worries Tom, that website is always slow. Thanks for your help.”

“Any time.”

With four minutes until the deadline, and my career saved, I start doing the happy dance.

My wife enters the room holding my daughter and stands there, startled. I am standing on the sofa shaking my hips, waving my fingers and bobbing my near smile-split head. I jump down, take them both in my arms and twirl them around the room, loudly singing the lyrics to a favourite mouldy peaches song. My daughter joins in, bellowing tunelessly in time with my own inharmonious warbling.

Three minutes from the cut-off, I start loading the car.

With a skip in my step, I gather together the 200+ items that are apparently necessary to take a toddler out into the real world. These items are packed into the car, drawing upon childhood tetris skills to ensure they all fit in.

Two minutes away from the moment I thought my career would end, we set off.

With that same mouldy peaches song flowing out of the car’s speakers we roll out of the village and point ourselves westward. The sat nav counts down to my next deadline: our arrival in an hour and ten minutes.

One minute left, and I’m stuck in traffic.

I sit watching the arrival time on the sat nav getting later and later. I start to plot alternative routes in my head, thinking about where I can speed to make up the time we’re losing. I begin muttering.

The deadline hits, and my wife reaches over and turns off the sat nav. She turns to me and says:

“There’s no rush.”

And there isn’t. So I sit back, listen to the music and start thinking about all the deadlines that will start counting down tomorrow…

by Chris Martin

 

Neighbourhood Watch

He opened his eyes … slowly. The light was bright, the water freezing and murky. At first his vision was blurred, but eventually, he could make out the smooth, contoured bottom of the white plastic barrel. Some gravel, an empty crisp packet and a handwritten sign all sat there, motionless.

‘PLEASE DO NOT PARK HERE. MY SPACE!’ read the sign. Somewhere in the depths of his mind he acknowledged the irony. This was the last place he had wanted to ‘park’.  But here he was and he felt surprisingly relaxed.

Yes, he was pissed off at these morons and not a little taken aback at the level of their hostility towards him, but he felt sure that he knew how this was going to play out. He would accept his humiliation, apologise profusely for his sins and beg for forgiveness. He would also, of course, promise to change his ways.

Then, as the riots ceased, so would the burgeoning vigilante sentiment that had seen his neighbours, with whom he had had next to no contact previously, come together to direct their collective ire at him. They weren’t serious. Things would return to normal.

As he surveyed his watery surroundings, the light’s intensity receded and peaceful thoughts flooded his mind. He had always found gentle, white light so calming. As a child he had asked for the lamp to be kept on at bedtime each night. It helped him get off to sleep. He had been scared of the dark as a very small boy, a fear that he had shared with his sister. As often as they were allowed, they would cuddle up together for security. If she was there, he would fall asleep in minutes. Even into their early teens, they would occasionally share the same bed, usually in the middle of the night as a result of a particularly disturbing nightmare.

Nowadays it was different of course. Now he had trouble getting to sleep unless there was complete darkness. A slit of light in the doorway or between the curtains, maybe even the illuminated figures of an electronic clock and he simply couldn’t switch off.  It was a side effect of the weed, no doubt, mixed with a healthy dose of fear that was par for the course for any dealer. But he’d done everything possible to ensure he was safe and secure in his flat and he longed for the warm embrace of his super king size duvet.

His focus suddenly returned to the barrel as his thoughts began to break up and fuzz, like the picture on a dying television set. Slowly, pressure was beginning to build. At first, he could feel it in his throat. Within seconds, the throbbing began to intensify around his ears and his temples. It felt like there was a balloon inflating inside his head, forcing everything else out.

As the pressure continued to build he quickly shut his eyes as if he would somehow find protection behind their lids. But the calming yellow light of before had vanished, only to be replaced by a menacing mix of angry reds and oranges dotted with black.

Panicked, he hit the side of the barrel frenetically with his free hand, signalling his desire to talk. Nothing.

Strangely, he felt the throbbing begin to subside. It was replaced by drowsiness and he realised that he would soon pass out. Perhaps these guys are fucking serious, he thought, just as everything started to go dark.

Despite the unfamiliar air of disorder in the city that week, he’d embarked on his usual Friday evening routine. He’d not actually been up that long, two or three hours maybe. He had showered before throwing on a pair of jeans and a t-shirt and heading out and down the road for about three quarters of a mile for fish and chips at Maureen’s Café.

The rioters, no doubt aware that they needed sustenance before a long night of looting, pillaging and fighting, had left this establishment well alone and the place was heaving. All their frustration had instead been directed at the neighbouring sports shop and electrical hardware store. Both had been cleared out.

Rather than take his dinner home or eat in the café, he had stood outside on the pavement, greasy carton in hand, munching away and watching the latest moves of the cat and mouse game that was unfolding for a third night on the streets of his south London neighbourhood. It had calmed down a bit compared to the day before, but there were still small crowds running this way, policemen walking that way, rocks occasionally projected skywards and batons swooping intermittently towards the earth.

Although the atmosphere was charged, he’d remained emotionally and physically detached from the events of the past three days. A low profile was essential in his line of business. He was used to existing on the margins of society and he didn’t want to add his face to the ever-increasing photomontage appearing in all the daily newspapers. This mug would remain un-shot.

Besides, he couldn’t empathise with the rioters. He didn’t share their frustrations. He was too detached from life, or what most people would call life, to be concerned with the effects of ‘Broken Britain’. He was flush with cash and could afford to buy pretty much anything he wanted – he didn’t need to go and steal it.

He was merely a spectator of the riots and the light summer evenings meant that the real action started after 22:00 when darkness eventually fell. Already bored, he wasn’t going to hang around until then and he had started home, stopping off at Murali’s Convenience Store on the way for a four-pack of his current favourite Italian lager.

He was expecting two or three customers to pay him a visit but they would all be gone within the hour. Thoughts of a hot bath, followed by a reefer (the first of many) and several hours on the Xbox filled his head.

Lost in this reverie, he hadn’t noticed anyone approaching him. It had happened as he’d turned the final corner on his route. He was within 50 yards of his block of flats when they’d rushed him from behind and had forced him, his feet barely touching the ground, into a urine-stained alley.

Before he knew it, his arm was being forced high up his back. His natural reaction was to double over and, in an instant, a powerful hand had a firm grip of the hairs on the back of his head, and was thrusting it down into the icy water. It had all happened in less than 10 seconds.

He felt a few hairs rip loose as he was yanked up again and as he grimaced with pain he was released and slammed backwards into the cold brick wall. Wiping his eyes, he quickly surveyed the scene.

