THE EXIT

“It was the working man what won it,” my grandfather said, watching the fireworks painting the sky above London a fiery rainbow.
“No, Grandad,” I said, exasperated. “The expression is ‘it was The Sun what won it.’”
My mother’s teacup clattered as she placed it down on the saucer.
“Let’s just all watch the celebrations, shall we? The Prime Minister’s going to talk soon.” Her thumb pressed on the volume control, the jubilant cries of the thousands filled the room.
“You weren’t there, lass,” my grandfather said. I stood up and left them to it, the triumphant crows of the Prime Minister, the opening bars of Rule Britannia, the peeling yellow wallpaper of our living room.

I tied the laces of my trainers tight, wrapping the ends around my fingers until my nails turned white.
“Where do you think you’re going?” My mother was behind me, the wheels of her chair silent on the thick blue carpet. “I found this.” She pulled a book out from under her jumper. “You know how your grandfather would feel if he saw this. Get rid of it.”
“He’s a poet, Mum.” I took the book back from her, its corners turned, its words underlined: “Some books are lies frae end to end, And some great lies were never penn’d…”, “Man’s inhumanity to man, Makes countless thousands mourn!”
“Do as you’re told.” My mother turned and wheeled away, her trouser leg hanging loose and pathetic where neither flesh nor bone had filled it for a decade.

Sam was waiting for me at the corner of Johnson Terrace. He was smoking a cigarette, the air around him ballooning with wisps of smoke.
“Where did you get that, then?” I asked.
“Better not ask any questions if you’re coming with me,” he said.
I followed in silence to number 23. Sam slid along the grass of the neat front garden on his belly, concealing his body under a hedge. On my hands and knees, I crawled into position next to him.
“Just watch at first,” he said. “We let them get a bit cocky, then we take them out. Got it?”
He stubbed out his cigarette on the damp June grass and I watched it die a sizzling death.
“Got it?”
“Got it.”

I waited with clenched teeth, my fingers digging dirty into the ground beneath me. The men arrived at half-eight, as Sam had predicted, when the London parade was over and the informal festivities began across the country. The band of men had a leader, a stout man swigging a stout bottle of ale as he beckoned for his followers to cross the lawn after him.
“What’s the only thing worse than a pedophile?” He shouted to the men gathered around him, men of all types: short and slight in sour suits that might have been at an office that day, men with thick waists and inked knuckles, men with stubbly shaved heads and knives in their pockets, men with thick beards and heavy-framed glasses. All had flags draped around their shoulders or painted on the faces of pins tucked into breast pockets or scored in permanent etchings across their abdomens. They didn’t answer, but broke into a chaotic dance, their limbs twirling across the lawn to launch themselves through windows and doors. A dog barked, but its shouts were half-hearted.

I felt my stomach tighten. Sam crawled closer to me, his hand touched my shoulder, his breath warmed my cheek.
“You all right? If you want to go, now’s your chance.”
“I’m fine,” I lied. I hoped his friends really were circling the house, that we wouldn’t be witnesses to the threatened tragedy.
“What’s this?” He pawed at my book, lying next to me on the ground. “You planning on crossing the border?”
“No,” I said firmly, though the thought had crossed my mind.
“It’s possible, you know. I could help you get over there. But I’ll never go. I’ll stay and fight the good fight. Like your friend suggests.” He pointed at a passage painted with pink highlighter: “Liberty’s in every blow! Let us do or die!”
“Yeah,” I said. “The good fight.”

