Society for the Development of the Asexual Female Supervillain

A
woman wearing a tinfoil mask held a sword that skewered five kids’ decapitated heads.
“He got it right, Fourth Place.”

“Wrong
song blong glong.” The man she addressed sat on the patio next door and petted the
Pomeranian on his lap. It chewed on a rubber musical note, and its sweater had
the same “P” logo as that on the man’s leather outback hat.

“Blong
bong.” The woman banged the heads on a cymbal hanging beside a copper gutter.

“Princess
Artsy. Maybe you’re the reason the blue jays don’t come anymore.” Fourth Place
raised his voice. “Young man, I had to give you an F on that one…”

A
boy in a black Chicago Breakers baseball uniform turned around.

“…but
God’s with me.” Fourth Place held up a Troves chocolate bar. “So I’ll grant you
another chance to earn this. It’s the best candy getting passed out today. Just
make sure you change your costume. We’ll chalk it up to a minor loss. We’re
northsiders here.”

The
boy held a plastic jack-o-lantern and stood beneath a platform that displayed five
child-sized headless mannequins. Beyond the boy, trick-or-treaters walked the
cobblestone street.

The
man flicked his chin strap. “This is a Pillars town, kiddo. Not a Breakers
town.”

The
boy looked up at the headless mannequins. Red blotches covered their Medieval royalty
clothing. “I hope your dog feels better.”

Fourth
Place tugged the rubber note and the dog held on.

Princess
Artsy’s mask glimmered. “He’s such a kind man.” She pulled a Tellax candy from
one of the mouths of the impaled heads, then tossed it to the boy.

*

“Mom.
I can’t. I have a meeting tonight.” Princess Artsy talked on the phone and
shook a Tellax before two trick-or-treaters. A small card was attached to the wrapper.
“It’s just Tylenol, Mom. Take an aspirin instead. You’ll be fine.”

The
kids stared at a pigtailed mannequin next to Princess Artsy. It held a jump
rope and was posed mid-jump.

“Mom.
I’ll get it tomorrow. I have to go now.” Princess Artsy hurled the candy toward
the street. “Go fetch.” The kids ran after it.

Fourth
Place covered his dog’s ears and yelled, “Say George, you serving Cahoots over
there?”

Across
the street, a man at a makeshift bar held up a beer bottle, then gave it to
another man.

“Poor
George porge borge. Unacceptable. Cahoots sponsors the Breakers. We’re
northsiders over here.”

Boys
dressed as a doctor and a football player approached Fourth Place. The woman
with them wore a cheerleader’s costume. “What’s with her?” She flicked a
pom-pom toward Princess Artsy, who flipped back her scabbard – it was empty – then
removed the jump rope from the mannequin.

“Well
Ann, that’s my lovely lovely neighbor Princess Artsy. Say, you seen any blue
jays lately?”

“No.
Boys. Stay away from that. Creepy.”

Fourth
Place tugged the dog’s sweater. “I’d climb up there and knock that down. If my
knees hadn’t gone kaput.”

The
doctor and the football player backed away from the headless mannequins’
platform.

Ann
checked her cell phone. Its case displayed a baby photo. “Last year, when I was
pregnant with Carol Ann? Your neighbor here offered me a pack of cigarettes and
one of those little bottles of booze. Okay … ruuude.”

“She
creates these abominations she calls art.” Fourth Place made an “x” with his
index fingers and raised his voice. “Really professional, Princess Artsy. F
minus.”

Princess
Artsy adjusted her aluminum foil mask, then picked up her sword and held it so
the heads faced her. “Now kids, stay sharp. Fourth Place might give another kid
the wrong information.”

“Unacceptable.
It was right.” Fourth Place rubbed his dog’s chin while its paw rested on the
music note. “Ann, what part of the body loses heat the fastest?”

“The
head, right? Boys, get away from that.”

“Coh-rect.
And Breakers Boy said it was ‘D, none of the above.’ That wasn’t even an
option.”

“These
two would get it right.” Ann arranged the doctor’s stethoscope while he petted
the dog. “Don’t the Pillars have that Halloween game they play each year now? I
thought you’d be in your garage with your crew.”

“This
is Halloween. This is important. Right boys?” Fourth Place held up a Troves.
“This is the best candy you’ll get today. A thousand times better than what
that crazy lady’s got, but you gotta work for it.”

Princess
Artsy draped the jump rope over her shoulder and addressed the football player.
“Where’s your black paint? You should have black paint underneath your eyes. That’s
what Jim Laudan wears. And he’s the champion.”

Ann
zipped open a hip pack. “Why say it so silly?”

“Most
valuable player.”

“I
don’t have my…” Ann threw down her pom-poms. She removed a lipstick tube from
the pack.

Fourth
Place tossed up a Troves, then caught it. “Okay kiddos, Benjamin Franklin said,
‘Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and…’ What? A, strong.
B, wise. C, successful.”

“D,
boring.” Princess Artsy blew on a red splotch that she’d painted on the jump
roping mannequin’s stomach.

Ann
used the lipstick to draw lines beneath the football player’s eyes. He tried to
pull away. “Mom. It’s supposed to be black.”

“Come
on boys. You know this. Healthy, wealthy, and…”

The
doctor looked at the mannequins and drew on his clipboard. “Who’s Benjamin
Frankton?”

Fourth
Place chuckled and the Pomeranian sniffed the Troves, then nudged its toy.
“Come on boys. Basic U.S. history here.”

Ann
picked up her pom-poms, then held them over her face and leaned down to the
boys. They yelled, “Wise.”

Fourth
Place tapped his chin strap. “Coh-rect. And someone who’s wise – they’ve done scientific
research on this – knows the head loses heat the fastest. We’ll chalk that one
up to an error on Breakers Boy and Princess Artsy’s part.”

The
doctor continued his drawing. “I got a C on my science test.”

“He’s
not challenged by the material.” Ann examined the clipboard. “Hey, this is
beautiful, honey. It’s some robots, right?”

“It’s
them.” The doctor pointed at the headless mannequins. “And here’s Al. I drew
you, Al.” The doctor cradled the dog’s face.

Fourth
Place gave each boy a Troves. “That’s … well…”

Ann
took a picture of the drawing. “Those are silly. To me it’s robots, robots and
Al. And I’m going to share this.”

“Someday,
you boys can marry a timid beautiful woman.” Princess Artsy attached a
grayish-purple strand to the red splotch on the mannequin’s stomach. “She’ll
make your babies and you’ll be her hero and you can even have other
girlfriends. Have a Tellax?”

Ann
pulled the boys away from Princess Artsy. “Uh-uh. Okay, rude.”

“She’ll
be your cheerleader.”

“Boys
… we stay away from people like this.”

“I
went to art school.” Princess Artsy scraped her scabbard against the bricks
that bordered the stone sidewalk. “My team mascot was the Drug Addict.”

Ann
guided the boys toward the street.

Fourth
Place traced the “P” on Al’s sweater. “Well Al pal snail bail. I think we’re
the last sane ones left.”

Princess
Artsy attached the strand’s other end to the mannequin’s hand. “You should’ve
given that kid the candy.”

“Did
you hear what I asked him? I asked him what part of the body loses heat the
fastest. It was a multiple choice and he said none of them.”

“He
got it right.”

“Unacceptable.
He got it wrong.” Fourth Place clasped his chin strap. “I should get one of
those blue jay feeders. It’s got this shape like a…” He formed a circle with
his hands.

“A
circle?”

Fourth
Place pointed the note end of Al’s chew toy toward a field. The setting sun
cast an orange glow on the trees beyond it. “Look at that. I like that. I think
Al likes that. You like that boy? The way the light hits the trees there?”

“Limning.
It’s called limning.” Princess Artsy answered her phone. “Mom.” She sighed and
her tinfoil mask crinkled.

Fourth
Place, looking at the trees, lifted Al and whispered to him.

“I
told you Mom. Why don’t you ask your neighbor? Well you’ll have to wait till
tomorrow.”

The
pigtailed mannequin appeared to be jumping rope with its own intestines.

*

A
tuba played inside Princess Artsy’s condo.

“Daddy
that’s from The Sparkly Kingdom.” Outside,
a girl with a tiara twirled a sequined dress. “It’s Foldena’s song, but it
sounds weird.”

A
man thumbed his phone. “Sounds terrible.”

“Look
at that, Al. God’s with us today.” Fourth Place scratched Al’s head while the
dog gnawed on its chew toy. “Say, you see the light hitting the trees out
there, Ted?”

Ted
glanced. “Cool.”

Fourth
Place formed an “x.” “Ted red smed fed. Now I thought you were a Pillars fan.”

“You
know it.” Ted knuckled the logo on his visor. “Hey did you see that Bridgers game
last night?”

“Did
you know that Patrems has ads with that Breakers lunatic Brong?”

Ted
looked at his shoes, shrugged, and then returned to his phone. “The Bridgers? That
shootout? Phenomenal.”

Fourth
Place held his hands over Al’s ears. “We’re northsiders. We’re a baseball town,
Ted. Not a hockey town. And you’re supporting the Breakers with those shoes.”

“You
know I’m Pillars all the way. They’re playing now. The Halloween Classic. Why
aren’t you in your garage?”

“I
know what it’s called Ted. I told the guys to stay home. This is important.
We’ll chalk those shoes up to an error on your part.”

A
smaller girl wearing red lace gloves danced around the mannequin that had the
intestinal jump rope. She sang with the tuba. “It’s me world, see what you can
see./ It’s me world, all that I can be.”

Fourth
Place hoisted a Troves. “Okay kiddos. This here is the best treat you’ll get all
day.”

Ted
pointed at Princess Artsy’s bay window. “So you live next to the neighborhood
armpit?”

“Each
of them costs two bucks.”

“Talk
about a lunatic. You see her Christmas tree last year?”

“You
girls just have to answer one question.” The tuba music grew louder and the
girls danced. Fourth Place picked out one of the few Troves with a black wrapper.
“That music’s gonna scare away all the blue jays.”

“Hear
me out,” said Ted. “That tree was on its side.”

“I
saw it.”

“With
intestines wrapped around it instead of that garland? A brain or some organ on
top?”

Fourth
Place added the candy bar to a pile of them beneath his chair. They all had
black wrappers. “When I was younger, I’d drive my running route and hide
sandwiches at different places.”

“Yeah?
I mean, I seen her sculpture. That one with two women sawin’ in half … you know
… a man’s thing.”

“Then
I’d run all day – this is before my knees went kaput – and stop and get the
sandwiches.” Fourth Place tapped Al’s note on his knee. “Of course I wore
Winrights.”

Ted
looked at his phone. “You see that kid earlier? Kid had a Breakers uniform. God
that’s awful.”

“Breakers
Boy failed my quiz. Now it’s time for you girls. I’m sure you’ll do great.
You’re northsiders. Even if your dad supports the Breakers.”

“Look.”
Ted tapped his visor. “Come on.”

The
tuba wailed.

Fourth
Place pointed at the bar across the street. “Ted red head med fed. I’ll bet you
got a Cahoots over there.” Fourth Place flicked his chin strap. “Okay, kiddos. Which
shoes did Runners’ Range magazine
name the top shoe for trail running? A, Vypops. B, Patrems. That’s what your
dad’s wearing. Or C, Winrights. I worked for Winright for many years.”

The
girls looked at each other, then the princess jumped. “Daddy’s shoes.”

Fourth
Place made an “x.” “Not even in the top five.”

Princess
Artsy, still wearing the foil mask, came out playing her tuba. Plastic embryos
lined its bell. She pointed at Fourth Place and played two notes that suggested
a wrong answer.

The
girl ran her red gloves over skin-tight red pants. “I’m Felinzee.”

Princess
Artsy adjusted her scabbard. “Fascinating. Fascinating.”

Ted
kicked one foot against the other. “That tuba’s really obnoxious.”

Princess
Artsy spoke into her mouthpiece and the tuba’s bell projected her voice.
“Everyone, Fourth Place here gave a kid the wrong answer.”

People
in the street turned toward them.

Fourth
Place pulled his chinstrap against his neck and wobbled the chew toy. “Say Ted,
can you tell my lovely neighbor here what part of the body loses heat the
fastest?”

“I’m
thinking head.”

Princess
Artsy answered her phone, then turned away.

“Coh-rect.
I got a store manager, his wife’s a biology teacher. She can substantiate it.” Fourth
Place shook a Troves with a blue wrapper. “God’s with me today. Now I’ll give
you girls another chance.”

The
princess pointed at the headless mannequins. “Hey, where are their heads?”

“They’re
hiding their heads, honey.” Ted checked his phone. “Yes. Alby Long just homered.
Yes.”

Princess
Artsy threw down a Tellax, then stomped on it. “Mom, it’s Tylen… fine. Fine.
I’ll drop it off later.”

Ted
slapped Fourth Place’s shoulder. “Is your neighbor upset with Mommy?”

Princess
Artsy crashed the tuba against the cymbal hanging from her house. “Maybe you
girls can grow up to be trophy wives.”

“Now
hear me out…”

“You
just have to marry someone rich and stay beautiful and keep asking for things.
Things will bring you happiness.” Princess Artsy gave each girl a Tellax.

Felinzee
adjusted her lace gloves, then pinched the tag connected to her Tellax. “Hey,
what’s this for?”

“That
tells you how good those are. It says that one Tellax package has over three
hundred calories, eighteen grams of fat, and thirty grams of sugar.”

“Girls,
you want these.” Fourth Place shook a
Troves. “Not those. Those are cheap. These are a hundred times better.”

Ted
looked at a Tellax tag. “What are you supposed to be anyway?”

“Sparkly.”
Princess Artsy played the tuba. “Angela Sergeon.”

“Who’s
she? Some tuba player?”

Princess
Artsy pointed at the mannequins. “No no. Angela Sergeon dressed her kiddies as
princes and princesses. She put on a foil mask, then chopped off their little heads
hee hee hee.” Princess Artsy removed from her scabbard a dental floss sword, then
thrust it upward. “Yeee!”

Ted
waved his visor toward the street. The boy in the Breakers uniform had
reappeared. “Here. See this, boy? This is a Pillars town.”

“Coh-rect.”
Fourth Place handed each girl a Trove, then pressed Al’s sweater. “Winrights,
not Patrems blems smens dems.”

*

Breakers
Boy, still wearing his Breakers uniform, drank soda by the outdoor bar. He held
a paper bag and watched Fourth Place and Princess Artsy.

Al
urinated in the vegetation beside a fountain.

Princess
Artsy – she now wore a Breakers T-shirt – stood on the platform with the five
headless mannequins. She scratched her foil mask, then pointed at the black-wrapped
Troves beneath Fourth Place. “Does each of those represent something you got
wrong?”

“Black’s
the color of the Breakers.” Fourth Place wiggled the rubber note by his feet. “Bunch
of … I know what you’re doing with that T-shirt.”

Al,
wheezing and whining, stumbled back to Fourth Place, then grasped the note.

Princess
Artsy pointed at her shirt. “First place.” Then she pointed at Fourth Place.
“Fourth Place.”

“They’re
in a completely different league.” Fourth Place, his face red, picked up Al,
then yelled across the street. “Say George, what’s with supporting the
Breakers? You serve Cahoots. You give that kid a drink. Maybe you should have
on a Breakers uniform too.”

Breakers
Boy leaned against the bar and looked in his paper bag.

Princess
Artsy slapped a pillow.

“George
porge norge gorge I thought he supported the Pillars.” Fourth Place dialed his
phone and brushed his palm over Al’s sweater. “Okay Al, we’re going to settle
this debate for our lovely neighbor here.”

Princess
Artsy rested a plastic sword on the tallest female mannequin’s outstretched hand.

“Say
Fred, I have a lovely neighbor here who’s refuting a scientific fact. I thought
you might ask your brilliant science teacher wife what part of the body loses
heat the fastest.”

Princess
Artsy lifted the mannequin’s tunic.

Breakers
Boy closed his paper bag, then started toward the street.

Fourth
Place ground his heel into the pile of Troves with black wrappers. “…she’s
going to have to bring herself up to speed. What grade level is she teaching?”

Princess
Artsy stuffed the pillow beneath the tunic. The mannequin looked pregnant.

Breakers
Boy crossed the street, then headed toward them.

“An
elementary school teacher? Fred med smed dead. Maybe I should have sought out a
teacher with higher credentials.” Fourth Place ended the call.

“Looks
like I’m…” Princess Artsy thrust up the plastic sword. “…coh-rect.”

“Unacceptable.
They’ve done research.”

“Eeee.”
Princess Artsy crouched before the swollen stomach.

Al
squirmed atop his rubber note.

“You
start doin’ this stuff with these crazy sculptures, and the blue jays don’t come.”
Fourth Place looked toward the distant trees. “What I need is one of those
circle feeders. Not this crazy stuff.”

Princess
Artsy high-fived the pregnant headless mannequin. The sword pierced its abdomen.

Breakers
Boy, clutching his paper bag, stood among them.

Princess Artsy’s mother
once packed a rotten bologna sandwich in her lunch bag.

“You
got that question wrong, kiddo, but Al and me here? We said we’d give you
another chance. If you changed.”

The
boy wedged his glove between his arm and his side, then reached into the bag.

Though Princess Artsy felt
ill when she got home from school, her mother forced her to put on a sequined
dress to greet her father.

Fourth
Place hoisted a Troves. “Young man, you’re looking at the highest quality candy
you could get today.”

“Don’t
need it.” The boy pulled a dog treat from the bag. He gave it to Al, then
rubbed the creature’s head. “Good boy.”

Fourth
Place took off his Pillars hat. He stared inside it. “We’re northsiders…” He
put the hat over his face and, squeezing the rubber note, slowly raised then
lowered his shoulders.

Before her father got
home, Princess Artsy vomited all over her shiny dress. Her mother yelled at
her.

Princess
Artsy jumped from the platform, then landed in the grass.

Fourth
Place, red-eyed, brought down the hat and extended his candy bowl toward the
boy. “Don’t you want one of these?”

“No
thanks.” Breakers Boy slapped his glove and walked away.

The
sun flashed on Princess Artsy’s mask.

Fourth
Place put on his hat. He pulled the chin strap so that it disappeared in his
neck flesh. “Breakers got that lunatic Brong. Hopped up on steroids.”

Princess
Artsy pulled off the jump roping mannequin’s leg, then pointed it at a young
man with a pizza. “Hey, nice costume.”

“Not
a costume.”

A
minute later, the pizza box sat beside Fourth Place. “I’ll bet you can’t even … what’s the Second Amendment of the
U.S. Constitution?”

Princess
Artsy, using the leg as a prop, got into a batting stance. “I founded the
Society for the Development of the Asexual Female Supervillain. We get together
and discuss the role of females in movies and fiction.”

Fourth
Place shifted Al, then reached down and opened the box. “Who was the United
States’ smartest president?”

“Like
either a woman getting saved…”

“…bet
you don’t even know what year World War II started.”

“…or
a woman acting like a man.”

Fourth
Place slammed shut the box. “What’s wrong with you lady?”

“Abortion
ball.” Princess Artsy swung the leg, then pretended to watch a ball.

“You
show up in my garage, when I have all my friends over and we just watched the
Pillars get eliminated from the playoffs? And you ask for a cup of sugar?”

“I
was baking a celebration cake.”

“Unacceptable.”
Fourth Place fed Al a slice of pizza.

“Such
a healthy way to feed your dog.”

“I’ve
had to do this five times.” He tapped one index finger against the other. “Tonight
it’ll be six.” A line of cheese hung from Al’s mouth.

“Six
what? Six times you gave a trick-or-treater the wrong information today?”

“No.
No. It’s never…” Fourth Place bent the rubber note. “And now I have to do it. Tonight.
Six thirty. With this guy, he’s sick. This is it.” He looked at his shoes and
for a minute, both he and Princess Artsy were silent. “You believe that guy?
Wearing Patrems? I know I could outrun that guy. Before my knees went kaput.”

Princess
Artsy touched her foil mask and watched Breakers Boy retreat.

*

Fourth
Place, his hair mussed, sat on a bed and talked on the phone. “The winter hat. The
Chicago Pillars. I want it shipped to me.”

Wall-to-wall
shelves displayed running shoes. The shoes were evenly spaced, and unused. From
the edge of one shelf hung Al’s sweater with the “P” stitched into it.

Fourth
Place ran his thumb over the note-shaped dog toy. “Coh-rect. We’re northsiders
over here. It gets cold.”

Beneath
the shelves sat a crumpled dog bed, its edges frayed and faded.

Fourth
Place grunted, pulled himself off the bed, and then, with one corner of his
mouth flecked with saliva, he limped toward silk drapes. He bent the rubber
toy. “You know, the head loses heat faster than any other body part. They’ve
done research on that.”

He
ended the call, opened the drapes, and then looked outside.

Fourth
Place bit the rubber note’s stem.

The
morning sun shone on Princess Artsy’s decapitated mannequins, and from the
extended hand of the female with the sword projecting from her swollen abdomen
hung a circular bird feeder.




(M)Other Tongue

I am six. It’s my first day at a new school in a new
country. I didn’t really get a summer break, since school in India begins just
after school in the US ends. I’m being ferried with my peers on a rickety van
that is very different from the yellow school bus I’m used to. Once identified
as a new kid, I am interrogated.

“What’s your name?”

“Which class are you in?”

“Who’s your teacher?”

“What’s your mother tongue?” I am thrown by the last
one. Mother tongue? Someone notes my
confusion.

“What language do you speak at home?”

“English?” I venture. Blank stares. I’ve somehow
answered the question wrong, but English is the only language I speak. The
alien phrase sticks with me throughout the day, and when I get home I ask my
mother what our mother tongue is. Apparently, it’s Tulu. I hadn’t heard that answer when I’d asked my peers what their
mother tongues were. But now I know how to answer that particular question.
Though it’s not quite the truth, since all we speak at home is English.

*

I am still six. My mother has been teaching me the
Hindi alphabet at home so I can catch up with my classmates. I hate it. There
are too many letters and I just can’t add the matras to all the different consonants correctly. But I can read a
little now.

Our Hindi teacher is nice and doesn’t hold it against
me that I’m still learning how to read. We’re working on three-letter words.
Our teacher writes a word on the board and asks who can read it. Hands fly up
across the room. Today’s a review day and we’ve seen all these words before.
Then she writes a new word on the board.

“Who can read this?”

We’re all stumped. I don’t know to avoid eye contact
as she looks around the room.

“Tarini?”

I stand. The new word is a three-letter word, so it
can’t be that hard. The first letter looks like a stick being spoon-fed, that’s
ch, the last letter is luh, but the middle letter is throwing
me off, it looks like a puh but it’s
got an extra bit on the front.

Chap-pal?”
I stutter. And as soon as I say the word, it clicks. Chappal! Flip-flops! My teacher smiles as I sit down. I’m buzzing
for the rest of the day.

*

I am ten. I’m in fourth standard and I’m a good
student for the most part. Hindi is my weak point but doesn’t everyone have
one? It stopped being interesting in first standard as we cycled through Hindi
teachers, learning three-letter words, four-letter words, five-letters words,
three-letter words, four-letter words, five-letter words and then it got
difficult and I stopped trying. I was doing fine at everything else, especially
English.

Our Hindi teacher this year is fascinating and
terrifying. I remember hearing her yell from the floor above when I was in
third standard. The boys’ class is her primary domain but she teaches Hindi to
all three girls’ sections as well. Everyone seems to like her somehow. I don’t
know what I’m doing in Hindi but I laugh along with everyone else when she
cracks jokes about our reading for that day.

We have spelling tests every week. Our teacher does
this thing where we swap tests with the person next to us and grade their test,
and then we bring it up to the teacher’s desk to be checked. Our teacher also
does this thing where if you make a mistake grading someone’s test, she hits
you hard on the leg. Very hard. It gets quiet when the first person to make a
mistake gets found out. It stays quiet till our teacher leaves at the end of
the period.

I approach the big desk at the front of the room and
set my partner’s test down. I watch our teacher’s face and to my horror she
whips her head around and screams.

“LOOK AT THIS! Bada
ee
instead of chhota ee!”

I’ve mixed up my matras.
I hear a whack and the side of my leg burns. I burst into tears.

“Stop crying!”

Another whack and the pain in my leg flares.

“Go and fix it!”

I stumble to my desk. I can see my friends looking at
me pityingly. As I slide into my chair three rows from the front I hear our
teacher say, “And right in front of the board too! Useless!” My partner is
apologizing but I shake my head.

*

I am eleven. In fifth standard, Hindi gets divided
into literature and grammar. I care for neither. Kannada class was alright last
year but our current Kannada teacher is awful. She drones and doesn’t take
questions and looking down at today’s test I realize I haven’t learned
anything. The interesting thing is I don’t care. I’m fine at everything else.

I write down what I can and take my test to be graded.
The teacher looks at it for a second and slides it back to me with contempt.

“Zero,” she says, loud enough for everyone to hear. I
hear a gasp. But I really don’t care,
so much that it’s hard to not laugh as I walk back to my desk.

*

I am thirteen. We’re going to see extended family that
live near my maternal grandmother. I’m wearing a salwar-kameez that’s been starched half to death so it can stand in
the summer humidity. We pull into the driveway of a large traditional coastal
house, yellow-walled and roofed with red clay tiles. I can’t remember who lives
here.

We’re now in the living room, sipping tea out of steel
tumblers. I start to daydream as the conversation happens around me, thinking
about which old Reader’s Digest issue
I’ll dive into when we get back. My mother nudges me. I come to and hear a
familiar question.

Tulu barpunda?
(Do you know Tulu?) My response is practised by now. I look down at the floor
and shake my head. I feel less and less ashamed the more I hear that question.
My mother doesn’t though, and I know a post-visit lecture is coming as our
hosts click their tongues disapprovingly. My grandmother takes part in the
lectures now too. It’s no longer cute that the little American kid can’t speak
her mother tongue.

*

I am seventeen. Everyone in twelfth standard has to do
a week-long internship somewhere they’d like to work in the future, and I was
urged to try my hand at journalism over physics because my English is good. The
newspaper office is in the middle of the city, and my parents thought it would
be good for me to take the bus there. So here I am, standing at the bus stop as
assorted traffic flies past. I vaguely register the babble of Kannada around me
as I look down the road for my bus.

The G9 comes roaring towards us and brakes suddenly. I
join the women streaming towards the front door and find a space to wedge
myself in as the bus rumbles off. The conductor comes around to collect fares.

Yeshtu?”(How much?), I ask when he gets to me,
hoping my pronunciation was alright.

Eylu.” I
count quickly in my head – aidhu, aaru, eylu – seven rupees, alright. I don’t have change today so I hand
him a ten rupee note. He stuffs it into his bag and moves on to the next
person. I open my mouth to say something, then close it.

*

I am eighteen. I’m back in the US for the first time
in twelve years, to start college. I’m still reeling from being in a place
where I can get by on English alone. I’ve met so many new people and the mother
tongue question hasn’t come up once. Now the only defining thing about me is
that I’m a physics major. I walked right past the South Asian Students table at
the activities fair to sign up for the local Society of Physics Students
chapter. I love this feeling of starting fresh.

In the second lecture of Classical Mechanics, I boldly
raise my hand to ask a question about an equation on the board. Fresh start, right? No more sitting quietly
when I don’t understand things
. “What’s a Taylor expansion?” The professor
looks surprised. It turns out most of my peers are in Calculus II or more
advanced math classes. I’m in Calculus I, that’s what my academic advisor
recommended for international students. My stomach turns a little. I don’t feel
so excited anymore.

*

I am twenty. I’m visiting home for the second time
since starting college. My aunt has come to visit with her daughter. While my
aunt and my mother chat in the kitchen, I entertain my cousin with my old
dinosaur toys. She knows a lot about dinosaurs, it turns out, naming each one
correctly as I hold it up.

My aunt walks into the room. “Chinnu, inchi balle, time to go.” (come here) My
cousin’s protest is dismissed by a flood of admonishments in Tulu. After they
leave, I help my mother with cleaning up. A question occurs to me.

“How come you didn’t talk to me in Tulu when I was
younger?”

“I did, until you started preschool. Then your
teachers told me to stop, since you weren’t picking up English fast enough. So
I did.” She pauses. “My biggest mistake with you.”

I sit with this new knowledge. She seems more upset
with herself than with me. I cast around for something to say.

“But I turned out okay.” I’m not sure if I believe it
myself though.

*

I am twenty-four. It is dark outside, and I am about
to call home. My mother must’ve already started preparing lunch because it
takes her a few rings to pick up.

“Hello?”

“It’s me.”

“How was your week?”

I fill her in about my research and how the galaxy I’m
studying is being difficult, and she tells me about the drama in the residents
welfare association and the latest family news. Then I hear her get distracted
by something, and I know she has to go. I start to say bye.

“Taru, before you hang up, say hi to Ajjamma first.”

I hear a fumbling and my maternal grandmother comes on
the line.

Hageedee putti?”
(How are you, little one?)

I smile, because I know she can tell, and dampen the
Americanness of my accent the best I can.

“I’m fine, Ajjamma, hageedee?”

