Tag Archives: Wednesday writing

Wednesday Writing – ‘Credit Due’

Image: ngccoin.com

Image: ngccoin.com

Credit Due

It was the hottest day so far that summer, and Mama needed sugar.

‘Go on down to the store,’ she told me, squinting out the window. ‘Ask old man Bailey to let you have it on credit. You hear?’

‘Yes, ma’am,’ I said.

‘That’s my baby,’ she said, turning to face me, blinking the dusty path outside from her eyes. ‘Mama’ll make some lemonade, when you get home. Don’t hurry, now. I think I’ll go take me a nap.’

‘Yes, ma’am,’ I said, already running for the door.

‘Walk!’ yelled Mama as I thumped my way out into the day, the sun like the warm hand of God on my skin. ‘Ladies walk, Ella-Marie!’

Ain’t a lady yet, I thought as I skipped away from the house, my toes like bruised earthworms against the yellowish soil. My knees winked out at me from underneath my hem. I put my face to the sky and dipped my nose right into it, my mind already swirling as I thought about the Coca-Cola girl hanging over the register down at Bailey’s General Store, and how her white dress shone like an angel, and her skin looked like it tasted of ice-cream…

‘Well, hey there, Ella-Marie,’ came a voice, and my eyes popped open. I screwed them up against the sunshine, feeling like my air had turned to dirt. ‘How you doin’ today?’

‘Hey, Mister Hadley,’ I said, my pulse rusty in the back of my throat.

‘Your Mama at home?’ Mister Hadley smiled at me, his skin all nasty, looking like sour milk with flyblown strawberry preserve smeared on top. He clutched his hat in his pink-scrubbed hands, his knuckles like rotten teeth and his suit just patched enough to still be respectable. I chewed the inside of my mouth.

‘Yessir,’ I muttered.

‘Well, ain’t that fine,’ he said. His smile, like a dog dead in a gutter, didn’t move a muscle as he reached those pale fingers into his pocket. He took them out and there was a nickel entwined in them like a trapped bird, and he stretched them out to me like I had the key to its freedom.

‘Well, go on,’ he said, laughing. ‘Take it. Get yourself somethin’ nice.’

I reached for the coin, my own dark fingers hot and suddenly sweaty and covered in filth and his cool now, like iron, like ice. My own dirty and shameful and his strong and steady.

I snatched my hand back.

His smile sang a wrong note then, and his face fell apart. He frowned, and threw the nickel in the dirt.

‘Git, then,’ he said. ‘Go on! I got business to discuss with your Mama, so don’t you go disturbin’ us, now. Y’hear me?’

I had long left him behind before I remembered: Mama’s sleepin’. She said she was sleepin’! And my ears started burning with embarrassment not my own, imagining Mama disheveled, surprised, ashamed.

But I did not go back.

Old man Bailey looked at me over his spectacles as he wrote the value of the sugar in his book. The store was empty but for us two, and the air tasted like sweat.

‘You tell your Mama to come in and settle up, Ella-Marie, just as soon as she can. I ain’t got endless reserves of credit. Times are hard for everyone, not jus’ you colored folk.’

‘Yessir,’ I said, my arms already aching.

‘Get on home, now, child,’ he said. ‘And be sure to give your Mama my regards.’

‘Yessir,’ I said, the sack of sugar like a kicking piglet.

I scuffed my feet as I walked, trailing my toes in the dust and shifting the sugar from arm to arm. My fingers slipped around it, like a tongue struggling with an unfamiliar word, and my shoulders wailed like I was being nailed to the cross. Sweat trickled down my back.

I came upon Mister Hadley’s nickel eventually. It glinted in the sunlight like the eye of a buried monster, waiting. I slid the sack of sugar to the ground and propped it against my shaking, sticky leg as I bent to pick the coin up out of the dirt. I turned it over and over, buffalo-face-buffalo-face, wondering what Mama’d say when she saw it.

And eventually I hoisted up the sugar again, and I kept walking.

‘Mama?’ I called, as the screen-door thunked shut. My brown feet slapped on the browner boards as I crossed the neat parlor, Daddy’s rifle still in one corner even though the man himself was just a memory, just a word. ‘Mama?’ The door to her room was thrown wide, and I remembered – again – that she was sleeping, and a rush of sour shame washed all through me. I tiptoed to the kitchen and shouldered the sack up onto the table, and took a breath. My throat felt raw.

And the door to the back was standing open.

I crept to it. Outside, the laundry flapped in the breeze like a preacher mid-sermon, hands raising to heaven in hope and fear, before sinking, disappointed and despairing, to earth once more. The scrubland between our house and the Wesleys’, half a mile away, yawned into the distance. Mama wasn’t anywhere.

I turned, my ears throbbing, and crossed the room until Mama’s bedroom door was staring at me, dark as a crow’s eye. Everything was still. I dropped the nickel and it rolled, sounding like the top being torn off the world, until it fell between two boards and was silent.

Mama was lying on her bed like an unfurled flower, her eyes still full of the dusty path outside. Her mouth was open, nothing coming out of it but slow redness, ink from a broken bottle. Her dress gaped, like it was kissing me goodbye.

And all around her, dollar bills were scattered one after another after another, like confetti at the feet of a bride.

 

Wednesday Writing – ‘Angel, Interceptor’

Image sourced: https://unsplash.com Photographer: Ryan Lum

Image sourced: https://unsplash.com
Photographer: Ryan Lum

Angel, Interceptor

I’ve always found it easy to stay hidden. It’s being seen that’s the hard thing. I envy them, with their carelessness and their loud voices, their total comfort in this world. It was made for them, after all.

I envy that.

I watch from the shadow of St – I think – Ambrose, he of the scourge and the silent reading. Oh, yes; I remember him. In life, he was an uptight, sanctimonious creep, yet here he is, immortalised in stone and precious metal while I still stand, technically enfleshed, looking more or less the same as I did the day I appeared to him in his bedchamber. I let him think he banished me unto the Pit, but in reality I was simply bored. I found bigger fish, that day, someone with a soul so large she could have enveloped ten so-called saints inside it with room left over, despite its single stain.