I was biting a hangnail when they brought her out. My teeth punctured the dead skin and it fell away. She was suspended between two of them, her head hanging heavy on her neck. Her eyes were already bruised purple, and she wore only one shoe.
“Look what we found!” The leader of the men emptied a sports bag onto the grass beneath her feet. Books rained across the lawn. He hurled his bottle of ale at her house, laughing as it exploded into a thousands pieces, its sticky brown traces trickling down the wall. “Let’s have a look at these, shall we boys? Guy de Maupassant? Forgive my poor pronunciation, miss, but I’m not a traitor to my country.” They cheered at this, the boys. “Kafka? Who’s he when he’s at home? James Joyce? I know what you’re thinking, boys, one of us. But no, he’s a leprechaun.” Guffaws. Giggles. A surge of pleasure through them all that was almost orgasmic, a sexual wire strung across the air. “But this is the best one. The best of all. Not even in bloody English.” He lifted a book into the air. Its title couldn’t be read from our hiding place. “Read it, you frog-loving bitch. Read it.” One of them kicked her behind the knees, she fell to the floor.
“No,” she said, steely and sad. “No, no.”
“Yes.” The leader bent at the waist, his eyes matched hers. “Read it.”
She stumbled over the words. I don’t know if her French was good or not, I’ve never studied any language except English. But even there in that garden wrought ugly and dull in the dusk, those words, indecipherable, incomprehensible, thrilled my ears. I wanted to understand, I found myself lurching forward on the ground to try to hear more. Sam pulled me back.
“Not yet,” he said.
“Now tell us what it is in real words,” the leader yelled.
“Do you think I count the days?” she started, her voice faltering. “There is only one day left, always starting over-”
“Enough of that,” one of the men shouted and responding to his cue the others clambered upon her, their bodies merging into a ball of kicking, convulsing flesh, an ugliness without head or tail. I heard her cries, her whimpers, they were echoed by the dog, watching mournfully from a window.
“A Europhile,” Sam said.
“Sorry?”
“That’s the punchline to the joke. Only thing worse than a pedophile.”

As her cries grew weaker and ragged and my eyes grew rounder and my mouth drier, Sam was scrambling to position. He gave a whistle and I rolled over to let him pass. There were twenty of them. Young, all of them, except one man as old as my grandfather, who stepped aside to let the boys tackle the heaving beast of violence on the grass, its back painted blue, red and white. I couldn’t follow who was winning; legs chained with arms, heads blurred into stomachs. The woman was dragged from the crowd by Sam, her mouth caked red, her arms scratched and bleeding.
“Run,” Sam commanded her and I felt my heart leap. She climbed over the hedge, her bruised body a momentary flash above my eyes. I rolled out of the hedge after her and following her unruly gait down the street. She was running, but her pace was impeded by the single shoe on her left foot, and her right hip jutted out swollen and angry.
“Stop!” I called, racing to catch her. “Are you all right?”
She stopped and turned to me, her face a bleeding bruise of colours, seeping purple and red and yellow.
“Let me go,” she said firmly, almost proudly. I said nothing and watched her limp jog as she disappeared, realising only then that I had left my copy of the Complete Work Of Robert Burns under her hedge. I hoped it wouldn’t cause her any more trouble.

I found Sam again at the corner of Johnson Terrace. He met me with a kiss and my mouth filled with blood as he pressed his lips against mine in desperation and hunger. Metallic and tangy, I licked the taste from him.
“So, you with us?” he asked, pulling away from me and lighting another cigarette.
“You shouldn’t smoke that out here,” I said. “People will talk.”
“You with us?” He repeated.
“Yeah,” I said. I followed him back to the flat he shared with three other guys. It was empty of furniture but packed with books. The walls were painted the deep blue of night, with glittering yellow stars dotted in swooping patterns around each room. His flatmates produced a bottle of Jameson and poured equal measures into four dusty glasses.
“Irish whiskey?” I said. “I’ve never seen that before.”
“We’ve got Bordeaux and Chianti too,” one of them said, delighting in my shock. “We’ve got it all here.”

They lit cigarettes for each of us and I smoked with them, the scratching against my throat dulled by the smooth woody burn of the whiskey. They had declared that evening a success: the victim had got away. If she was smart, she wouldn’t come back.
“But where will she go?” I asked.
“You heard her. She speaks French. She’ll have underground connections,” Sam said.
As the alcohol washed over I let myself drift into Sam’s lap and I was still sleeping when the knocks came in the morning.

It was a hail, each rap official and masculine. One of the boys roused himself from his mattress on the floor and went to answer it. We heard a yell, we saw his feet, bare and dirty, tense against the pull of the stronger man. Then he was gone. Sam and the other boy plotted and drank all day, smoking until I choked on the stale air in the flat. They didn’t watch television, but they pulled out an old defunct TV and attacked it with their hands and feet until it splintered into shards that littered the entire floor. I cut my foot on the way to the bathroom and silently lifted it into the sink, watching the blood, bold and red, stream down the plug. I thought of the woman from yesterday. I wondered how far she had run.