A familiar shame sidles into the room as I grasp at my
meagre store of Kannada and Tulu. My grandmother and I muddle our way through a
multilingual conversation that’s happened many times before – how’s your leg? Feeling better, pain’s still
there, how is the weather? Warm today but it was cold yesterday, Texas is like
that, how’s the weather there? Okay, putti, getting hotter. Oh, okay.
A
short pause. Anyway, study hard, look
after your health, putti. You too, Ajjamma.

I hang up. The shame’s still sitting there. I distract
myself with my phone, swiping mindlessly, when I come across the Kannada
learning app I downloaded a month ago. I look at it, then I notice it’s past
eleven. I have to get ready for work tomorrow.




Porphyria

I’d been on the
ministry when I spotted Craig standing at the butcher’s counter in the Co-op. I
was heading to the cereal aisle for Kellogg’s breakfast bars, which I snacked
on while auxiliary pioneering. That afternoon, I’d had to note “Not Home” for
every house I knocked on, apart from an old woman off Salford Precinct who
accepted the Awake! magazine, but thought I was her daughter. I wrote “Return
Visit” even though she had dementia.

Craig was reading the
label of something meaty in cellophane. It was two years since he’d attended
our congregation, wearing his suit and jazzy tie. He looked so worldly now in
baggy ripped jeans and a battered leather jacket, his hair falling scruffily
over his ears, no longer cropped into a neat back and sides.

“Hi, Craig.” I stepped
closer, my cheeks flushing like when he held the mic for me to give an answer
during the Watchtower study.

He dropped the packet
onto the supermarket floor, then grabbed it and threw it onto the counter. Best
Black Pudding. 30% off
. Why was he even touching that? It was full of blood.

 “Thought it was sausages,” he muttered,
looking around. “Are your parents here?”

“Err… No.”

He nervously glanced at
the black pudding and then shoved his hands in his pockets.

My heart hammered away;
my old fear of speaking to people thundered back. I’d made a mistake; I shouldn’t
talk to him. He was a probably a bad association, but he hadn’t been
disfellowshipped, and what if I rekindled his spiritual interest? I imagined
being at Armageddon and how I might feel if I hadn’t helped him return to The
Truth. I took a breath and said, “Do you want to go for a brew?”

There weren’t any cafes
on Bolton Road, so we went in The Red Lion and asked for two cups of tea. The
barman raised his eyebrows and said he didn’t have a kettle so Craig ordered a
pint of Boddington’s and I got a diet Coke with ice and lemon. I gave Craig
some money and dashed outside to call home on the payphone, saying I’d be home
late. I found myself telling Mum that I’d bumped into a Sister from another
congregation and we were going to the cinema.

“You’re not going to
see Titanic again, are you?” Mum said, and I said, “How did you know?”

“Don’t be too late. You
know how your father worries.”

Craig and I sat down at
a table in an alcove. I brushed my hand over the burgundy upholstery. With a
strange thrill, I realised it was the first time I’d been to a pub on a Friday
night. In the corner, multicoloured disco lights flashed around an empty dance
floor. Something by Aqua boomed from the speakers. Top of the Pops was
on a meeting night, so I struggled to identify songs, other than anything by
Celine Dion.

Craig sipped his beer.
He was unshaven and pale and had some kind of whitish cream stuck to his
stubble. He leaned his elbows on the table and looked me in the eyes. I pulled
back because of the smell. It wasn’t all sweaty trainers like boys at Buile
Hill High, more like wet soil, something earthy and metallic. Coppery.

“Why did you just
disappear, Craig?”

“Something happened to
me.”

“What?”

He shook his head as if
he couldn’t explain it.

“Do you need to speak
to an Elder?”

“Ha! They wouldn’t
understand.”

“Well, try me then.”

“Let’s dance.”

“What?”          

At that moment, “My
Heart Will Go on” began to play. Craig pulled me onto the empty dance floor.
Even I, who never went to pubs, knew it was too early for the disco. But he
didn’t seem to care. We danced to the song I’d played on my Walkman in my
bedroom, with an idolatrous full spread of Leonardo di Caprio cut from Just
Seventeen
hidden under my bed. Craig slowly waltzed me around the space like
an old couple at Butlins, while the multicoloured lights flashed around us. I’d
dreamed of this, of us being alone, and now it was here, I felt my heart
expanding; something important was going to happen despite the smell. But I
remembered Tanya being publicly reproved when she got involved with a lad who
claimed he wanted a bible study. Maybe I was repeating her mistake. Nearby, a
woman sat at a round table, her short skirt revealing her orange tanned thighs.
She puffed on a cigarette, and as I inhaled her smoke, words from the Watchtower
came to me: I was breathing in the world’s air, and it could be death-dealing.

I pulled away from him.
“I think I should go.”

“Natalie,” he whispered,
gripping my arms. “I have an illness.”

“What? AIDS?”

“No!”

“Cancer?”

He just shook his head.

“Tell me what’s wrong,”
I said, “or I will go home.”

“Remember that Sister I
brought to the hall? From Prestwich?”

“Yes.” I’d wanted to
look like her, floaty and ethereal, see-through like a jellyfish, but I’d never
got that thin, even though I only ate Kellogg’s breakfast bars.

“There was something wrong
with her,” he said. “We…”

“You were immoral?”

“We didn’t have sex or
anything. But we… Then she … left me like this.”

Celine Dion ended, and
some kind of rap came on, so we went back to our seats. He got us both a glass
of red wine from the bar, even though I hadn’t asked for it. Then he sat down
to tell me about this Sister he had fallen in love with but who had started to
change and behave oddly. He thought she was an alcoholic until one night she
did something to him. “She bit me,” he whispered. While he told me this, the vinegary
red wine started to take effect, and his outline became blurry, his words like
music. When I stood up to go the loo, the pub reeled. For a moment I wondered whether
I was being led astray, and if so, why it was so easy, and if it was so easy,
why it hadn’t happened before.

*

When I got home, I struggled
upstairs to the bathroom, tripping on a step, my mother’s voice calling, “Natalie?
Is that you?”

“Home, Mum. Just going
to bed.”

“Did you lock the door?”

“Yes.”

I closed the bathroom
door behind me, peered at the bite on my lip and then dabbed it with TCP. My mouth
stung like mad, so I held the cotton pad to my skin until the stinging eased. Then
I dabbed the small cut on my wrist and covered it with a plaster, listening to the
sounds coming from my parents’ bedroom. Dad’s deep snore. The creaks as they
turned over in bed. My head span: a blur of stumbling out of the pub to stand
on the main road, and then kissing, the taste of metal, like I’d bitten my lip,
suddenly realising that my lip was bleeding. He’d showed me the long nail on
his index finger that he’d grown to play the guitar with and said, “Watch,” and
then he drew it across my wrist and licked the seeping blood. He did the same
to his wrist and raised it to my mouth.

“We are blood brother
and sister now.”

But it had gone further
than that. He’d sucked on my wrist until I said, “Craig? What’s wrong with you?
You know we abstain from blood.”

He just looked at me
and then held my wrist again to his mouth. Suddenly I wanted to have this thing
that was so bad that we’d rather die, that had us vilified in shrieking Daily
Mail
articles, but was in fact forbidden in the scriptures, which I could
recite any time of day. “I have a blood disorder,” he said. “Like an addiction.
Porphyria.” His parents wouldn’t understand, so he’d gone to stay with
an old school friend in a high-rise on Salford Precinct and was having some
kind of treatment. He walked me to the end of my road. “Everything is different
now,” he said. “You need to see it, Natalie. You need to open your eyes to the
truth.”

*

The next morning, I woke
thirsty, my mouth dry. I gulped down a glass of water in the kitchen. My head pounded,
but now I knew what a hangover was. I knew what a kiss was too. I could still
taste it, like metallic apples on my lips. Things were different. I was
different. My skin pricked and itched, my forehead was hot and cold at the same
time. I should have felt guilty, but I didn’t, and I didn’t feel guilty about that
either. I changed the plaster on my wrist. The mark underneath was only small.
Just a slit with a nail. Who knew you needed such a sharp nail to play the
guitar? Who knew you could use it to do this?

*

The house was quiet. Dad
usually left before it was light to go window cleaning and Mum either worked at
Clarke’s or was in bed with her tiredness problem. This morning her bedroom
door was closed so it must be a tired day.

I caught the number 68
to the city centre, the word “Porphyria” running through my mind. It was another
quiet day in Kendals, not many customers wanting to buy plates from Villeroy &
Boch; business had been slow since the Manchester bomb. I dusted the shelves
and hid a flask of water in the stockroom. My manager got annoyed when I slid a
cheque into the till the wrong way round, but when I told him I had a hangover,
he gave me a smile like this was a good thing. While I dusted the shelves, I
felt hungry but unable to eat.

When I finished at four,
I walked to the Central Library. The large round building smelled of old paper,
of its millions of dusty books. I found the reference section and asked the
librarian for a medical encyclopaedia. I secretly liked looking things up,
researching. Though this meant I was good at studying for the meetings, underlining
the answers in the Watchtower in multicolour pens, I sometimes wondered why
I’d never be allowed to give a talk. Dad said maybe I could go to Bethel. Then
it hit me. Perhaps I couldn’t go to Bethel now. I’d got drunk. I’d sucked
someone’s wrist! I hadn’t abstained from blood. Why had I done that? Maybe I
should go straight to the Elders and confess, but then I’d get Craig into more trouble.
I’d already got Tanya into trouble, telling the Elders I’d seen her with the
boy from school. Though that’s what you do to keep the congregation clean, and she
was now happily married to a Brother, she still didn’t talk to me years later.

I sat down at a long
desk and opened the encyclopaedia, each turn of the page reverberating around
the room with its high domed ceiling.

I looked up “blood
disorders” and “haematology” and then “porphyria”.

Porphyria
is a group of seven
inherited metabolic disorders (diseases), caused by seven different faulty
genes.

Erythropoietic protoporphyria (EPP) causes people’s skin
to become sensitive to light. In some cases, prolonged exposure can lead to
painful, disfiguring blisters. People with EPP are chronically anaemic, which causes
fatigue and paleness with increased photosensitivity. This rare disorder is often
treated with blood transfusions with high levels of heme, plus the avoidance of
ultraviolet light.

That didn’t make sense.
Craig said he caught it off that Sister. I found myself scratching the cut, so
I peeled off the bandage. Around the scab, purply spidery lines spread out over
my wrist, like some kind of infection. I ran downstairs to the toilet in the
basement and held my arm under the tap. I felt heavy, as if my legs were filled
with stone. My forehead was sweating, and in the mirror I looked pale, my skin
papery dry, like I’d aged overnight. Then I remembered where I’d heard that word
before: in a poem at school. I wanted to find it in the library, but I was so
tired I got my coat and hurried home.

*

The next day, I woke up
shivering with pains in my head and stomach. I told Mum I wasn’t going on the
ministry, then fell back in bed. The day passed in strange, feverish dreams,
the poem coming back to me: a woman with long blonde hair sat on my bed. I
wrapped her hair around her throat and strangled her, then lay her dead body
next to me. I’m sorry, I said. I’m so sorry.

I came to with Mum
standing over me. My stomach lurched, and I leaned over to vomit on the carpet.
My sick was watery purple. Mum leapt up to get a cloth, and while she was gone,
through swirling fog, I thought how strange my room was: the blue and pink flowery
wallpaper I’d chosen from Fads now felt like a floral tomb. When Mum came back,
she tried to open the curtains, but the sunlight stung my skin. “Please, leave
them closed.”

She sighed, saying she
had called the GP, but they said we should go to A&E. I might have meningitis
or something else. “Look at your skin!” she said. “It’s practically
see-through, and you’ve got a blister on your cheek.” I touched my face while Mum
cleaned up the carpet, saying. “Have you been on the Ribena? We’ll wait until
Dad gets home. I’m not going on my own.”

*

When we got to the
hospital, it was nearly five pm, and I’d vomited until nothing more came up. I thought
I could see the blonde woman from the poem sitting on a chair in the waiting
room, her long hair wrapped around her neck. I called out to her, “Don’t let
him do it. Put your hair in a bun!”

“Ssshh,” Mum said. “You’re
hallucinating.”

A while later, I found
myself in a hospital bed in a single room, with nurses around me. Mum was standing
nearby crying, with her hands over her face. Dad had an arm around her
shoulder. Then two Brothers appeared. I thought I recognised them from the
Convention. Dad grabbed my hand, saying everything was fine because they were from
the Hospital Liaison Committee and would make sure I got bloodless treatment.
They talked about blood expanders and other things to get my blood count up. I
asked Mum if Tanya would visit me, and she said, “She’s busy with her baby. You
know how it is.” I said, “Yes, I know,” even though it hurt.

I must have gone
unconscious again because I woke with drips attached to my arm. My parents were
sitting on plastic chairs. One of the Brothers kneeled down and squeezed my
hand, saying I was a brave Sister and not to worry.

Over the next couple of
days, I seemed to get worse. I slept on and off, my skin sore and peeling. When
I tried to eat, I was sick. But beneath the nausea, I felt ravenously hungry. One
morning before my parents had arrived, a young doctor came to stand by my bed.
She had blonde hair tied back in a ponytail, and wore small glasses. I wondered
if she was the Porphyria I’d been dreaming of. “Be careful,” I said. “Don’t
trust him.”

“Who?”

“Him! He says he will
help, but he will just strangle you.”

“Natalie,” she
whispered. “Are you trying to tell me something?”

“I … I don’t know.” I
blinked at her. She was pretty, with rosy cheeks, not pale like Porphyria or the
Sister from Prestwich. More like Kate Winslet as she set off on the Titanic.

“I wanted to talk to
you on your own,” she said, sitting on a chair. “You’re eighteen and an adult,
so you are legally able to decide your own treatment.” I nodded a little though
I knew she was going to talk about blood because doctors were always trying to
force it on Witnesses, instead of alternative treatments.

“You are quite severely
anaemic,” she said. “Even before you presented with these symptoms, you had low
iron stores, which is related to your low body weight. As you know, we’re
giving you iron infusions to get your iron up. But we are unsure yet what is
causing these symptoms, especially the skin lesions.”

Up until now, I’d not
mentioned the word because I hadn’t wanted to tell anyone about Craig. But now,
I said, “I think I have porphyria.”

She sat back a little.
After a moment, she said, “That set of disorders are very rare and usually
genetic. I’ll run some tests. Did you know you had a genetic predisposition to
this?”

“No. Only my friend has
it. Erythropoietic
protoporphyria,” I said, slowly pronouncing each syllable.

“You don’t catch it
like a cold. However, there can be environmental triggers so that your body’s
demand for heme production increases.” Then she whispered, “I have your card.
Your signed blood card, but can you confirm for me that you want to refuse all
blood products? You don’t need to inform your parents of your decision.”

“No blood,” I said and
turned my head away.

*

That night, Craig
appeared beside my bed. I was half asleep. I blinked at him, trying to sit up. “How
did you know I was here?”

“My dad came to see me,”
he whispered as if the Elders were listening. “He told me you’d gone into
hospital. I’m so sorry. I shouldn’t have done that, shouldn’t have bitten you.”

“Then why did you do it?”
I asked. His apology made me realise that he had caused this. “Why?” I
demanded more loudly.

“I don’t know.” He
looked around, but the corridor outside was quiet. “How are you?”

“A bit better.”

He leaned in. “You need
to let them give you a blood transfusion or you’re going to die.”

“I can’t, you know
that.” Then I said, “Have you had one?”

He nodded. “I have one
every two weeks.”

“And still, you bit me
and made me like this?”

“Don’t you remember
what I said?”

“Not clearly.”

“I said I’d never felt
more alive. Like I’m suddenly awake. I can see everything clearly. I think all
these years I’ve been in a dream. I… I thought you’d understand.”

I lay back on the
pillow and closed my eyes, but Craig carried on talking about how he’d been
looking into things and everything we’d been taught might not be true.

“You’re an apostate,” I
said, turning away.

“What does that even
mean?” He placed a hand on my arm, saying that that word was just used to shut
people up. Close down discussion. “Don’t you feel it? Don’t you feel yourself
waking up?”

“I
just feel ill.”

“But
underneath, don’t you feel hungry?”

I
blinked at him, not replying.

“Natalie,”
he said, grabbing my hand. “Why don’t you come and live with me? We could be
together, get the treatment, live a new life. I’ve so much to tell you.”

I
pulled my arm away. “I don’t know.”

He rummaged in his
pocket and got out a piece of paper and a tube of cream. “This is my phone
number,” he said, placing the paper on the bedside table. “You can call me.
Think about it, OK? And this is mineral sun cream. Put it all over your skin.”

A nurse appeared in the
doorway, saying visiting hours had ended and he should leave. Craig said
goodbye and slipped out. The nurse came back with the same doctor as before. Suddenly,
my stomach lurched again. I heaved and dry-wretched. My forehead started to
sweat. The nurse took my temperature and blood pressure. “Natalie,” the doctor
said. “You were right. There is a new blood disorder, something contagious.
There have been cases with similar symptoms in the North West. You need to have
a transfusion,” she said. “Trust me.”

*

I stared at my arm as
the blood ran down the tube. A whole bag of bright, crimson blood clipped onto
a stand next to my bed. The sight of it made me almost heave again, but I didn’t
move. I could feel it coursing into my body, warming me, making me feel alive. It
was three am, hours until my family would arrive in the morning and find out. Abstain
from blood
. I’d already tasted Craig’s blood on my lips, but that had been
a moment of weakness. This was a deliberate decision.

“How are you feeling?” the
doctor said from the doorway.

“A bit better,” I said.
“What’s your name?”

“Katherine, I told you,
Dr Katherine Stone.”

“Ah,” I said. “I knew
you were a Kate Winslet. A survivor.”

She frowned. “You’ll
feel more lucid when you’ve had the transfusion.”

“I’m very lucid,” I
said. “Everything is so much clearer. I might run away.”

“Why don’t you rest,” she
said as she left. “Don’t make any more decisions, OK?”

Run away, I thought, as
I stared at the bag of blood running into my hand. I could find a big coat and
hat, pack my belongings in a rucksack, slather myself in sun cream, then hide
in churches or the empty factories around the Northern Quarter. I’d roam the
dark, oily streets of Manchester, a nightwalker, going to outpatients for
transfusions. I breathed, letting out a small laugh. Who was I kidding? I’d
never do that. I’d be homeless. No money. I had no savings. A beggar. The
thought was terrifying.

I squeezed the tube
with my fingers, trying to stop the blood. I could rip it out, and when my
parents arrived, tell them I was sorry. The doctor had forced me. But that was
a lie, wasn’t it? I thought of the hours on the ministry, trying to witness to
people, and overcoming my fear, of that moment of joy when I’d said yes to the
baptism questions at the Convention, and a Brother had dunked me under the
water. I thought of the happiness I’d felt when thousands of Witnesses sang
together, knowing we were the chosen ones who would inherit the earth. But now,
I wasn’t part of that. I was no longer in The Truth, but I could still tell
the truth. I’d have to tell them what had happened; it would come out anyway. I’d
need more transfusions in the future. And after that? “Disfellowshipped,” I
said aloud. No one would be allowed to speak to me, and if I want to be
reinstated, I’d have to sit at the back of the hall until I’d shown enough
repentance.

I
looked at Craig’s note on the bedside cabinet with the carefully written phone
number. For years, I’d dreamed of us courting and getting married. But now the
thought of living in his high-rise flat in Salford Precinct, of lying in a bed
in a dank room while he explained his new ideas and told me what to think made
me feel suffocated and depressed, let down by the ordinariness of my romantic dreams.

When
I could get out of bed, I’d screw up the paper and throw it in the bin.

I released the tube and
let the blood seep into my hand, feeling my skin prick with warmth, awakening
the euphoria. Leaving was a lone thing. Porphyria on her own.




The End Night

Photo: Central Cairo, by Youssef Rakha

I
bet you never thought you’d be hearing this from a dead girl. There are those
who call you a coward, hiding behind YouTube while you send people to
perdition. As the only other top story in the news, I want you to know I do not
share this view. I bet you’ve been too busy to realize I exist. I will tell you
about me, but that is not the reason I have occupied your head. My voice in
your head will probably unhinge you, a cheerful young billionaire with no
interest in death. That is not my intention. It is just that my dying coincided
with your famous video, the one in which you call on the people to take to the
streets. In that video you talk about cemetery children, families that are so
poor they inhabit abandoned tombs in the city’s sprawling cemetery. If this was
a righteous regime, you say, it wouldn’t let children grow up with the dead,
and it occurs to me that, having fallen out with the leader, you fled the
country just as my ordeal was starting, my most infernal ordeal, thirteen days
before. Now that you feel safe enough to direct the course of history, maybe it
is time for my ordeal to end? I watch you say, We’ll keep protesting till the
leader stands down, and it’s as if an angel has stepped in. I can see your face
now, more clearly than I saw it on Khalo’s smartphone screen that day, tied up
while I got my dose of bread and water in his lap. As your lips curl to form
the last vowel, your big brown eyes widen for emphasis. Heaven unfurls as you
smile. In thirteen days I’ve suffered enough to make god stand down, but not
until that moment can I let go of life. History happens while I’m disembodied
and free. That’s how I get to be in your head now, to know things you don’t. No
one actually saw the big protest that you denominated the End Night,
anticipating it would bring down the regime, but as you say in your new video,
if no big protest happened why would the authorities react? Your friends in
high places are telling you the glass tower is cracking. Your Facebook fans
swear you’re the hero of the shantytowns. All I ask is that, while you pat
yourself on the back and ponder your next move, you stay hinged long enough for
me to explain. 

It
might unhinge you but it is not accidental. My mother tells me I am your
estranged daughter. She calls you her hot sweetheart and winks. Apart from
Khalo, her younger brother, I have never had a father, it’s true. Is it
possible that, six years ago, you paid for the company of a petite dark girl
with blue eyes and a mole like a miniature nipple to the left of her Adam’s
apple? She would’ve called herself Stella, the way Khalo goes by Cowboy. At the
time she claims she looked so gorgeous she could work the bourgeois bars on her
own. Mama is an inveterate liar as well as a gold digger, but whether or not
your blood runs in my veins I know you and I are connected. I haven’t been dead
forty-eight hours and already I am halfway across the world, whispering in your
head. Even before I died I had access to your mind. It was spotty and
irregular, like the wi-fi Khalo sometimes stole from the makeshift cybercafe at
the end of the alley above our section of the tomb, but it was there. I was
practically a toddler still. Who would’ve thought dying is growing up. Maybe
the quality was bad because my modem was still sprouting. I’d had little human
contact outside the graveyard we lived in, so when I went into your mind I
rarely recognized what I found, the white powder you sniff insatiably or the
fairytale places where you play with people. I did recognize the deliberate
arrangements of bared body parts that make your heart race and leave you
feeling like a child, as happy and as helpless as a child, but being a child
myself it was as if I recognized me in you and was glad and jealous at the same
time. Khalo had been arranging my parts in similar ways for as long as I could
remember, but they were smaller and uglier than the ones in your mind and, even
if his heart raced when he looked at them, it made me sad to think they were
there for him to hurt, not for me to grow till they made a good-looking man
feel happy and helpless. Who would’ve thought dying is knowing all this. When
heaven unfurls it furls again and then you’re part of it. You can go wherever,
whenever. You have the words to transport you in all the languages of the
living. I died on my fifth birthday, that’s right.

I
haven’t been dead forty-eight hours but I can tell you what will come of this
revolution. I trust you will manage to forget these spoilers, otherwise as the
movie of your life progresses you’ll second-guess yourself insane. You’ll
probably have to purge your memory of me entirely, but the truth is I can see
the city’s future. I can see its past too, as far back or forward as I like,
and whatever I focus on becomes present. Who would’ve thought. A year after
your thirty-fifth and final video, nobody remembers your name. People still
talk of the End Night, they say all kinds of things about what happened at the
city center, but no one seems sorry it failed. When you watch them closely, you
get the sense even your militant followers are relieved that it’s over. Not
many things would surprise you. Torturers and terrorists still play cat and
mouse while activists tweet truth to power from the safety of offshore workstations,
unless they end up indefinitely jailed. Having amended the constitution so he
can stay in power, your former best friend and mentor is running for leader
unchallenged. Stellas look for rich boyfriends that Cowboys can blackmail while
pushing drugs. Except for one little detail, everything is as you left it. The
city is equally overpopulated, children grow up with the dead, but even in the
busiest places, the informal economy of parking and public transport has
diversified into mugging. Begging is a dying profession, and the sidewalks look
clean. At any given time few people can be seen anywhere. Nobody says it in so
many words but nobody doubts this is the End Night’s legacy. Over the weeks,
then the months while more and more people went missing, a kind of chronic
absence overtook those who remained. Everybody was scared of the police, it’s
true, too paranoid or dispirited to step out, but once it became clear the
police weren’t responsible for everything, there emerged something stranger,
something supernatural in the outcome. It was as if the End Night had been the
people’s pledge to become ghosts and, without planning or discussing it, they
transitioned to that state. Who would’ve thought ghosts are so radically unlike
the dead. In their homes, among their loved ones, people remained normal human
beings, but wherever they might encounter the authorities they became invisible
and unreal, as frightening as they were frightened, so that even if the city
didn’t quite empty it still turned into a ghost town.

Everybody
was scared of the police before there was an End Night, but as my caregivers
watch your first few videos while I hang hogtied by the stove like some
horrible human hammock, they manage to keep their cool. I have returned to the
days of my ordeal and everything is in the present again, but it’s a present
that feeds on the knowledge death has given me, so that even in my dumb
four-year-old state I can make sense of things. I’m being disciplined for
soiling myself. Khalo is squeezing where the pee spurted out, his other hand
sealing my mouth while, holding the gravedigger’s spade over the fire, Mama
tells me the skin on my thighs will come off easily once the blade glows white.
It hasn’t crossed their minds that their pictures might end up in the papers
alongside that of my corpse while they are beaten to death by fellow inmates,
literally beaten to death. I realize what’s happening to me is exactly the kind
of thing people are scared the police will do to them when they try to bring
down the regime whether or not a former crony of the leader’s is telling them
to, and I’m struggling with my sphincter when it occurs to me that only people
who can hurt other people are immune to fear. They’re good at ducking when you
lunge, weeping and trembling and begging for mercy, but they know nothing of
the paralysis and despair of real fear, the fear that everything you live for
will turn out to be on loan from a despicable stranger who can claim it back at
any time, that the meaning of life is contained in a plainclothes man’s slap.
Khalo keeps kicking my tailbone with his army boot, squeezing my nose without releasing
my mouth. The pain becomes unbearable as I begin to asphyxiate. My eyes are
level with the spade’s flame-licked blade, upside down, so that the fire seems
to descend from a miniature metal heaven, an ersatz heaven, and it’s as if I
can feel the fear of every one of them over the years and the decades, the
centuries, millions of people who stood up for what they lived for only to
realize the regime owned their lives, and suddenly an immense sob unravels me,
a sob the size of an ocean, so that, struggling to break free of the
clothesline, my sphincter finally gives, blobs of poop splash my face and I
quiver till I black out.

My
eyes are level with the flame-licked blade but let me come back to real time.
It is crucial that I explain to you what’s happening. You’ll probably have to
forget it all, but I’m here and I can’t be elsewhere. Our connection compels
me, not my being your alleged daughter but the fact that you’re mounting a
revolution while I am the victim of oppression, even if it’s not the
authorities that oppressed me and even if I was a toddler when it happened.
That just makes it more real, a picture of victimhood with all the posturing
squeezed out. You too, being a protégé of the leader’s, are a more authentic
dissenter, innocent of the vile pretense that dissent can be driven by anything
other than self-interest. Maybe there is such a thing as a historical daughter,
the way there is a biological one, a daughter by virtue of historical role. That
would explain how I feel about you considering you probably never fucked my
mother. It would explain how I know you need this. Like a policeman gesturing
for your identification card at a checkpoint, soon the universe will require a
dead girl’s account of the events you initiated, and if you don’t store it in
your unconscious while you can, who knows what the universe will do to you.
Listen. No one saw the End Night because the End Night never happened. By the
time you make your video everybody will be sure of that. No protesters gathered
anywhere in answer to your call, but as people, perfectly compliant people
swarmed the city center as usual, the police decided to move in. Sirens
blaring, the cavalry drove into crowds, and when people ran for their lives the
infantry gave chase. Batons came crashing down on bare skulls, rubber bullets
pierced the jelly of unprotected eyes. The night sky glittered with incredibly
bright explosions but, while cyanocarbon outmuscled oxygen in the air, there
appeared in the shimmering cobalt-blue of the sky idyllically white clouds.
Since then the police haven’t stopped rounding people up, occupying traffic
intersections and perusing the smartphones of passersby on pain of instant
disappearance, dragging people out of houses and cafes and escorting them
blindfolded to undisclosed locations where they suffer unspeakable things
before resurfacing in prison. I bet you never thought you’d hear this, but
there are those who call you a secret agent of the regime’s, your falling out
with the leader a ruse and your sole purpose to justify the crackdown.