She wept as I took her but I was young, then. I didn’t care. I had a job and I was doing it, and that was that.

I see them now, life bursting from every pore, the frantic spinning of atoms and molecules and the proliferation of cells and the humming hiss of blood, and I know that a thought would be enough. A simple thought, and their flow would suddenly freeze, or a cell divide slightly wrongly, or an electrical impulse go awry.

I am cold, dark matter; my heart beats, but only when it remembers to. My blood hasn’t stirred in centuries.

And so I watch. They laugh and take pictures, posing with their mouths open and their eyes wide, their laughter like shards of glass in my ears. I am here to take them, to destroy what I can and claim the rest, to lay waste, to burn what does not please Him… but still I watch.

They are moving off, arms around shoulders, warm kisses on warmer cheeks, fingers entwined, towards the old city. A straggler hesitates, capturing one last shot of the statue of St Mark, and I feel a pull in my muscles, an urge to take to the air and shred this bridge and all upon it with the force of my magnificence – but it’s surprisingly easy to swallow it back. The human gets to his feet again, stuffing his camera into its bag, before taking off after his friends, laughing as he runs.

He judges them too harshly. Flawed, yes, but irredeemable?

A pigeon lands on the head of the metal and gilt Ambrose and regards me coolly for a moment or two. Briefly, I consider reducing it to atoms, but I sigh, and it continues on its journey. As one winged thing to another, we pay our mutual respects.

I squint up at Ambrose’s impassive face and formulate a thought before turning away. A gust of heat wafts at my back, and I permit myself a moment of pride. As I walk, I picture the sun rising over this young, ancient city, and the confusion of the authorities as they try to figure out what could possibly have caused a huge metal statue to melt, and I almost smile. But I came to smite, and smite I have; let someone else worry about the technicalities.

I fold my wings tight and run my fingers through my hair. There must be somewhere in this city I can find a bar with a nice, shady corner and a server who asks no questions, I tell myself, as I vanish into the flow.

 

Wednesday Writing – ‘The Darkness, Waiting’

Photo Credit: ecstaticist via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: ecstaticist via Compfight cc

The Darkness, Waiting

It was the feeling of his breath on my cheek that woke me.

‘Sarah!’ came the whisper. Tiny. Terrified. ‘Sarah!

‘Ger? What…’

‘It’s Da! He’s home.’

I blinked. There was a blindfold on my brain. ‘But it’s the middle of the night,’ I murmured, sleepily. ‘What’s going on? Where’s Mam?’

‘In the kitchen, I think,’ he said. Terror hung around every word like mist. A sudden burst of raucous laughter from downstairs made him jump like he’d been struck, and his head snapped towards my bedroom door as if he was expecting a monster to walk through it. Great. Da’s brought Jimmy home. Ger’s skinny arms wrapped around his body, and I could hear the hissing of his hurried breathing.

‘Shush,’ I said, wriggling over in the bed. ‘Come on.’ I felt a graveyard draught down my neck as I struggled into the cold sheets, and did my best not to grimace. Only for you, little brother, I thought, as he scurried into the warm hollow I’d left behind.

‘Will they argue?’ he whispered once he was settled. I tucked the covers around him and wrapped his icy feet up in mine. I drew him close, trying not to feel how thin he was, and how threadbare his pyjamas had become. Until last year, I’d owned them. One of our cousins had known them new.

‘I don’t know, little man. Maybe. D’you think Da had drink on him?’

‘Why else would he be coming home this late?’

‘Yeah,’ I sighed. ‘You’re right.’

‘It’s going to start again, isn’t it,’ he said, his voice trembling.

‘Now, now. Don’t go borrowing worry,’ I said, imitating our mother’s voice. I couldn’t see him, but I could hear the tiny huff of breath as he nodded and smiled.

‘Yes, Ma,’ he teased.

A sudden thump from downstairs made us both jump. I could feel Ger trembling beside me, and I stroked his dark hair.

‘That was the sitting room door,’ he said. ‘Hitting the wall.’

‘All right! All right, missus!’ came a voice, bellowing up the stairs. Jimmy. We could hear Ma too, telling him to get out of her house and back to his own wife and family.

‘Now! Now!’ Da. ‘There’s no need to be going anywhere!’ His voice was loud and full of that particular laughter he only got after ten or twelve hours’ drinking. There were some muffled thumps, and then a huge, heavy body slammed against the banisters, shaking the whole house.

‘Right! I’m gone!’ called Jimmy, as if he’d paid a casual visit. ‘Good luck!’

‘Get out!’ That was Ma. The front door slammed. Then, the terrible silence began. Me and Ger, and the darkness in my room, all held our breaths. We knew what came next. The waiting was almost the worst part.

Just as I’d begun to wonder if it was going to start at all, the first slap sounded.

**

This is a story I’ve had for a long time, and I’ve often dithered over whether to make it public here. For some reason, it means a lot to me and it pulls at my heart like nothing else I’ve written. Clearly, something in it touches a memory, or a deep fear, or maybe even a nightmare I first had as a child. Whatever it is, for me this story is like a wound.

But I was lucky, as a child. My parents had their disagreements, like all parents do, but I was raised with so much love that it has shaped my whole life. I was never afraid, or beaten, or hurt; I always knew I had a home, and parents who loved me.

Some children don’t.

The ISPCC, which (in Ireland) runs the national, currently 24/7 Childline service, is at risk of having to close their night-time listening services to children due to a lack of funding. Night-time is the time when children need Childline the most. Night-time is the time when children can feel terrified not only of the dark, but of what’s in it, waiting. Childline is not a service just for ‘disadvantaged’ children, or ‘underprivileged’ ones – it is for all children. Some parents think their children will never need to contact a service like Childline, but I believe you simply never know what’s going on in your child’s life, and what they may need help with, and what they feel they can’t bring to their parents, no matter how much they love them. I don’t want to turn this story into a plea for help for a charity in a country that many of you don’t even live in, but I will say this:

Check out this website for some insight into what Childline does, and why it’s trying to raise money. If you feel able, there are links here to allow you to donate.