When Sam fell asleep I left. It was dark outside and warm. The sole of my foot cried with each step but I made it home without crossing the path of anyone, enemy or sympathiser. My mother screamed and screamed when I got home, then she cried, her body bent and lame in her chair. My grandfather drank his ale in the living room, his face glowing blue in the reflection of the television.
“Oh leave her, Abigail. She only went to see some lad,” he offered, but still my mother wept.
“Your granddad is too old and you know the sick pay from the factory has just been cut again. We need you.” My mother held my hand in gnarled grip.
“Oh, because it turns out the world doesn’t want to buy English-made fireworks? There’s a surprise.”
My mother snapped her hand back from mine and slapped me across the face.
“Enough of your cheek,” she said. “We need you. And we need you working. I hope you got rid of that book.”
“Don’t worry,” I said, turning away from her and walking towards my room. “I don’t have it anymore.”

I lay on my bed and thought about my mother and her stump and my grandfather and his flags and framed photographs of dead politicians and Sam’s kiss and the taste of blood and hope. And I knew for me there was no exit.




HER

Social Media Stalker

I saw her first as a series of still images. The first one made my stomach lurch and my heart still, but each one following quickened my pulse, acted like sugar in my blood. The original is imprinted in my mind, I will be able to recall each pixel until they tip me into my grave. Her arm tossed casually but proprietorially over his shoulders, her eyes twinkling with lust disguised as love, his smile proud and indulgent. I zoomed in, zoomed out, I closed the laptop. Ten minutes later I was looking at the picture on my phone. So that was her.

I compared myself to her with the cracked logic of the broken heart. I showed the pictures to my friends. Maybe she has a really nice personality. My hair hung in long dark waves, my eyes brimmed black. Her straight hair was dyed cheap blonde, the roots a mousy brown, the ends broken. She poured herself into too tight clothes, her necklines dived right to her heart, her hems skimmed her buttocks. She looks kind of slutty. We huddled over screens, exclaiming over her poor choice of outfits, agreeing that he didn’t look like he was in love, wondering what they talked about together. If you’re Audrey Hepburn, she’s a Big Brother contestant.

She became my secret. In low moments I took out my phone and looked at her pictures and they propelled me forward. She filled me with a nervous energy, a desire to explode like a firework over the city, for him to see me, for her to spend tense hours flicking through photos of me on her phone. Their saccharine comments to each other, their sepia-tinted embraces, it all filled me with ambition, with a force that felt almost uncontrollable.

The first time I saw her off-screen was a disappointment. In my head I had turned her into a monster with a cheap dye job, a joke of a rival. But when I saw them together her appearance was toned down in person, her inferiority muted. They stood in the corner, near the heaped pile of coats, nursing glasses of wine and talking only to one another. His eyes roamed the room, hers tried to lock in his gaze. Seeing her in three dimensions after so many days of treating her as an idol, a magazine cutting, was disconcerting.

They moved out of their corner and into the party. He was gregarious as usual, engaging people in conversations that made them feel they were the only one in the room, laughing loudly at jokes that weren’t funny. My stomach ached to be the woman by his side again. She stood a little away from him, fingering the top of her wine glass, a small, shy smile on her lips. She let him shine, made way for his star to burn out the rest of the sky.

When I approached, he put his arm around her, defensive. We made small talk about the weather, his job, my holiday plans. She remained silent, always watching him carefully. I wondered if she knew who I was, if she had seen my face in other photographs of him, if I might haunt her in the quiet hours of the night, if she too might ponder how he could like her when he had liked me. “Nice to meet you,” she said softly as I walked away. I noticed her mascara had clumped. I could see a black bra strap under her cream dress. But the victories were becoming less sweet. It was exhausting finding endless faults in another woman, when all I wanted was for him to need me again.

They continued their circuit around the room. She was the nodding dog, the cued laugh. But she offered nothing of herself, clinging onto his wrist, her head leaning into his shoulder. I stopped following them. When I decided to leave I noticed him talking to another woman, his body angled close to hers, his laugh bubbling louder than usual. And the girlfriend stood alone, just to the side, watching, her green eyes glazed and resigned. I gave her a snatched smile and she returned it. “Good night,” she said quietly as I brushed past her. Our eyes held and in that moment I felt a thread of understanding, of connection running between us. I moved my lips to say something, but no words formed. I turned to leave, sneaking one glance over my shoulder as I reached the door, seeing the ogre of my fantasies reduced, watching him, never able to own him either, no matter how many selfies made up the flipbook of their relationship. She looked small and faded.