A gang of around 20 glared at him. However, unlike many of the gangs he had seen in the past 48 hours, this one was made up of people of all ages. What’s more, he suddenly realised, they were all from his block of flats. Tony, the scary looking fucker and prototype London bouncer from the ground floor, who had clearly had him in the half nelson, slowly stepped aside to reveal a familiar face.

“Hello Nathan. Apologies for the slightly unorthodox welcome to our residents’ committee meeting.”

He allowed himself a wry smile as he eyeballed Bill Harper, the only neighbour with whom he enjoyed, or should that be loathed, regular contact. A retired army officer, Bill was in his 60s and lived in the flat below. Unhappy at the number of ‘unsavoury’ visitors to the block at ‘ungodly’ hours of the night, he’d made it his life’s work to hound him as often as possible. Armed with an unstinting flow of questions, he would jump out at him the moment he left his flat, showing an aptitude for ambush and interrogation that his former army colleagues would have been proud of.

“We’ve called this ‘emergency AGM’, if you will, in response to the current state of emergency on our streets,” Bill explained. “Inspired by the actions of our Sikh and Turkish cousins in the past two days, we’ve decided to act on our common desire to protect our neighbourhood, restore some dignity to the community and to rid it of the dregs of humanity.”

“Your aghast expression suggests to me that you don’t consider yourself part of the dregs; this filthy residue of society,” he continued, a sneer on his face. “You may well be right. But the problem is Nathan; you’re funnelling it into our neighbourhood and worse, right into our block of flats.

He stretched his arms wide in front of the group. “We won’t tolerate it any longer.”

The shaking of heads in unison throughout the group confirmed their support for the motion. Incredulous, he fixed a smile on his face and widened his eyes in disbelief in an effort to assure them he didn’t know what Bill was talking about.

“Tony, he doesn’t believe me, “ said Bill. “Show him we’re fucking serious will you.”

by Jonathan Milligan

 

Tram Pres Pinton Colco

10am

That lady is staring at me. I can feel it. She wants to know what I’m about to do. What am I about to do?

East Acton. Beep, beep. I turn my hand palm up and pour them out; bright pink, yellow, red, cupped between skin creases. The grey blinking digits stare at me, scolding. Three minutes past, Frankie. Late. Again.

I peel the lid from my little plastic pot; pour. Pink, yellow and red rattle as the carriage jolts. They look like Skittles. I hold a Coke bottle between my knees, squeezed tight, then open the lid one little turn; two, to quell the fizz. I know she’s still looking. There’s only me and her and we’ve gone into the dark now so there’s nothing else to watch. The seat feels scratchy on my legs. I once read they opened a chair up and found a dead rat in it. And vomit. And a set of false teeth. My stomach surges.

I wish I could remember how it goes, what I am supposed to do. The bottle is spluttering. Pink, yellow and red are starting to stick to each other. To me. Carefully, so I don’t spill the Coke, I reach into my right pocket, deep down. Over the other side I see her toes turn in and her calves contract. Maybe she thinks I’m going to hurt her.

I feel the note’s crisp edge against my thumb, pull it out. It’s smooth and white and freshly creased. 2 x Tram, 1 x Pinton, 2 x Colco. I pick them out of my hand and pop the rest back in the pot.

10.05 am. Proper late now. I flick my head up, catch her eye. She is white and looks brittle. I smile, put palm to mouth, neck back, bottle to lips. Swallow.

2pm

It’s cold today. The air feels thick and all over me, so I have to be strong to get anywhere. It’s difficult walking. Difficult thinking. I see two girls, with shopping bags. One is on the phone. She has nice earrings, big hoops that catch in her hair as she laughs. Their bags are skimming the pavement – bouncing over the bumps and cracks; bulging. My clothes feel old.

Inside Nero it’s warm and the man is smiling. I ask for hot milk. He looks for a pushchair. My face burns. He doesn’t give me an inside mug. I sit in the corner by the toilet. No-one ever sits here. My note is laid out on the table, instructions exposed. I hold the corners down with my paper cup and little plastic pot of colours. Stare at it. My eyes feel numb and my head is heavy. It is harder than ever to breathe.

The grey digits beat 2pm into my wrist. I hate 2pm. Pres are big and white and stick on the way down. They’re worse than pink and yellow and red combined. I single them out and look at them. 6 x Pres, 1 x Pinton, 2 x Colco. My milk steams.

It’s not breaking the rules, just bending them. Bending the rules is OK, as long as you do it for the right reasons.

I’ll take pink, not yellow, not white. Pink should be enough. Pink looks nice. Maybe it’ll be nicer to me.

6pm

Outside the office the street is crowding up, there are faces everywhere, makeup smudged black under eyelashes after a day staring at screens. It’s not thick any more, the air, like ice cream mixed with milk, thinned out and dribbling away, which is good because it means I can watch the revolving doors which won’t stop turning, pouring people onto the pavement­ – would any of them recognise me if I went inside? I’ve always liked this spot outside the office where the street bustle sticks fast so I can’t hear the voices in my head telling me I should be going home now, so he isn’t worried, I should be reaching deep, unfolding the note, pouring out the colours, so he isn’t worried. But it doesn’t work, not really, because I can still feel the digits, pulsing hard, read the note and swallow, swallow, swallow, Frankie, there’s a good girl you know you need us there’s no way to manage on your own.

It looks grimy now, thumbed and creased, too much handling, too much reading, I don’t want it, I don’t want to do what it tells me, to keep letting the ice cream fog bury me so everything I know floats away because the rules say I mustn’t be here, I mustn’t think about all this, I mustn’t think.

6pm 2 x Tram 1 x Pinton 2 x Colco, 10pm 2 x Tram 1 x Anti 1 x Pinton 2 x Colco, it dances up from between the paper folds, we’re coming for you Frankie, we’ll change it all and you’re going to let us because that’s what you’re supposed to do.

Now or never, never or now, my fingers tighten around the note and it crinkles down into a ball and I shake free; walk away.

12am

There’s two of them now two ladies staring as the carriage vibrates and the lights flash past condemning my eyes East Acton beep beep beep beep beep what am I doing that’s what they are thinking their eyes thin and suspicious their hands clenched tight white knuckles make me wonder if they are going to hurt me.

My feet throb from all the walking OK but now I know what to do to get back pack as much as I can carry me off where it will all feel right and I can breathe if I just rub my feet well again rolling pieces of meat between my fingers like moulding Plasticine from a little pot of too many colours rattling in my pocket for two more stops and I’ll walk home and get what I need is to go wherever feels right I want to tell them as their thin eyes and shifting thighs interrogate me so they’ll nod and smile and understand and return to just sitting waiting for the world to overtake them.