And if there’s a similar service in your own country, please try to donate to it, if you can. Even the smallest bit could make a huge difference.

We need to invest in our children. Leaving them alone when they need us most is a thought I can’t bear. Thanks for reading.

Wednesday Writing – ‘Spotlight’

Image: unsplash.com

Image: unsplash.com

Spotlight

Driving home, she allowed her mind to wander. Her hands flashed through the motions, adjusting the steering wheel, flicking on the indicator, correcting the volume on the radio. Click was an image of her changing from third gear to fourth. Click, and she was applying the brake, gently, to avoid a swerving cyclist. Click, a stylish black and white shot in which she squinted against the sun, creases framing her dark-ringed eyes. As her car wheels ate the miles, the desire she thought she’d quelled began to pulse through her again like a tree root, pushing out all else. The deliciousness of it buzzed through her veins like an electrical charge, the suggestion of it making her knuckles whiten on the wheel.

Coffee. She needed to think.

She pulled over and let the car sit, pink-pink-pinking gently as its engine cooled, while she rummaged in the glove compartment for change. She shoved aside a random purse, an identity card spilling out of its unzipped opening, showing her a face she’d already forgotten. Several sets of keys to houses and cars she didn’t own rattled beneath her questing fingers. Finally, she found the stash of dusty, fluff-covered coins kept for emergencies, and she tossed them into her palm.

Emergencies. Like ‘My car’s broken down; do you mind if I come in and just call a garage? I’ll pay for the use of your phone, ma’am.’ Or ‘Have you seen this little girl, here? Please, ma’am, I need your help! Just sit into the car, for a moment, and take a better look.’ Or ‘I’ve just been mugged. Everything’s been taken, my wallet, my keys – can you please spare just a few cents, ma’am, so I can call my husband?’

She looked at the wedding ring she always wore, and grinned down at it. Inside, it said Cedric, April 28th 1976, Eternally, but she’d forgotten where she’d found it.

Snapping shut the glove compartment, she unfastened her seatbelt and pulled on the door release. She stepped out onto the pavement, whistling softly through her teeth as she checked for anything in uniform, but everything looked quiet. Still, she reasoned, fingering through her coins, doesn’t hurt to stay on the right side of the law. Smiling, she strode to the parking meter and fed it enough money to last the half-hour she felt she needed to get settled over a cappuccino, maybe read a newspaper. Flirt with a waitress or two.

But on her way back to the car, she saw her. Across the road, against the brickwork, holding a panting dog on a straining leash, laughing as she pressed a cellphone to her ear, a dark-haired beauty stood. The spotlight descended upon her like the finger of Heaven, shining on her nut-brown head and freezing her beneath its glow like a fly caught on a pin, and watching all this, she knew. She knew, just looking. Her blood jumped, like someone had slapped her, and she knew.

This was the one.

Quickly, she yanked open the car door, flung the ticket on the dash, and grabbed up the crumpled map she always kept on the passenger seat. She licked her lips and stretched them out, baring her teeth, warming up to a smile, before backing out and slamming the door shut again.

Look left. Look right. Cross. The sleek dark girl was still on the phone. The dog saw her coming, and released a yapping growl.

God, Christian, all right! Jeez. Okay. I’ll come over.’ The dark girl was laughing, and for the first time in a long career, she waited, holding the creased map, still practising her smile, one that looked open but not stupid, trustworthy but not weird, friendly but not too friendly.

And she waited.

‘Hang on, Christian, okay? I’ve just got to…’ She trailed off, muffling the phone against her chest. ‘Hello? Do you need help with something?’ She’s talking to me.

‘Oh, gosh. Um. Please – finish your call! I don’t want to impose -‘

‘No, it’s fine. Honestly. Do you need directions?’ Her eyes were brown too, clear, guileless but wary. There was no smile on her face.

‘Sure, sure. Um. Hardacre? Is it around here someplace?’ She fumbled with the map, the wedding ring winking in the glow of the spotlight.

‘Please, don’t bother with the map. Please! Just listen, okay?’ She looked up, and the dark-haired girl was earnest, staring, one hand on the leash and the other on the phone. She started to give directions and the other woman pretended to take them in, even asking questions and clarifying details, before the conversation tapered off.

‘Okay. So, you’ve got it?’ The girl’s eyes were wide, wanting to help.

‘I sure do,’ she replied, wrapping up the map. ‘I sure do. Thank you, ma’am.’

‘Wow. Ma’am is for my mother. Please! You’re welcome.’ She nodded, just once, before picking up the phone again and turning, the dog’s straining making her leash-holding fingers turn yellow. She began to walk away.

‘Hi, Christian? Yeah, sure. No, no – just a woman lost, needing directions. Okay, so where were we? Oh, really…‘ The girl’s laughing voice left a trail, like scent, in the air, and she didn’t notice she was gripping the map hard until she heard it tearing in her hands. She took two strides to the nearest trash-can and threw it in.

Her calf muscles were tensed and her shoulders taut. Her fists clenched and her jaw set and she wanted to, so badly, but she’d blown it. She’d gone off too early, using the map trick. Now, how was she going to approach her again?

Before she knew it, she was halfway down the block, keeping well back. The spotlight moved with the dark-haired girl, and she shone within it like a newfound pearl.

She’s been chosen, you know, she heard, inside. Not by you. By someone higher than you. Through your hands, His will be done.

She kept walking, her throat sore from holding back a sob.

This will be the last one, the voice inside her whined. Just one more, and that’s all!

But that’s what you said the last time, she answered.

And the time before that, sang the voice. And the time before that, and the time before that.