Our
connection compels me to share the view from here. In one of your videos you
ask, The man who spends the day torturing his charge, how does that man sleep
at night? He sleeps very well, I can tell you. He snores deeply, sometimes
sniggers through happy dreams, or his hairy arm, so sinewy it looks like the
sculpture of an arm, will suddenly flex, rehearsing the uppercut which is his
principal interface with the world, and with which he grabs more often than he
strikes. He can wake momentarily to slap his charge the way you’d swat a
mosquito, laughing, or to draw her to him by the hair so he can bite on her
Adam’s apple like a lozenge. He loves her. As your historical daughter or the
only other story in the news, I want you to know I am not convinced by your
rhetoric. It doesn’t become you, making appeals to the essential goodness of
humanity when you obviously know the thing to appeal to is the beast. That man
would fuck his sister if he didn’t have his preferred breed of bed partner to
send himself to sleep with. He would do it with a clear conscience, the way he
genuinely believes the least he deserves is a beer and a joint and an hour with
the girl, and just like the leader telling his people he knows what is best for
them, he would take an earnest pedagogical attitude. I’ve been a good girl, so afterwards
he gives me a bar of chocolate to put in my mouth. If I keep quiet while he
does what he does no matter how much it hurts me, maybe I get a hot meal. I’ve
been a bad girl so, never mind him coming all over it, he’s going to have to
spank my sweet little bottom till it bleeds. Sometimes I’ve been so bad he ties
my wrists and ankles together with a clothesline and hangs me up from a hook in
the ceiling by the stove. He can adjust my height as he pleases, and if he is
sick of me crying he can stuff a roll of cloth in my mouth, holding it in place
with a piece of string he ties behind my neck. Sometimes he leaves me there for
a day, only the occasional uppercut announcing he’s still around. When Mama
comes home and finds me that way she scowls. What have you done this time, she
snaps as she passes. 

I’ve
been a good girl for a whole week when I commit the indefensible transgression
of wetting the bed. This is the day you flee with enough money to set up your
own country, and I don’t realize that this time I am to be suspended
indefinitely. There is only one bed in our tomb, large enough for all three of
us though Mama rarely spends the night at home, and pretending to be angry out
of concern for me, Khalo is impatient for my punishment. He has a hypochondriac
streak, and when I used to pee in my sleep he would savage me so thoroughly I
ended up pooping as well. It became his excuse for time on the stove, as he
calls it, tying me up and hanging me like something freshly slaughtered at the
butcher’s. Before today I’ve never been on the stove for longer than a day, so
until I realize it isn’t over after I am taken down to be fed, this isn’t
especially distressing. Thirteen days before my fifth birthday I am still
soiling myself not just because I’m terrified of knuckles and blood, pining for
a breast, an embrace Mama never gives, but also because I was never potty
trained. I haven’t even had the benefit of a diaper. Budgeting made the
disposable kind out of the question, and the sole cotton diaper Mama sewed out
of rags when I was born, she has never bothered to wash. Until the age of two
they had a plastic basin for me to wallow in, Khalo hosing me down when he had
use for me. By the time I wore clothes and moved onto the bed, I was expected
miraculously to have the faculty of continence. That is how Mama started
branding me all around my groin, with the white-hot blade of an ancient but
unused gravedigger’s spade that they found here when they moved in, to punish
me for bedwetting. The perpetual pain of untreated burns actually helped. I
learned to start awake whenever something was about to drop out of me, even
blood from my nose or a cut, and this made the spade a regular feature. It
feels normal at first, not too scary, a little more muscle pain, that’s all. I
just hope he won’t hurt me too much where I’m sore. I can see me now, skeletal,
bruised and blackened, obviously gangrenous in places, docilely lying on my
back while he turns me into a human hammock. It is heartbreaking.

It
feels normal that during a crackdown people will suddenly go missing. They
won’t show up at home or at work and you won’t get through to them on their
phones, then you know they’ve been arrested or, in activist-speak, subjected to
a forced disappearance. Within a week or a month those people always reappear,
though, if not at their homes then at court being given a heavy sentence, the
media having turned them into criminal fiends. This too would not surprise you.
Sometimes people never resurface, it’s true, whether because the regime has
killed and disposed of them in secret or for some unknown reason, but even in
the worst crackdown, that never happens to more than one in a hundred. In the
months following your thirty-fifth video, by contrast, thousands stay missing.
Nobody believes the authorities when they say they know nothing of their fate,
but there has been no civil war, no invasion or natural disaster, and as it
becomes clear there is no force at the regime’s disposal that would be
physically capable of disappearing people at this rate, a different order of
terror reigns over the city. Even activists are talking about unexplained as
opposed to forced disappearances now, blaming the regime for facilitating or
not investigating rather than perpetrating them. I am at an earlier point in
the future, most people do remember your name, the End Night is still more
event than legend, but while an eighth, then nearly a quarter of the population
goes missing without a trace, the streets are emptying not because there aren’t
enough people left to swarm them but because more and more people have stopped
going out. The hive mind is in flux, people talk about the authorities using
ancient magic, they talk about zombies and demons and spirit dwellings, even an
imperceptible invasion from outer space, but no bodies, no evidence, nothing to
hold onto is uncovered. People are scared of the police but, more than that, they’re
scared of the unknown power the authorities evidently unleashed on the End
Night, a horror more unspeakable than anything they can conceive of, and to
which what the police do to them, the assaults and the arrests and the
interrogations, is merely the portal. The big question is how aware the
authorities have been of their role as a bridge between the world we know and
that other place. I bet it hasn’t occurred to you even now how many have come
to associate that other place with you.

The
hive mind is in flux while the crackdown peaks in real time and, dead for just
under forty-eight hours, I am moving across your head as I whisper, past the spot
where you’re planning out your next video, sensing it is time to exit back into
the void and seek out my dead-girl fortunes. Handsome and moneyed in your
pretty surroundings, you blame the leader for hunger and sickness, for penury
and humiliation, while cornered in their respective cells, facing death with
neither remorse nor real fear, Stella and Cowboy are being systematically,
mercilessly beaten. I know now how, within a day of my death, while the cavalry
and the infantry were savaging the city center and people scampered around for
shelter, a rival pusher had managed to report Khalo to the authorities. He did
not report him for abusing his helpless niece, which he couldn’t have known or
cared about. He did not report him for pushing drugs while pimping his sister, for
which ventures Khalo had made the appropriate arrangements with the relevant authorities
a long time before. He reported him, dear otherworldly father, for regularly
watching your videos, something Khalo had made the mistake of mentioning in
passing, being a fan of the renegade billionaire who’s been inciting rebellion
on YouTube, and the police coming in search of one more non-existent protester,
one more ghost of history, they found Khalo making tea on the stove, the veins
on his hairy arm like thick metal cords glowing, while my lifeless body lay unburied
with the spade on top of it beneath the hook in the ceiling. He didn’t manage
to exonerate himself, but he told on his sister in trying. Now he is barely
conscious on all fours, tissue-spattered blood spurting from every part of his
body while the streets heave. As to what’s happening to Mama, I don’t want to
look. Forty-eight hours after the End Night, people are still running around
deleting photos from their phones, purging their Facebook timelines of political
jokes, bracing themselves. The city center looks eerily desolate even as
plainclothes men scatter all around it, but elsewhere the streets are even
busier than usual and, warily navigating them, people avoid eye contact with
strangers while they circumvent the major intersections, walking fast. As they
mutter your name and that of the leader, voicing prophesies, prayers, they
laugh nervously or shudder and, except for a dead girl floating above them
while she whispers in your head, nobody knows they’re turning into ghosts.




Greeks

“What about them
Grundy tins?” I said.

“I aren’t quite done with ’em yet, Boss.”

I knew what he meant. When God invented fish he should have made it
easier to clean up after them. Bony was scrubbing so hard to clear the tins of
scales, the mermaids tattooed on his forearms looked alive. The sweat patch on
the back of his T-shirt made me think of a map – South America, maybe, or
Africa.

“Ever been to Africa, Bony?”

“Yeah, Cape Town, Boss. Spent too long in a bar, nearly missed the
ship.” He turned from the sink, laughing. “One of me oppos did miss it. He got six months for that.”

“Don’t stop scrubbing.”

He grinned. “I’d rather scrub a deck than this.”

Sandra came up from below and showed me her tips.

“Stingy buggers, Red.”

“You’ll survive,” I said.

Pecs joined us, unclipped his bow tie and unbuttoned his shirt to
show off his chest. He kept his tips to himself. They don’t have a tronc.

He said, “Yeah, Sands, what about that Kraut yesterday that tipped
you a twenty?”

She pulled a face. “He was kale-eyed. Prob’ly thought it was a
fiver.”

I saw Bony give her a look out of the corner of his eye. She ignored
him and went to the far end by the fridge. Leaned her bum against it as usual
to get the vibration. Says it’s as good as a massage. I thought I’d like to be
that fridge, but decided that thought would get me nowhere and carried on
wiping spice jars. Pecs rolled up his sleeves, joined his hands above his head,
flexed his biceps. and turned his head back and forth, taking in me, Sandra,
and Bony, obviously amused. Sandra checked her phone, maybe to see if she’d
been called after audition. She’s a dancer, which is why she gives off “not
really here” vibes. Me, I’m present,
if you know what I mean, and glad to be.

Ahmed sidled up to me.

“We must be ordering more turmeric.”

“I can see that, mate.”

“Oh, you are sharp. Are you my friend? Not my friend?”

“I’m your friend, Ahmed.”

He’s small and thin but wiry – the opposite of Bony, who’s tall and
wide but flabby, with an overhanging belly. Ahmed sends money to his family
somewhere up-country in Bangladesh. Says now his daughter’s thirteen he has to
pay for a jewel in her nose so she can marry. Thirteen!

He said, “I ask Mr Giorgiou I can make a cake.”

“No need to ask him, mate, you can ask me.”

“But he is owner. And chef.”

“And I’m sous-chef. That’s French. Do you know French, Ahmed?”

“Yes, I know, ‘Voulez-vous coucher?’ ”

“Yeah, but the important bit is ‘avec moi.’ ”

He smiled and nodded. “Too kallever you.”

He checked the dumb waiter. It was empty apart from one soup bowl,
which he dropped with a flourish in Bony’s foaming sink.

*

The only time Mr
Giorgiou gets fresh air is a twenty-minute walk round the block when the last
punters leave. Who’d own a restaurant? At least when I’m tired of his moussakas
I can go to Spain and make tapas. Back from his walk he makes us souvlaki for
supper – one of the few perks of the job.

We cleared the island unit and stood round.

Ahmed said, “Mr Pecs? Lagow
last night?”

Pecs knew what the word meant. “Many times, druh. Muff diving, the lot.”

He nudged Sandra next to him. She yawned and carried on texting. He
tormented her by staring down her cleavage with its film of sweat. Mr Giorgiou
undid his neckerchief and shook it out. His jacket was still pure white after
the evening’s efforts. I never knew how he did it. Mine was well splashed.

He said, “This life. Why is it like this? I would like to go on one
cruise.”

He says “one” instead of “a”, as in, “Give me one cigarette.”

Pecs groaned. “I worked on a cruise ship. We docked at St
Petersburg. Bastard Russkis! Always if I went ashore they made me wait to go
back aboard. Kept sending me to the back of the queue.”

Mr Giorgiou nodded. “They don’t like Ukrainians.”

“Fuck them. I nearly missed my ship.”

Bony nodded too, and laughed. “I know that feeling.”

Sandra piped up, “Who asked your opinion?”

A person’s haircut tells you a lot about them. Hers is lopsided like
a bird with one black wing, and that broken. Pecs shaves his head to try to
look tough. Mr G is naturally bald. As for Ahmed, I reckon his haircut is
self-inflicted. Mine … don’t ask.

I pulled the pitta breads out of the toaster, showing off how I can
hold them hot without flinching. We stripped lamb and onion and peppers off our
skewers, dropped said skewers on the worktop like spillikins, then filled our
pittas. A familiar ceremony. Ahmed squirted a sea of chilli sauce. I prefer
mayonnaise.

Sandra said, “Boss, some customers ask why we don’t do kebabs.”

“What did you tell to them?” Mr Giorgiou asked.

“Same as souvlaki.”

“Yes. Kebab is a Toorkish word,” Mr G the Greek Cypriot said with a
sneer. “Enough said.”

“In America they call them kabobs,” Pecs announced.

Sandra yawned again. “How interesting.”

Bony said, “I did them Grundy tins.”

He went to the rack and held up a couple. They flashed like mirrors.

Sandra said, “Bet there’s still fish scales on them.”

“No, no.” He ran a nervous hand over his hair, a long buzz cut,
probably number four clipper, then fixed Mr G with a look. “Something I meant
to say, Chief.”

The boss’s eyelids fluttered. “Yes?”

“It’s just … I has to keep me missus happy.”

Pecs laughed. “He is a chef not a sex advisor.”

Bony frowned. “Thing is, Chief, she says I has to ask you about me
National Insurance.”

“What National Insurance?”

“She says you should be paying it for me.”

Oh dear. He’s never paid it for Sandra, Pecs, Ahmed, or me. Did Bony
think he’d be the exception? Mr G wiped his mouth on a napkin and went up to
him. Bony backed away against the sink. Mr G stopped with his nose a few inches
from Bony’s. You see that on TV when there’s a ding-dong, but I’d never seen it
in real life.

He said, “Well, Mr Bony, you can tell your missus to fuck off.”

“Here, Chief, that’s not nice. I don’t mean to cause trouble, like.”

“You are trouble from day one. You upset my waitress.”

Sandra, watching this exchange, put on a convincing scowl. I knew
what this was about. To raise the dumb waiter from the restaurant you shout, “Up
please!” or if you’re feeling crap just, “Up!” What you don’t do is jerk the
rope without a signal. Old Bony must have thought he was raising the ensign
double quick. Sandra’s hand got trapped between the dumb waiter and the hatch.
No damage to her wrist or fingers, but Pecs sneered that she couldn’t forgive
the threat to her nail extensions.

Bony said, “I told her I was sorry.”

“Then did it again,” Sandra hissed.

But I also knew the dumb waiter wasn’t the issue. One slack half
hour, when there was just her and Bony and me in the kitchen, Bony took me
aside and asked why she “had a sad on”, as he put it, and I said, “Her mother’s
dying.” Next moment he had her in this great bear hug and whispered something.
Sandra screamed, “Get off me, I don’t want sympathy, got it?”

Mr G was still on Bony’s case. “Why do you make difficult my life?
You think it’s easy to run a restaurant? And look at you now. I see all the
anger in you.”

“I didn’t mean no offence.”

“I don’t want to hear any more. I have work to do.” He moved away,
but a thought struck him and he came back. “And always you are watching the
clock.”

“It’s a habit. In the Navy you have to—”

“This is not the Navy!”

“I thought you’d be pleased with my work, Chief. You got a
testimonial from my skipper.”

“Fuck your skipper!”

That was too much. I saw Bony’s right hand reach behind for the
worktop. He grabbed a fillet knife and waved it in the boss’s face.

“Ram it!” he yelled.

Now it was Mr G who backed away and Bony who pursued him – the
previous action in reverse, like some horrible tango. They were both the same
height and similar build, the main difference being Bony’s torn T-shirt and the
boss’s white jacket. Sandra scooted out of the way. I kept my station – I
wasn’t going to intervene. Pecs tried to, but Bony – his eyes rolling now –
made a feint at him, and Pecs wasn’t going to risk his lovely muscles. Mr G
ended up cornered by the fridge, with Bony making jabbing motions.

I don’t know how long that standoff lasted. Probably not long, but
it seemed it. A year before I’d have enjoyed it. My life was crap then. I was
full of resentment, in and out of dead-end jobs, emptying several bottles of
vodka a week, yelling at people, lucky not to get a beating. I was hooked on
graphic war movies, cage fighting, the worst TV news. Then I ran into an old
girlfriend.

“Bloody hell, what happened to you, Red?” she said.

I woke up. She and I are together now. I’ve got something to live
for. And violence turns my stomach. So watching Bony threaten to slice Mr
Giorgiou’s neck I felt like puking up my souvlaki. I wanted it to end – but
how? I saw Ahmed shake his head and turn away from them. He saw my expression
and looked shocked. Next thing I knew he was on hands and knees between the two
sets of opposing legs, worming his way upright. His head was no higher than
their chests. He faced Bony.

“This shall end,” he announced. “Give to Mr Bossy the knife.”

Bony was so surprised he loosened his grip. Ahmed felt carefully for
the handle, took the knife off him, and gave it to Mr G. Bony put his hands to
his face and moaned.

“I didn’t mean to flash up,” he muttered.

“Now you have crossed a line,” Mr G said, in the same tone as when
he said, “Toorkish”.

Bony said, “We can sort this, Chief. You had to with shipmates. You
couldn’t let things fester.”

“You have crossed a line.”

“Can’t I pull back from it?”

“No!”

 Mr G still had a firm grip on
the knife. I thought he was about to stab Bony. I’ve always thought a kitchen’s
the worst place for an argument. I passed out and sank down on the quarry
tiles. I came to hearing Mr G say, “Give Mr Red one glass of Metaxa.” I
normally hate the stuff, but it did the trick. I struggled up. Mr G draped his
arm round Ahmed’s shoulders. “Bengali Babu,” he said.

Ahmed looked at me. “Are you being all right now, Mr Red?”

“Yeah.” The brandy must have loosed my tongue, because I said, “Christ,
I thought one hothead Greek in a kitchen was enough. Now it’s like there are
two.”

Sandra laughed. Pecs joined in. Mr Giorgiou came up to me, his eyes
very wide. “Are you saying Mr Bony is like a Greek?”

I felt my job was on the line. But something made me blurt, “Yes!”

He turned away, went up to Bony – who was standing stupefied – and
grabbed a handful of his T-shirt.

“Fucking Greek!” he growled.

“He made a bloody good job of them Grundy tins,” I said.




Cat Town

Imagine a cat, a stray, that became
a woman every sunrise, a fierce black-haired woman named Lucia, who marched through
the streets as though she owned them, although she was, in fact, homeless. In brown
rags Lucia made her rounds, burst into restaurant after restaurant favored by
the wealthy, stood aggressively close to the tables with their plates of sweet
rolls and eggs and smoked fish. She thrust out a filthy hand and demanded money.

“You with your soft bellies,
and me hungry. You can spare it!”

Her boldness was so shocking,
so different from the other beggars in town, who kept humbly and quietly to the
street corners, that most people complied with a coin or two, if only to get
her to leave. Most that is except one old man, new to the city, Nico the rug
dealer, with skin as rosy as ham, hair dyed the color of charcoal, angry blue eyes,
and rings on every finger.

“Go away, you dirty slut,” he
told her. “Shoo!”

“A little change is nothing
to you,” Lucia spat back. “Those rings alone! And,” she hissed on tiptoe, leaning
close, “if you lost each and every one, you would still eat, you old shit.”

Nico turned purple. Snapped
his fingers and shouted at the wait staff. Two of them escorted Lucia roughly
out. Her luck was bad that day – she collected scarcely enough for a small roll
of bread.

After that Lucia searched for
the old man. She relished a battle. It pleased her to enrage – it was, often,
the only time people looked her in the eye. A few days later, she found old
Nico eating stuffed trout under a green umbrella. This time, his eyes showed
fear as well as rage. The waiters hustled Lucia away, but she savored victory
nonetheless. The old man wondered how she’d tracked him down, she was certain
of that. She chuckled as the waiters thrust her into the street. “I’m a hunter,
you’ll never escape.”

That evening, right after sunset,
when Lucia was once again a skinny black cat with golden eyes and a proud tail,
she happened upon the lush garden of the enormous house that belonged to old
Nico. She visited gardens throughout the city every night, lapped water from
their fountains, hunted tiny mice and large crickets, slept curled on tiles
still warm from the sun.

She wound her way along the high
wall, daintily avoiding the broken glass mortared to the top, leaped to the
branch of a jacaranda tree, shimmied down the trunk, and cautiously explored
the perimeter of the garden, her ears alert, claws pricked in case there was a
dog.

Instead, to her surprise,
there was old Nico at a table on the patio, drinking a glass of sparkling wine,
his bejeweled fingers straying now and again into a bowl of fat, salty nuts. His
face sagged, the skin gray without sunlight. His thin hair was the dull black
of a chalkboard. Only his blue eyes gleamed, like another pair of jewels. They watched
the cat as she settled at the other end of the patio and began to groom
herself. He smiled at her. Him! Lucia’s skin tightened but she kept working at
her tail. He was, she saw, the sort of man who prefers cats to people.

What had made old Nico this
way? Perhaps it was the nasty business of dealing in rugs. Decades ago in one
of those difficult countries, he’d seen mothers sell their own children. In
this place, he’d found his servant, Mezar, and taught him how to make a bed, set
a table, and decant wine. Now that Nico was old, he and Mezar had come to live
in this small pink city at the edge of the sea.

The old man called out to
Lucia, his puckered mouth making noises somewhere between a kiss and a squeak.
She ignored him, licking dust off her sleek belly. The garden smelled of
jasmine and bird droppings. There was a pedestal fountain, and flowering vines,
and glowing lanterns, and rows of thick hedges that contained the shadowed
darkness she relished.

Nico finished his wine and
gave a shout. Lucia, tracking the shy stink of a mouse behind a potted plant,
froze, but it was Mezar he shouted at, a tall, strong man who came up quietly
and poured more wine, and a few minutes later returned with a saucer of cream.
Old Nico instructed Mezar to place the saucer at the edge of the patio, close
to the cat but not too close. “Don’t scare her!” Mezar, dark and unreadable, studied
the cat with his yellow eyes, and went back inside.

Lucia’s furry jaw hung open
as she smelled the cream. She would wait to drink it until Nico left – safer
that way. Several times, people had attempted to trap her with a lure; she’d escaped
just in time. But once she completed her bath, she decided to tease the old
man, who, now that she was a cat and not a woman, suddenly wanted to be
friends.

Nico had finished his wine
and gazed at the sky, at the faint stars that struggled to be seen in the city
twilight. Lucia bolted across the patio in a sudden streak, and the old man
shrieked like a hen. Slowly she circled back, approached his chair, and flicked
her tail against his bony shins.

“You sly creature!” Nico
cried. “Come, come.” He patted his lap.

She looked at him steadily, walked
away and delicately lapped up the cream, her ears flattened backwards the
better to detect a stealthy approach from behind. He seemed too slow to sneak
up on her, and the servant was inside, but Lucia had been around long enough to
know carelessness can be fatal. The cream was delicious, so sweet and fatty,
and there was a lot in the saucer. She had not tasted anything so good in a
long time. When she’d licked up every drop, she felt quite sleepy.

Old Nico himself appeared to
be dozing. His eyes were closed, his head sunk to his chest, he had a thick
blanket draped over his thighs. Up she jumped, claws sinking into the wool.

He yelped, and Lucia’s fur
stood on end as she flew back into the hedges.

“No, no, come back, sweet!”
he called. “My deepest apologies,” he said. “You startled me that’s all.” He
patted his lap and danced his fingers across the blanket. Perhaps she should
have jumped over the wall then and there, but the bellyful of cream made her
lazy. Instead, she hid among the hedges.

He called again and again,
but all cats know how to hide so they can’t be found. She heard the servant
clearing the table and picking up the dish she’d licked clean. Mezar tried to
coax old Nico inside where it was warmer.

“In a moment,” the old man
said.

When Mezar had gone in with
the dishes, Nico creaked up out of his chair. His slippered feet slapped the
tiles and crunched on the gravel paths. He called out again with mouse-like
kissing sounds. “I’m sorry I frightened you,” he said. “I’ll leave my window
open in case you want to come out of the cold. My bedroom is up there, on the
second floor.”

He was inviting her to sleep
with him! Safely hidden, Lucia rolled onto her back and laughed as only a cat
can, silently, invisibly. “Fat chance,” she thought.

But after he’d gone inside,
and the patio doors closed, she reconsidered. She’d not had a good night’s
sleep in years. Even in the walled gardens where she preferred to spend the
night, she must always be alert – on the lookout for dogs, other cats, large
rats, insomniacs, early risers. Imagine a real bed, a real mattress! She
couldn’t. She’d never slept in one. As a child, she and her mother dozed on
straw. The old man was rich. His bed would be soft, warm, safe – too bad he was
in it. She would look, just a peek.

She climbed the tree and from
there saw an open window she could reach only by jumping through a space twice
as long as she was, landing with a thump and scrabble on the ledge. Which she
did. She peered into a large, dark room.

What a bed it was – enormous,
canopied, curtained, a row of pillows lined up behind old Nico’s head like fat
geese. His eyes widened and gleamed. They watched one another.

“Welcome, lovely!” he said, and
patted the brocade bedcover.

Lucia stayed where she was. The
room smelled of another cat, not a recent scent but ancient, from months ago,
or maybe years. It smelled of the musty, perfumed old man. It smelled of
lavender and pine. She didn’t trust it.

She watched as the old man slid
deeper under the covers, and turned to one side, where he sighed, belched, and
began to snore.

Night after night, Lucia
visited, drank the cream, allowed the old man to scratch her furry neck, and
hunted crickets and mice in the hedges. Sometimes she perched in the window and
watched him sleep. There was never anyone else in bed with the old man; he always
had the whole enormous mattress to himself.

Several times, quite late, she
slipped into the house and ran silently through rooms filled with rugs from
around the world. Archways, tiled hallways, sofas, and in one room a terrifying
piano with black and white teeth. She investigated the toilets and sniffed the
rugs, in which she detected donkey piss, cigarettes, goat milk, spilt coffee.
She killed a cockroach or two.

Mezar the servant slept
downstairs in a narrow bed off the kitchen. Even in his sleep he scarcely made
a sound, his breathing deep and smooth, except when he dreamed and his eyelids
twitched. Then, sometimes, he whimpered or snarled. He was handsome, with thick
black hair and sleek muscles, but Lucia was afraid of him, a being so consumed
by duty he seemed to have no desires of his own.

She always jumped out the window
long before she felt the need to curl up, and always scaled the garden wall long
before sunrise. There was a particular warm spot on the tiles where she liked
to doze until the early hours, when the clatter of the garbage trucks told her
it was time to leave, and where, on the other side of the wall, a pile of brown
rags lay waiting to cover her.

Days, Lucia made her usual rounds.
Her human hair was thicker and shinier from the daily bowl of cream. Not as hungry
or as tired as before, her pleas were softer, and, strangely, coins poured into
her hands. Instead of plain rolls, Lucia bought herself sandwiches piled with
onions and grilled meat. A sliver of padding emerged along her ribs and narrow
hips.

Now and then she spotted old
Nico in a restaurant, always alone, glaring at other diners with his blue eyes.
She no longer approached him in her human form, no longer had any desire to
expose his ugly side, which lay right on the surface anyhow. She crossed
streets to avoid him, and he didn’t even notice.

Late one night it rained, a downpour.
Cold and drenched, Lucia jumped onto Nico’s windowsill. She made certain he was
asleep, listening to his snoring before she entered. She investigated the edges
of the room with its many odors, rubbed her wet fur on the Turkish rug, licked
herself clean where dirt and leaves clung, blinked.

The old man was sitting up in
bed staring.

“Well, hello,” he said, groggily
but also gloatingly, a seducer who knows his victim has at last succumbed.

Lucia hissed.

“All right,” Nico said.
“Never mind. Do as you please.” He turned onto his side and closed his eyes. She
walked a circle on the rug, curled up. Wind blew in through the open window.
Icy rain spattered the tile floor. She couldn’t sleep.

At last, she slipped under
the heavy gold curtain onto the soft bed, the brocade quilt pleasantly rough
against her fur, the mattress so soft it gave her the strange, almost frightening
feeling of floating. The old man, though bony, was warm, a sharp heat, and the
warmth reminded her of sleeping with her mother as a child. His scent when
asleep was different, heavier, blurry, another blanket. She curled closer and
closer, he under the covers, she on top, until they lay back to back.

She woke once to the old man
stroking her fur. He whispered, “I think we shall become friends.” He lay a
hand on her head, scratched it expertly, and began to snore. The vibrations
were soothing. Despite herself, she purred.

In a moment, I’ll go, Lucia
thought – as soon as the rain stops. The bed was so warm and so soft. Impossible
to stop purring, impossible to stay awake. She kneaded the covers. If he tries
anything he shouldn’t, I’ll scratch his face.

It rained all night, it
didn’t stop. Because of this she overslept.

Morning came, cloudy, the sun
floated higher; its dim light fell through the window and touched the bed. Lucia
smelled the hot skunky odor of coffee brewing, opened her eyes, and found
herself face to face with the old man, whose own eyes sprang wide.

“What the hell?” he shouted,
his morning breath hot and foul. “You hussy! How did you get in! In my bed!”

Lucia scrambled away, the
tile floor slick and slippery with rainwater. Impossible to spring out the
window in her current form. She could already hear Mezar running up the stairs.

“You idiot!” she shouted
back. “You invited me. That’s right, you left your window open for me night
after night, fed me cream, called to me in those silly mouse squeaks. What a
stupid, stupid man you are.”