Noel Road Eastfields Cloister Balfour my key doesn’t fit it is cold and wet and the darkness has closed in and its tight on me now and I can’t see the keyhole has changed shape and I can’t get in to get back and forth back and forth trying to make it fit in my hands are wet now too and the darkness is so thick I can’t breathe through my throat is concrete-lined and my swallow doesn’t work and my Plasticine toes throb throb throb.

The door opens slow and sad and he is there like he is always there his face flat grey broken eyes red neck hidden by shoulders high or head low his scrunched up tissue hits the ground like lead air tumbles out of his chest taking my hand gently one palm above one palm beneath rubbing it to draw me inside.

Breathe. I want to tell him straight out I’m here to run away where the ice cream and the little pot of colours and the note can’t get me but it won’t come out because of my concrete throat and the darkness still suffocating me even though our lounge is flouro bright and the light is bouncing off the stupid white table he chose making my eyes water relentlessly running down his face long endless my hope my plan my thoughts melt away because it’s all too much and my eyes are numb again and I want it to stop.

He looks at his watch then looks at me pleading full lips quivering but I can’t tell him what he wants I shake my head long and sorry like always he pulls away from the table I can see his legs shaking every step as he slides open the drawer where inside a pile of notes sit clean and crisp each the same each written as carefully as the first.

He lifts another one out slowly lays it down in front of me cupping my face hopelessly on his way to the kitchen I need to remember they help me he says his voice like fishing wire I need to remember none of this is bad all of it is to make it better to help you keep track you need it so let’s take some now to make up then you’ll sleep and wake up right as rain at 4am 2 x Tram 1 x Pinton, 1 x Colco.

I hear the plastic pot rattle and twice as many colours fall to make up for my mistakes and I hear the water running and we’re back to the beginning.

I pick up the note and start to fold it.

+

by Clare Howdle

www.wordslikepictures.com/telltales
www.parabolaproject.com

A box of silence

Natty reached out her age-mottled hands for the metal cash box. She asked her niece to adjust the bed controls so she was more upright. She took a minute or so to gain control of her breathing, sighed and laid her head back on the pillow before unfurling her right hand, in which lay the small silver key. She had a private room, so they wouldn’t be disturbed. She wasn’t expecting any other visitors – there was no-one else. She asked Jill to open the box.

Natty had rehearsed this moment in her head on many occasions over the previous four decades, but in none of her imaginings had she been 82 and on her death bed. It should never have been left this late.

She sifted through the things in the box, wondering where to start and aware of Jill’s concerned eyes on her. The letter was in there – only she and Michaella had ever seen it. Two beloved porcelain dolls were all that was left of the dolls’ house family that her sister had so cherished. Natty still remembered Michaella quietly and determinedly smashing the father and mother doll with her shoe, her lip bleeding from the effort of making no sound, while Natty had watched silently, too afraid to acknowledge the act. Under the dolls, Natty found a brown cardboard luggage tag – Michaella’s name on one side in thick black pen and hers, in full, on the other.

It was the tag used to identify their shared brown leather suitcase when they were billeted on 3 September 1939. Ten-year-old Natty had been overwhelmed at the thought of leaving her parents, but her mother viewed crying and other emotional displays as signs of weakness, so she had swallowed hard and smiled to show she was brave. Little Michaella was clearly excited by the prospect of staying in the country, provided that Natty was there to look after her.

They arrived in Somerset in the early evening and were shepherded into the village hall along with a hundred or so other children – many sniffling and doing little to endear themselves to the villagers who had gathered to take their pick. The girls were chosen almost immediately by a local pig farmer called John Jessop and his wife Hazel. He appraised Natty as though he were choosing a sow. She couldn’t help but notice he paid more attention to Michaella, but that was normal. Natty had already come to accept that she could never compete with her sister’s easy beauty and charm. Instead, she had turned her attention to books, seeking to gain praise for what was inside her head rather than how she looked.

The first two months at the farm were enjoyable enough, though the girls took a while to get used to the early mornings and more chores than they’d had at home. They worked hard, but the rewards made it worthwhile. Hazel Jessop was an excellent cook and the girls had never eaten better. She was motherly too – insisting that she take them to bed, read to them and tuck them in.

Seven weeks into their stay, Hazel Jessop was bed-ridden with a temperature and a cough that had the village doctor concerned enough to visit daily. When it was obvious that she wouldn’t be up and about for a while, Mrs Franks from the village came in to help out during the day. She left after serving supper, and Mr Jessop took over the bedtime routine which his wife had tended to so carefully.

Natty awoke one night, conscious of a whimper coming from the darkness beyond her bed. She held her breath, listening, and turned her head quietly towards Michaella’s bed to see if she had awoken too. As her eyes adjusted to the dark, she could make out a large form looming over Michaella’s bed and heard a low “shhhh” before the figure straightened up and tiptoed quietly out of the room.

Natty didn’t understand what she had just seen or heard, but she knew, deep down in her gut, that it was something unspeakable. She lay there for a long time, listening to Michaella’s sobs, before climbing in next to her, taking her in her arms, stroking her golden hair and falsely promising everything would be all right.

The next three nights, Natty lay awake, her back turned away from her little sister. She kept her eyes squeezed shut and her ears covered as John Jessop crept back into their room to revisit his guilty pleasures on Michaella.

On the fourth day, Hazel Jessop was strong enough to leave her sick bed. Her quiet grey eyes were more intense than before and, when the girls came home from school, she fussed over Michaella but got little response.

The next morning when they came down for breakfast, Hazel Jessop told them that she wasn’t going to be well enough to look after them and that they would be moving to stay with another family in the village – the Reverend Casey and his wife – who had an eight-year-old boy of their own as well as two other evacuees – a boy of twelve and a girl of nine.

Michaella gave Mrs Jessop little more than a hug as they took their leave. Natty looked deep into the woman’s sad eyes and gave a small nod of thanks – a faint but unspoken acknowledgement passing between the two. John Jessop was out tending the fields and never got to say his goodbyes.

Their time with the Caseys was short and, in February 1940, the girls returned to their parents in London where the rest of the war passed in a smog of sirens and bombings interspersed with periods of near normality. In time, Michaella became more like her old self and Natty allowed herself to believe that her sister had put Somerset to the back of her mind. Natty only wished she could do the same.

Michaella never showed any interest in men, frequently claiming she envied Natty and her bookish ways. In 1958, tired of constantly fighting off her parents and their good intentions, she agreed to marry Arthur Semple, the son of one of their friends. When Michaella fell pregnant in 1962, contact between the sisters became less frequent. When Jill was born, Michaella turned away from the baby and from everyone. No-one could reach her – not even Natty. After two terrible weeks, Arthur signed the committal forms and Michaella spent five weeks at Borocourt Subnormality Hospital before being pronounced suitably recovered. The episode was never discussed within the family.