 

Wednesday Writing – ‘The Discovery’

Photo by Drew Geraets Sourced at: www.unsplash.com

Photo by Drew Geraets
Sourced at: http://www.unsplash.com

The Discovery

‘Are you all right there?’ The Garda’s large hand catches me, tight as a clamp, just as I stumble on a loose rock.

‘Thanks,’ I say, steadying myself. I glance up at him, but he’s looking at my feet, frowning. ‘Should’ve worn better shoes!’ I wince at my own words. Now he’ll think you’re a mindless flake, I tell myself. Typical woman, only concerned about her bloody footwear.

‘Ah, sure it’s hard to know what to be wearing, up here,’ he mutters, blinking at the sky. ‘It’s different every day. Hiking boots mightn’t be enough some days, and others you could trot up here barefoot.’ He looks back at me. ‘You’re all right, now?’

‘Thanks,’ I nod, and he lets go of my arm. He wasn’t using force, but my flesh throbs anyway, like I’m bruised.

I take in a deep breath, trying to swallow.

‘We’ll ring your mother, now, as soon as there’s anything to report. All right?’ He’s keeping a respectful distance, hands in the pockets of his luminous jacket. ‘Mightn’t be signal for the mobiles up here on the bog, but we’ll do our best.’

‘Right,’ I tell him, hoping that it’s the police who’ll be talking to Mam, if and when there’s anything to say. They’ll hardly expect me to, will they?

‘Is she keeping well, anyway?’ He pauses. ‘Your mam, I mean,’ as if I wouldn’t have known who he meant.

‘Ah, well. You know. As good as can be expected.’ I’ve always hated that phrase. My mother’s doing fairly well, all things considered. Better than me, maybe. It should be her up here, walking this rough-cut path, other than she said she wouldn’t be able for it. She insisted I go, instead, and made the Gardaí change their normal procedures, just for her. They complied, because everyone says ‘yes’ to Mam.

‘It’d be great, now, if we could find a few answers for her,’ the Garda mutters. ‘Let her spend the rest of her days with a bit of peace.’

‘She’s hardly on her deathbed,’ I tell him, a bit more sharply than I mean to.

‘God, no,’ he says, quickly, turning to me with his eyes wide. ‘I only -‘

‘It’s my poor father needed the peace. He could never accept that Gillian was -‘ I still can’t bring myself to say dead. Murdered. I clear my throat and carry on. ‘He always thought she’d be found, you know. Without her memory, maybe. Kept in captivity, or something. It destroyed him. But Mam? It’s like she knew, from the beginning.’

‘Mothers have that sort of instinct, though, don’t they.’ He kicks a sharp-edged rock out of my path.

‘Shame her mothering instinct wasn’t as strong,’ I say, mostly to myself. The Garda lets on he hasn’t heard me, but I see a twitch around his mouth as he clenches his jaw.

‘Here we are, now,’ he says, his voice soft, as we crest the hill. The peaty, rocky path we’ve been walking on turns into churned-up muck, tyre tracks and footprints everywhere. He leads me off to one side where temporary flooring’s been laid down across the boggy surface. A hundred yards away, yellow, flapping security tape is tied in a rough triangle around a patch of ground. It flicks at my vision like a hook dangling in front of a fish, but I refuse to look.

So many people. All these cars. Lots of high-vis overcoats and muttered conversations, and nobody – no matter how much they want to, and how badly the air crackles with their need to – not one person looks over at me. I float through them like a ghost, the Garda at my side.

There’s a folding table at the end of the plywood walkway covered with large plastic boxes, white, with tight-fitting lids. He leads me towards them and my knees start to soften. His vice-hand is around my arm again.

‘If you’re not able,’ he says, ‘nobody is going to mind. All right, Gráinne? You just say, now, and we can go back down. We can just wait for the DNA tests to come back, and you can put all this behind you.’

I shake my head. It’s too late. I’m here.

‘No,’ I manage to say. ‘I have to find out. For Mam.’ She’ll be less than pleased, otherwise.

He nods. ‘Take your time, so. You give me the nod, when you’re ready. All right?’ I close my eyes. They’re swimming in a thick layer of hot tears, which overflow and run down my cheeks. They start to sting in the cold breeze.

‘Right,’ I say, half-whispering. ‘Now, before I talk myself out of it.’

The Garda gestures at a colleague and she unseals the nearest box. I blink and look into it, and sitting there in a neat plastic bag are a pair of tiny T-bar sandals, still mostly red. One of them even has the plastic flower attached. I remember the day they were bought for her, and how hard I cried.

‘Good Christ,’ I hear, vaguely, and the Garda catches me, lowering me gently to the ground. He shouts for help, and someone brings over a blanket and a flask. They get me sitting up and I stay there, staring at the forest across the way, watching the trees dance, until the cup of steaming tea in my hand turns cold.

‘Gráinne,’ I hear, and I turn to see the Garda crouched beside me, a mobile phone in his hand. ‘We’ve been trying to get your Mam for ages, now, but she’s not answering. Will you give it a go, instead? Maybe she’ll talk to you?’

My mother knew, all along, that this day would come, I want to tell him. She won’t be answering the phone to me, or anyone, ever again.

But I take the phone and dial her number anyway, and he holds my hand as gently as a child.

 

 

 

Wednesday Writing – The ‘It’ Girls

Photo Credit: OrangeCounty_Girl via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: OrangeCounty_Girl via Compfight cc

The ‘It’ Girls

‘Why is the box just plain white, Mum?’ She twists in her seat and frowns at it. ‘Did they change the packaging, or something?’

‘Must have,’ I say, swallowing a yawn. ‘Eyes front, Marie. You’ll get sick, otherwise.’

‘Whatever. I haven’t been carsick since I was a kid.’ She twists further, and I’m terrified she’ll lift the lid.

‘Wow. That long?’ I mutter as I flick the indicator.

‘Ha ha,’ she mutters, rolling her eyes, but she settles back into her seat. ‘Hey, I hope they didn’t, like, cost loads, or whatever.’

I wait for the throb in my heart to subside before I’m able to answer. ‘Why would you say that?’