Nico’s mouth hung open, his
wrinkled hands plucked the quilt, his blue eyes were cloudy marbles. He tried
to speak but all he said was, “Gah,” as if he’d had a stroke.

Lucia snatched the old man’s
robe to cover herself.

Mezar arrived – tall, strong,
angry – and grabbed Lucia’s shoulders and pushed her through the house, a mouse
hooked to a claw, helpless. The house looked different through human eyes, all
the colors, for one thing – the hallway was green, the bathroom red, the piano
golden brown. A rich but treacherous place. She told herself it would be the
last time she would ever visit.

Mezar shoved her out the high
metal gate, a shove that sent her to her knees. “I don’t take kindly to
trespassers,” he said. “Next time, I call the police.”

Insults quivered on her
tongue but she kept them in her mouth. Police were everywhere in the wealthy
neighborhoods and she knew how rough they were. Mezar wiped his hands on his
trousers as if touching her had soiled them. He slammed the gate shut.

She stood, dusted off her
scraped hands and knees. Immense walls on both sides of the street, the only
signs of life maids and gardeners plodding up the hill to work. A police jeep
slowed as it approached and she started walking.

It seemed as if she must
still be asleep. The wet streets gleamed. The purple robe was light but warm. She
reached the park and sat on a wet bench. Such a terrible old man, and his
servant no better. Stunted, selfish, unhappy people. But the bed, the bed had
been lovely. She’d never slept so well in her life. She closed her eyes and remembered
the brocade quilt, the bloated pillows. She sat so still that after a while
small birds began to hop along her knees and shoulders. Carefully she opened
her eyes, admired their fluffy, juicy lightness. Her mouth watered slightly.
Little innocents, they had no idea.

Of course, Nico’s window
would no longer be left open. And, if it was, she couldn’t trust it. The two
men could be plotting – a trap, a cage, a sale to the circus, as her mother had
threatened whenever Lucia displeased her.

She slept in other gardens
after that, under chairs, and inside sheds, hiding the robe somewhere safe for
morning. She wandered the dusty outskirts of the city where people were poorer
and thus more generous. She couldn’t say how she’d come to be the way she was
because it was the way she’d always been.

Nico looked for her. Something
like that should be locked up, studied, dissected. How dare she sleep in his
bed under false pretenses! He hobbled from the center to the waterfront and
back again, needing a cane to support his right side, weak from the shock of
that traumatic awakening. He searched for a glimpse of wild black hair, his
purple robe. He couldn’t find her, though daily he sat, waiting, in the very
same restaurant where they’d first met. And as he waited and stirred his thick
coffee, sipped a bittersweet aperitif, ate dumplings and slices of cake, strange
thoughts entered his mind. He remembered her face that morning, how she’d
looked neither cunning nor fierce but shockingly young and innocent. Her
slippery, peeled nakedness. He tried to remember what he’d said to her and
couldn’t. He remembered her eyes, amber, cat’s eyes.

He wondered what a life like
hers was like, one animal by day, another by night, how lonely, so lonely. He
himself was lonely.

Weeks went by, the rain
heavy, and he worried. Perhaps the strange creature was dying or dead. What if
one day he stumbled upon a hairy heap of black, neither woman nor cat. Should he
try to save her? And for what? He’d seen the look in her eyes. She would kill
him and laugh about it afterwards.

That winter was long. Nico drooped.
He began to bite his nails and scratch the insides of his ears. His limp grew
worse. He decided he needed a cat, a nice one that would sit on his lap. He
sent Mezar searching for a kitten, and Mezar brought them home, little balls of
energy – a gray one, an orange one, a tabby. But they never stayed. Their
little tongues protruded as they smelled Lucia’s powerful musk, imperceptible
to humans, an odor that told them that she was strong and ruthless, that this
place was hers, and off they fled to other houses, other lives.

Spring came at last. The
cherry trees in the park exploded with white blossoms, and Lucia trudged back
into the city. She’d eaten nothing but stale bread and mice all winter. The
padding around her ribs had vanished, her hair was dull, her skin ashy, the
purple robe had faded to mauve. She smelled asparagus and peas, spring milk and
sardines. By now, she hoped the old man and his servant had given up looking
for her. She was hungry and tired of hiding.

The fizz of pollen, sweetness
in the air, the longer days. People were distracted and generous. Lucia
collected enough coins that morning to buy a cone of fried sardines from a
corner pushcart. She took it into an alley to eat secretly, beggars should
never be seen eating, and devoured the lovely crunchy fish, bones and all. She
licked her greasy lips and continued down the thoroughfare. But a full stomach
can dim the senses, make you careless.

Nico’s sharp blue eyes saw
her before she saw him. He limped hastily out of the restaurant with his new
jeweled cane.

They nearly collided. “Come
back,” he said hoarsely. “My home is your home.”

No one had ever said such a
thing to her.

Lucia sneered. “So you can
trap me in cage.”

He paused. “No, no!”

Which should she believe – his
words or the pause before them?

Lucia ran. Nico followed,
making a fool of himself in front of everyone. But she was fast and he was
slow. She disappeared among the alleys.

Nico ordered Mezar to search
for Lucia. “Cat, woman, cat,” he stuttered, repeating this again and again,
waving his hands. Nico handed Mezar a gold ring. “When you find her, give her
this.”

Mezar believed the decline
he’d feared for some time had come. He slipped the ring into his pocket and
left it there. His fervid sense of duty was crumbling like rotten wood. When old
Nico died, Mezar would be out of a job and a home. He had no intention of hunting
for this cat-woman or woman-cat or whatever she was. Look at what she’d done to
Nico. The old man could scarcely talk, and sometimes, worst of all, he wept.
No, Mezar didn’t want to go anywhere near that silky skin, that silky fur,
alarming things he’d spent a lifetime avoiding. He tucked Nico in at night and
helped him out of bed in the morning and changed the sheets when necessary.

Late one evening, as she trailed
the scent of roast lamb, Lucia found herself back on Nico’s quiet street. The
truck and its portable grill had vanished, leaving nothing behind, not even
bones. What a trial this stuffy neighborhood was! She’d seen no sign of either Nico
or Mezar since Nico’s disturbing invitation, although she’d been particularly
alert in case one or the other might sneak up behind to clap a net over her
head. If only the two had vanished along with the truck of roast lamb. She
sniffed at the base of their wall, not detecting much. Perhaps they’d been
swallowed by Nico’s piano or maybe they had floated away on the enormous bed.

Curious, she climbed onto the
garden wall and hid behind the purple jacaranda tree, ready to flee in an
instant. The garden smelled of roses, a rat or two, the brief tenure of the
kittens. A saucer of cream waited on the tiles. Lucia watched as Mezar helped
the old man to a chair and swaddled him in thick blankets, although the night
was warm. Nico was slowly dying, a strangely calming thing for a cat to
witness.

She stayed hidden, as the old
man was helped inside and to bed, as Mezar brought in the bowl of cream and
swept the patio. She watched as the second-floor window opened. Listened as
Mezar turned out the lights and whimpered in his own lonely bed.

What harm could they do to
her now, these two sad creatures, one near death and the other weak with fear? Lucia
trotted along the wall, along the long branch of the tree, and leaped. She
jumped into the bed, sniffed at Nico’s cold nose and wrinkled ears, and nestled
herself against his warm back. She slept all night. In the morning she stayed.

Was old Nico happy at last? It was hard to tell. He no longer spoke,
his eyes were dim, but when she sat on his lap, his face relaxed and he scratched
her neck. Who knows what his life might have been like if he’d been kinder
sooner.

In no time at all, Lucia gave birth to a vast litter, all of them fond
of Nico’s quiet lap. No one knew who the father was. Was it Mezar, whose step
was lighter, who sometimes even smiled as the children banged on the piano and tussled
on the rugs, or was it old Nico, although that was hard to imagine, or had
Lucia managed to produce her children through another kind of magic? She
herself wasn’t saying, having become plump and languid. She drowsed and dozed
and ate, curled in the garden with sardines and cream and pillows, as her lively
offspring scrambled up the jacaranda tree and over the garden wall, sparkling through
town.




The Broken Parts

He hadn’t slept in two
days and held a human heart between his palms like clay. This was the last painful
hurdle before bed. He worked his magic, the frail man on the operating table survived,
and the lights all faded out like dying constellations as the staff left the sterile
room. Alone, he ran his hands beneath scalding water and watched the crimson
streams from his gloves finally run clear. A cough erupted from deep inside his
chest. The noise echoed against the walls and flew back at him. When he looked
into the mirror ahead, his grey eyes drooped, and his lips tightened around his
teeth. Here, each night, he was presented with the same choice. The same test
he usually failed.

“Get rest, old man,” the young nurse playfully called to him
from behind the counter where she shuffled patients’ files like playing cards.

It was all the same game of luck, really. The doctors tried
their best. The nurses tried their best. But the universe played out its hand
each time and if the cards were low, there was nothing to be done. He liked
that freedom. Each and every time he could simply do his best. He put his heart
and soul into the surgeries and prayed silently beneath his paper mask. But the
choices he made were clinical. Decisions he was trained for after years of
school, practice, and intuition. As he got into his car, hours before anyone
else would reasonably get up, the street lines blurred and he slipped his phone
onto the seat next to him.

She had texted three times. His wife, however, hadn’t messaged
him once all day because she was busy with the children and a dying mother and
knew eventually her husband would return to her. His mistress, though, enjoyed
no such security. At least she didn’t think she did, so she piqued his interest
with stories of her day. A man had hit on her at the corner bodega, offering to
buy her the ripest peaches. The doctor pounded his steering wheel a little,
jealous. She mentioned a job offer in Arizona where the air was dry. He gripped
the wheel, digging in his nails, as if he could grip her hands, too, and keep
her from leaving Philadelphia.

The last text simply said “I need you,” and he swerved off the
freeway, making a quick turn back towards the city whose lights were harsh against
his eyes as a headache pulsed up from the base of his neck. He took medicine.
He sipped water. He thought of texting his therapist who sometimes, not
usually, but sometimes convinced him to get back on the freeway, but tonight he
had no strength left. His shoulders ached beneath the bones. The city pulled
him back as if he were caught on a string. Soon, he entered her parking garage
and used the spare key, letting himself into the slick apartment where she had
presumptuously set two plates and poured bourbon.

She knew his last surgery ended at one and that he had two
luxurious days off. His wife had no idea, because he never gave her the real
schedule. Doing so would mean he would be forced to make the right choices. The
real luxury of two days off was being able to choose what to do with his time.

“You never messaged me back,” the mistress scolded.

“No time,” he mumbled, taking the drink all at once and pushing
the glass forward, a silent request for another.

“So you make time. I worry when I don’t hear from you.” She
unwraps her hair from its bun and lets the burgundy curls hang over his
shoulder as she embraces him and presses her cool lips against his neck.

“Never worry. It’s frantic on surgery days and if I’m not
careful, a nurse could see my phone and our messages. What if they told my
wife?”

She withdraws and moves to the kitchen, picking up a peach as a
silent threat, now pressing her lips against the soft fuzz. See? the action says. Other men want me
just as much as you do. And they are not tethered to wives.
This is her
punishment when he brings up his wife, but he is compelled to do it each visit
to torture her … or himself. He isn’t sure.

“You’re pale. Eat the dinner. I’ll get you another drink.”

She is a masterful cook. The food anchors him to the table and
the room. There is no space for his confused thoughts between the meal and the
way her body moves as she tells him about her day. He feels the heat return to
his own dogged frame and soon he wants nothing more than to be next to her.
They met accidentally seven years ago in the train station. She dropped her bag,
and its contents scattered along the cement cracks. He picked up each piece to
help her, and he felt needed. He felt like he was getting to know her with each
item, gently placed back in her black gloved hand. It was a scene from a film.
It was the moment the hero, or the villain, wakes up to the world.

In her apartment, after they eat and make small talk, he
delivers the line perfectly that he must say each time.

“I’ve got to get home soon. I can’t stay the night.”

She shakes her head. Not yes or no but an understanding that
their time is finite, and she should know better than to hang her hopes on this
relationship. But she’s become too fond of him to let go and when they kiss,
she’s back at the train station, too. He is neatly picking up the scurrying pieces
of her scattered life and handing them back to her. Love is strange that way.
Never kind, in her experience. At least, he is the kindest man she has been
with in some time.

This man, she tells herself, is built to save lives.

*

In the bedroom he is precise, undoing her dress and bra, folding
them and placing them into the hamper. She rolls on the bed, wrecking the
sheets before he gets in, not allowing him to be precise there. She is his
tornado, and he releases his fears and frustrations, moving with her the way a
grain of sand navigates the stormy dessert. He is utterly enthralled and
despite his best intentions, he falls asleep in her tangled arms, exhausted.

His wife is used to his absence, he tells himself. She is better
when he’s not there. Perhaps happier.

In the morning, after sleep and coffee, his life comes into
focus and his mistress is wound tightly again. She is dressed for work and will
not look him in the eyes because he is leaving, and they never share two nights
in a row. He won’t go to the hospital now. He’ll drive across the bridge and
find his small neighborhood where the morning has raced along without him. He
will shower in the basement, then climb the stairs and emerge a new man to his
family.

“I’m taking the job,” his mistress announces as he laces his
shoes and stretches out a cramp behind his shoulder blade, readying himself to
find his way again.

“That’s a shame,” is all he can muster. He has already left her
apartment in his mind and second-guesses the space his absence leaves in his
home. He is imagining the bed his wife slept in alone. The sheets are barely
crumpled, and half of it is desolate because it is unused. He swore he wouldn’t
stay the night here, but he always does.

“You’re sick,” she says to him.

“I hope Arizona is beautiful,” he lies, because she won’t go and
he won’t let her go. He may know the mechanics of how a heart works, but he is
utterly unaware of the magic it can hold over someone.

“I’ll send you postcards and pictures that will make you ache,”
she swears, slamming the door behind her.

On the highway, he plays old music. Loud music that reminds him
of reckless days when so much wasn’t at stake. His muscles are sore, and his phone
vibrates against his hip.

I need you the message says,
only this time it is his wife, and a string of mundane items from the grocery
store follow. Except he ignores the rest and clings to the first three words. I
need you.

After running the errands, he enters the basement and steps into
the scalding shower. In his mind he recites the rest of his week. Four surgeries.
Four card games where he can only do his best. When he turns off the water and
stands naked, dripping, and confused, he realizes what a shame it is that he
can equally fix and break hearts so easily. The mistress. His wife. His own.




Talk to Me, Please

Abby, the landlady, pressed her ear to
the closed door of her bedroom. She could hear the faint sound of the
television in the living room. She longed to go outside and sit with her new
tenant, Tom, but she restrained herself from doing so. From past experience she
had learnt that tenants didn’t like too much familiarity. They found it
intrusive.

She couldn’t hear the television anymore.
Abby frowned to herself. And then she heard footsteps approaching her door. Her
heart started thudding loudly and her body tensed up in anticipation. Maybe Tom
was coming to talk to her. But instead, she heard the footsteps fade away again
as he entered his bedroom. The door swung shut behind him. Abby slumped against
the door, disappointed.

She finally pulled herself away from the
door, and sat on her bed. Even though her room was spacious, it was cramped
with so many things that there was hardly any room to walk around. Her
four-poster bed occupied a quarter of the room. The metal cupboard stood right
next to it, towering over the small keyboard that was balanced on its stand.
The only table in the room was covered with books. The shelves were filled with
paper dolls, small figurines, wreaths and paper cuttings. She had been an
artist once. Her creations were her companions. Her cluttered room prevented
her from going insane. Empty spaces reminded her of everything she didn’t have.
A family. A companion. Someone to talk to.

The clatter of plates in the kitchen
caught Abby’s ear. Unable to keep herself confined in her room any longer, she
flung open the bedroom door and hurried to the kitchen. Tom froze with a plate
in his hand. For a moment, he looked surprised. And then his face broke into a
smile. “Abby, how are you?”

A flood of emotions welled up inside
Abby’s chest at the opportunity to converse with another human. “Tom, what are
you having for dinner?”

Tom shrugged. He was still in his office
attire, but his shirt had come untucked. Abby couldn’t tell how old he was. But
with his freckled face and toothy grin, he could easily pass as a teenager. “I
had ordered pizza yesterday. Heating up the leftovers. Do you want some?” He
picked up a greasy slice of pizza from a pizza box and placed it on the plate.

Abby shook her head. She felt suddenly self-conscious
in her tight slacks and loose t-shirt. But then again, why should she care? She
was seventy years old. Half of her teeth were missing. She walked with a limp.
Her hairline had receded. She was so unattractive that some days she couldn’t bear
to look at herself in the mirror.

As Tom waited for the pizza to heat up in
the microwave, he smiled good-naturedly at Abby. “Your apartment is beautiful.
How long have you been living here?”

“Oh, I know. I absolutely love this
apartment. I moved in years ago with my boyfriend. I mean, he was my boyfriend
then. We decorated this place together. You see the living room? How beautiful
it is? I found all those antiques myself. Some of it is just junk which I found
on the road and then remodelled myself. It was nice, you know, setting up this
place. Anyway, our relationship didn’t work out. He left one day. But I
couldn’t bear to leave this place. So, I continued staying here. I’ve had
boyfriends since, but nothing serious. Obviously you know that. It’s just me
living here now. All by myself.” Abby gave an awkward little laugh, leaning on
the kitchen counter.

Tom smiled, not saying anything.

Abby carried on. “I’ve had so many
tenants live here over the years. And…”

The sudden ping of the microwave made
Abby pause. This was the problem with her. When she found company, she couldn’t
stop talking. She should go away or else Tom would get tired of her. But she
couldn’t pull herself away now. These few minutes of conversation had invigorated
her.

Tom had been nodding methodically all
this while, a look of sympathy on his face. He took out the plate from the
microwave and sat down at the dining table.

“But it gets lonely here, you know. Look
at the apartment, it’s quite large, isn’t it? Two bedrooms! And, the rent isn’t
cheap either.” This wasn’t entirely true. Even though the apartment was large,
it was quite cheap. Abby had rented it decades ago, and Toronto’s housing laws
had prevented large rental increments over the years. The only reason she
rented out the other bedroom was because she was lonely, and she would go crazy
in here if she didn’t have company. She didn’t talk to her sister anymore. Her
brother had died a few years ago. God, her life really was pathetic. She didn’t
have anyone.

Tom’s eyes were glazing over, and he had
started glancing at his phone frequently. Abby knew it was time to stop
talking. “Carry on with your dinner. Make this place home. Let me know if you
need anything at all.”

“I will, Abby. Thank you so much.”

Abby turned to leave, but then she
stopped again. “I’m sorry. I know I start blabbering each time I meet you. It’s
just so good to have someone else around.”

“No worries, Abby.” This time, Tom’s
smile was definitely forced.

Back in her room, Abby sat on her bed and
looked around at the blue walls. She was hungry, but she didn’t want to have
dinner with Tom because she didn’t want him to feel bothered by her presence.
It was strange to feel like this. A guest in your own home. But if she started
bothering her guests too much then her ratings on Airbnb would fall, and no one
would rent her place. And alone in this place… She didn’t want to think about
it. She would wait for Tom to finish dinner and then she would quietly step
outside to eat.

*

Next morning when Abby stepped out of her
bedroom, Tom had already left for work. He worked at a marketing agency. He was
only visiting Toronto for a few weeks. None of her tenants stayed for long. The
deathly silence of the house felt tolerable because Abby knew that it was
short-lived. In the evening, there would be voices again inside her home.

She walked through the living room,
admiring the furniture. On the study-table, stood a vintage typewriter. One of
her previous tenants had been a writer, and had been the first and last person
to ever use it. Abby still remembered the sound of the keys clacking as the
writer’s fingers moved nimbly over the alphabets. A warm summer breeze made the
light curtains flutter. A street-car was moving majestically down the road. Abby
stood by the window, letting the sunshine flood her face. Maybe she should
visit the library. It would do her some good to step outside. She sighed to
herself. Not today. Bright, happy days like this made her very unhappy.

As she slowly trudged back to her room,
she paused outside Tom’s bedroom. The door was firmly shut. Abby turned the
doorknob gingerly, and opened the door. Tom must have left in a hurry in the
morning. The bed lay undone, sheets rumpled. His clothes lay scattered on the
bed. Abby immediately longed to tidy up his room, but she stopped herself. If
she cleaned the mess, then he would know that she had been inside his room. And
that would be a problem. Her fingers twitched. She wanted to run her hands over
someone else’s belongings. She wanted to care for someone. She wanted to be of
some use to the world. Instead, she clenched her hands into fists and forced
herself to leave the room as it had been.

Abby had lunch by herself, and then fell
asleep in her room.

*

When Abby woke up, it was dark outside.
She had been having a terrible dream. She was sweating and her clothes clung to
her. She fumbled around in the darkness and found the light, switching it on.
Her heart was still racing. Her room seemed to be closing in on her. The
stillness of the room suffocated her. The apartment was too quiet. Where was
Tom? Had he not come back? She hurriedly moved to the door, and pressed her ear
to it. She couldn’t hear anything. Her heart thudded painfully.

“Calm down, Abby.” She forced herself to
stop shaking.

Exchanging a few sentences with Tom would
make her feel much better. She inched open the door slowly, and peeked through
the gap. She couldn’t see any sort of movement outside. Gradually, she opened
the door fully and stepped outside into the hallway. Finally, she heard him. He
was talking to someone in his room. His door was slightly ajar. She wanted to
move away now, but she couldn’t. It was so good to hear someone after all this
time.

“I had a busy day at work, sweetheart.
Sorry, I would have called you earlier. I miss you too.”

There was a pause. Abby waited.

“The landlady? Oh she’s okay. She stays
inside her room most of the time. Thank God for that. Once she starts talking,
she can’t shut up. But it’s okay really. I mean, she’s just lonely. I don’t
mind her honestly. The best way to get rid of her is to not reply to anything
she says. Just keep nodding, and after a while she leaves.”

Abby wanted to turn, but she was frozen
in place. How could Tom talk about her loneliness so flippantly? But it’s not as
though he owed her anything. She needed him more than he needed her. She needed
her tenants more than they needed her. But Tom’s words cut through her body
like a knife.

“What? Stacy, you’re asking me how she
looks? Do you know how old she is? She’s ancient. She’s an old hag. Anyway, how
was your day?”

Abby didn’t want to hear anymore. She
went back into her room, and closed the door. If only she could be strong and
stay alone in this house. Then she wouldn’t have to hear nasty things like
this. She wouldn’t have to rely on the kindness of strangers. For the next hour
she sat on her bed, fuming. She would tell Tom to leave. Tell him to be ashamed
of himself. She didn’t care anymore about what he thought or felt about her. She
would go out and have dinner. And if he happened to be in the dining room, she
wouldn’t even look at him.

That night, Abby had dinner alone. She
wanted Tom to come out of his room, but he never did. As she chewed through the
lasagne she had made for herself, she felt her anger slowly ebb away. She saw
herself for what she really was. A fat, old woman. Who had no one in the world.
Who cared if she was angry? Who cared if she was hurt? The world had no time
for people like her.

After dinner, Abby switched off the
lights in the living room. For a moment she stood in the darkness. Maybe she
didn’t need any more tenants. Maybe she shouldn’t rent out her place. But as
she trudged back to her room, she paused momentarily outside Tom’s room again.
He wasn’t on the phone anymore. She could hear him tapping away on his laptop.
The sound of another human placated her. The heaviness in her chest loosened.

She willed herself to keep walking, but
every cell in her body screamed out in desperation, “Talk to me, please.”




and this is just one idea of heaven

Photo credit: Lewis Roberts

The date isn’t going well, so
I don’t feel the need to lie when she arches one eyebrow and says: “What’s the
worst thing you’ve ever done?”

Her name is Carla, a trainee
paediatrician with blonde highlights and a diamond shining against the tan skin
of her throat, pretty in a solemn, sexless way. The daughter of one of my
father’s friends, she’s the latest in a series of women he has taken to placing
in my path with all the subtlety of a salesman.

“Come on, Nathan,” she says,
taking a careful sip of her Viognier, studying me over the rim of the glass. I
can’t help but imagine the way she will describe me to her girlfriends over
brunch. “I’m bored of small talk, tell me something interesting.”

I top up my own glass, then
hers, giving myself a moment to think. She’s pushing for something. It strikes
me that maybe she wants me to respond with something related to sex, but
nothing suitably risqué springs to mind. “I don’t know if it’s the worst thing,
but when I was nineteen I set fire to a gas station.”

I have to look up to see her
reaction: I’ve been spending a lot of the meal staring at my plate or the
insipid watercolour on the wall next to us. My father designed the building
opposite the restaurant we’re sitting in, just off Second Avenue. He didn’t
mention this when he recommended it to me as suitable for a first date. It wasn’t
until I sat in my window-facing chair that I noticed the grey building with its
faceted panelling, my view having been obscured by my umbrella when I stepped
out of the Uber outside. Having this office block watch me eat has done nothing
to improve my digestion. My father designs buildings for function, not form.

She smiles at me, uncertain,
though I can see that I haven’t shocked her. I haven’t told anyone else about
the fire before and her muted reaction is both a relief and a blow.

“In New York, or—?”

She cuts the question off,
another inherent in its abortive pause. I mentally replay my words to check I
got it right. Here it’s gas station, not petrol station or filling
station or even the station d’essence or benzinestation of my
school days. My accent is light enough to be indiscernible to even people from
my hometown, yet here in Manhattan I find myself having to repeat my orders to
bemused waitstaff on a daily basis. My inflections are all wrong, vowels too
modulated and consonants clipped, lacking the natural pitch and cadence of the
American accents around me. Something about my voice, I think, puts people off.

“Not here,” I say. “In Canada.
I studied there for a year.”

She hums, politely interested,
and reaches to take one of the dessert menus the waiter had placed discreetly
beside us a few minutes ago. The fingernail she runs down the list is a perfect
short almond, polished a pale dove grey that makes her look, on first glance,
like she suffers from a circulatory disorder. I am reminded of my maternal
grandmother and her cold, shaking hands, the nails permanently tinged blue.

“Did it help?”

I’m distracted, blinking at
her dumbly. “I’m sorry?”

“The fire. I presume there was
some sort of reason behind it. Did it help with whatever you wanted it to help
with?” She’s cool, speaks without lifting her gaze from the menu. It’s not hard
to imagine her speaking to a crying child: tell me how it hurts on a scale
of one to ten.

“It wasn’t meant to help with
anything,” I say after a pause. “It’s not like it was arson. It wasn’t, um.”
The word escapes me. “It wasn’t targeted.”

This is true. I looked it up
afterwards: to meet the legal definition of arson, the fire must be set for
personal, monetary or political gain. Technically what I did falls under the
definition of pyromania.

*

“Anything for yourself, sir?”
The waiter is back. The obsequious charm of service workers in America always
seems sincere to me, though I suspect it rarely is. Carla orders the white
chocolate and raspberry panna cotta and a double espresso, a choice I find
obliquely pleasing. Most girls on dates refuse the dessert menu altogether and
order another champagne cocktail instead, or else order the mango sorbet and
stir it abstemiously until it melts. In an effort to show her I approve, I
order the goat’s cheese cheesecake with lime sauce and an Irish coffee, but she
excuses herself to the bathroom while I’m still reciting my order. The waiter
murmurs very good, sir as he scribbles and I am briefly too warm.

There is a couple on the table
next to us – at least, I think they’re a couple, although they could be
brothers, the resemblance is close enough – who have been quietly arguing since
Carla and I had begun our appetisers. Actually, arguing isn’t the right term,
exactly; the smaller and younger-looking of the two has been lecturing his
companion for close to an hour now, his voice a plaintive hiss periodically
rising in volume enough to be audible from our table. As Carla makes her way
back from the bathroom, he puts his steak knife down with a clatter and says “I
just don’t think you understand the extent to which I’ve let my own personal
narrative be subsumed by yours this year, Mike.” Mike’s reply is too
quiet to hear.

Fascinated, I have to drag my
attention back to Carla when she slides neatly back into her seat. As she does
so, the younger man reaches across the table and grabs Mike’s hand, knocking
his cutlery onto the floor in the process. I try to imagine what it must be
like to be so unafraid of causing a scene, of holding another man’s hand in
public and using phrases like “personal narrative”.

The waiter brings over our
desserts. The lime sauce on the cheesecake is bitterly overpowering even
against the tang of goat’s cheese, rendering the whiskey in my coffee sour and
spoiled. It’s a rookie error, too many bold flavours fighting for dominance on
my tongue: the choices of an unsophisticated palate. I think back to the waiter
and his murmured praise and wonder if he laughed once his back was turned.

*

The gas station squatted at
the edge of campus like an afterthought. I had been living in Montréal for
nearly seven months, studying at the École de technologie supérieure on
a year abroad. I didn’t have a car and anyway I was drinking nearly every day
that semester – the neighbourhood we were based in had once been home to a
brewery, which somehow served as an excuse for a near constant state of
inebriation amongst my fellow matriculates and me that year – so I spent a lot
of time riding the bus that served the edge of town where our student housing
was located.