On Saturday 16 November 1966, Natty’s mail contained a lilac envelope with Michaella’s tightly spaced handwriting on the front. The rest of that day became a blur in the remembering of it afterwards. Natty remembered the cold dread which flowed through her as she realised she was reading a suicide note; the panic as she grappled with the possibility that it might not be too late to stop her, and the dull pain as she understood that if she stopped her this time, it would be a temporary respite – Michaella had been working towards this point ever since John Jessop climbed into her bed in 1939.

“I can’t face the prospect of doing what is needed to bring another child into this world and Arthur simply won’t let it be,” Michaella had written. “He means to own me completely, and to bend me to his will and I can’t allow that to happen again, so I must leave my beautiful daughter and go where he can’t reach me and where I can no longer feel this constant hatred and shame. I know you understand Natty – you’re the only one who does. Please help Jill grow up to be a stronger woman than I have been. Tell her how much I love her and that I’m sorry I couldn’t stay for her, but she isn’t to blame for any of this. She must know that.”

The letter had asked Natty to spare their parents the indignity of what had happened and she had held her silence. With tears in her eyes, she reached to the bottom of the box and lifted out her own letter to Jill.

“This is for you,” she said, clasping the letter in Jill’s hands. “I’ve wanted to tell you for so long what was wrong with your mother and why she had to leave you, but I can’t speak the words now – they’re choking me after so long held inside. I want you to know how much you were loved by your mum, and by me, and to understand why she was damaged and that it had nothing to do with you. Promise me you’ll wait until I’ve gone before you open this letter.”

Jill smiled and nodded tearfully, holding her aunt’s hands in hers.

Natty, exhausted, laid her head back on the pillow and closed her eyes, feeling a sense of peace wash over her. Jill wouldn’t have to wait long.

November 2011

By Gillian McKee

The Dark Side of the Room

A tale of distraction, temptation and procrastination…

 

 

 

It’s Monday, 23rd October 1978. I’ve recently turned 14 and I’m in my third year at St Michael’s School, Garston. I like books, football, music and girls – but not necessarily in that order.

I’m upstairs in my L-shaped room. I say ‘my room’ but I share it with my younger brother Chris. He has the long light side by the window; I’m tucked away in the cosy dark corner.

We quite like each other, when we’re not hitting each other. He’s 10 years old and getting stronger by the day. He’s starting to win at wrestling, and it’s me who screams “Submit!” when he pins me to the floor. He’s worried this evening as Newsround reports a battle between the Rhodesian Army and guerrilla bases in Zambia. He thinks guerrillas are gorillas.

My older brother Steve is 15 and has his own room. He’s been there for some time now. It’s my turn but he’s not having any of it. He’s bigger than me, stronger too, and a big hit with the girls. Even Piroshka, my step gran, calls him Fonzi – the cool one from ‘Happy Days’. Fonzi stays in the single room.

At 5.30, Dad gets home. He works at Watford School of Art as a technician. I spend time there every holiday. Once, he told me there was a nude model behind a white closed door. The students were life drawing but I wasn’t allowed in. I think about her almost every day. The naked beauty behind the door is even more enticing than the crumpled poster girls I’ve hidden under my pillow. There are thumbnail pictures of them on the beach in little or no clothes. There’s even one playing tennis, she’s scratching her bottom, and, get this, she’s not wearing any pants. At all!

This evening I’m trying to revise for a chemistry exam. It’s not my best subject and I’m just not that interested. The teachers in white coats smell of sulphuric acid and Bunsen burners. The tougher boys in the class threaten explosions. I keep my head down.

I have a list of questions; prompts by Mr Gough to help us pass and make him look good. I’m reading the list:

Is air pollution harmful to me, or my environment? (Yes, I think so. Pollution is a bad thing, surely? I wonder if this is a trick question?)

What chemical reactions produce air pollutants? (Chain reactions cause nuclear explosions, which in turn cause pollution.)

Why are chemicals deliberately added to food? (To make it taste better. As a treat we get taken to McDonalds in Golders Green after visiting Granny Forbat and Mini Papa. It’s like Wimpy, but loads better. No plates, soft burgers, orange cheese and thin chips – they call them French Fries. Mum says the food is full of chemicals.)

I have a large, heavy Chemistry textbook on my desk and half an hour before tea. It’s Monday, so we’ll be having Spaghetti Bolognese. I just settle down to doodling when Dad walks in. He doesn’t knock and there’s no lock, so it’s lucky I’m not doing anything that Father Maloney warns against. ‘A season in hell for a few seconds pleasure’, he says. ‘Did Our Lord succumb to temptation by Satan in the desert? No. He held firm.’

Dad has a record under his arm. There’s a picture of a light ray passing through a triangle then turning into a rainbow. Other than that it’s completely black. No mention of the band, or the title of the LP. It’s Pink Floyd’s ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ and it’s not an LP, it’s an album – a concept album in fact. Dad thinks I might like it but I’m not so sure. Some of his students love it, but all The Clash fans laugh and sneer at them.

He leaves me to it. I open the lid of my music centre. The needle connects, but nothing much happens at first. I listen carefully, slightly impatient, then, I can just make out a heartbeat. It pumps rhythmically, then builds in volume, a wheel turns, cash tills ring and a woman screams, the sound builds until, until – bloody hell… it’s like the whole band have dived into a crystal-clear blue ocean, like a huge whale, which comes up, blowhole above the surface after a deep, deep dive and… “Breathe, breathe in the air, don’t be afraid to care”. Wow. I’m hooked. The quality of the sound is amazing, and the songs actually mean something. In this one glorious moment I feel like a grown-up.

The next two tracks have ticking clocks, alarms, synthesizers, chases, crashes and explosions. There’s even a guitar that sounds like it’s being played in outer space. Then things slow down with a soothing lullaby.

Typically, Mum comes in just as a woman starts wailing,  ‘‘What’s this rubbish?” she mocks gently. “Is she being tortured, or just giving birth? It’s time for tea.” It is indeed, time for tea. I lift the needle carefully. I didn’t like that last one much to be honest. Still, every LP has at least one bad track, take ‘Mud Rock Vol. II’ for example…

I eat quickly, slurping the spaghetti and spotting my white school shirt. I’m keen to get back up to my room to hear side two. My favourite track is ‘Brain Damage’; “The lunatics are on the grass… got to keep the loonies on the path”. My friend John Lawrence thinks grass is Marijuana. He’s from Australia, his Dad’s a doctor and once smoked it, so he’s probably right. The album eventually fades back into heartbeats and a deep-voiced man says, “There’s no dark side of the moon really, the fact is, it’s all dark”.