‘No reason,’ she sing-songs. Sometimes she sounds just like the TV. ‘It’s just – thanks, you know. For getting them.’

‘Yeah,’ I say, pretending to be distracted by a passing car.

‘Georgia’ll have made such an effort, you know? To have the perfect party?’ I cut a glance across at her. She’s staring out the side window, chewing the inside of her mouth. Her hands are hidden in her sleeves, but I can tell she’s picking at her nails.

‘It’s just going to be a few of the girls from class, isn’t it?’ I say, looking back at the road. The turn for Georgia’s house is less than a hundred metres away, and the base of my skull begins to throb, slowly.

‘Well, yeah. But they’re the important girls,’ Marie sighs. ‘And don’t give me this ‘you’re all equally important’ stuff,’ she interrupts, loudly, right before I’m about to say those exact words. ‘You know what I mean.’

‘All right, darling.’ The turning light changes to red, and I fight the urge to swing the car into a U-turn and zoom back into town, but I know the shop is shut. Christabel’s Cupcakes, even though the woman who runs it was baptised Tracey and God knows where she got her notions about ‘cupcakes’ from, because they were simply called ‘buns’ when I was growing up. Christabel’s sell their wares in light pink boxes, not plain white ones, and they wrap them like Christmas presents, and there’s always a queue out the door. I should have just found the money from somewhere and slid it across the counter in return for twenty identically perfect cakes, buttercream with silver sugar accents in silver paper cases, delicate vanilla sponge, light as a dream.

I should have. But instead I stayed up till 2 a.m. trying to bake quietly enough not to wake my sleeping child upstairs, and I found a plain cake box from somewhere, and that’s what’s waiting on the floor of the car. I’m not even sure if any two of the buns I made would pass for the same in a bad light, from a distance, and this is what I’m sending my girl into a party with.

‘So, like – are they pretty? The cupcakes?’ Marie asks, and for a second I don’t know what to say. The light turns green, and she doesn’t press me for an answer as we wait for a break in traffic. We turn off up the hill towards Georgia’s, and I press the pedal too hard.

‘Whoa, mum,’ laughs Marie over the roaring engine. ‘Cool it with the F1 stuff!’

‘Sorry, love,’ I say, looking for a space to pull in. Georgia’s driveway is full, and the grass verges and pathway are crowded with 4x4s and Land Rovers. I double-park beside a Jag and something I don’t recognise and flick on my hazard lights, and Marie leans over to kiss me goodbye. She flings herself out of the passenger door, and she leans in to pick up the box of cakes, touching it like it contains a sleeping baby. I want to tell her then, but I don’t. My heart thrums as I stare at her, clutching the tiny white rectangle with its battered corners and its grease stains, gazing fearfully up at the house, and I know I have to leave. Lights spill through open doors and windows, and I see crowds of people who all look perfectly the same, and I have to concentrate on not throwing up. I haven’t even washed my hair.

‘Aren’t you coming in?’ calls Marie to me. I gesture at the traffic.

‘I’ve got to get home, love!’ I shout. ‘I’ll be back at ten, okay?’

She tries to smile. ‘Okay, mum,’ she says, and blows me a kiss.

I catch the kiss she blows me, and I indicate to pull out, and I drive away and leave her there.

 

Wednesday Writing – The Empty Vessel

Photo Credit: irene gr via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: irene gr via Compfight cc

The Empty Vessel

It was one of his little classmates, dusty and sweat-stained and wide-eyed with urgent excitement, who brought word that Rudi was gone. Papi was in the orange grove. Mama was pounding the bread. And I, I was standing by the window playing with my hair, hoping Nico would walk by.

But instead of wild-eyed, black-eyed Nico, I got a child whose mouth barely closed around the words he carried. It was far from a fair exchange.

‘He did not come to class, Senora!’ babbled the child, before he’d even come fully to a halt. ‘He did not come! The master sent me to fetch him, Senora, for a whipping! And you are to come too so that you may learn, he said, how to keep your pups in line!’

The words spilled across the sunlit floor. Spent, the child panted in the doorway, his eyes bright. My mother said nothing, and simply threw the nearest thing she had to hand, which happened to be the smallest of the scale weights. It smacked the unwelcome messenger smartly on the ear, and she nodded, satisfied. She always had a good arm, and a sharp eye.

‘Ow!’ wailed the child, rubbing his wound. ‘What was that for?’

‘You have upset my yeast, with all your yelling,’ declared Mama. ‘It will be flatter than a crone’s bosom at this rate.’

‘So what? Aren’t you going to fetch Rudi? I am to bring him back for afternoon lessons.’

‘Be off! Tell the master Rudi is unwell.’ Mama’d found her kneading rhythm again, and her words wobbled in time to the beat. ‘Tell him he has not left the outhouse all morning. Tell him even the pigs cannot stand to be downwind of him. Say that -‘

‘Oh! Can I see him?’ crowed the child, dancing from leg to leg with excitement. ‘Can I smell him, Senora?’

Mama picked up the next-heaviest scale weight, and the child whipped away from the door. He was gone, whooping, down the path before I could blink.

I sighed. ‘Aren’t you going to look for him?’

‘He’ll be with Papi, or your uncle.’ (Uncle had the farm next door). ‘I have better things to do than try to understand a seven-year-old.’ She flicked a glance at me. ‘As do you, Mariela. Nico will want more in a wife than hair. Go and find some work to do, and start to learn your trade.’

I felt my cheeks burn blotchy red as I stepped outside.

I didn’t want to feed the chickens, or the pigs, or bring water to the flowers, or sweep the steps. None of those jobs involved grace, and all of them involved sweat. When Nico rode by I wanted to be fragrant and flushed pink, hair shining and sweet, not covered in stench.

So I walked down to the harbour, hoping maybe that the wind would pinch my cheeks and make something beguiling out of my hair. Perhaps I would see Miguel among the boats and perhaps, this time, I might permit him to take the kiss he’d wanted from me for at least six months. Perhaps word of it might reach Nico’s ears.