Usually I rode this particular
route alone, but the first time I really noticed the gas station I was with
Pierre, a volatile French-Canadian two years my junior whose overgrown canines
and patchy facial hair gave him a vaguely lycanthropic appearance. I can’t
recall now the precise sequence of events that led to us ending up on that bus
together, but it was later that night, half drunk on cheap rum from the sleazy
bottle store down the block, that he let me suck his dick for the first time.
His hand tentative on the back of my neck while I prayed he would tighten his
grip.

“This has to be the ugliest
bus route in all of Canada,” he said as we inched down the highway in the early
evening traffic. It had snowed earlier that day, a light fall by Quebecois
standards, the sound of the bus wheels trundling through the grey slush a
pleasing bass note to Pierre’s rapidfire French.

“It’s not like I’m riding it
for the scenery,” I said, or something like that. Our knees were pressed
together, his left to my right, and it was distracting me to the point of
incoherence. At some point I had become convinced that I was acting against his
will, that he did not want to touch me and I was simply hemming him in against
the wall of the bus the way I had seen sweating older men do to girls at clubs.
I was testing him every few minutes by moving my knee away briefly, on the
pretext of stretching or leaning down to scratch my ankle. Each time I did, his
knee would chase its way back to mine a few seconds later.

“Even so,” Pierre said, using
his sleeve to rub a circular porthole in the condensation that had built up on
the windowpane. “It’s just so bleak. I don’t know how it doesn’t make you
depressed.”

“I’m very depressed,” I
intoned, in English because I knew it annoyed him. He glanced at me and
grinned. He had recently bleached his hair over his shared bathroom sink and it
had turned a fascinating orangey shade, dry and patchy. I had the feeling that
if I grabbed a clump of it in my fist, it would snap straight off like a dead
twig.

“Look,” he said, gesticulating
out of the window at the small patch of scenery visible. The gas station. It
could have been anywhere. “Even the amenities are hideous.”

“Oh, come on,” I said and he
laughed, that special high-pitched yelp. “It’s a fucking petrol station. They’re
always ugly.”

Petrol station,” he
said, lips pursed, in a stiff approximation of the Queen’s English – mocking
me. Then, slipping back to French and solemn: “Bad architecture hurts me on a
soul level.” He reminded me of my father then. Pierre was studying construction
engineering.

It would have been pleasingly
literary had he exclaimed something like god, they should just burn
the whole lot down!
He didn’t, though; just yawned and pushed his leg so
hard against mine that I could feel the tense muscles of his thigh even through
two layers of denim, and asked me if I had any cigarettes, which I didn’t.

*

“Did you not get into trouble?”
Carla asks me as she spears a raspberry. I’m still pushing pieces of the
cheesecake into my mouth and chewing and swallowing even though the taste of it
is so disappointing that it makes me want to cry with frustration.

“No. They never found out it
was me. I don’t think it was a very big deal. It was a student town, you know?
There was a lot of dumb shit going on. Vandalism, frat parties that got out of
hand, that kind of thing.”

She looks at me for a long
moment, long enough that my scalp begins to prickle, and says, “I guess it’s
not as if anyone died.”

*

A few days after the fire, I
happened to see a local news bulletin, a rarity for me as the television at my
flat had been broken well before I moved in. I was at the local dive bar, a
sticky-floored basement popular with the student community, drinking to get
drunk and staring at the screen mounted above the bar to occupy myself.

At some point it occurred to
me that I recognised the footage they were showing: blackened shell, scrubby
trees, distant overpass. The strapline across the bottom of the screen
identified the owner of the destroyed gas station, a tired man with a face made
blurry by middle-age. The television was muted to allow for an old Pavement
album to blare through the speakers, but the closed captions were spooling
across the bottom of the screen. The garbled text transcribed the financial
ruin that now faced him and his family. He had two children under the age of
twelve. His wife had recently recovered from a mastectomy.

I watched this and perhaps it
was the beer I had drunk or the fact that Pierre was standing at the bar at an
angle which meant he could not see the screen and I could not see his face, but
any guilt I tried to muster for this man and his family was entirely
performative. I wondered, half-excited, at my lack of shame. I remember looking
around to see if anyone else was watching so I could catch their eye and say
something like that’s so sad or that poor guy and maybe mean it
in all sincerity for the three or four seconds it took my mouth to form the
words, but nobody was.

*

It takes a surprisingly long
time for a fire to really take hold, even somewhere as volatile as a gas
station. It’s not as dramatic as it is in films. Of course, there’s a chance
that maybe I just hadn’t set it properly, not being an expert. Maybe there
really is a way of making the flames lick and bloom within seconds of striking
a match. Though actually, I didn’t use a match: I used a lighter I had taken
from Pierre’s bedside table, purple plastic with the partially scratched-off
logo of an energy drinks brand on one side. When I arrived back in Hamburg a
few days later for winter break, not so much hungover as still drunk and sick
from the preceding night, I realised I had accidentally packed it in my
carry-on and wondered why security had not taken it from me. I still have it
now, in the bathroom medicine cabinet among the out-of-date condoms and bottles
of Benadryl. It doesn’t work any more, it’s empty. Someday I’ll clear it all
out, throw it all away.

When I think of the fire, it
is in the same way that I might assess a painting or photographic print in a
gallery, an amateur critic. An aesthetic appreciation based on tones, angles,
use of negative space. Darkness bleached from the sky by the backlit signage
and, later, the fire itself; scorch marks creeping up blistering white paint,
the disappointingly pale flames themselves where I had been expecting rich
oranges and reds. My cheeks burning from the intense dry heat, so bad I had to
buy a tube of moisturiser the next time I went to the store. The strange
symmetry of the column of fire slowly inching its way into a sky so polluted
with light it was somehow orange and purple and yet simultaneously neither of
those things, and the quiet dignity of the petrol pumps as they waited for the
flames to catch up.

There is no chronology to
these memories. Each brief snatch of time exists unmoored, its own beginning
and end. I cast myself in the role of disinterested spectator.

I left, in the end, because
the glass in the sliding doors of the convenience store began to smash. It must
have been reinforced somehow against burglaries or other vandalism, but the
frames the thick panes sat in were soft metal and the one thing I do remember
clearly is the way the glass warped and ballooned before it finally
disintegrated. I stood entranced by it. The vinyl decals of the chain’s logo
disfigured and melting like an acid trip in a film.

The sound the glass made as it
smashed was oddly muted, a muffled crunch that nonetheless made me jump in my
adrenalised state. My heart was beating so hard it made me choke. I don’t know
why exactly, but something about the open gasping mouth of the doorway fringed
with jagged teeth of glass disquieted me. The flames were already feeling their
way inside, nosing across the carpet tiles to explore the shelves of
plastic-wrapped convenience food.

*

In the end, the gas station
didn’t change anything fundamental about my life. They don’t bother with CCTV
in places like that. The fire is simply another thing that happened to me, a
story to tell bored girls in restaurants.

The arguing couple beside us
have fallen silent; Mike, the taciturn one, is counting out money from a folded
wedge of bills. His partner is staring furiously at the crumpled napkin on the
table in front of him, muttering under his breath.

“Well, this was really nice,”
Carla says. There is a sincerity in her voice that makes something in my chest
ache briefly. “Shall we get the check?”

“Yes,” I say, and my voice
comes out in a kind of croak.

*

Thoughts of the fire do not
come to me every day. I can go for weeks, months even, without thinking about
it. When I do, the images of the flames are often warped and overlaid with
other memories from that year: the day a large bird flew into the patio window
of my parents’ dining room just before the house was sold, the dusty imprint
its body left and the way my mother’s hands gripped at her throat in shock. The
three moles on Pierre’s back beneath his left shoulder-blade as he stretched,
and how the solid presence of his body formed a halo of the sunlight through
the window of my room. My father clapping me on the back with a hard little
smile and saying best to get all that kind of thing out of your system in
college, son.

After it happened, though, I
began to be plagued by a strange sensation in the pit of my stomach. The
feeling is the same one I had when a rental car I had been driving while on
holiday in Reykjavik some years ago had caught a patch of black ice and drifted
into the path of a concrete barrier.

By steering into the skid and
keeping my feet away from the brake pedal the way I had been taught, I had
managed to escape with no more than a smashed headlamp and cosmetic damage, but
as my car began its slow-motion drift towards the wall I had been utterly
helpless, a passenger with the steering wheel spinning uselessly through my
fingers. What had struck me afterwards was my utter lack of fear. My body had reacted
without my conscious input, operating on some basic, lizard desire for
survival, and yet I watched dispassionately as the barrier approached and my
brain said: oh.

When the car slewed to a stop,
the brakes steaming in the freezing air, I was barely even out of breath, my
heartbeat steady in my chest.

As a child I would be
overwhelmed with the desire to step out into traffic every time I waited to
cross a road. The same urge would hit me on a train platform, or when following
my mother through the glassware aisle of a department store whose shelves were
emblazoned with signs that read FRAGILE PLEASE DO NOT TOUCH PLEASE ASK FOR
ASSISTANCE
. The desire to be a force acting upon the world, to bring about
some kind of change. To leave a trail in my wake.

*

Carla allows me to pay for
both of us. For a moment I consider asking her if she would like to come back
to my flat but the idea of it quickly strikes me as exhausting. She says
nothing as I sign the bill.

“Thank you, that was
delicious,” I say to the maître d′ as I help Carla into her coat. Her perfume
wafts up to me as she flicks her hair out from her collar: something warm and
spicy, lightly toasted. For a moment I am gripped by a desire to hold her
close. It passes as quickly as it had come. Across the street, the windows in
the grey office block glow orange in the light from passing cabs.

“Excuse me?” the maître d′
says. I repeat myself, making an effort to enunciate more clearly, and he
smiles and inclines his head demurely but makes no reply.

I rode the bus past the gutted
remains of the station almost every day for the few months that remained on my
exchange programme. A few weeks after the fire, the workmen arrived to finish
the job I had begun. By the time I left, they were building something new.




The Crawl

Picture Credits: Roger Casado

Matty’s
getting hitched and we’re all out for the crawl. The Admiral to The Dog and
Duck is the usual route and today’s no different. Halfway round and we’ve got
souvenirs. Gaz has nabbed a road sign of a man digging a hole, Bilbo’s picked
flowers but he won’t say why, and Matty’s filled his handbag with salt and
pepper and a thing of vinegar that’s leaking and stinks of piss. Me, I’m
basically carrying Matty. He didn’t want his chair on his big night.

Matty’s
best man is his sister which is weird because it should be me and everyone
knows it. But apparently she’s been dead supportive since he came back, helped
him with his physio and stuff. She’s not here tonight which is good, but she
did the organising and fair enough she’s done an alright job, gave us a big bag
of drag to dole out to Matty bit by bit and told us to watch out for a WPC in
The Dog and Duck.

Halfway
round means we’ve done three pubs. Two pints a pub means we’re six pints in,
apart from Bilbo who’s had two gin and tonics and a vodka martini. The Crown’s
next. It’s grim in here but at least it’s cheap. Number seven gets us leaning
but there’s still some talking to be had. About Bilbo’s new Saab and Gaz’s new
bird. About footy but not playing footy because we don’t talk about that when
Matty’s around. He says he doesn’t mind but I can’t believe that’s true. Then
Bilbo starts chatting about his folks and asks about everyone else’s folks.
About Matty’s dad who’s packed in the plumbing and Gaz’s mum who got four
numbers on the lottery but didn’t win that much. All Bilbo’s ever wanted is a
dinner party. But when he gets round to me they all go quiet, take a step back,
as if I’m the bomb that saw to Matty’s leg. Then Bilbo pipes up that we should
have got my dad out tonight because there’s no point him being alone in the
circumstances. I say lads, we’re out on the crawl, let’s chew down number eight
and move on.

Up
the high street and Gaz is heaving and weaving. Drags his face across a few
houses then walks the wing mirror off a car. A skinhead standing outside the
Baron sees it happen and comes screaming over. Surprise surprise Gaz finds his
straight lines again and him and Matty scarper three-legged up the hill. I’m
going with them until I realise Bilbo’s stopped to explain. This could be the
end of Bilbo so I hang back. Turns out it’s not even the skinhead’s car and
he’s happy to forget all about it when Bilbo slips him a third tenner. Can’t
miss a drop on the crawl so I sling down two pints in the Baron whilst Bilbo
nurses half a lager and peach. Bilbo thanks me for stopping back, says my mum
would be proud. Piss off Bilbo.

Ten
pints in and the whole town’s throbbing with it. Up the hill to the Dog and Duck.
Church is on the right. We cross to the other side and not just because the
vicar’s probably a wrong’n. Can’t stand that place. But when I do give it a
quick eyeball I see Gaz has left his digging sign in the graveyard. It would
have been a laugh a few weeks ago but not now. I lose it, charge across the
road and suddenly I’m rolling across a bonnet. Ground hits me like a tank but
I’m red-misting and back on my feet to put my foot through that sign. The car
drives off which isn’t on but the police would probably understand not stopping
for some loon having it out with a stick man.

Turns
out that knock did me some actual damage. Face hurts. Elbow hurts. Lie on my
back for a bit, quick rest. Head’s spinning too and it takes me a while to
realise I’m still in the graveyard. The smell of it. Wet grass and dug dirt and
cut stone.

I
try to stand up but the sign’s tangled on my foot. Try to kick it off but it
won’t budge. Then I’m scrabbling at the floor, wriggling like a worm. Then a
tiny hand lands on my shoulder. But it’s no angel, it’s Bilbo.

He
unhooks me from the sign and helps me up, takes me up the road and sits me on a
bench. That bonnet hit my jaw and the hinge is all swollen. Can hardly talk and
my breathing’s gone fast. Bilbo gets it all wrong, tells me it’s okay, it’s
okay. I try to tell him to piss off but it comes out all groany. So he pats my
knee and does this little laugh. Says he’ll always remember the time my mum
stuck up for him when Gaz put a full johnny on his neck. I still can’t tell him
to shut up so I catch his hand and try to crush it but whatever’s wrong with my
elbow has turned my grip weak so we just sit there holding hands with him
sniffing those stupid flowers he’s carrying.

Then
he’s just talking and talking in his squeaky little voice. Wish he’d piss off
or that I’d piss off but I’m tired. Starts telling me about his flowers. Calls
them some religious name that sounds like that vicar’s awful spiel, going on
and on when you just want to chuck some dirt in the big hole and go home.

And
Bilbo’s going on and on now. Telling me how these flowers were his mum’s
favourite and how it’s helpful to remember the little things. And then he
starts listing it all. Chicken korma and Patrick Swayze. I find my voice at
last and tell Bilbo that flowers and curry and dead actors don’t matter to his
mum now. Don’t want to see how this creases him so I jog on up the hill.

There’s
a dog in The Dog and Duck. They used to have a duck too but that dog is a nasty
little shit. Got big bollocks and big teeth and it’s sitting by Gaz and Matty.
Matty’s in near enough full drag now, but old frilly stuff like in that Downton
Abbey show I never watch no more.

Matty
asks what happened to my arm and I tell him and he says just sit down mate. I
have a go at Gaz about the digging sign and Matty agrees it was proper harsh. Insensitive
is the word he uses. Dunno how Matty’s holding it together. Would’ve thought
there’d be less of him to soak up the booze but maybe what’s left of him has
got used to the bingeing. Or maybe he’s dropping pints, sneaky prick. I love
Matty. Poor lad. Gaz mumbles and grumbles that he’s sorry he didn’t think. His
face has gone long like he’s sniffing a guff. Beyond pissed. Apology not
accepted, mate.

I
ask for six more pints but the girl will only give me one. While she’s got her
back turned Matty sweeps more salt and pepper and vinegar into his handbag. I
tell him he’s done pretty well nabbing all that shite, just like the good old
days, isn’t it just like it used to be, because we’re best mates and that’ll
never change and when we’re a hundred-and-ten we’ll still be out on the crawl,
won’t we, won’t we. He says he’s taking the salt because they forgot condiments
for the wedding breakfast. Then some soft lad comes over to the bar with his
phone in his back pocket and I don’t think I just swipe. Screen’s unlocked and
everything. Some proper swag this. Matty looks dead cross. This is miles better
than his daft condiments.

Gaz
wanders off to the bogs and I leave it a minute before following. I think I’m
gonna do him in, yeah probably gonna do him in. But I find him snoozing on the
floor with his kecks down and that nasty dog sniffing about. It’s too good to
miss. I take a pic on the phone then send it to a load of the contacts. I don’t
send it to the number under Mum though, just give her a Hi how r u? Plan is to
draw her in with normal stuff then send her a snap of Matty’s stump claiming
her son has had an accident. Proper funny that.

I
get back and show Matty the pic and he goes all quiet. He’s stewing, says he
wants to talk serious for once so I let him. He says just hear me out, mate,
listen. He says that if it wasn’t for Sharon and his sister he would have
topped himself because at first he couldn’t stand the sight of his stump and he
was boozing too hard. He says this and it’s true. He says that actually he’s
feeling better than ever and by the way Sharon’s cooking up a little’n but
don’t tell anyone. If he can deal with losing a leg, he says, he can deal with
anything, because he’s realised you can either drown in the shit and the booze
or you can keep on with life, are you getting me?

Then
I say yeah, you can deal with anything, Matty, unless it’s a long ball over the
top, mate. Matty gives me this nothing smile then flips the talk back onto me,
asks how I’m holding up, and I say what, holding up my pint, with my hand you
daft prick. Then he asks again and I say I’m fine can’t you see I’m fine.

The
dog follows Gaz back from the bogs. He’s yawning and his words have gone
straight. He’s all talk is Gaz and apparently he’s a good nurse when it comes
down to it. He says he’s gonna call it a night because he’s gotta get up early
tomorrow. Matty’s not bothered but I am because it’s Matty’s big night. I start
having a go, saying Matty’s still here and never mind Bilbo he was never gonna
last, and I’m here, even I’m here, I’d never miss a minute of the crawl. But
apparently Gaz has got to take his old man to a kid’s panto in the morning. He
likes the shouting apparently.

As
soon as Gaz is out the pub I’m proper howling about that. About Gaz sitting
through Cinderella with his bonkers dad when there’s a picture of him getting a
blozzer from a dog going round town. Matty tells me to just grow up so I tell
him to grow down then I give him this big wringing hug. He’s stiff as a board
until his hands come up to pat my back. I love Matty.

We’ve
still got the dress-up bag and I tell Matty he’s got to finish it or he doesn’t
get to go home. I hand him the bag and then get my twelfth pint and one for Matty.
The girl gives me a narrow eye but pours them anyway. When I turn around
Matty’s wearing that hat.

That
hat.

I
drop my pints. One bounces one smashes. Then I’m at Matty’s throat telling him
to take that hat off. Everyone in The Dog goes mental because I’m choking a war
hero and I say I prefer war heroes that can still fight because I’m not
thinking I’m just raging. Some big lad drags me off and he’s about to kick my
head in when Matty tells him it’s okay, it’s okay.

Matty
plumps up the hat. Gives it to me. Little purple velvet thing Mum wore on
Sundays. Matty’s sister must have hit the Oxfam in town.

We
don’t get booted out because Matty plays the stump card but it looks like the
girl’s already called it in because a copper turns up. Just one and she’s
carrying a bag. But she’s not after me she’s after Matty. Cuffs him to a chair
and takes her jacket off and then I realise. Whole pub hoots like an owl and
even that dog is barking. Everyone’s crowding in but I’m pushing out, falling
backwards through blokes like I’m sinking in quicksand.

And
then I’m out the other side. It’s quiet here. Peaceful.

I
put the hat on my face. Breathe.

Tulips.
Fish and chips. The bloke that plays the Downton butler.

Can’t
fall short on the crawl so I drain a couple of half pints that were left behind
in the crush. Done.

My
pocket’s buzzing like a beehive. There’s some replies to Gaz and the dog.
Yellow heads laughing but crying.

The
lad’s mum has replied too. She says Im gud sweetheart sweet of u 2 ask. R u
havin a nice time. Take care.

I
reply Gud thx.

She
sends a yellow head kissing out a heart.

So
I say Mum how r u rly wil u pls tell me if smthng wrng.

So
she says Am fine. Is evrythng okay.

And
I say Am fine cant u see am fine.




Vita

Art by the author, Natascha Graham.

December 14th 1922.

London.

Spread across the dining room table, the newspaper is
dissected, absorbed, and devoured voraciously. This rag, running necklaces of
dirty type that smudges fingertips, this dirty Herald, the only touchstone with
the world outside Bloomsbury Square. Today the paper tantalizes with a headline
on a comet streaking through the southern hemisphere; one slice of an
onion-thin page and there it is, an artist’s sad rendering that accompanies the
story of the Great Meteor shower of 1922, first seen in Cordoba, Argentina.

Over wire-rimmed glasses, Virginia Woolf peers down at
the drawing, takes in the words, breathes in an imagined Argentinian starry
sky.

By the
12th December – the paper informs her – the nucleus had all but disappeared
but the long tail retained a bright viscosity that shot through the wintry sky
near Princeton, New Jersey, its breathless magnitude an estimated 140,000,000
miles long and still visible to the naked eye. That said, the story writer
concludes spitefully, “It is very doubtful whether people generally would know
anything about the occurrence until they read of it in the papers.”

If she were so inclined, she would track down the writer and
slit his miserable throat just for that attitudinal prose alone. Fortunately,
it is in her practical nature to reserve homicidal urges (imaginative, of
course) for matters of a more pressing nature – most recently, an unknown and
heinously boring writer had shunned the press after Leonard declined his
manuscript, and thus her imagination rushed him to an early grave – a razor
blade to the throat perhaps, a body slumped in an unmarked grave wrapped in a
Persian rug – perhaps the very rug she’d had Nelly send out for just the other
day, which had been delivered two hours early, and she herself had had to see
in the delivery men.

There is the chink of glass against glass, somebody is
pouring her another drink, and Virginia reclines back in her chair, happy to
allow the conversation to continue around her. She is back in the room, present
again, a flurry of fire-lit faces that had not been aware that she had ever
left. She sweeps a thumb across inky fingertips, and crowns a drawing of Tutankhamun
on the opposite fold on the paper with her discarded glasses, which distort a
thick spray of stars in a farsighted lens. She fixes her expression just over
Leonard’s shoulder, to the window – she looks into the winter evening. All that
is visible are shadows from the dim light of other buildings, other rooms,
gaslights along the street, and beyond that, the eternal vault of the city that
harbours so many of her dreams. For long hours the dreary, muddy, rainy winter
stays encapsulated in darkness; winters are different here than they are in
Rodmell. Even after everything that has happened, she still thinks of London as
home. She still thinks of returning. But there is no undoing the past, no
returning from Rodmell to here – the precarious edge of the world, where this
strange city captures voices unknown to Mr Bell’s invitation of a dinner party,
where the abstraction of the waves of imagination always fit, painful and unerring,
in the form of a novel, an essay, a word on the tip of her tongue – a story
that takes flight mid stride down a street fuelled and chased by everybody
else’s conversation.

How exciting other people were.

She had become lost again, a train of thought abruptly
derailed by the door opening, a great oak of a door, creaking on its hinges,
and she was back in the room for the second time, transfixed by the sudden
entrance of another woman, the conversation, she realised, having taken a
rather alarming turn, and Vanessa, blushing, was clutching Lytton’s arm in mock
dismay.

“You can either become an actress or a whore,” Clive was
saying, though the subject of conversation was lost on her. Then the damning
line, aimed at Vanessa: “I’d say the latter, as your acting in the bedroom has
always proved a mastery of your performance.”

Somehow, Virginia is neither shocked nor offended,
neither does she look across at her sister, Vanessa, who she knows very well
will be sinking herself into Duncan Grant’s shoulder, much to Lytton’s despair.
She hears Clive’s usual demanding rap upon the table, following what he thought
was a comment of great hilarity, followed by the shoulder-hunched uxoriousness
of his posture, as if in the time between the knock and the opening of the door
he thinks better of his behaviour, and suddenly, once again, he is in love.

“Who is that?” It’s Dorothy that speaks after what
appears to be a considerable amount of time, and Virginia wonders if she had
somehow seen the door open even before it had.

“Mrs Harold Nicholson”, “Lady Sackville-West”, “The Right
Honourable…” Whispers pass between the glasses, and Clive stands, chair legs
grating fiercely on the flagstone floor, and opens his arms to welcome the late
guest.

“Vita!”

She shines with a candle lit radiance, stalking on legs like beech trees, pink
glowing, grape clustered, pearl hung
. Lytton pulls a chair from the table
with the lavish gesture of the half-drunk, and Roger Fry pours wine into her
glass as she comments on the décor, touches
the fine satin of the curtain, as marvellous as what lies between a woman’s
legs, and says, “Virginia Woolf,” slowly, as though she were reading her name
for the first time whilst tracing a finger along the spine of Mrs Dalloway, and finally Virginia sees
her face in the light, plain, handsome, dark eyes burning as if she were coming
out of a fevered dream. Virginia is no romantic, but she imagines her own eyes
in response, the perihelion – the blazing comet at its closest point to the
sun, so dazzlingly close to immolation – to be this elusive shade of blue, cool
and hot at once.

And then, before Virginia can respond, Vita is caught up
unexpectedly by E.M. Forster, who, sitting to her left, encompasses Vita and
her attention halfway through a sentence. And then, seamlessly, she is laughing,
charming, taking the floor, immediately the highlight of the evening, her being
in short (what Virginia had never been) a
real woman
, and Virginia is left to push her wine glass half an inch
further away, leaving a half-moon of condensation on the table, a puddle reflecting the fluttering caprices of the fire’s
waxes and wanes. She feels heat rising within herself, not unlike the heat of
the fire itself, only this heat is inside her, and she knows without looking up
that Vita is watching her, in between conversational pauses, so, instead, she
turns to her right, to Desmond MacCarthy, a man in mid-rant, who points
dramatically at John Maynard-Keynes, dark eyes threaded with fine lines of
bloodshot, an embroidery of failure and gin. “I trust you’ve made overtures to
the fellow?” he inquires. “Suggest that he leave the premises?”

Desmond snorts a laugh through his nose and gestures with an
empty glass. “Suggestions, overt, subtle,
and all gradations in between, have been felicitously extended.” And John declares that he should be
“throw him to the wolves,” which Virginia mishears as the waves, a thought
which rolls in, and rolls back with the suddenness of yet more snorted derision
from Desmond, and again, Virginia finds herself between half-heard
conversation, and, whether deliberate or not, her gaze about the table wanders
hand-in-hand with her mind, catches the rise of Vita’s fingers to her lips to
conceal a smile that reveals, despite this glamour, grape clusters and pearl
necklaces, that there is something loose fitting.

She reaches again for the wine glass,
blurs the crescent moon of firelight on the table, and sips the warmth of it,
and, like the waves of the sea, the wine
consecrates the past in a dreamlike sheen, in memories blurred and comforting,
the real and the imaginary indistinguishable in a fragmentary nocturne. For a moment
she closes her eyes, imagines the bottom of the sea. Then, with a sigh, rouses
herself. Her imagination lifts up its skirts and tiptoes back to life: the
clinking of glasses, the slapping of cards on the table, and the gentle murmur
of a piano she had never realised was being played.




On Lovella Avenue

Photo: A pristinely manicured lawn, by Leonila Salinas.

I decided to go for a walk. I had been bedridden for several days from a fever and general malaise. Cause unknown. I felt being outside in the oppressive heat might rid me from the burden of my thoughts. So I set out on my journey, hobbling like an invalid. My hips tight and sore from lack of movement.

I tried to look at everything with different eyes. As
if I had never seen any of it before. Which was quite the contrary. I had taken
this route for several days before the illness had taken hold and left me
housebound. But I was surprised to find that actually, there were so many new
things to be discovered on this walk. On this day.

I noticed a pair of bright teal doors to a two-family
flat I’d passed by many times. But now they stood presenting themselves to me,
as if installed just yesterday. My eyes just never saw them. I continued on my
journey, eager to know what other hidden treasures remained undiscovered by my
negligent eyes.

My gait was awkward. Each step felt unnatural and
forced. Like a quadruped made to walk on its hind legs for show. I was almost
certain my legs would collapse underneath the weight of my body at any given
moment. I wasn’t heavy, my legs just felt abnormally weak. And they were, as was
everything else in my body. I just didn’t know it yet.

Feeling spontaneous, I diverted from my usual path. I
turned right down Lovella Avenue. What a strange name. I assumed I could cut
through this street to reach my regular trail a block or two down the road.
There were two small squirrels, I’m almost certain they were babies, running
back and forth in the street. Flourishing. This made me happy. Babies make me
happy.

As I approached, they scurried off to clear the way.
Further down the sidewalk I saw two more obstacles. A pair of black cats. But
unlike the squirrels, they were anticipating my arrival. They sat and stared,
waiting for me to approach them. When I finally did, the scruffy black one
asked to be petted while his friend looked on from a safe distance talking to
me in meows. I spent a few minutes with them. Contemplating their life. Hoping
they were safe, okay, loved, well-cared for. If I was more insane than I
already was I would have taken them home, but their presumed owner was standing
in the doorway. So I kissed them on their heads and went on my way. That’s when
I saw it.