Back to my chemistry revision…

Why does it help to know about the molecular structure of materials like plastic? (Because in the future, everything will be made of plastic; even milk bottles, people parts too.)

Why does what we eat affect our health? (Surely this is a Home Economics question? I enjoyed that; I baked shortbread and cheesecake in first year and tried to flirt with the girls.)

Girls… I’m aiming to get my first proper girlfriend by the end of the fourth year. By that I mean snogs, you know, licking teeth. There are three on my current short list: Mary Marney, Jane Timothy and Sally Smith. I have an ever-changing league table in my head based on who I like most at any one particular time. Unfortunately, all the pretty girls fancy the older boys playing the equivalent of First Division football. And just like my local team Watford FC, I’m messing about in Division Three.

It seemed a lot more straightforward at St Cath’s, my primary school. There were two girls that everyone fancied. Come summer, we’d chase them through the playing fields like a pack of hungry wolves. Inevitably, they tired and we pounced on them, a big bundle of four or five boys, sometimes six if the weather was good. If you were lucky your lips touched skin; usually a red flushed ear, or the back of a head – mostly you got a grey sweaty jumper.

I’m thinking about girls when Chris bounds into the room and punches me on the back of the head. My passion sinks, I rise up, he charges into my stomach headfirst, winding me. I submit. “Chris! I said I submit! MUM – I’m trying to do my homework and Chris won’t let me.” He shuffles back downstairs shouting, “See ya’ later Microphone Head”. He’s right. My mini-Afro does look like a microphone. And, my hair is still mostly on my head.

How should we manage the wastes that arise from our use of materials? (Put them in the bin. The bin men come on Wednesday. Mum says Steve will become one if he doesn’t start making more of an effort at school.)

It might help if I listen to the album again, this time on headphones. I lie down on the bed in my corner, the dark side of the room. I close my eyes, smile and drift away. All is well. Thank you Pink Floyd, but most of all, thank you Dad; nodding off to Corrie downstairs, no idea that you’ve rocked my world…

by Andy Hayes
www.andyinfinity.wordpress.com
www.dadclub.co.uk


Skin Deep

The original scrap of paper that kick-started Throw Away Lines. Found on Blackfriars Bridge back in Spring 2009: A handwritten heartfelt rant against racism…

 

Laura was using the remote to click through the television listings. “Lady Sings the Blues is on. I love that film!”

Greg didn’t respond, intent on sprinkling hash over the fat joint he was assembling out of a deconstructed cigarette. He always made such a meal of it.

“Shall we watch?” she asked with feigned disinterest. She still felt on sufferance at his flat, though he’d begun making noises about the foolishness of paying two rents, and had freed up a drawer for her sole use.

Without looking up he asked, “That the one about that coon singer with the flower in her hair?”

Laura’s eyes watered. She’d heard him say some awful things lately, but never that.

“It’s the movie about Billie Holiday,” she answered, pointedly not agreeing to the word coon. “I played her music for you when you were round mine.” And you loved it. We slow danced for ages before shagging ourselves senseless right there on the carpet. She wondered if he remembered that night as vividly as she did.

“I know who you mean. The coon who sang God Bless the Child. Who’s in it?”

She bristled, but told herself not to let it show. Nowadays, these boozy nights all seemed to end in the domestic equivalent of a bar room brawl, with insults as painful as blows. One minute they were having a perfectly reasonable conversation, the next, all hell broke loose. She never caught it in time, unable to chart a course through Greg’s sharp – and increasingly unpredictable — changes in mood.

Once, a discussion about the invention of time led to a nasty fight about calendars. Another night she countered his assertion that his native Scotland was “now and forever a Protestant country” by saying, “Four words, Greg: Mary Queen of Scots.” He calmly called a mini-cab to deliver her home to Kennington and wouldn’t speak to her until she apologised. That taught her the futility of using logic on him, but sometimes she still felt compelled to try to make her point.

“Diana Ross, Richard Pryor and Billie Dee Williams are all in it.”

“Her out of the Supremes?”

“Uh huh.”

“Another coon singer.” Was she imagining it, or was he taking pleasure in being provocative?

“African American.”

“Don’t give me that PC shite. Are you too scared to call a spade a spade?” He laughed, and then paused to lick the joint, briefly admiring his handiwork before setting fire to one end and sucking deeply on the other. Extending his hand toward her he asked, “Want some?”

She shook her head. “No thanks.”

“What? You don’t want to share a joint with me because I say coon and spade?”

“I just don’t feel like smoking. Anyway,” she waved the remote at his coffee table, “I’ve drunk an entire bottle of wine. I’ll have a sore head in the morning.”

His and her empties stood on the table next to an open bottle of single malt that he was steadily depleting. She never understood how he could go from grape to grain and back again, but his metabolism allowed for every excess. Also on the table were dirty dishes and empty foil containers. She winced, remembering her silence when he’d said he fancied “a Chinky.” Next to the ashtray lay the pack of cigarettes he’d asked her to buy at “the Paki shop” on her way to his flat.

There were other words that stumped her at first, because no one she knew used them, like “Tim” and “Hamilton.” She tried the anthropological approach, glossing over her distaste by turning it into an intellectual exercise. Why do you say that? Where does the word come from? Whenever she reckoned it wouldn’t start World War III, she objected. His reaction never varied: “I call them that because that’s what they are.”

“You wouldn’t call Sanjeev a Paki to his face, would you?” she once asked.

“Why not? He knows that’s what he is. Why should he care?”

She didn’t believe Greg. He’d even visited Sanjeev at his mum’s house, and come back raving about what a great cook she was. No insults, no slurs, just an enthusiastic account of a home-cooked curry with hand-made chapattis hot out of the oven.

Come to think of it, it was at least a month since she’d seen Sanjeev. She couldn’t remember the last time Greg mentioned meeting him for a drink, or even getting a text. Maybe something had happened. And maybe Sanjeev decided Greg wasn’t much of a friend.

If so, then he had more backbone than she did, casting her eyes down and biting her tongue when Greg said this shit in public. She’d started keeping him away from her friends, encouraging them to believe they were so loved up that they preferred to be alone.

Greg had swept her off her feet when they met at a whisky tasting, one of those events she forced herself to attend because after a year in London she’d met plenty of Boris Becker quickie-in-the-closet types, but damn few keen on something more substantial. Panic was a potent motivator. Her university sweetheart and first true love had dumped her – shat on her from a great height was her preferred description – directly after qualifying as a solicitor. She jokingly referred to what followed as her “Wilderness Years”, but when they became a decade, and her fortieth loomed, her laughter felt more like hysteria.