I smiled at the thought, and walked faster.

But the harbour was deserted. The boats were in, and empty, the catch long gone. I scuffed my way to the water’s edge and sat, the tang of the ocean scrubbing at my lungs.

Far offshore – almost too far for me to see – a boat lay drifting. It looked unmanned. I could make out no trailing mooring rope, nor any oars nor movement, and the current carried it far out as I watched, too far for rescue, and almost too fast to believe.

There was nobody to tell, no alarm to raise. Someone’s livelihood would suffer, but what could I do? I was merely me, Mariela, and nobody was there to help me.

I walked home, unwatched and unwanted.

Dinner sang in the oven, and still no Rudi came. Papi returned from the grove, and no small shadow haunted his. Mama went to Uncle’s house but came home alone.

Then Mama packed some food for Papi and he went out from house to house, asking for his son. Mama ran to the square to search each face, to ask ‘have you seen him?’, and to spread the word. I stayed at home. I thought only of Rudi, but I brushed my hair until it shone like silk, just in case.

It was not until the night was at its thickest that I thought to remember the drifting boat, the one which had been deliberately untied and left to the mercy of the sea, the one which had looked empty – maybe because the person inside it had been smaller than a bundle of sticks, and hiding because the whole thing was a great adventure, like the ones in the comics he saw for sale outside the drogueria. Papi slapped me when I told him, but I kept my weeping inside.

We stumbled to the shoreline in the dark but all we saw was empty, open water, and one boat missing from the dock. We sat until the morning came, but all trace of boat and boy were gone.

Later that same day, I cut my hair up to my skull, like a small child’s. Nico never looked at me again. And Miguel? He found his kisses elsewhere, after that.

 

 

 

 

 

Wednesday Writing – ‘Good Things Come’

Photo Credit: Leonrw via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Leonrw via Compfight cc

Good Things Come

Leave the ‘ouse at seven-twelve; all good. Hop the train at seven-forty; all good. The gatherin’ crowd means I get shoved into someone’s armpit – not so good, but it could be worse. I feel like a slab of meat in an abattoir, my fingers goin’ numb around the bar suspended from the carriage ceiling, swayin’ gently with the clack-clack, just like every other poor sod.

But it’s all good.

We screech into her station, and I watch as she elbows her way on, knockin’ folk left and right. I hide behind some bloke’s newspaper, FTSE-this and NASDAQ-that lickin’ my eyeballs, but when I stick my ‘ead back out again I see ‘er, like she’s got an ‘oming beacon stuck to her forehead. She jus’ draws the eye, y’know? Face like one o’ them statues. Angled. Perfect.

She looks tired this morning, though. Can ‘ardly blame ‘er. You ‘ad a late night, eh? Oblivious, she flicks her finger up and down ‘er phone screen, swipin’ this way an’ that. Workin’? Sendin’ a very important email? I grin. Or checkin’ your dating profile, are we, love? Leanne6Herts, that’s you. Tweetin’ about your night on the tiles, yeah?

I look away before I want to. Any longer an’ she’d have felt it, like a weight. Any longer, an’ I might as well have screamed her name. I bite my lip and breathe, staring in the direction of the window, gettin’ an eyeful of some woman’s ear’ole, and beyond that, a spaced-out looking dropout with a nose-ring. Scum.

The ping as we reach the next station causes a handy bit of kerfuffle in the carriage, just enough to give me the chance to catch another glimpse. She’s leanin’ against the wall, her ‘andbag held tight, water bottle clutched like a baby. Still on the blinkin’ phone. In ‘er own world, this one. In ‘er own bloody world. Don’t I know it.

Eight-nineteen. We reach our destination right on time.

She’s ever so polite, stoppin’ to let folk off in front of her, smilin’ at some bint with a kid. Gives me a chance to slip out past her as she’s helpin’ to get the pram down from the carriage to the platform, all laughter and jollity. You can turn it on when you want to, eh?

The river of people bashes past me, umbrellas and briefcase-edges and cleared throats and mumbled conversations and excuse mes and muttered curses. I ‘ang about by the barrier, cradlin’ my ticket, ready to slip through. Just got to time it right.

‘Ere she is.

I slide up to the validator, an’ out I go. Carried along by the flow, we make our way up to the bridge like we’re all one tribe, y’know, all fightin’ the same fight. Suits and jeans alike, skin’eads and barbershop jobs. Nobody looks at anybody else. Nobody speaks. Nobody even notices me.

I make it across the bridge, no problem. Timin’, I warn myself, chancin’ a look back. I stop, ignorin’ the shakin’ heads and the clickin’ tongues all around me. Time it right, man!

She’s over halfway across – no goin’ back now, sunshine. She’s still clutchin’ that stupid water bottle, bags under ‘er eyes, face pale. I can barely keep it in long enough to let ‘er look up, in ‘er own time, an’ just when I think she won’t, she does. She finally does.

She looks up an’ sees me there, the press of people at ‘er back and the flow urgin’ her on. I smile my widest smile an’ hold out my arms, welcomin’-like, an’ she tries to stop walkin’ but someone bashes into her. Come on, darlin’. You ain’t got no choice. I tried it the nice way, and you weren’t ‘aving it. I’ve waited long enough.

She drops the water bottle, an’ it gets kicked away, quick as quick, as the press of people carries her to me like a reward, like a prize. Like nothin’ more than I deserve.

 

 

Wednesday Writing – ‘Memento Mori’

 

Memento Mori

I was hurrying down Morrison when he came at me, straight out of the alley beside the old grocery store. I put my head down and ignored him at first, sure he was just one of those guys who hadn’t taken to the process so well, but he was determined to catch my eye.

‘Hey,’ he muttered, shuffling over. ‘Hey, man. I gotta -‘

‘Can’t stop, buddy,’ I called, holding up a hand, wondering when the government was going to face facts and segregate these things. ‘In a hurry, y’know?’