An opossum. Blonde, not gray. Small. Strange to be
seen out in the middle of the day. I thought they were nocturnal. It didn’t
notice me, so I called to it. Making kissing noises to get its attention. From
what I knew about opossums they were aggressive, so I was surprised that this
one did not seek to engage with me despite my best efforts. I watched it cross
the street. It didn’t look well. Each step it took seemed to take a great
effort. It seemed tired and I understood. My heart hurt, but I continued on my
walk. Past deceased worms on the sidewalk, bloated from the heat of the sun.
Whenever I saw them alive, I tried to save them. But for so many, it was too
late. This, I also understood.

Two blocks further down and I’d reached a dead end.
There was no indication of this when I made the initial right down Lovella
Avenue. I felt conned. All this walking for nothing. Just another dead end,
like my life. I turned around in frustration, ready to return home when I saw
it again.

It had made it across the street and was sitting by a
truck in the driveway of a pristinely manicured lawn in front of a pristinely
manicured house. Something I knew I would never have the luxury of owning in
this life. I said hello to the opossum as I had to the squirrels and the cats,
but the opossum said hello back. I paused. Unsure if my insanity had reached
its apex under the blistering sun and days of fever. But it continued on. It
was a she, I could tell by the voice. She asked me to stop for a moment and
listen to her.

I sat down on the lawn under the shade of a Dogwood
tree. She came closer and sat next to me. I was silent, waiting to hear her
story. She told me she was old, nearly two now, and tired. Not much longer for
this earth. Her last litter of babies had been poisoned by people and died. She
was dying from the poison, too. I felt sad for her, I could tell she was
hurting and I wanted to ease her pain. I asked her to sit in my lap and let me
hold her for a while as she talked. I would listen to her endlessly, for as
long as she desired.

She told me about her youth. She was born not far from
here, near a dumpster behind the supermarket off Clayton Avenue. She was one of
twenty-two joeys, but her mother only had thirteen teats and nine of her
siblings perished from starvation in infancy. Nature is cruel. Her childhood
was short-lived. She witnessed the death of her mother at four months old, hit
by a car filled with teenage boys having their idea of fun on a Midwestern
Friday night. “People hate us,” she said, “and I don’t know why. We just want
to live, is that too much to ask?”

Humans are cruel. I began to quietly weep and my tears
fell onto her matted coat, covered in dirt and fleas. I didn’t want her to die,
she was special, but I could feel the shortness of her breath and her weak
heartbeat. I told her I wanted to take her home and rehabilitate her and maybe
we could live together, happily ever after.

She told me she was ready to die. After watching her
babies succumb to the poison she didn’t see a reason to go on. All she asked
was that I sit with her and listen for as long as I could. She told me about
her adventures. After her mother died, her and her siblings had to fend for themselves.
Some set off on their own and she never saw them again. She stayed together
with three of her sisters and for some time they lived peacefully in a vacant
lot. She raised her first litter there in paradise, but land developers
purchased the lot shortly after and began construction so they had to move
again. With babies in tow, she was too slow to keep up with her sisters, so
they parted ways and she began her journey alone.

By then she was nearly eight months old. She had seven
babies in her first litter. She was successful in raising them all to
adulthood, which was an extraordinary feat for a first time mother. Now and
then she would cross paths with them around the neighborhood. Many had families
of their own now. They would stop and chat for a bit, but everyone was busy
just trying to survive. Not much time could be spared. She told me one of her
sons died from an attack by a dog. He was her first born son, Ico. I could hear
the sadness in her tone as she told me this. Her voice trembling and weaker by
the minute.

For many months after her first litter she lived
alone, taking refuge in a feral cat colony near the Recplex. People felt bad
for the stray cats and would feed them regularly. No one ever feels bad for
opossums. The cats were kind enough to share their food with her despite their
differences. Then one rainy day the local animal control came by and rounded up
all the cats, never to be seen again. Shortly thereafter, the food stopped
coming and she moved on.

She made many friends along her short journey, but
many of them also perished. Hit by cars, attacked by animals, hurt by humans.
Life seemed so unfair she questioned why it had to be like this. She struggled
for many months, deciding whether or not to conceive again. It didn’t seem
right to bring more babies into this world of chaos and suffering. But then she
met Aris.

They fell in love quickly and lived for many months
near the outdoor Home and Garden section of Home Depot. Eventually she became
pregnant and when she told Aris, he was elated. It was his first litter. He
left that evening to go forage for food to bring back to her and the growing
babies, but by sunrise he hadn’t returned and never did.

Alone and pregnant, she needed protection. She had
seen several neighboring opossums in the area and reached out for help. An
older female named Kaiza took pity on her growing belly and agreed to take her
in. Kaiza was almost three years old when she met her, ancient for an opossum,
and refused to have more babies. She had seen the horrors of man and could not
allow for the possibility of more suffering than already existed. She stayed
with Kaiza until the babies were born nearly two weeks later.

Not wanting to be a burden on her elder, she decided
to leave with her five babies in her pouch. She felt strong and hopeful she
could fend for them alone and set off to live in a nearby park. Her babies grew
in the park and played and had many experiences exploring the wonders of
nature. She had discovered a bag of food near the playground, a prize, that she
took back to her offspring, now big enough to venture outside her pouch. She
fed the five of them a cheeseburger, fries, and chicken nuggets. They were
happy at the feast their mother had brought home to them.

That evening two of her smaller ones fell ill. She
stayed with them the whole night, not wanting to leave their side to find more
food. By sunrise she awoke to her greatest horror. All five of them were cold,
lifeless. They died in their sleep from the food they ate that had no doubt
been poisoned. She stayed by their side all day. Crying. Feeling incredibly
guilty for feeding them the food that killed them. She found the scraps from
the bag and ate them ravenously. She didn’t want to go on in a world like this.

And now here she was, almost lifeless herself, laying
in my lap. To me, a small little baby. I cradled her and cried with her. I told
her I was sorry people were so cruel and that her babies were no longer
suffering. I told her I had so much I wanted to share with her if she would
only let me take her to a vet, but her breathing was labored and she told me
the end would be soon. I told her I would take her body and I would bury it in
my backyard so she would never be alone again, she would always have a place
with me. I asked her name to put on the tombstone and she replied with her last
breath, “Nila.”

I sat there motionless for some time. Sobbing into her
fur. Feeling like I’d lost an old friend, perhaps the only one in the world who
ever truly understood me. Eventually the owners of the house came outside to
move the car. I must have been a strange sight, crying with a dead opossum in
my lap. I stood up, holding her still warm body, and began to walk home.

About two blocks down the road I crossed paths with a
dead bird. Its head bent upwards unnaturally towards the sky. I didn’t have a
chance to meet the bird while it was still alive, but I picked it up all the
same and placed it gently on top of Nila’s body as I continued my journey home.

Maybe her name was Nila, too. Like the opossum.

Like me.




God Meant Us To Fly

Crouchin down to peer through the smudged window, I could just about make her out through a fog of heat risin across the front porch. Heat as thick as cotton that day. I stretched my neck high as it would go without givin myself away and saw her rockin in that chair – the one Ma Rachel tried to sell in the yard sale but nobody bought. Sat there stale and stiff, brown hair mopped across her face. But I could see her eyes – how she stared straight in front of her, like she wasn’t seein nothin or nobody no matter how long she looked. And like nobody was seein her neither. There was somethin else funny about her, but I couldn’t put my finger on what.

Heavy steps and the screened-door slammed when Ma Rachel walked past. Ooh, I knew she meant business. Short and stout as a potbelly pig, Ma Rachel was never quiet. And when she got caught up in some sort a business, it was like a herd a cattle who just figured out what the slaughterhouse was for.

She spied me in the corner and hollered, “You get on outta here! Ain’t none uh’yur business what that girl’s here for, you hear me? You better move that skinny bee-hind now!”

I didn’t need no second warnin from Ma Rachel, I’ll tell you that much.

I scurried as fast as my feet could take me through the livin room, slidin on cool tiles and headed straight to my secret listenin spot cause I knew there was gonna be somethin worth hearin today. You see, it wasn’t scorchin outside but it was mighty hot. Sweat drippin down your panties hot like you only get down South. And it was hot enough for me to figure out, even only being eleven, that this girl wasn’t sittin out there for her health. The only reason people waited like that outside Ma Rachel’s was when they needed help. I knew she’d be tellin Ma Rachel somethin and doggone-it, I was gonna hear it. Not much happened round here so when it did, it was in your interest to know more than everybody else.

Creakin open the back door, I snuck down stone steps into the yard. I winced as sun flamed my face and the grass scrunched underneath my feet. Stickin straight against the house, I edged as slowly as I could round the corner til I was spittin distance of Ma Rachel on the front porch. But she couldn’t see me now. Stock-still behind her favorite Gardenia with blooms so sweet and ripe I could nearly taste them. She’d be none too pleased about that but she was gone now. Too busy wrapped up in helpin.

*

You see, Ma Rachel was the helper. People lost their dog? She’ll find it. Run outta hay? She may not have much but she’s got extra when it counts. Even little ones that needed lookin after, she’d take them in as babies. She helped people or animals alike – it didn’t matter so long as she thought you were worth it. My Momma called it a blessin and a curse.

Momma, in the meantime, or at least as long I remember, was on her own. Never threw any pity party, too proud for that. “Keep your head down, don’t mind what anybody says and you’ll be just fine.”All I’ve ever seen of Momma was her workin hard and stayin outta trouble. I guess after havin me she decided she’d had enough trouble.

Before I was even outta diapers Momma took a job workin down at the prison and I started stayin at Granny’s. Things went on like that just fine right up until the day I turned up and found Granny stone-cold and solid propped up on her salmon-colored sofa.

“Granny?” I called, wipin my shoes, lettin myself in through the back door. I was only little then but I still knew how to mind myself. I walked through to the livin room and plopped down on what used to be Papaw’s recliner that still smelled of Old Spice.

And there she was. Still as a cow in rush-hour traffic.

“Granny?” She looked like somebody had done flicked the off-switch right when she was in the middle a sayin somethin. I Love Lucy came from the TV and it seemed like Granny might keep watchin that show for all eternity. I don’t remember much else after that except for Momma showin up and huggin me as tight as she could. I still don’t know how she died but after the funeral Aunt Carla said, “That poor woman had as many crosses to bear as any Saint. Her heart just wasn’t strong enough to do it anymore.” I reckon I was one a those crosses she was talkin about.

Things got real hard after that. I’d count Momma’s cigarette butts in her ashtray to tell how upset she was. Ma Rachel musta known Momma was too proud to ask for help. So one day after Sunday service, I heard a commotion and saw Ma Rachel headed in our direction.

“Suzie!” she hollered and Momma stopped.

“Yes, Ma’am?”

“Suzie, your Momma’s service was real nice.”

“Thank you, Ma’am. It sure meant somethin for you to be there.”

“Listen here, we need to talk about what you’re gonna do.” Ma Rachel looked me then.

“Go’on to the car, I’ll be there in a minute.” Momma gave orders in a way so you were sure to listen the first time. The next mornin, we woke early. Momma drove me down a gravel road and we parked up beneath the oak tree. Ma Rachel came out to meet us, walkin and talkin at the same time, sayin “Don’t you worry Suzie.” I guess I’ve been runnin with Ma Rachel’s pack ever since.

*

Lucky for me that day when the girl arrived, all those other young’uns had already gone home. It was one a those long summer days and Momma was on late shift. The mutts were worn slap out in the yard too hot to move, and Moses the cat was scratchin up against the woodpile, so I distracted myself watchin him.

I waited. It seemed like hours. Keepin so quiet I could hardly hear my own breath comin and goin. Ma Rachel waited too and I’ve never seen her so patient. Then, a voice cut through—

“I killed him.”

Nothin seemed to move.

Her hair muffled the words but they still hung in the air. I wasn’t sure I’d heard them right til Ma Rachel started pacin across the porch.

“I killed him, Ma Rachel.” Her voice louder and relieved.

I didn’t move a muscle. My legs hurt but I planted myself to the ground and prayed I didn’t make a sound, even though my body swayed back and forth towards that Gardenia. If Ma Rachel saw me now, my hide would be raw.

“Honey, what’ve you done?” Ma Rachel’s voice broke and her hands raised up like she was praisin Jesus but I knew she wasn’t.

I expected her to rage and holler like she does when we break somethin or make a mess. But instead, I saw her do something I’ve only seen a couple a times, like when Kurt broke his arm and the bone showed through. Her shoulders hunched over til she knelt right in front a the girl. She reached her hand out, lifted her chin and stroked her cheek. I knew she was lookin right at her.

“Honey, tell me what’ve you done.”

The girl lifted her head and I saw her lookin up to meet Ma Rachel’s eyes like she was ready to meet her maker. You could tell she was afraid but when she looked at Ma Rachel a stillness seemed to come about her. Her hair tumbled down and I could see that she’d been pretty once, maybe even beautiful. Goosebumps went straight up my arms and I knew she meant what she said. But it almost seemed like her problems had gone just by tellin Ma Rachel. I could swear there was somethin familiar about her so takin a chance, I leant forward. I could see her hair like buttered toast, freckles across her nose, and then it hit me.

*

When I first came to Ma Rachel’s, Tiffany was just one of us young’uns. I should say though, she was never quite like us. One dry summer our only relief came from the sprinklers in the backyard. The boys would push their way to the front while us little ones got sent to the back, at least until Tiffany would appear.

She’d slam the back door open, runnin straight up to the front like she deserved to be there just as good as anybody. Elbowin the boys outta the way – she didn’t give a hoot what anybody thought. First, she let us have our turn. Then she’d fly – bare feet on wet grass as fast as she could go, legs like grasshoppers straight over the water that sprayed her face and nipped her calves. That was as happy as I’d ever seen anybody.

Everybody always said there was somethin about Tiffany. She had more sense and charm than the rest of us combined and we knew it. She was Ma Rachel’s favorite, but we didn’t mind cause she was everybody’s favorite. Now, it all seems so long time ago and that girl sittin on the porch – I barely recognize her.

“Aw honey, what did he do to you?” Ma Rachel could barely get the words out.

Tiffany sat in her chair, just rockin til finally the words came out. “I don’t know how it happened. I loved him, but he just wanted everything for the takin. We were gonna get married. You remember how charmin he could be? But other days, he’d come home and I knew by the sound of his boots across the floor there’d be hell at the end of it.”

“The worst days,” she stopped now and lifted her head from her hands. “The worst days he’d leave. Lock the door on his way out and take the keys with him. Come back long after midnight. I never knew what I did to make him that mad.”

By now the whole night smelled like honeysuckle. Crickets echoed over Ma Rachel’s yard against the kudzu. I remembered how Momma told me once that only the males made that noise callin for a mate. The sun was drawn in but I could still see a pair of Blue Jays flittin through the Dogwood tree. It depressed me how dull the girls looked compared to the boys. Then I thought of Jimmy and how he ran so fast you woulda thought he was goin barefoot over hot coals when we raced in the backyard. I couldn’t ever keep up and I asked Momma one day after our races, “Why don’t God give us girls the upper-hand once in awhile?”

She smiled at me, “Oh Birdie,” she said, “It don’t matter how fast you run. When God means us to fly, he gives us wings.”

*

Even back then, there was always a winner and a loser. Jimmy was the nicest and we all looked up to him but Tommy was the one in charge. I was just little when I first came to Ma Rachel’s, so they treated me like I was their babydoll. I was one of the weaker ones too, if I’m bein honest. That was how I got my name Birdie. Ma Rachel used to say I was as tiny as a bird and chirped like one too.

You see, I liked to spy and then go tell on the rest of em. I reckoned if I wasn’t strong and I wasn’t big, I needed to keep up somehow. Sometimes it got me into trouble but usually everybody refused to point the finger back at me. Ma Rachel ain’t no fool though and she’d say “Well I guess you musta heard that from a little birdie?” So Birdie just stuck.

One late afternoon, Ma Rachel was away to help a neighbor. I was up a tree when I fell straight down onto the log pile propped up for winter. Usually we kept our distance because we knew the rattlesnakes liked it there, so I was in a hurry to get gone. I only had a few scratches and that woulda been alright, but as I was rushin to get down a log come loose. One by one, the logs started rollin and comin straight for me. I didn’t know what was happenin and before I could stop em, I ended up with one leg stuck underneath that busted pile.

I tried to move my leg and it wouldn’t budge. Splinters spiked my calf and a pain like I never knew went straight up my thigh, blood tricklin from the bark cuttin into my leg. I was still little so you can bet I hollered as loud as I could. I wasn’t worried about my leg or the blood but all I could think of was those snakes.

I spotted Tiffany across the field but she was far away. I kept hollerin until a shadow stood over me. The sun glared in my eyes but I could tell it was Tommy.

“Get me outta here,” I said.

I knew I needed out quick before things got worse.

You see, Tommy would get nasty if you let him. Usually when that happened Jimmy kept him in line. But that day, I saw the way his eyes went funny – just a slit across his face and still grinning. It set my nerves on fire.

“Ain’t that a funny way of askin for help,” he said, lookin down at me.

“Come’on now, I’m stuck!”

I was gettin desperate and my leg hurt somethin rotten.

By this time, he was makin his way around the log pile like he was on the lookout for somethin.

“You just wait right there.”

“My leg hurts somethin awful!”

“Holy Shit! That’s disgustin!” he shouted. “I’ll bring it over so you can see.”

“What is it? I don’t wanna see it – I just want outta here!” I craned my neck, but I still couldn’t see what he found. “That better not be no snake!” I struggled again to get free but I was too weak to move the logs by myself.

I could hear him as he tossed logs from the other side, one by one thuddin to the ground. “You better not make any more topple on me – I’ll tell Ma Rachel,” I warned.

“You shoulda thought about that before, little Birdie.”

I thought about yellin again but didn’t want to upset him even more. He’d been mad ever since I told Ma Rachel how he hurt Lacey. Lacey was Ma Rachel’s favorite dog and about a month before, I found Tommy playin this game with her. Throw a ball out, wait for her to bring it back, then as soon as she was reachin distance, he’d grab her collar, squeeze so hard it looked like her eyes might pop straight outta her head. Countin while he did it and every time he’d count up a second higher. Then he’d stop, give her a treat and do it again.

Now through the stacks, there was silence and Tommy appeared over me with that same grin.

“Look, I’ve got a gift for you. A birdie for a Birdie.”

I reached my head up and saw the outline of a small carcass, twisted with feathers, matted and stuck. It looked like a Robin’s head and he cupped the poor bird in his hands as he squatted down closer to me.

Sweat ran down my back and my eyes darted around lookin again for Tiffany.

“Come on, Birdie. What’s the matter? It’s just you and me now.”

He opened his palms and inched closer to my face. I squirmed, tryin to put more space in between us. I woulda crawled underneath that blasted pile by now if I could, snakes be damned. Then I could see exactly what he had – that bird musta been dead a good few days and it was so close I could smell its rotted stink. A thick oozing maggot slipped through his fingers onto the logs beside me and all I could see was the edge of that bird covered in a pile of grubby maggots.

I thought I’d throw up right there.

“Wha’d you say?” He looked at me, mean as sin.

“Nothin,” I replied, my eyes down. Momma always said there’s no use makin deals with bullies.

Then he whispered, his breath so close to my ear it made me feel even sicker, “Birdie, I’ll get you outta here, but first I need a favor.”

Tommy raised up the maggots and the bird til it was inches from my face. I couldn’t tell if the warmness comin down my cheek was tears or grime drippin off those maggots.

“I’m gonna put this bird right here, so you don’t get lonely,” he said, and I saw him place it to the right of my face on top of the logs. Then he cupped my jaw with his hand and I felt his fingers dig into my cheeks, squeezin my mouth so slow and so careful. I clamped down til my teeth cut into each other, but I didn’t know how long I could hold it.

“Open your mouth, Birdie. It’s an early supper tonight.”

I felt like I might pass out from the heat, the throb in my leg and the thought of those maggots two inches from my face. His fingers started to pry my mouth open and I thought again about Tiffany. I brought my head back ever so slightly and all I could think was, let’s get this over with. Waiting til he turned his attention to the maggots, I turned my chin and reared my head back just so. I opened wide and sank my teeth as hard as I could around his fingers until his flesh turned into bone.

He hollered so loud and I saw him swing his other hand back and I knew what was comin. Just as he lunged forward, I saw another figure over us and Tiffany appeared, pushin him off the top of me and down onto the ground. I looked up, sticky tears on my face and the taste of copper from blood in my mouth. She had one arm around his neck and he squatted down to get against her but he was no match. She held her ground. Him in a headlock, and with the other hand she grabbed the logs and managed to shift them off me, clearing them away as fast as she could.

Tommy was pitching a fit by then, shoutin “You nasty bitch!”

But Tiffany’s eyes met mine, she pushed the last log off my leg and shouted, “Go Birdie, go!”

*

Back on that porch, I couldn’t help but think how small Tiffany looked now. Like at some point she started shrinkin instead of growin. Ma Rachel had been quiet longer than I could count until finally, she stood up and started to pace. I knew her well enough to know she’d be hatchin a plan already. When she was like that she furrowed up her brow and stared down at the floor, not lookin at nobody til she settled on what had to be done.

“It’s gonna be alright.” Ma Rachel sounded like she nearly believed herself.

“What are we gonna do, Ma Rachel?”

She asked the same question I wanted to. Ma Rachel could fix just about anything but I had no idea how she’d get outta this one.

“We gotta fix this mess, don’t we? I’ll go tell Birdie I gotta run out.”

Ma Rachel’s words lit a fire under my bottom like you wouldn’t believe. I ran towards the back field, alongside the house, across the yard until I was right next to the fence by the ponies. The whole way back I saw bits of memories comin back – how Tommy apologized and started kissin up to Tiffany after she head-locked him. How a couple years later she started lettin him put his arm round her in the yard. How they borrowed Ma Rachel’s truck to go to the movies, and how before I knew it life had turned upside down and Tiffany was lookin at him like he was some gift from God.

Now, running through that yard I thought about how this never woulda happened if it weren’t for me, if it weren’t for that afternoon. How the only reason he wanted to break her was because all those years ago, she broke him first.

I dried the sweat off my forehead and tried to look normal so Ma Rachel wouldn’t suspect nothin. When she reached me, she was so distracted I don’t think she woulda noticed if I only had one arm attached.

“Birdie, I’m fixin to go out” she said. “Get yourself to bed, your Momma’s workin late tonight.”

“Yes, Ma’am.” And she turned to walk away.

“Ma’am?”

“What Birdie?” she asked, turnin towards me.

I thought of Momma and how she says it helps to say the hard things out loud. “I saw Tiffany, Ma’am. She helped me outta trouble once.”

Ma Rachel looked at me now and her eyes were so heavy. “I always knew Birdie was a good name for you.”

The summer night hung between us.

“Ma’am I might be young, but I could still help.”

She looked at me like she was sizin me up. “Yes, Birdie. I know you could. I tell you what, if anyone comes round later this week and asks what you got up to tonight, you just say we fixed a nice dinner and went to bed early. You say Tiffany came round to celebrate her birthday. That I made her favorite chicken and dumplins.” And without another word Ma Rachel turned back up the hill, huffin harder than I was by that point.

The next minute, I saw Tiffany and Ma Rachel headed to the old Oak tree and ducking into her truck. I ran to catch up. I felt somehow like I was part of if all, chained to this moment, this night sky for better or worse. My feet dug into burnt grass and I’d nearly caught up when my legs tripped. I fell straight down into hot gravel, my knees scraped and sore.

Then I heard the engine sputter and crank. I looked up. Tiffany’s head turned and she stared right at me. I stood up straight as I could and looked right back at her. I felt like I needed to show her that I could be trusted. At first, she looked at me like I was a ghost. Then her eyes flickered and I wondered if she remembered everything from that afternoon so many years ago. Just before her head turned, she placed her hand on the back windshield towards me and I saw her smile. I knew Momma was right – ain’t no use tryin to bargain with a bully. Now Tiffany knew it too. As she turned, the wind caught her hair, waving wild out the window and I felt a judder in my belly. Ma Rachel revved the throttle to gather speed and I watched them haul ass down that driveway, turnin up dust like I never seen.




Greetings from the Fat Man in Postcards

Picture Credits: Jim Semonik

This could be, if Bognor had a cathedral, a tale of two cities, twin poles in the life of Wilson Thomas.

*

—I’m going as far as Guildford. Any good to you?

*

The shortest distance between two points, there being no motorway, is a meander, in this case the A285, A283 and A3100. It is on these procrastinating curves that Wilson Thomas has come to rely for his mental health, his life.

*

—You can put that nightie on the back seat.

*

There is another, identical, locked in the boot.

*

—Little gift for my wife. Well, I say my wife. Always take them something when I go home. Was it a holiday in Bognor, or business? Personally I live there. Not easy to own up to. I mean, what does anyone know about Bognor except George the whatsit’s dying words? Bugger Bognor. (Map of Britain. Bognor marked in red. Caption: Welcome to Bognor, Backdoor of Britain.) Its only claim to fame. Almost Joycean. Irishman goes for a job on a building site. Foreman asks him, sort of proficiency test, “What’s the difference between a joist and a girder?” Quick as a flash on a frosty night he comes back, “One wrote Ulysses, the other wrote Faust.”

Not a literary man, then?

Visit the pier? (Two explorers silhouetted in a tent. Night time. Caption: Where’s my pith helmet?)

Met my wife on the pier. Donald McGill exhibition. Working visit for me. Professional card-man. I like to say that. Shades of green shades, sleazy glamour. Actually more prosaic. Belle Vue Cards. I rep for them. Plus a little creative work. My wife helps me with that. Amateur cartoonist.

*

It was love at first sight. They were both peering at the same framed card. He noticed the dimple in her cheek matching the one between her shoulders. She looked up. Eyes of postcard-sky blue. He raised his cap. Her dimples deepened. The sea glittered, like the glass beads on his mother’s throat, his earliest recollection, tickling his eyes.

“I’ve an original McGill of my own if you’d care to see it?”

He drove her to his digs.

“Not many on the market these days. Difficult to come by unless you have contacts. Gives you a little frisson knowing it’s the actual paper he worked on. Speaking of frissons, I’ve another McGill in here.” He dropped his trousers. Embroidered mothers-in-law all over his shorts.

He had the McGill framed and gave it to her. The un-nuanced figures of Curate and Vamp, secure in their ink outline against the washes of colour, brought afresh the first rapture of childhood as they opened it together.

Her first present to him was a pair of musical shorts. They played “I Do Like to Be beside the Seaside”, at the touch of a microchip. He put them on to propose. “I don’t know your name yet.” “Er, Thomas, Wilson.” “Yes, Thomas Wilson, I will.”

*

—She did a little sketch of me. Caricature. At least, I hope it’s a caricature. I had it copied, printed up. Send them to her on my longer tours of duty, captioned “Greetings from the Fat Man in Postcards”.

Funny, women go for the fuller figure. Thin men don’t realize. Look at H.G. Wells. Never short of female admirers. Used to call him Treacle Wells. One of his women was asked why she found him so attractive. Said, because his skin smelt of honey. Extraordinary. “Stands the Clock at Ten to Three?”

I told my wife about that once. She said, Sounds fun, let’s try. Anointed me with a pot of Gales.

Every so often, one of us will say, Let’s have an H.G. Wells night. Only we moved on to Lemon Curd.

Did a Midlands tour a few months ago, sent her a jar, with a boxed chipolata and a note, “The shape of things to come.”

Duncton. Making good time. Another trip, I phoned her anonymously, did the old heavy breathing. She just said, cool as you like, “If you want the asthma clinic you’ve got the wrong number” and hung up.

You’d like my wife.

Ever been to America?

*

This will peter out beyond Petworth.

*

—Petworth Park. Sounds like a municipal tryst for lovers. As I was saying, we do alright, we larger men. Takes women unawares. I grant you a novel called The Fat Man wouldn’t have the same ring, but that’s only prejudice.

I usually stop about here, have a breather, stretch my legs.

*

At exactly here. Midpoint of his journey, zenith of his weekly trajectory. Marked on the Ordnance Survey as Ball’s Cross. Here he is poised between two worlds. He will drive into a lane, walk up and down, lean on a gate. His tongue searches his teeth, seeks out the small molar cavity. Into its rough protective burr his soul nestles. He will be here for several minutes while the magnetic field reverses.

He will drive up the narrow road, turn left, then on to join the A283.

*

—The quilted fields of England. I love this countryside. Even the names resonate. Chiddingfold. Could be Old English for “cemetery”, conjures up the cosiness of village graveyards. All safely gathered in. Hambledon, Bramley. English as autumn mists.

Pictures of this sort of landscape – maybe a shire horse in the middle distance, church spire far distance – still work their magic, guarantee the sales. Anythin’ rural or ecclesiastical or both. Even quite modern buildings can do it. Know Guildford Cathedral? Only finished in l961. Still a popular card. That’s how I met my wife. She was sketching it. Naturally I took a professional interest. Suggested she did a watercolour, maybe soften the cathedral, age it a little, submit it to my art director for a greetings card. She did, he went for the idea, I went for her.