Greg was tall, blond and dashing in his kilt. When he made a beeline for her, Laura imagined all her Christmases had come at once. He obviously didn’t see the word “Loser” stamped on her forehead. Eighteen months on, her smart, funny boyfriend had gone from Jekyll to Hyde.

She walked on eggshells these days. When she was promoted at work she didn’t even tell him. It happened only weeks after he lost his job, and she was still intent on shoring up his ego, careful to offer support without sounding as though she was worried, or worse, pitied him. She even bit her tongue when he let slip a couple of things that made her suspect he’d been asking for it. Knowing better than to add insult to injury, she stayed upbeat when he crashed and burned at three promising job interviews.

Eventually he noticed she was working harder and longer, and had enough cash to cover his share on their nights out. It was probably stupid leaving that fresh box of business cards lying around, but it was her counter-top, for fuck’s sake.

Keeping her voice neutral, she said, “Coon is hateful, like the n-word. It does hurt black people to hear it. You’re white; you don’t have the right to use it. Anyway, how is that even the word that comes into your head to describe a black person? That’s awful.”

He drew on the joint and held the smoke in for a long time. She nearly made the mistake of relaxing.

“Don’t have the right?” he mocked. “Who the fuck are you to talk? I hear you on the phone with Joe, calling him a Control Queen. And introducing me to your friends as a Weegie. That’s insulting to me. You don’t give a shit about hurting my feelings.”

She thought her brain would explode. “You’re not making sense! You can’t insist that coon is just a description and then claim that I hurt your feelings by calling you a Weegie! That’s total hypocrisy.”

Besides, it wasn’t the same thing at all, calling her best friend a Control Queen. She almost said, “He is one, he says so himself,” but that sounded suspiciously like Greg talking. He had a way of tugging at the loose threads in her thinking.

“Being white is no achievement, you know.”

He fixed her with a glacial look. “It’s nothing to be ashamed of, either.”

It’s nothing at all, it’s just skin. You have to have more to offer the world. Words that were best left unsaid, she cautioned herself.

Compromise, everyone told her, was the secret of relationship success. But where to draw the line? Her eyes burned and she wanted to go home, but fear kept her rooted to the sofa. The few times in their relationship that she’d tried making a scene, he’d managed to outperform her. If she left now, he’d probably throw all her belongings into the street. And that would be it. Neither of them would be able to retrace their steps back to the place where they were happy.

Greg was humming. His eyes were closed, his head tilted, and he swayed the joint in the air like a conductor’s baton.

The other thing everyone tells you is that you won’t find love until you love yourself. She couldn’t hate herself more, right this minute. And though Greg would never admit it, she guessed that he felt the same. There ought to be a way for two people’s self-loathing to cancel one another, like a double negative. Instead, the hate multiplied.

She’d always been bad at maths.

by Lee Randall

The Boxer

She was peeling potatoes at the sink when she heard his key in the door and turned, startled, towards the clock.

“Home already?” she shouted.

“I knocked off early,” he said.

“Well your tea’s still going to be another…” She turned and saw his large frame filling the kitchen doorway. He was smiling proudly. In his arms was a bundle wrapped in a baby blanket. He held it out towards her.

“His name’s Colin,” he said. And the dog’s eyes lit up.

“It’s your favourite,” she replied “Shepherd’s pie”.

That was almost three weeks ago. And she’d tried. She really had. But Colin made it impossible. He left ginger hair all over the sofa. He pissed behind the TV and watched her with his big, innocent eyes when she knelt down to scrub the carpet.

“He needs disciplining,” she told him one night. “He hasn’t been brought up right”.

Bob just laughed and patted Colin’s head.

“He’s only little,” he said. “He’ll learn”.

But Bob didn’t understand what it took to keep a house nice. It had taken her years to perfect the colour scheme. And now, of all things, the bloody dog didn’t match the curtains.

They’d bought them with the money from Bob’s title win, back when they were newlyweds. She stood watching as he hung them one Sunday afternoon, hoisting up the thick, rich fabric; he wouldn’t hear of her helping in ‘her condition’. He fixed the matching pelmet carefully in place and diligently screwed in the hooks for the tie-backs. The results were spectacular. They’d been the envy of their neighbours.

Every evening when Bob came home from work, he’d drink a beer, sometimes she’d join him for a sherry, and he’d tell her about his day. But the ritual was different now. Instead of calling her name, he’d shout for Colin and they’d go out, just the two of them, for a walk on the heath to ‘work up an appetite’. It was there he’d met her.

“Valerie’s got a boxer too,” he said, through mouthfuls of toad-in-the-hole.

“The bathroom needs redecorating,” she said, stabbing a pea with her fork.

When they came back from the hospital, all those years ago, she’d drawn the curtains and sat staring at them until it grew dark. Eventually, Bob crept in and patted her hand. “We can try again, love,” he said. “There’ll be other chances”. She nodded slowly and stared at the curtains until the pattern of flowers and leaves became a blur.

The bathroom went untouched. Black mould grew between the tiles. No amount of scouring with a toothbrush could remove it. Night after night, he took Colin walking, returning in high spirits.

Colin chewed the leg on her occasional table.

“Valerie told me…”

He left scratch marks in the lino the length of the kitchen floor.

“I said I’d take her boys down the boxing gym…”

He sent a prized figurine careering to the ground where it shattered.

“Then me and Val thought we might grab a bite to eat…”

And still, the final straw: the dog did not match the curtains.

He’d never liked Lorenzo’s before. All that rich Italian food gave him heartburn. But he’d sharp changed his mind when Val said it was her favourite. Colin whimpered when he left without him.

“Daddy will be back soon,” Bob said, planting a kiss on his muzzle and a peck on her cheek. And then he was gone.

She plodded into the dining room and poured herself a sherry, the dog close at her heels. She took her drink and sat down to Coronation Street, but couldn’t settle. She rocked. She paced. She chewed her nails. Then she snatched up Colin and left the house.

She was nursing a cup of warm milk at the dining table when she heard his key in the door. She turned, wearily, towards the clock. “You’re home late,” she said.

“Colin! Here boy!” he said.

She turned and saw his large frame filling the doorway. He smelt of garlic and wine. A worried look crossed his face

“Where’s Colin?” he said warily.

“I think I’ll make lasagne for tea tomorrow,” she said brightly.

“Col!” he shouted “Colin! Colin?”

She sipped her tea and stared at the curtains.