‘Please,’ he said. ‘Just need a minute.’ A faint stink billowed out of him, a memory of breath.

‘Don’t you got a job to go to, friend?’ I asked. That’s the point, isn’t it? I didn’t say it out loud, but he had to know I was thinking it. Anybody would be.

He blinked and made no answer, swaying on his feet.

‘Man, I really am sorry. Okay? Really. But if I’m late for work I get to hear about it all week. You understand, right? Nothin’ personal.’ I’d reached out to shake his hand before I could stop myself, but his fists were buried deep in his rancid pockets. He froze. I glanced up at his face properly for an instant then, and he just stared at me out of wet, sloppy eyes. I couldn’t tell what colour they’d been; the process had washed it away.

I shook the guy off – his smell, his voice, the pallor of his face – as I kept walking, and by the time I finished work for the day I’d forgotten all about him. I walked home through empty streets. Apartment buildings rose into the dusk all around, dark and cold. My own building had thirty percent occupancy, and I knew I was one of the lucky ones. When I closed my door behind me I didn’t feel like something finally buried. I knew if I shouted, someone would hear me.

They might not come. But they would hear.

I saw him as I came near that old grocery store again, the one that had never been open during my lifetime. There he was, waiting in the shadows. Had he even moved since this morning?

‘Look,’ I said, before he could speak. ‘I told you before, all right? I can’t talk to you.’

‘Just, please,’ he said. He looked worse than before. Dark hollows beneath his eyes threatened to swallow his face.

‘Weren’t you at your job today? Huh? Did you just stand around here all day? Were you this useless when you were alive, too?’

‘Buddy, come on,’ he replied. ‘I gotta show you. Gotta show someone.’

I wasn’t sure why those words pulled at me, but thirty seconds later I was following him – a Refurb, an actual flesh-and-blood walking talking dead guy – into this alley. It smelled like hell.

Then, he stopped. I heard a noise, and looked down.

A kid. A kid lay on the ground, white-faced and wide-eyed, breathing hard as she stared up at me. She couldn’t have been any more than nine. It looked like maybe her leg was broken – certainly, she wasn’t going anywhere fast. This is good, flashed across my mind. The bounty for returning runaways was high. How she’d managed to escape from the Farm was anyone’s guess, but all I knew was they’d pay to get her back.

‘You animal,’ I growled, turning on the Refurb. I clenched my fists. This has to look good, I told myself.

‘No! Mister!’ The kid’s voice was like a whistle. ‘He helped me! I fell, and -‘

‘Enough,’ I told her, never taking my eyes off the Refurb. They weren’t supposed to hurt the living, but I guess you never knew. How can any of us be sure?

‘No,’ said the Refurb. His eyes were flabby. Blank. He’s just instinct, I told myself. Wrapped up in a body. He’s barely more than a machine. ‘No. Please.’ He took a shuffling step back and slid on something in the garbage piled there, falling back against the sacks. I took my chance.

A swift, hard jab to the abdomen, and he groaned so bad that I almost believed he felt it. Another, and another. There was barely any resistance in his soft flesh.

‘No! Arnie!‘ screamed the kid. ‘Stop hurting him!’

‘Arnie, is it?’ I said, bracing myself for another punch. ‘You’re a dead man, Arnie. No pun intended. You know that, right? Even if I hadn’t found you hurting this girl, or whatever it is I can make ’em believe you’d been doing up here, I’d probably have killed you just for being lazy. You’re going in the ground, my friend. Nobody needs a Refurb who won’t work.’

He looked up at me then, and his watery eyes overflowed. The barest twitch of his face could have been a smile.

I threw the killer punch. Arnie’s jaw shattered, and he lay still.

Is there a fine for smashing up a Refurb? I thought, shaking out my fist. Hardly matters. The money I’ll get for returning the kid will more than cover it.

‘Okay, little lady,’ I called, hauling myself up off the trash-pile, leaving Arnie’s twice-dead body where it lay. ‘Come on, now. You ready?’

I turned, but she was gone.

‘His name wasn’t Arnie,’ I heard her say. I squinted into the gloom, but there was no sign of her. ‘Well, maybe. It could’ve been. I call them all Arnie.’

‘You – what? Come on, kid. I don’t have time for this.’ I turned, looking, but besides me and the cold Arnie, there was nobody in this alley.

‘It takes years, you know,’ she continued, from her unseen perch. ‘The average Retirement application. And it can only be approved once a Refurb’s given at least twenty years of service. Don’t matter how many times it messes up – nobody cares. A Refurb’s gotta work until it falls apart.’ She sighed. ‘And they’re programmed not to hurt themselves, each other, or the living.’

‘So?’ I wished I could see her. The flesh on my back started to crawl. ‘What’s this got to do with you?’

‘Call it a public service,’ she replied. ‘They pay me whatever they’ve got, and I get them killed. Win-win.’

I looked back at Arnie. ‘You mean he – he wanted this?’

‘Wouldn’t you?’ She sounded angry, now. ‘Worked hard all his life, knowing that all he’d get for dying would be a day off?

‘I – but, it’s how it’s done,’ I said. ‘We need the labour.’

‘Right.’ The kid sounded further away now. ‘Tell yourself that when you’re on your deathbed.’ I heard a tiny scuffle, and a small grunt of effort, and a tiny shadow moving against the night.

‘Hey,’ I shouted. ‘Come back here! I’ve got to get you home!’ There was no answer. ‘Little girl!’

The wind skirled round the alley, tossing some papers and loosened trash. A cat flashed its eyes at me in the darkness, then vanished.

When I got home I called the authorities. Told ’em I’d seen a bunch of thugs harassing a Refurb near an alley off Morrison; I couldn’t intervene, because it was one against five. Possibly six. Said I hoped the guy would be okay. Mentioned a runaway kid, and asked about a reward.

Then I went to bed, but the darkness had a weight in it, and I was afraid to close my eyes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wednesday Writing – ‘Hotel Finisterre’

Photo Credit: David Kracht via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: David Kracht via Compfight cc

Hotel Finisterre

I was alone in the hotel room when it happened.