*

It was love at first sight. He had leaned over her shoulder, watched the pastel smudge the deep-grained paper. Her long hair matched the quaking-grass, ruffled by the same breeze. Her chin set in concentration, a soft furrow echoing a distant field. He retreated until she was packing up, handed her his card.

They drove into town, had coffee and scones with a view of the Guildhall, then drove through darkening Surrey lanes.

This was the pattern of their Sundays for a month.

On the Sunday of Michaelmas, after their coffee, he parked in sight of the cathedral, wound down the window. “You’d make a perfect Mrs Wilson Thomas. You might even enjoy it.” “Will I, Wilson Thomas? Yes.”

*

—She became very interested in colour-washed pen and ink. We both love the work of Thomas Rowlandson, his chromatic delicacy against the robust penwork, the feathery foliage. I got her to do a series of views in that style, tried to get the firm to accept them as a set of upmarket postcards. Came to nothing. I had a few printed up, send them to her when I’m on the road, with a little poem on the back, something out of Clare or Herrick or William Blake. Blake is her idol. The watercolours, the woodcuts – she loves them. Did you know he lived near Bognor? Felpham, few miles along the coast. She wanted to visit it, soak up the atmosphere. Tricky. Had to head her off on that. Suggested a little project of my own – trace the locales of Wilson Steer’s works. Personal interest – he was a distant relative on my grandmother’s side. I’m named after him, in fact.

So whenever I have a few days leave, we’ve been trundling round the country, Suffolk, Yorkshire, Stroud Valley, tracking down the footprints of his easel, so to speak. She copies the paintings, I photograph the scene. “Then and now” sort of thing. Surprising how much of the country is still unspoiled. Turn down a lane, find a stile, follow a path between furrowed fields. Smell of wet earth. Leaf mould in the hedgerows. Like generations of wisdom, sifting into the soil. She’ll put her arm through mine, say, Breathe it in. I know just what she means.

You’d like my wife.

See that programme on cancer on the box?

*

Wilson is much possessed by death, and sees the skull beneath the skin. For if one of them should die? Or leave? Easier to face the knock upon the door.

Wilson is not, has never been, a political man, but he has watched, appalled, the bi-polarity of the world crumble. He is unnerved. The world now reminds him of a pre-Columbus globe in reverse. He sometimes feels the axis tilt, feels the slide and scramble. Each stop at Ball’s Cross becomes a little longer.

Wilson has read somewhere of a scientist who requested his ashes be made into a firework, who ended his earthly intactness in the starshower of a score of rockets.

He thinks of him now, thinks of himself, sees his wives and assembled guests, with their sausages on sticks, gazing at the flare and burst; of his soul ricocheting off the stars.




Another Year

Picture Credits: gfpeck

As he entered the workshop, the elves lowered their voices
and conspicuously changed subject. They made a show of doing this, of cutting
him out. They didn’t hate Santa, they were just frustrated with the long,
repetitive hours and needed someone to punish.

Bushy approached with a clipboard. Santa straightened his
posture and cleared his throat.

“How’s everything going?” he asked.

“It’s going!” Bushy replied with a giggle.

“You think we’ll be ready?”

“We’ve been ready for days.”

“Great. That’s … fantastic work.”

The sound of wrapping paper crunching and tape being yanked
and torn from industrial-sized rolls filled the temporary silence.

“Would you like to check the inventory?” Bushy asked. He was
extending the benefit of the doubt, assuming some official purpose behind the
visit. The truth was that Santa had nowhere else to be. It was the night before
Christmas Eve, their most demanding yet, and he was bored.

“You read my mind, Bushy,” he replied, merrily.

*

Santa eased himself into a red golf cart, his girth spreading
awkwardly over the driver and passenger seats. Bushy sat on his lap and
steered, while Santa worked the accelerator. Virtually all of the presents had
been wrapped. They zipped through aisles upon aisles of gifts, a multitude so
vast the eye had nowhere to land and focus. Santa’s gaze bounced between
packages of varying colours: festive red and forest green, earthy patterned
prints, reflective wrapping, shiny silvers and golds, glistening now even in
the weak, grey light of the storage facility. Yet beneath this dazzling display
was a homogeneity of presents: phones, consoles, tablets. Every year, the
variety diminished.

Bushy drove in silence. Santa wondered what Bushy saw when he
looked upon these gifts. Once, the elves had been artisans. Now, they were
procurers, dealing in abstractions: units, shipment dates, delivery logistics.
The rise of tech had at first eased and then ultimately emasculated their
profession. Did Bushy think about this?

“Do you want to see Zone B?” Bushy asked, once their canvass of Zone A was complete.

“No, no. It seems like you have everything under control.”

 Bushy smiled and
turned the cart around. “How’s the missus?”

“She’s gone to the South Pole for a few days.”

 “Alright for some!” he
said, with another mischievous giggle.

“There’s really no need for her to be here now. And, of
course, I need to focus.”

“You can say that again.”

“It’s for the best, I think.”

“Sounds it.”

“Actually, Bushy, I get rather … edgy on Christmas Eve.”

Bushy made no response.

“I get almost… gloomy,”
Santa confessed, delicately.

“I wouldn’t know about that,” Bushy said, keeping his eye on
the aisle.

“It’s probably nothing.”

 “Just pre-game
jitters, I’d imagine.”

 “Bushy?”

“Yes, Santa.”

 “How is morale? Among
the elves.”

“Morale?”

 “This time of year can
be hard—”

“Hard?” Bushy shook his head, uncomprehending. “I mean, from
what I can tell, this year everyone is jolly. Everyone is feeling pretty jolly
about the way things are progressing. I haven’t noticed any issues with cheer.”

“Great. I assumed as much. Just making sure.”

“Everything is fantastic,” Bushy said. His brows were lowered
as if he was continuing the conversation in his head, puzzling over its
implications.

They parked outside the workshop entrance. Santa lurched to
his feet and felt his weight slam down hard upon his knees.

“Rudolph has been looking for you,” Bushy said.

“So everyone keeps saying…”

Bushy seemed anxious to rejoin the others. They stepped
inside. The elves were working hard, carrying presents, stacking them, curling
reams of red ribbon. Despite all this motion, they appeared purposeless. For
all Santa could tell, they were simply moving objects back and forth. A
simulacrum of Christmases past. At some point over the years, Santa’s
enterprise had been subtly misshapen, stretched beyond its elastic limit. He
watched them for a moment more, then slipped away, unobserved.

*

He was shocked by the state of his bedroom. Mrs. Claus had
warned that she intended to do a “Deep Clean” before leaving, but this was much
more. There was new bedding, a new watercolour print mounted on the wall. She
had arranged an elaborate floral display above the fireplace, dusted the
surfaces and shampooed the rug. It was as pristine as a hotel room. And, as in
a hotel room, Santa wandered this immaculate space uncomfortably, aware that
every time he made contact with his surroundings he slightly dishevelled them.

He did not resent her absence. Her family missed her and he was bad company on the 23rd, always anxious and unsocial. It had been a sensible decision. Yet now this strange overture, as if they’d had a fight.

Several magazines were fanned across his desk, all featuring
Santa on the cover. She had left those too: a quiet prompt. He absently picked
one and stared at an artist’s rendition of himself flying across a moonlit sky.
Recently, his media image had altered. People were representing him as thinner,
corpulence no longer being associated with jolliness, but disease. Santa stared
at the flattering image and felt a strange mixture of vanity and self-reproach.

He turned his attention to the sled manifest, a document so
vast they had resorted to printing it on scritta paper, the same as is used for
Bibles. There were 994,412 people with the name “Scott” in the USA alone. Most
of them wanted iPads. It was said that one death is a tragedy and one thousand
a statistic. This principle could be applied to Christmas itself. At a certain
scale, merriment became unintelligible.

He attempted to focus. He could not. He called his wife.

“I’ve been thinking about population forecasts…” he said, the
moment she answered.

“Honey.”

“I don’t want to sound like a broken record, but Jesus … 4.2
billion by 2030? They’re killing me.”

“Baby, no. We can’t go through this again…”

“I’m aware that I say this every year, but I have a really
bad feeling about tomorrow. About the feasibility.”

“That’s right, honey, you do
say this every year. And every year the outcome is the same: the job gets done.
Can’t you just, I don’t know, try to accept that you’re very good at what you
do? Try to take pleasure in it.”

He needed comfort. Comfort should be easy to give. He felt
that she was withholding it deliberately.

Of course, he knew this was unfair. The fact that she had
never been down a chimney, and he had, meant that on some essential, material
level, they were different. He had a sense of the 24th that was wholly his own,
stored somewhere deep, inaccessible. No matter how strong their marriage, how
extensively they talked, this difference would never be breached. No other
living thing could speak directly to his doubts. There was only one Santa: his
worries were uniquely his.

“You sound far away,” he said.

“I’ve got you on hands-free.”

“Oh,” he said. “What are you doing?”

“Just, you know, futzing.”

“Well, I’ll let you get back to it.”

“Okay.” She paused. “You didn’t say anything about the room.”

“Right, yes. It’s … very dramatic.”

“You don’t like it.”

“I do. I’m just tired.”

“We can change it back if you hate it.”

“I don’t. Sorry, I’m just distracted. It’s lovely. Really.”

There was a pause, then she asked, “Have you spoken to
Rudolph?”

“I haven’t run into him today.”

“You need to make an effort.”

“Well, I’ll see him plenty tomorrow.”

“He thinks the world of you.”

“I’m aware.”

“He idolises you.”

Santa said nothing; any response would surely be petty. And
he couldn’t explain why he had grown so distant towards his friend.

“You should rest,” his wife said.

“Okay. We’ll speak tomorrow.”

“Yes…”

They both lingered. He had the impression that there was some
code-word that he’d forgotten to utter. Something that might dispel this
awkwardness.

“Nick—” she said, impulsively.

“Yes?”

“You’re okay?”

“I’m fine,” he assured.

“You’ll do a good job tomorrow.”

“I know.”

“Get some rest.”

“You too. Merry Christmas.”

“Merry Christmas, Nick.”

 “Are you alright?” he
blurted. “Is everything okay down South?” But by then, she’d hung up.

 There had been a time
when he and his wife flirted constantly and teased mercilessly. They had loved
to tease, to push the envelope. Their attraction seemed indefatigable so it was
thrilling to test its limits. On their third Christmas, back when Santa
assisted with workshop production, he’d pulled late nights. She’d once phoned
down from their bedroom:

“Mr. Claus, would you care to come up and join me in bed,” she’d
said in a throaty murmur.

“Not particularly,” he replied, sotto voce.

“You’ve got something better to do?”

“I’ve got a date.”

“With who?”

“My other wife. You knew about her right?”

“I didn’t. Well, I’d better call my boyfriend.”

“You’ve got a boyfriend?”

“He’s incredibly rich.”

“Bet he doesn’t drive a sled.”

“No, he drives a Ferrari.”

“Okay, you’ve made me jealous.”

“He’s ridiculously attractive. And the things he can do in
bed … my word!”

“Enough.”

“He’s fat too! I love fat men.”

Santa wore a vacant smile as he recalled the exchange and the
more heated exchange that took place after the call. These days, he and his
wife were cautious when they spoke. It was as if they had stood witness to some
disaster and each were complicit in its cover-up.

Santa’s shadow pranced about in the firelight. Otherwise, the room was very still. A piece of bark snapped. A displaced log fell with a muffled thud. The muted sound gave Santa the impression that he wasn’t in the room at all, but far away from it.

*

No matter how strong his practical misgivings, how tired his
body, how unsteady his faith, Santa always woke on the 24th with a burst of
energy. He opened his eyes alert, cognisant, like he’d not been asleep at all,
but had merely blinked between thoughts.

The carpet outside his door was muddied; forked hoof prints
trailed up and down the corridor.

“Either Rudolph is impatient to see me, or the devil’s come early for my soul,” Santa said, aloud, to himself.

He stepped into the snow. The sun glowed dimly, blurred behind a wash of pale overcast, like a cataracted eye.

The last of the presents were being loaded into the sled.
Prancer and Vixen stretched and limbered while the other reindeer quietly
gathered their thoughts. Only Rudolph, who was the youngest, moved skittishly
between the elves and his fellow reindeer, joyous to the point of agitation.
There was something about Rudolph’s cheer that made Santa increasingly
uncomfortable. Sometimes when they spoke, Santa felt as if he were guarding
himself against exposure, as if he were concealing an infidelity of some sort.
And sometimes, to his bewilderment, he found that he wanted to be exposed.

He took a sip of his coffee; it was already cold and
beginning to solidify in the mug. Rudolph bounded over, his nose blazing red,
his eyes watery and bright.

“Look at this manifest,” Santa said, before Rudolph had
chance to speak.

Rudolph made a low, appreciative whistle. “That’s a doozy!”
he replied, excitedly.

“Maybe we should sack it off this year!” Santa joked. He
rarely made jokes like that.

Rudolph laughed. “Why not? I’m sure nobody would notice!”

“Exactly! Yes, exactly.” Santa was laughing more now. “We
could just say: sod it. Go inside, watch a movie.”

Rudolph chuckled politely. He looked towards the sled.

“Maybe roast some chestnuts,” Santa continued. “Crack open
the whiskey…” The thought was incredibly funny. Santa really couldn’t stop
laughing. “We could pack up all these gifts and use them next year. Or not! We
could leave them here. Just abandon them. They’d be buried in snow by tomorrow!
A nice, jolly graveyard of gifts. Let the kiddies go hunting for them.” The
image was hysterical and exciting; little children bumbling around Arctic
pastures, fields for PlayStations with chilblained fingers.

He let go. Santa laughed until the corners of his mouth hurt and
his stomach hurt and tears streaked his cheeks. The sound was absorbed swiftly
by the acres of virgin snow, his laughter disappearing almost at the instant of
articulation. Eventually he stopped. The surrounding planes were silent.

“We really have to get going,” Rudolph said.

The snow poured. The sled and the elves and even Rudolph were
obscured behind the powdery white flakes. Santa appeared to be surrounded by
shadows.

“You ready?” Rudolph asked.

Over five hundred million gifts had been packed. Across the
world, children waited in feverish anticipation. The gifts would delight them
for a day and ultimately disappoint them. Eventually, they’d lose faith in
Santa, in presents entirely; they’d ask for cash. They’d be replaced. The
unceasing cycle.

“I just want someone to tell me that what I’m doing isn’t
completely mad,” he said.

“It is mad! We’re depositing five hundred and twenty-six million
gifts across the world in less than twelve hours!”

“I didn’t mean ‘mad’ in a fun, slang sort of way.”

“In what way did you mean it?”

“I meant in a literal way. As in insane.”

Rudolph’s nose dimmed slightly. “You’ll feel better once we
make a start,” he said.

*

They moved through the air, travelling into darkness. At
certain speeds, it is easy to confuse physical velocity with more abstract,
even spiritual forms of progression. Santa was familiar with this tricksy
phenomenon, he knew it was coming and yet he was unable to resist its effects.
For a moment, he felt like he was really going somewhere. In the distance, he
spotted a swampy patch of brightness. Aurora Borealis. The eerie light
unspooled for miles across the black sky; his skin glowed sapphire and his
green breath fogged before him. Santa felt humbled by the immensity of his
task. The desire to do it and do it well absorbed him completely; his worries
seemed suddenly small and light.

They started close to home, Greenland their first stop. The
proximal approach was risky, pitting them against the time zones. But it
divided their route into short spurts, which played to the reindeer’s strengths
and it spared them a long journey across the globe with full cargo.

They advanced steadily across the desolate landscape,
visiting humble abodes that had remained unchanged for generations. In one, an
old woman sat in a rocking chair. Her children were dead and her home empty,
but she prepared their stockings every year and Santa always filled them. What
she did with the useless gifts, he could not guess, but he felt for her. At
Christmas, sadness was a purer distillate and he did what he could to dilute
it. These first visits were always more emotional; later there would be no time
for details.

Next, Canada, venturing briefly into Alaska, then back
across. In the Southern region, their progress slowed, particularly in the
densely packed cities, where whole families lived only breaths apart. He moved
through Vancouver trippingly, stopping and starting stopping and starting,
distributing gifts in vast apartment blocks, dozens at a time. Once complete,
they’d lost significant cargo and the sled moved faster. Bolting into the USA,
the G-force pressed hard against Santa’s skull, pushing at his eyes, his
cheeks, his jowls. The sled trembled.

“How are we doing, Rudolph?” he cried.

“We’re behind.”

He worked harder. He filled his sack more heavily, reducing
trips to the sled. His mind went blank and his muscles thought for him. He was
a system of reflexes.

Santa scrambled down chimneys, fingers grasping for purchase,
fingernails snapping off, legs pumping. He discovered himself in a lounge:
garish, bright, decked out in white ornaments. The image vanished and he was on
the sled. The reindeer moaned as they peddled over a labyrinth of rooftops,
spritzed by a gentle rain. And then again. Ten houses. Twenty. Forty. In the
sixtieth, his leg cramped and he walked with a limp, hobbling towards a tree
which had, inexplicably, been placed in the bathroom. His sack, full of sharp
objects, gouged his back. Pain was progress. As the sack stabbed, he moved
faster, like a beast spurred.

“How are we doing Rudolph?

“It’s tight. It’s very tight.”

Faster still. He hurled presents towards trees, he pivoted on
his foot like a sprinter completing laps. He was in a squalid threadbare squat
in Brooklyn, reeking of old clothes, sweat. He was in a townhouse. A
brownstone. He was on Fifth Avenue. The sole of his boot flapped free and he revelled
in this, this validation of his labour. He fumbled across a ballroom, the men
were in black tie. A woman in a sequinned gown observed him panting towards the
ten foot spruce.

“How cute,” she declared, her accent waspish.

Some people could see him but most could not. Those that saw
him recognised him vaguely, like a figure in a dream. An experience of
translucence. He did not mind it now, on the job, but it haunted him after,
that sense of light travelling through him, of being half-vanished.

The air in Mongolia was wet and sweet. The air in Kowloon was
thick with pollution; a haze of petrol fumes settled on Santa’s skin. He did
not slow. They covered Hong Kong. His throat was sandpaper; it hurt to swallow.
Soon, his spit was just froth and there was nothing to swallow at all. Laos.
Taiwan. Rudolph’s nose pointed the way, a small and constant conflagration in
fields of dark.

The sun rose over Alice Springs, Australia, and bloodied the
sky. Santa witnessed it through bloodshot eyes. Time was short.

By Wellington, his muscles were shredded; his limbs loose and
disobedient. Hard to move quickly. Hard to be graceful: he bumped into a desk.
He shoved a couch from his path, rather than walk around it. His body
imprecise, a crude instrument.

When Santa deposited the final gift near the Slope Point, New
Zealand, they were all too exhausted to cheer. He coughed until he retched and
then wiped the sweat from his brow. Almost immediately, more sweat gathered. He
fell against the sled, staring into the middle distance. The landscape pulsed.
Lactic acid pickled his muscles. But he was done.

“Oh no,” Rudolph said.

Santa was too tired to acknowledge the remark.

“Oh dear,” Rudolph said.

“What. What is it?” Santa demanded.

“We missed one.”

Santa returned to the sled and there, in its shadows, was a
single square package wrapped in violet Crepe-paper. He picked it up, his heart
sinking.

To,
Tommy Baker
Love,
Santa

Beneath his signature was an image of Big Ben, indicating
that the present belonged in London, the other side of the world.

“It’s only four in the morning GMT. We could still make it,”
Rudolph said. Dasher’s head sank, and he studied the dirt ground. He looked
like he was about to cry. For a moment, Santa worried that he too might cry. An
image of himself weeping ceaselessly rose in his imagination.

“We could…” Santa said.

“Could”; the suggestion of an alternative. The air became
electric; a scandal, if not uttered, had been implied.

“We’ve never skipped a gift before! Not once!” Rudolph
laughed with strained joviality.

 The other reindeer
looked at each other guiltily.

The package was light – most likely a Kindle Fire. Given the
hundreds of millions of gifts they’d distributed, it seemed absurd that this
flimsy thing should be of any consequence. He turned it in his hands and
wondered how far it would fly if he projected the toy with all his strength.

And if he did? The reindeer would tell the elves. The elves
would talk amongst themselves. His dereliction would license theirs.

The reindeer watched him. Rudolph squirmed. Santa understood that he had, in his hand, the single loose brick that could upend the edifice. He could fail. He could choose to fail. Let the whole thing tumble. The prospect was dizzying.

“We’ll go to London,” Santa declared, solemnly. “And then we
will go home.”

*

They moved sluggishly from the Southern to Northern
hemisphere, the darkness disintegrating in patches behind them. Upon reaching
Europe, they turned west, traversing the sky like wearied vagabonds escaping a
long pursuit. The sled swerved and the air grew frigid. They pushed on. In
London, they travelled at an altitude and vantage that made the city seem like
an elaborate toy village; oddly fragile and easy to crush.

Tommy lived deep in a nest of council estates in Whitechapel.
There was no chimney, so Santa would have to enter by the door. He walked along
a narrow, concrete gangway on the fourth floor. In the courtyard below, a group
of teenagers were jeering and making trouble; grime music played from a muffled
car stereo.

A woman sat in the living room, cradling a glass of red wine.
She looked up, acknowledging him with only faint surprise, as if he were her
husband come home at an unusual hour.

“Hello,” she said.

“Ho ho ho,” he replied, somewhat anaemically. He had sweated
through his clothes many times and they felt stiff and filthy. The air around
his body smelled foul.

“Sorry … do you … I don’t know, do you prefer to do this in
private?” she asked.

“It doesn’t make a huge difference.”

He dropped the present under the tree. He noticed a glass of
milk placed on the ledge of a boarded-up fireplace. He paused. He was
incredibly tired; the night’s adrenaline was withdrawing, making him feel
strung-out, shivery. His stomach lurched at the thought of milk, at the thought
of putting anything into his body. Yet he had noticed the milk and she had seen
him notice. He took a sip and forced himself to swallow.

The room came into focus. Reams upon reams of red tinsel had
been tacked to the walls; it was the cheap plastic stuff. Several Christmas
cards had been strung up with dental floss.

The four-foot tree was shedding heavily. It was covered in
baubles and fairy lights that flicked frenetically from green to red to orange,
the abruptly alternating rhythm gave the space an unhinged quality.

“We’ve met before,” she said.

“Oh? Perhaps…”

“Suzie Baker. We met in ’78. I stayed up all night, staking
you out.”

“Yes! Of course.”

“You don’t sound convinced.”

“I’m sorry. I have a photographic memory for children but
adults are harder to place. I do think I remember…”

“That’s okay.”

“I’ve seen so many faces,” Santa said, in a tone that seemed,
even to his own ears, strangely confessional.

“It’s okay, really. You’ve got a tough gig.”

Nobody had ever said that to him before. Usually, when he
spoke to clients, they talked about how enviable his job was. How he trafficked
in cheer, travelled extensively. So many
perks!
they said. Such fulfilling
work
. It was important for people to believe in the perfect job.

“It is tough,” he said.

“I’ll bet.”

“Next year I might send gift cards,” he ventured.

She laughed.

“What are you doing up?” Santa asked.

“Just clearing my head. It’s been a long year … I don’t
want to be mopey tomorrow. For Tommy’s sake, you know? Kids pick up on your
energy.”

“Children can be incredibly taxing.”

“They can.”

“They lose it with time, though.”

“What?”

“That sensitivity. By the time he’s thirteen, your jolliness
will be irrelevant. You’ll be able to take a break.”

“A break… Frankly, I could use a break from life. Will I get
one of those too?”       “Not one you can
come back from.”

Her eyebrows arched and then she peered at him. “I feel
guilty talking like this in front of you… I can’t be responsible for depressing
Santa.”

“It’s important to share these things. Incredibly important.
I’m actually in a similar position myself.”

She smiled. “That’s hard to imagine. I mean, from the
outside, you seem perfectly together.”

“Oh, I have doubts. There’s a lot about me that people don’t
realise.”

“Yeah?”

“I have a dark side.”

“You do, do you?”

“‘Santa’ is an anagram for ‘Satan’.”

She squawked with laughter, startling him; it was a strange,
unmelodious laugh, and incredibly charming.

 Suzie looked down into
her wineglass, as if remembering something unpleasant. He recognised something
in that expression. Santa was always remembering himself, always alighting
briefly from his moods and descending right back into them.

“I’ve been reading about introverts and extroverts…” he said.
He wanted her to stay with him. “You know, it’s got nothing to do with how
outgoing you are. It’s about energy. Extroverts draw energy from other people
and introverts draw energy from themselves. They find people draining. You seem
like an introvert. Like me.”

“I draw my energy from coffee.”

He laughed. “Can I sit down?” he asked.

“Of course! I should have offered. Sit. Please.”

Santa fell heavily into the chair opposite. She was a young
mother. Her face was thin, almost gaunt. There was a stain on her black and
white striped top and her jeans were furry at the knees, discoloured from wear.
The old clothes strangely suited her. He felt suddenly conscious of how his gut
ballooned over the armrest and he moved his arm protectively across his stomach.

His features burned red, then melted to a soft and forgiving
amber in the changing light.

“It’s nice of you to sit here with me like this. I didn’t
know your services extended to adults,” she said.

“It’s nice of you to host me.”

“Can I ask you a personal question?”

“Of course.”

“Do you get the blues when it’s all over?”

“Christmas, you mean?”

 “Yeah. Ever since I
was a child, taking down Christmas ornaments has always felt so depressing.
It’s strange, because I rarely actually enjoy Christmas itself – no offence.”

“Believe me, none taken.”

“But packing it up feels so morbid. Like I missed my shot at
something.”

 “I know exactly what
you mean. I’ve been thinking something similar. Christmas Present is …
slippery.”

“Even when I’m buying the ornaments, I’m already edgy,
worrying about how long it will take to put them away again, or how I’ll get
the tree to the skip.”

She tapped her wine glass. The edge of her nail struck the
rim; it produced a thin ringing sound that wavered in the air and made him
tense.

“It will be okay won’t it?” she asked.

“Certainly!” he replied. “Wait, will what be okay?”

“I don’t know … just, everything I guess.” She shrugged,
laughed at herself. 

“It will be okay.”                          

The affirmation appeared to hit home. Her body relaxed. He
had helped.

An image of Suzie naked flicked, almost intrusively, across
his mind. Then he welcomed it. He imagined her trembling in his arms. He
imagined being in hers. Sex with his own wife had become a thoughtless ritual.
They knew what each other liked and diligently performed. Their love was well
rehearsed, choreographed, and when they parted, the room seemed filled with
secrets.

Santa had an overpowering urge to share everything with Suzie.
To go deeper. To help more. He yearned for that.

“I feel—” Santa began speaking, before he knew what to say.

“People like me hide behind people like you,” she cut in.
“When I feel anxious, or incapable, I show Tommy cartoons of your workshop, your
reindeer. It helps—”

“—Powerless. I feel, powerless,” he said, finishing his
sentence while processing hers. “Everything I do…” he continued, unable to stop
himself. “Everything is dedicated to making people believe in something that
doesn’t exist.”

“Oh,” she said, tonelessly. “That’s no good,” she added,
after a minute.

A piece of tinfoil became untacked and dropped from the wall.
She got up immediately to right it. She fidgeted, but the tinsel would not
adhere and eventually she snatched it from the wall entirely and put it aside.

“There really are too many decorations in here,” she said.
“When Tommy’s a bit older, I don’t think I’ll bother. Maybe a tree. Something
small, that’ll be easier to clear up.” She sounded different. She had shut him
out. Suzie glanced absently about the room, as if she were alone in it.

“I should let you get some sleep,” he said. He did not wish
to leave.

“Okay.”

“Tomorrow will be full of cheer,” he added, impotently.

“Yes, I think so too,” she replied, politely.

Suzie saw him out, nodding as he left. The door shut quickly.

*

“Woah! What were you doing in there?” Rudolph asked.

“We had a waker. I chatted with her a bit. Spread some
cheer.”

“Like the good old days!”

“Yes. Like those.”

Now, finally homeward bound, the reindeer enjoyed a second
wind. They sang carols loudly, out of tune and out of synch with one another,
garbling the lyrics and laughing. Santa could not shake a nagging feeling. He’d
experienced this feeling once before, in the early days, when he’d left coal in
a child’s house. Thereafter, he abolished the practice.

In no time at all, their home was in sight. It was a strange
law of nature that he had observed often. The outward voyage is always slow and
gruelling; the homeward journey always abrupt.

Inside the elves were celebrating. Every year, their
festivities grew more decadent. Alabaster lay naked across his workstation and
several of his colleagues were wrapping him alive. As they spread shining gold
paper over his pale flesh, he laughed at them, at the rafters, at his situation
entire. One look from Santa could silence this scene. If they could sense what
he was feeling, they’d freeze and sober.

Glances drifted towards him. The job was done and still he
was expected to perform. Santa made a limp victory sign. They cheered. He
excused himself. The constant pop-pop-pop of Champagne corks bursting, the
quiet sizzle and drip of bottles overflowing, pursued him through the room as
he exited.