By Laura Nee

 

 

The Camp

Arnold had written the list, he knew that Blake wouldn’t do it. He went up to his dad’s study, past the rows of books, inhaling the familiar smell of Pledge and straight to the swivel chair. He stretched across the wooden desk, grabbed the A4 pad and tore off a page, excited in the knowledge that he could catapult himself to the other side of the room at a moment’s notice.

Arnold’s, he started, underlining the name at a slant. This was important, he didn’t want to forget anything. In a cramped pre-adolescent scrawl he traced out the words: cup, head torch, plates/bowl/dish, compass. Done. Now for Blake. Underlined too. Mat, penknife, cutelery and forks. He’d given himself extra items, taking a bit more responsibility than Blake. He stuffed the paper in his back pocket, affecting a ball-shaped fold to fit it in. He ran downstairs, slid down the last in his socks and arrived with a bump outside the kitchen. Before his mum could say anything he shouted, “I’ve done it Mum!”

His Mum looked up from the ironing to acknowledge him and carried on, sliding the steaming metal across yet another sleeve, down another seam, in between more buttons. “What have you done?” she questioned, her gaze following the iron, up and down.

“You know, the camp thing, the list.”

“Ah, that was quick. Have you practised today?”

“Yep”, he replied, feeling like he’d been good somehow.

He took himself of to the table and grabbed a book, pushing it to one side just as quickly.

“Mum?”

“Yes?”

“What is the camp?”

“Well, the camp is something that’s been going on for a long time, it’s always happened.”

“And why can’t anyone younger than 11 go?”

“That’s just the rule and now that you’re 11, you have to go.”

“Have to, have to?”

“Have to, have to.”

“Hmm. Mum?”

“Yes?”

“Why isn’t there any bread? I want some toast.”

“Because the wheat didn’t grow like it should have done this year, so we all have to eat less.”

“Even Blake’s family?”

“Even Blake’s family.”

“Hmm.”

He skipped back up the stairs so he could start packing.

“Mum?” he shouted down.

“Yes?”

“What else do I need?”

“Just what’s on your list and an extra jumper. Come and show me and we’ll put it in your new rucksack.”

He looked at blue bear sitting on his bed and wanted to take him too. But he wasn’t on the list and now that he was 11 and going to camp, he thought they might make fun of him. He looked again at him, felt a pang of something like growing up, and left him there.

They’d heard that the camp was up on the moor this year: land of ancient peoples, shaped stones and ancestor bones. The brown curling fronds of the ferns and sucking bogs, empty engine houses and startled sheep gave Arnold a strange thrill in the depths of his stomach, somewhere between entering a library and taking communion in church; an enforced religious silence that fostered the irresistible urge to giggle or shout obscenities. His own mother had confessed to something similar during the long Sunday sermons. “Doesn’t it just make you want to shout and scream? All these people in silence, so serious!”

When they arrived, lots of tents were already up in strict formation, emanating out from the centre: a cluster of bulbous grey stones which would cradle the naked flames of the meeting later that night.

“Where’s Blake?” he asked his mum, knowing she knew as much as he did.

“I don’t know darling, let’s put the tents up first then have a look.”

“But I want to know where he is!”

“Let’s put them up first. He’ll know where his tent goes if he looks at the map.” He acquiesced, only because he had seen his mum wince as she pronounced the last five words. She’d become less decisive, less sure since Dad had gone. He wished Dad were here now.

The rules were strict – only one person per tent with a clear adult-sized step in between each one. And no sharing. Dinner could be eaten anywhere and with anyone but everyone had to meet at the stones at 9 o’clock that evening. Arnold scampered off to find Blake so they could make the most of their ‘free’ time.

“I wrote your kit list,” he informed Blake.

“Bit late now, I’m here, what’s the point in that?”

“Dunno, just thought you could check what you had with mine.” Arnold shrugged, trying to look indifferent, staring at the tufts of grass at his feet. It had been a mistake. Of course Blake didn’t need a kit list. He crammed the paper back into his pocket, away from his look of disapproval.

“Do you think what they say about camp is true?” he asked, veering away from the subject of the list.

“What, that it’s to try and make the bread grow again?”

“No, not that, but that girl who no-one found again, that she died?”

“What are you talking about? She got lost, she was probably just stupid. I think someone just made it up to scare us so that we won’t go beyond the boundaries.”

“Probably,” Arnold replied, unconvinced. He’d thought about the girl a lot, even though it had happened a long time ago. What must it have felt like being so lost that you died of it? He shuddered and skipped off to the left, distracting himself,

“Come on, we haven’t been down here.”

 

“I like the traditional way, it’s always worked, so why do we need to change it?”

“We need to move on, tradition has its place but things have changed.”

“It just don’t feel right.”

Osprey Pinkerton was the unofficial head of camp proceedings and, while younger than Max Berdasher, he understood the practicalities of the camp better. The fire in the stones bled bright shards of life into the dark of the moor, lighting up the features of the two men as the flames rose, grasped and fell, empty-handed.

“I think it’s time,” stated Osprey, a large, weathered type, broad and confident across the shoulders – which gave him an unquestioned authority over proceedings in the village.

Max knew not to contradict him: “I believe you are right, Mr Pinkerton.”

“Well, gather them in then, man!”

Max scuttled off to the gong. Three peals. Figures shifted in the distance, responding to the atavistic call of a leader, herding the helpless.

The crowd murmured, settled and accepted the hush.

“Good evening everybody,” Osprey began. “For some of you, this is a new experience, something you will never forget, something that will bring you closer to each other, protect you, ensure that we can survive long into the future.”

Blake looked at Arnold, Arnold at Blake.

“In times of need, the village has turned to the gods, those long-forgotten guardians of our hopes, dreams and desires. Today, we ask for their help once more.”

He turned to the box. “Each family will come forward when called and pull out one piece of paper. You must not look at it.”

Max reeled off the names: “Archant… Arnold… Bernstein… Caller… ” The history of generations fell from his lips onto the crowd.

Some clutched them tightly in front of their body, others behind their back, some inside a coiled fist. Arnold and Blake held their pieces carefully, like money.

“And open please, ladies and gentlemen.”

A scrabble and a silence.

“Canham’s got it.”

“Well it’s not me.”

“Who do you think it is?”

“Raise your hand if you have it.”

Canham looked around. No-one else was moving. He raised his hand, standing alone now as those nearest him moved outwards, forming an oppressive, inquisitive circle, senses pulled taut for the next command.

“I’m ready,” he responded.

He ducked down to his left and stabbed at the tape recorder on the floor releasing a thumping disco beat. He threw his grey cloak to the floor with a little flourish and stood proud in white clinging trousers that reached far above his waist, squeezing the blood out of his groin. He squashed the mullet wig onto his head just as the music seized his limbs and flung them away from his body: “Well, you can tell by the way I use my walk, I’m a woman’s man, no time to talk.”