It wasn’t even a nice hotel; it was one of those with chipped paintwork and a faint whiff of mould everywhere and a TV tuned to no known station. The shower-head dripped – bop, bop, bop – like the tapping finger of Death himself, and the door wouldn’t lock unless I bashed it with my shoulder. Eloïse – my wife, or former wife I suppose I should say – would’ve hated it on sight.

Not that any of that matters, now.

I’d just taken off my watch, absent-mindedly rubbing my wrist (I’m not sure why I ever did that. It’s not like my watch was too tight, or uncomfortable. It just seemed like the thing to do, you know, like get married or get a dog or buy a new car because Next Door bought one) when I thought to look out the window. It was going for dark, the sky faintly pink on the far horizon, and the lights popping into life all the way up the driveway, like eyes opening. It had been a nice day – just as well, really – so the sky was still that hazy blue you sometimes get in late summer.

Then, it all changed.

The best way I can describe it is this: it was like the sky was made of celluloid film – remember that stuff? I do – and someone had taken a naked flame to it. The light blue started to blacken and bubble overhead, and then it ripped and began to melt away like a wormhole opening. There was nothing behind it. I don’t mean ‘nothing’ as in ‘blackness’ – I mean nothing, the kind of nothing that means you’re sure someone has made a huge mistake which will need sorting, and the kind of nothing that drives you to your bed-side telephone and that makes your shaking fingers dial ‘0’ for Reception.

‘Good evening, sir. May I help you?’

‘Yes. This is Jeremy Evans, room 353.’

‘Thank you, sir – yes, I see that. What may I help you with this evening?’

‘It’s just – I mean, have you looked outside? At the sky?’

‘A lovely evening, sir, I do agree.’

‘No! I mean, I’m sorry. Look. I mean, look. At the sky! It’s melting!’

‘Yes, sir. Is everything all right, sir? Do you require assistance?’

‘Just look, man, will you? Am I the only one seeing this?’

‘I’m just alerting our medical team, sir, and someone will be with you shortly. All right? You just sit tight, now, and hold the line.’

‘I don’t need a doctor, you imbecile! Something has exploded, or something, in the sky. Shouldn’t we phone someone? The government? MI6? Or MI5? What’s the difference between MI5 and MI6 anyway?’

‘I’m sure I wouldn’t know, sir. Now, have you taken anything today? Drugs or medications, sir?’

‘Look, I’m hanging up. This is stupid. The sky is melting, and all you can do is ask me if I’m on something? Goodbye.’

‘But sir -‘

I cut him off and wandered back to the window, barely daring to blink. The sky was blackening now, its edges on fire. The hole of nothing was sucking at me. I felt my eyes bulge out of my skull and my lungs start to deflate. Distantly I heard screaming as people began to fly upwards, sucked into this terrible maw of death. Trees uprooted. A coach – double decker, too – flipped end over end and slid right into the hole. The blackened circle grew wider as the world began to smell of burning and ash, and everything began to wrinkle and decay.

A knock on the door.

‘Sir? Mr Evans, sir? It’s George the porter ‘ere, and Elsie, th’staff nurse. Sir?’

‘Mr Evans, this is Elsie. All right, love? You’ll open the door, won’t you?’

I didn’t answer. My eyes were shaking with the effort of keeping them focused. The blackened bite in the sky was now bigger than my field of vision. I had to turn my head to see the edges of it, and it was growing fast.

‘All right. Use the master, yeah? He’s not answerin’.’ I barely heard the mumbles and the clatterings as they entered the room. The nurse was a strong-looking woman of at least fifty, her uniform crisp as a snowflake. She seemed kind.

‘Mr Evans, love. Let’s get you into bed, all right? I’ll give you a little something to ease you through, okay? Just a little something.’

I blinked my red-hot eyes and closed my desert-dry mouth for long enough to look at her properly.

‘Ease?’ I croaked. ‘Ease me through?’

‘The end of the world, silly,’ she smiled, preparing a syringe. It gleamed in the reddish light from outside. ‘You haven’t taken any other drugs or medications today, have you, love? Only they can make this jab hurt just a little.’

‘What?’ My voice sounded like it had been through a sieve. How had it grown so hot in here? ‘End of the world?’

‘Happens reg’lar round here, love,’ she said, flicking at the needle. Satisfied, she lowered it to my arm. ‘Hasn’t been one now for, ooh – what would you say, George? Hundred million years, something like that?’

‘Couldn’t say for sure, Else,’ shrugged the porter. ‘Hunnerd mill sounds ’bout right, though.’

‘Call it a hundred million years, then,’ she said, sliding the needle home. Its sting felt like a spider-bite, and my heart instantly began to slow.

They laid me out on the bed and I let my head slump to one side, allowing me to watch them as they walked to the window. They stood either side of it like angels at the doorway to Eden, their faces glowing as the world burned.

‘Be a long wait now till next time, Else,’ murmured George.

‘Right you are, sunshine,’ she sighed. ‘Right you are.’

‘Wonder how it’ll all shake out?’ George mused. ‘Where we’ll be, what we’ll be doin’.’

‘Don’t you mind,’ said Elsie, reaching across to chuck him under the chin. ‘I’m sure it’ll be you an’ me against the world, Georgie-pie, same as always.’

‘Business as usual in the ‘Otel Finisterre, eh?’ chuckled George.

‘You’ve said it now, my duck. You’ve said it now. Ooh – look! Here we go. Right, Mr Evans – take a deep breath, love. Soon be over! Won’t hurt a bit.’

She lied about the ‘won’t hurt a bit’ part, but about everything else, she was right on the money.

Speaking of which, the annoying thing is I won’t even be able to get a refund for the room. I should’ve known it was too cheap for its own good. At least I won’t have to be annoyed for very long, though; one takes one’s comforts where one can.

My eyes slide shut and eternity closes over me like a fist.