The crowd became puppets to the beat of the Bee Gees, legs stepping out, buttocks swinging like hammocks, arms drawing angular shapes in the night air. “Whether you’re a brother, whether you’re a mother, you’re staying alive, staying alive.”

Yelps and whoops propelled Canham like a crazed caveman in the middle of a pagan rite, the moisture in his tight polyester T-shirt getting hotter and hotter. The fire pumped red, a disco light in the distance.

And then silence.

The judges raised their arms and the crowd hung still like a line of birds on an overhead wire.

“9!” shouted Osprey.

“8!” followed Max.

“8!” copied Maureen, Max’s wife.

The people erupted, screaming “Next! Next! Next!” And the dancing went on late into the night, pulling the villagers together in a primal act of motion, asking for forgiveness, sending out collective positivity to the universe in hope that the wheat would grow again next year and Arnold and Blake could have toast for breakfast.

 by Rachel Wilson-Couch
www.saffronbunny.wordpress.com

 

Tears

When skin tears, it’s a strange sort of pain. It’s not like the slice of a knife or the gouging of, say, pavement, or even the gash of a loose wire. No, that damage starts with a piercing.

When skin tears, it fights against itself, pulling in opposite directions…like tectonic plates slowly eeking away from each other…stretching and groaning, protesting, but unrelenting. Pressure builds deep within. Fibers snap and a searing sharpness rises as the skin is forced thin.

It’s all at once agony and imagined. Your body experiences every excruciating second while your mind reels in staggering disbelief that it could truly be happening. ‘This isn’t real! Bodies don’t do this!’

Then, somehow, it changes. The rending intensifies, but it doesn’t hurt more, it hurts still, with no ebb or flow, no beginning or end.

This was all she could think about as she stood in her kitchen, palms planted on the counter, head low staring down at the small letters on the screen. ‘You ok?’ it read.

The counter felt surprisingly good beneath her hands. Cool. Sturdy. Solid. Present. It was a question she’d be mulling for a while. One she’d been asked a lot recently. It was easier to just reply ‘yes’, but she knew ‘yes’ wasn’t the answer. In fact, she was fairly certain that whatever she was, it was the point furthest from ‘ok’. But it wasn’t anything she could put into words yet. Skin tearing was the best she could associate, when the constancy of the agony births a strange physiological tolerance, numbness almost.

‘I wonder if you can get emotional nerve damage?” This is what she’d asked herself a week ago. There were no highs, no lows, just tepid existence. To feel something, anything, at this point would be better than this.

‘I think for the first time I get why people self harm,’ she had told her friend.

‘Oh Jesus, don’t say that!’

‘I didn’t say I was going to do it. I just mean I get it. It’s not because they want to feel pain, it’s to feel anything. Monotonous nothingness is exhausting. Maybe it’s just easier to create pain than pleasure.’

Across town, he’d spent the past 10 weeks shuffling from room to room, from home to work, from gym to shower to couch. Being alone wasn’t better, and this was no surprise. He knew he’d be miserable. He’d been here before. But at least this way he was only making himself miserable. This way she didn’t have to suffer his doubt and disappointment and self-loathing as he wracked his brain for answers and tried to figure out what was right, what was selfish, and whether selfish could also be right.

Today, he hadn’t been sure whether to send the text. It was the same debate every time he lifted his mobile. More often than not he’d put it back down and read her Twitter feed or an old email. Sometimes he’d log into email, keep his status hidden and watch the little icon next to her name hoping it would turn green. She felt less far away then.

They’d barely spoken in the 10 weeks and he missed her. But it seemed like every time they did speak, she felt worse and he felt guilty. He didn’t want to be without her, but he seemed to ruin things when he was with her. Until he could figure out why he acted and reacted the way he did and said the things he said, the best option seemed to be to stay out of her way. Just not completely out of her way. He didn’t want to lose her. He just needed time. He hoped a text or email now and then would be just enough to stay connected, to let her know he was thinking of her, but not so much to cause hurt. It would have to be. He knew it wasn’t much, but for now he wasn’t capable of more anyway.

Yes, when skin tears, it’s a strange sort of pain. When it finally splits, you don’t really feel it happen. There’s a moment of relief as warm blood runs and soothes the damaged tissue. As bad as the tearing is, in many ways it’s the aftermath that’s worse – terrified to move a solitary muscle in case it resurrects the pain and makes the damage worse. Literally petrified.

She didn’t know how to start healing. She didn’t know how to make things better for them, and if not better, at least the way they were. Everything felt so fragile and exposed. Her. Them. She could feel the cuts and tears running throughout her and reaching all the way across town. Say too much, do too much, too soon, forward or back, and she was certain they’d extend and widen and sever them permanently. She wanted to do more, to shake him, to rant, but doing just enough felt safer than doing all she could. She suspected it wasn’t doing her any favours, but it was all she could manage.

This had always been her weakness. She knew how to look after someone else who was hurt or struggling, but she didn’t know how to look after herself. She remembered schoolyard skirmishes and how quickly and instinctively she’d step between a friend and their enemy to block the attack, dish the blows or force a retreat. Like wee Mikey in kindergarten with the bowl cut who was a foot shorter than the rest.

And last year, when through the wall at 2 am she heard her pregnant neighbour howling for help while her drunken boyfriend beat on her – how swiftly she’d interceded. She’d been decisive and unwavering … even when he stepped out onto the path and threatened her … even when he pushed her against the parked car and put his hand to her throat. She didn’t back down. In the end, they ended up in a rolling fist fight in the street until the police arrived. She hated that pregnant neighbour, yet she stepped in to look after someone who couldn’t look after themselves. In that situation, she knew what the right thing was.

But just as clearly she could remember herself at age 13, standing in the hallway by her locker as Twilla Johnson came out of the girls’ toilets and wiped her wet hands on her face. For anyone else she would have squared up to Twilla, but she just stood, idle, uncertain how to respond and wondering what she’d possibly done to this girl (whom she wasn’t even sure she’d spoken to before) to deserve such a grave insult.

25 years later and it was the same reaction, different date. Standing frozen. Uncertain. Disbelief. Wondering what she’d done to deserve this – not from him, necessarily, but from fate.

She stared at her phone so long that the letters blurred together. She typed in her 17 characters and set it down. She hoped there’d be a response, but she suspected there wouldn’t. He barely spoke to her anymore and she doubted he’d know what to say to her reply. That fact brought her the least comfort of all.

As she stood in her kitchen, palms planted, head low and eyes closed, she sighed and longed for the blood to flow.

by Shelly Wilson