*

In his study, he considered playing a game of solitaire, but found it hard to move from his chair. He thought of Suzie. He had been ungenerous, and she was probably still awake. Already, he worried about next year and returning to that flat. Perhaps the room would be barer, stripped back: that would be his doing. And how would she treat him if they met again? Maybe she would greet him like a plumber, a necessary nuisance, watch him potter about the tree and hope that he worked quickly. The prospect frightened him. It terrified him.

After an indeterminate time had passed, Rudolph trotted in, his
nose pulsing wildly. It was truly an odd shade of red. A red that had no
corollary in the natural world. It was the red of American candy, the
corn-syrup, zero calorie, mass-produced sweets that rotted the innards of
children.

“You should be proud, Santa,” Rudolph stated. “This year was …
incredible.”

A talking reindeer with an obscene nose. This was his lot.

“I almost didn’t deliver that last present,” Santa stated.

“I know.”

“What do you make of that?”

“I accept it.”

“But what do you make of it?”

Rudolph considered the question carefully. He seemed to be
struggling with a thought that surpassed his faculties; it was like watching a
child contemplate death.          “Our
sled is empty,” he said in a measured tone. “Our gifts are given. These are the
things that matter.”

“I’m not so sure, Ru, I’m not so sure at all. I have this
idea of what I should be doing, how this should work, and every year I feel I’m
getting further away from it.”

“Well … maybe you should give up on that idea.”

There was nothing beyond the idea, just distribution plans.
How pale their offering. He needed to share this burden. He could not do
another twelve months alone. Yet the thought of Suzie gave him pause.

“Sometimes … to hold onto the things that really matter, we
have to let go,” Rudolph added. He concentrated. He remembered something and
exclaimed, “Hold on tightly, let go lightly!”

What was Santa to do with this? Penny aphorisms tossed into
the swallowing dark.

Rudolph waited for a reply. He shifted his weight from hoof
to hoof. Santa felt as if he could undo all of Rudolph’s Christmases with a
single, cool remark. One day he would.

“That’s a lovely expression, Ru.” Speaking came at physical
cost. “Where did you learn the phrase?” Santa asked.

“The elves say it whenever they’re cooking up a plan: hold on
tightly, let go lightly.”

“A lovely expression,” he said again.

Rudolph’s nose throbbed and he drew in close.

 Santa’s fingers played
along the velvet fuzz of Rudolph’s antlers. He pressed down on the soft bone
underneath, which was warm to the touch, which had the faintest pulse, and
massaged it gently. It yielded to the pressure like damp bark.

There was no living bark outside. Outside, the arctic tundra
ravaged trees, blasted their branches clean off, entire trunks snapping like
sticks of chalk in the subzero climate. Only here, in Santa’s home, could such
a small, warm thing survive the night.




Before he knew he was lost

Picture Credits: davidawsp

Even before the
man knew for sure he was lost, he was searching. He felt like he had walked
into a room, but didn’t know why. Instead of an occasional moment, an
occasional instance, every room he walked in, he felt like that, even if he
knew specifically why he had entered the room, something tickled his mind and
he wasn’t quite sure why he was there. He would go into the bathroom to take a
piss and, while he was peeing, be sure that there was something else he needed
to do, some other task.

He started writing
down his reasons for entering a room on his arm with a green sharpie. Pretty
quickly his arms were filled with notes like: get banana, or masturbate, or pay
phone bill. Soon the notes looked like old, faded tattoos. That was the best
part of the whole experience, as he had never quite been able to work up the
courage for an actual tattoo. The thought of a needle penetrating his skin was
terrifying, so invasive. Such a vulnerable position and irrevocable.

He tried to
pinpoint the moment that it began, the exact moment when he wasn’t sure why he was going, but it all felt too
nebulous. Had he felt this way when his mother died? When he moved again and
again? When he lost that job? He couldn’t remember, but a part of him wondered
if it had always been like that, if he’d always had a confused look on his face
after entering a room, and he felt embarrassed retroactively.

The green sharpie
didn’t help. Sure he could look down and see throw out dead mouse and know to throw out the dead mouse. The dead
mouse wasn’t the problem. It was the other feeling, suggesting that he was
missing something, that he should be doing something else besides just throwing
out the dead mouse. He thought that maybe there would be a clue in all of the
writing on his arms, like a pattern he could decipher. Maybe if he could
determine why he was going from room to room on a surface level, the subsurface
would begin to be realized.

He wrote down
everything on one long list, but nothing seemed out of place. If anything it
made the strangeness of what he was experiencing more pronounced. Did he never
go into a different room for a strange reason? Like just to go there? Or for
something out of the ordinary? This more than anything else worried him. He
became determined to figure out what it was that his mind was trying to tell
him. That wouldn’t be accomplished by staying in his apartment. He had read
somewhere on the internet about exposure therapy. A woman had been afraid of
water and they had taken her to the ocean. Not right away of course. At first
maybe watching someone sip out of an opaque glass, and then later pressing a
hand to a window pane while it rained outside. But eventually she went to the
ocean and the article or whatever it had been claimed she had swam. So maybe he
wasn’t quite afraid, maybe he wasn’t actively hiding in his apartment shivering
at the thought of going into the hallway. Not yet at least. And that was cause for fear. If he didn’t do
something soon, he was sure to become afraid.

He didn’t plan
anything, or pack anything. He just walked to the next room and instead of
walking back, he kept on. He walked outside, but that was worse somehow, and
the feeling lingered forcing him back inside wherever he could enter. So he
stuck to populated areas, areas with doors. He didn’t like it, but he forced himself
to do it. He was going to get his life back, whatever the cost.

Eventually after a
few weeks or months, he found an abandoned town. The eight-room, strip motel
would become his home for quite a long time. He could move from room to room
without going outside. It offered him a break of sorts. He could keep on with
his task without needing to move to a new city, without disturbing anyone. He
cleaned up the dead birds and settled in.

The previous
management had kept a huge stash of individually wrapped Rice Krispies treats,
and he was eating one in room six trying to remember why he had come to room
six when the door opened. I’m sorry. I
didn’t know this was occupied.
The man, a vagabond surely, stood there in
the doorway checking out the room and dripping from the rain. They stood like
that for a few moments, until the vagabond seemed to realize that the room was
clean and didn’t have any of the man’s things. Are you management? Can I have a room? I don’t have much money, and it
doesn’t have to be this one. This room, I mean.
The man considered it. The
vagabond was clearly on something and he shouldn’t enable that kind of
behavior, but on the other hand, the motel wasn’t really his. Who was he to
turn someone away? Particularly after he himself had been turned away so many
times in his wandering. And it wouldn’t hinder his daily activities; he could
just skip room six. He held out the confection. Rice Krispies treat?

The vagabond kept
to himself, apparently content. Occasionally, the man would pop his head in on
his daily tour, as he had begun to think of it, just to check on him. The
vagabond was passed out every time. He couldn’t help but wonder how he
continued to get high. Drugs run out. Wasn’t that the point? Both of the
vagabond’s arms at the soft, inner crook of his elbow were bruised with a
needle hole that wouldn’t quite close, like a cracked doorway. Once, when the
vagabond was passed out, he went in to make sure he was still breathing. He
was, and murmuring a phrase over and over in his haze: arrived now, now arrived.

The man couldn’t
stop thinking about the phrase. What did it mean to have arrived? Certainly in
all his walking he went places, he was in places, but he didn’t feel as if he
had arrived. To arrive meant a conclusion. To arrive meant to know. And knowing
would be a kind of bliss wouldn’t it? Maybe in that way, the vagabond’s way,
through the bliss, could mean an arrival. Maybe a conclusion.

He made a plan to
sneak in the next time the vagabond was passed out and see what he could find
out, but instead the vagabond walked right up to the man as he was debating. He
didn’t know what to say. How could he explain that he was planning on stealing
his drugs? The vagabond looked vacant, itchy, and far away. Take this, and no matter what I say don’t
give it back.
He pushed a small black bag, like a travel shaving kit, into
his hands. I can’t. I can’t, he said.
And he left and locked himself in room number six. The man looked inside the
bag and every bit of it seemed to shimmer.

The man closed the
bag and made his tour. He’d never used before. The needle loomed in his mind.
What would it be like, if he was able? Would he spiral out? His mother, God
rest her, had always claimed he had an addictive personality. What if she was
right? What if by stepping through this door, there was no going back? He
didn’t believe that, he couldn’t. There had to be a way back. But if he had
truly arrived, would he care?

Every day he
smashed a Rice Krispies treat into a thin pancake, almost like a wafer, and
slid it under the vagabond’s door. He wondered if the vagabond might have died,
but there was no smell. For now that was enough. The man knew that some things
were only conquered alone. 

One night, he took
everything out of the bag and laid it out. All the metal glistened. The needle,
oh-the-needle, was already filled with a mercury-like liquid that danced and
thrummed. It moved as if alive, and as he stared into it, he knew it would
never run out, not ever. Even after he was dead, it would still slowly dance
and thrum, and he thought that knowing this thing, pulling it inside him, would
be to know a small bit of eternity.

It seemed fairly
intuitive – just a prick and press kind of situation. He was scared, sure, but
to arrive, to finally know would be worth it. He made a night tour, and as he
walked by room six he was surprised to find the door cracked. He pushed it
open. The vagabond was sitting on the edge of the bed with his head in his
hands, but he looked up when the man entered the room. It’s still in me, even though I know it’s not. I can’t get away. Do you
still have it?
The vagabond looked so tired. There were a thousand things
that went through the man’s head and all of them false. And he knew then that
paths only diverge, they don’t end. They splinter like light through a prism.
You could head in the same direction and end up with a very different
trajectory. The man nodded. Come with me.

They started
walking, and were several miles away from the motel when the vagabond asked, why did you put it all the way out here? Did
it help to keep away? Did you use it? Of course you did. So you know, then. You
know that it will never run out.
The man didn’t answer.

After a while,
when it became apparent that they weren’t moving toward his gear the vagabond
asked, where are we going? and kept
looking over his shoulder, looking back, though, now, he couldn’t see the way.
The man still didn’t speak, but he did grab the vagabond’s hand and they kept
walking.




Waterlogged

Picture Credits: John Christian Fjellestad

My mother
chose the most inconvenient time of the year to die and I am 99% sure she did
it out of spite. If you knew Mama the way I knew her, you would think the same
thing too. I mean, how else can you explain the fact that just the day before
she departed this earth she left a six-minute voicemail telling me all the ways
I was a disappointment? She always did like having the last word.

When I left
Nigeria, I was determined to leave everything behind. My mother unfortunately
refused to let go. I don’t know how she did it but she always managed to find
me. So I compromised and spoke to her once a year, on her birthday. Though that
didn’t stop her from calling me every few months and cursing me in two
languages.

The day
after she left her colourful voicemail, I woke up to twenty-two missed calls
from an unfamiliar +234 number. Normally, I ignored calls from numbers I didn’t
recognize but twenty-two missed calls in the span of an hour was worrisome. I
called the number back, bracing myself for whoever was on the  line but nothing could have prepared me for
the ear splitting noise that shook my skull.

“They have
done it!” a voiced wailed in lieu of greeting.

“Hello?”

“They have
done it! The witches and wizards have finally done it!” the voice sobbed.

I closed my
eyes and took a calming breath. It had been ten years since I spoke to her and
it seemed Aunty Ebi had still not mastered the fine art of getting to the
point.

“Aunty Ebi,
who has done what?”

“They have
taken my sister. They have killed her, oh!” she lamented. I heard voices in the
background, some crying, some murmuring words of comfort.

“Who has
killed who?”

“My sister.
Your mother. Our enemies have finally succeeded. They have finally killed her!”

It took
some time but her words finally sunk in. After the call, I sat on my orange
couch staring at a muted Judge Judy wondering what was the right thing
to do or feel. I called Papa, curious to know if anyone had told him his
ex-wife had died.

“Tari! My
beautiful girl. How are things?” Papa said, his mouth smacking. He was always
eating something.

“Papa, have
you heard about Mama?”

“What has
that woman done now?” The words came out in a huff but I could hear the
underlying glee. Mama was Papa’s favourite subject. He could spend hours
talking about everything that was wrong with her.

“Mama has
died,” I said.

There was
silence. Then a gurgling sound came down the line. Soft at first, before
gaining momentum and shifting into a deep belly laugh. “I told you! I told you
I serve a living God. No weapon fashioned against me shall prosper. I knew
Jehovah would deal with my enemies.”

Why these
enemies could not have waited a little bit longer, I did not know. It was tax
season, the busiest season at my accounting firm and I knew asking for time off
was going to hurt my chances of getting the promotion I had been eyeing.

I
contemplated not going back home. I took the time to make a list of the pros
and cons of attending Mama’s funeral. In the end, I had eight bullet points for
the cons and zero for the pros.

Still, I found myself packing my bags and booking a
ticket. Familial bonds always have a way of finding you and dragging you back
home.

*

Hopelessness
was odourless but it had a physical presence. It got under your skin, invaded
your senses and weighed you down. I learnt that as a child and I learnt it
again standing in the morgue holding a lantern over Mama’s dead body. The
morgue was in a windowless room at the back of a small crumbling brown building
behind the main hospital. The walls, painted a doleful shade of beige, were
scuffed and peeling. It was obvious I was in death’s home.

I peered
down at Mama’s lifeless body. They said it was a cardiac arrest in the middle
of the night. Her body was found the next morning when a curious Aunty Ebi went
to find out why her sister had not made it to their church meeting. Mama left
this earth alone and probably terrified. Did she know she was about to die? Did
she have any regrets in her last moments? Did she think about me? Out of all
the questions I had, it was the last one that kept me up at night.

Death was a
strange thing. Mama had been so alive, so full of fire and vitriol. Her
emotions rolled off her, heavy and uncontainable. Whatever she felt, everyone
in her vicinity felt too. Now everything that made Mama Mama was gone. All that life, reduced to a still mass of flesh. The
lines on Mama’s face didn’t seem as rigid and as uncompromising as they did
when she was alive. She didn’t even look that dead. Yes, she was extremely pale
and she had two cotton balls stuffed up her nostrils but she didn’t look dead dead. Her dull skin made her round
nose, full lips and wide forehead look even more prominent. I knew that now
when I dreamt of her, I would see this pale face and I had never been more
grateful that I looked like Papa. Mama had a frown I thought death would have
smoothed out, but it appeared I was wrong. Even in death she looked angry. Mama
was always angry. Angry at me, angry at Papa, angry at her in-laws, angry at
the market women. I never bothered to figure out the source of her anger. I
spent a good part of my life running away from it. Until I got to a certain age
and decided to turn around and face it head on. I looked it in the face and
prodded it, taunting its volatility. I hadn’t cared to understand Mama and now
I never could. I wasn’t deeply troubled about that and I couldn’t help but
wonder if I should be.

“Stop
shaking,” the old man who was slicing Mama open said.

I gritted
my teeth and stopped myself from saying something. I was too jet-lagged and I
didn’t want to get into an argument with the man who was currently embalming my
mother’s body. The hospital staff were on strike and that included the
mortician. My relatives had arranged for the old man from the village to embalm
Mama’s body the traditional way and get her ready for transport. I volunteered
to point out Mama’s body, thinking it would be a quick detour away from my
relative’s judgmental eyes, but the hospital had no light and the morgue had no
windows and that was how I found myself holding up a lantern so the old man
with yellow teeth and a missing ear could do whatever it was that dead bodies
required.

I hadn’t
planned on standing over Mama’s body. If I had known, I would not have stuffed
my face with puff puff that Aunty Ebi had made, because now that puff puff was
churning in my belly, trying to find its way up my throat. I just wanted a
reason to get away from the scrutiny of the relatives that I hadn’t seen in
years. They had all looked at me with either curiosity or scorn, because I was
the girl who betrayed her mother by choosing to live with her father. It wasn’t
my fault Papa caught Mama cheating on him in their marital bed. It wasn’t my
fault Papa had thrown Mama out of the house and promptly married his mistress.
I was nine years old and clueless about the details of their broken marriage. I
didn’t understand the intricate family politics involved or the effects my
choice would have. Though, if I did, I probably would have still chosen Papa,
simply because Papa was easier to live with.

My arm
shook and I shifted the lantern to my other hand. “How long is this going to
take?” I asked the old man. He frowned at me but said nothing. I wasn’t even
sure if we were allowed to be here but the security guard at the gate hadn’t
said anything when we walked in.

I looked
away from Mama’s body, but there was no safe place to rest my eyes. Death was
everywhere. The morgue was overflowing; bodies were piled on top of other
bodies. Bags of melting ice had been placed on and around the bodies and I
hoped whoever placed them there would remember to come back and replace it.

*

“You want
groundnut?” Mr Oke asked, pouring a handful of groundnut unto his palm and
holding it out to me.

I looked
down at his hands, the same hands that had held his penis just moments before
and I couldn’t suppress a shudder. “No, thank you.”

He shrugged
before tossing the groundnut into his mouth. Mr Oke was a wiry man with a
patchy beard. He smelled like baby powder and hummed in tune to the radio as he
drove. He didn’t make unnecessary small talk or play obnoxiously loud music.
You would think all this would add up to a good road trip. It was anything but.
I looked down at my watch and barely restrained myself from banging my head
against the dashboard. Mr Oke looked like he was in his forties but apparently
he had the bladder of a man in his nineties. In two hours we had stopped eleven
times, so he could relieve himself on the side of the road. Two of the eleven
times, he went deeper into the bush and was gone for a while, so I suspected he
did more than take a piss. I tried not to think about the fact that he didn’t
take tissue paper with him.

Things were
not going how I expected. I should have asked questions before I got on the
plane. I should have reminded myself that things never go according to plan
when family is involved. Apparently, Mama told Aunty Ebi she wanted to be
buried in her village, the place she was born, instead of the city where she
spent most of her life. Even in death, Mama had to be difficult.

It was the
peak of rainy season. Driving from Port Harcourt to Bayelsa on muddy, potholed
roads while sporadic thunderstorms battered the rusty hearse was not an ideal
situation. I leaned my head against the window, trying not to think of Mama’s
body bouncing around in the coffin at the back of the hearse.

Somehow, I
was once again stuck with Mama’s body. It was as if her soul was trying to
taunt me. I was being forced to spend time with her that I had denied her when
she was alive. Aunty Ebi had guilt tripped me into accompanying the corpse. Since you are not involved in the planning,
the least you can do for the mother who brought you into this world is escort
her body to its final resting place
, she’d said. How could I argue with
that without lowering the already low opinion they had of me? They were already
upset with me for coming back from America empty handed. You would think that
my mother dying would be a good enough excuse as to why I forgot to bring
gifts, but apparently it wasn’t.

“We’re
here,” Mr Oke said, five hours into our journey.

“What?” I asked, looking out the window. We were parked a few feet from a small wooden dock that was so withered it was a wonder the storms hadn’t washed it away. Canoes, rowboats and motorboats, all in various states of disrepair, littered the river bank.

Mr Oke
pointed to the row of rickety boats. “The main road is underwater. You have to
use the river.”

*

The okada
stopped in front of a small red bungalow with a green corrugated roof. I had
never been to my grandfather’s house but I knew I was in the right place
because I could hear Aunty Ebi shouting. The okada man set my hand luggage on
the ground. I would have been impressed that he had driven a motorbike while
balancing luggage between his chest and the handlebars, but I had once seen a
man riding an okada with two goats strapped to his body. I paid him and watched
him drive off, a part of me wishing I could hop back on and drive off with him.
I dragged my hand luggage on the wet ground, past the point of caring about the
mud that splattered against the wheels and speckled the hem of my jeans.

The sun had
retired and only the soft glow of a lantern highlighted the face of a young
girl who sat by a tree in front of the bungalow. A silver tray was balanced on
her knees and she hummed to herself as she sorted beans. She didn’t look up as
I approached.

“Why are
they shouting?” I asked the girl. I wasn’t sure who she was but if she was on
my family’s property she was probably related to me in some way.

“They’re
making arrangements for the burial rites,” she said, her eyes still focused on
the beans.

“Jesus
Christ. I can’t wait for this burial, so I can go home,” I said, more to myself
than to her. I was cold, my clothes were damp and my skin felt sticky. It had
not been a good day.

The girl
finally looked up at me. “You’re Auntie’s daughter? The one that lives in
America?”

I nodded.

She
frowned. “You’re going to be here for the next month?”

“No. I’m
leaving once the burial is over.”

Her
eyebrows pulled together and lines that were too deep for someone her age
appeared on her forehead. “It’s rainy season. The soil is too soft and
waterlogged. Nothing can be buried for at least the next month.”

My legs
almost gave out. “Next month? Why didn’t anybody tell me that? What am I here
for?”

She
shrugged and went back to sorting her beans.

I felt the
change happen. I felt the frustration that bubbled under my skin boil over and
turn to anger. There was only so much a person could be expected to endure.
After waiting for thirty minutes for a boat big enough to carry a coffin to
arrive at the dock, Mother Nature decided to be a bitch and open up the sky. I
spent the entire boat ride scooping rainwater out of the boat so we wouldn’t
sink. That was soon followed by an hour haggling with two men over keeping the
coffin in the village mortuary. One of the idiots actually suggested I take the
coffin home with me, since the body was already embalmed. I had never been so
close to slapping a person.

I was tired,
wet and I could swear the smell of death had slid under my skin and taken
residence in my soul. All that wahala for a burial that wasn’t even happening
for another month. I marched towards to house, indignation propelling my feet,
rage directing my movement. I slammed the door open, “Aunty Ebi, why—”

A hand
snatched my wrist, distracting me from my mission and cutting me off.

“This child
came all the way from America to bury her mother, you will refuse her?” Aunty
Ebi cried out, wrapping her arms around me. “Has this orphan not suffered
enough?”

I stared at
Aunty Ebi, both impressed with her theatrics and extremely confused.

 “Ebi, we have told you. Things have to be done
a certain way. You cannot just come from the city and demand our land,” an
elderly woman said.

I was in a
small living room, surrounded by weathered faces and wrinkled skin. Three men
and one woman who looked like their days were numbered sat on a tattered floral
sectional that was in serious need of reupholstering.

“My
sister’s last wish was to be buried with her parents. Uncle Peter, are you
going to deny your niece her final resting place?”

The man she
called Uncle Peter sighed. It seemed he was impervious to the guilt trip that
worked so well on me. They spoke in Izon. It had been years since I had spoken
the language, so there was a bit of a delay as my brain tried to translate but
I got the gist of it.

As I
watched the back and forth, my anger shrivelled and burnt out and in its place
a bone-deep weariness took hold.

“What do you
need from us?” I finally asked. My words unfurling haltingly in my mother
tongue. I had been gone for some time but I still knew how these things worked.
We wanted something from them and they wanted something from us in return.

Aunty Ebi
pinched me slyly. I stepped away from her. If we did things her way, we would
argue until the sun rose, then set, then rose again.

“We will
give you a list,” Uncle Peter said.

“Okay. I’ll
go back into town and get everything tomorrow,” I said.

*

1 goat
2 bags of rice
2 crates of Fanta
2 crates of Coke
3 chickens
4 crates of eggs
10 bottles of hot drinks
20 tubers of yam

I adjusted
the travel pillow around my neck and shifted in my seat, trying to get
comfortable. Reading the list one more time, I wondered how they had come up
with it, how all these items equaled a hole in the ground for Mama’s body. I
reached for my bag and put my phone on airplane mode, ignoring the fourteen
missed calls from Aunty Ebi. In a day or two they would realize that I wasn’t
coming back and maybe the calls would stop. They could bury Mama by themselves.




The Flight of the Swallow

Picture credits: Martyn Fletcher

The
evening has worn on until dusk. It is fast becoming a hot summer’s night. I
sigh and think about how difficult it will be to sleep in my flat. England
isn’t built for this kind of weather. It’s made for cold winters not blistering
heat. The buildings are designed to hold in the warmth not let it out. I try to
push the thought out of my mind and concentrate on the conversation that is
happening right in front of me. The four of us sit outside in the beer garden.
We have spent the better part of a day here. Why waste time moving on when we
have such a good seat, Susan had said? She is right, although I won’t tell her
that. She is talking right now about something. Whatever it is, she seems to
think it’s very important. I try to pick up the threads of the conversation. It
seems to be about tax havens and their connection to Brexit. I vaguely know
what she is talking about, but it’s too hot for politics.

I
am about to excuse myself to go to the toilet, not because I need it but
because I want a break from current affairs when I hear a very familiar sound.
A flock of swallows has just flown overhead. This is their time of night, just
as dusk is beginning to deepen. The noise fills the air and quickly fades as
they go about their business. The sound stills me. The conversation about
Brexit vanishes into the background. The memory comes flooding back. Just like
it always does around this time of year. The time of year when swallows are
visiting England from Africa. They come here to breed and fill the air with
their call. I know very little about swallows, what knowledge I have of them
has been absorbed from years of nature programmes on the BBC. The reason I know
anything about them at all is because of the memory that now fills my mind.

I
was young, just a child. My grandfather on my mother’s side had been in
hospital. He was a heavy smoker, had been for years, and it had finally caught
up on him. He went in for surgery, but something had gone wrong, and the family
had been called to his bedside. I was young but old enough to understand what
that meant. That his death was near, but despite my believed maturity, I still
didn’t fully understand the full scope of death. It didn’t seem real to me.
Something that didn’t make any sense. I could not process it properly. Maybe it
was because I was a very melancholy child, prone to shyness and solitude. Or
perhaps I was just a child. Either way, I knew something was happening when my
mother did not come home that evening.

It
was late; the swallows were at play outside of my third-storey window. I can
hear their calls as they swooped around outside, seemingly rushing around at
great speeds. In my adolescent mind, they were speeding to their loved ones or
passing important messages. Most likely, they were feeding, but I didn’t know
that at the time. I was up late, reading my book in the twilight. This wasn’t
unusual. I was always an avid reader. It must have been The Hobbit
although I cannot remember that for sure. I choose that book because it was the
one I would read over and over again, never growing bored of Bilbo and his
adventures. I squinted in the gloom when I heard the door open and then close
downstairs. My mother had returned from saying goodbye to her father. I can
only appreciate now how hard a thing that must have been. To know someone was
dying and not be able to do anything about it. To say goodbye. How could you
find the right words?

Anyway,
I lay there in my bed, still reading my book in the half-light. Outside, the
evening was turning to night, and the swallows were as active as I’ve ever
heard them. They swooped and squawked in the sky. The noise seemed to fill the
room. I strained to see them outside of my window, but their speed obscured
them from me. I began to wonder if they knew what was happening. As if in some
way they were saluting the passing of another soul from this plane of
existence. A strange thing to think as a child, but then I was no ordinary
child, if such things exist. Suddenly, I heard my mother come up the stairs to
my room. This is where the memory becomes hazy. I do not know why. Maybe grief
clouds the mind. Perhaps it is the years that have clouded the memory. The only
thing I can remember is my mother’s sorrow written all over her face but not
the words she spoke. Instead, what I can remember is the swallows outside. That
noise, that strange sound. It has stuck with me all these years. Did they know
what had happened? Were they trying to communicate their understanding in the
only way they could? I will never know.

Even
now, while I sit with friends outside on a balmy summer’s eve, I become
distracted by that sound once again. Those swallows at play as they fly above
my head. That familiar, beautiful sound. Are they trying to tell us something
right now? Or are they just doing what swallows do? I feel cosy and at peace
with memory. It reminds me of death but also life. Life and death are
interwoven together, linked forever. One cannot be without the other. I find
comfort in that as I listen to the flight of the swallows.




Hi

“Hi,” he says to me, and smiles, I think, as I get off the subway, a
human river pushing us past each other. There’s something icky about him, I
think, but then again it’s such a brief interaction. I shrug it off and follow
the crowd up to the yellow line train heading north, and he follows me there.
Or maybe not, maybe it’s just a coincidence. A lot of people head north on the
yellow line, after all – there’s at least a hundred on this platform with us.

I begin to walk down the platform as I catch a glimpse of him out of the
corner of my eye. He’s shorter than me. “You’re here! Hi again,” he says to me
as he approaches and I walk down the platform. I duck behind one of the columns
holding the thousand tons of earth above us and, mercifully, he doesn’t follow.

I’m not used to this kind of attention from men. I’ve only been a woman,
noticeably so at least, for a year, after all. But I recognize lust. I hear the
train arrive, and hope it’s one of the older trains, the ones with segmented
cars. I’m far enough down, I think, that he’d board a different car. No such
luck – it’s one of the new ones, the ones that are just a continuous tube. If
he wanted to, he could patrol the train up and down until he found me, and then
I’d have no choice but to interact with him. Maybe tell him to stop following
me, and rely on the people around me to stand up and help, but it’s not wise
for people like me to rely on the kindness of strangers.

I sit close to the window and make myself as small as possible. I’m only
going two stops away, and there are at least a dozen more stops until the train
reaches the end of the line, so odds are this guy is going to keep riding and
I’m done with him. Still, he might follow me as I get off the train. As it
reaches my stop, I wait until the doors start to close before I jump off the
train. The crowd is big enough that, hopefully, he won’t notice.

I walk up the stairs toward the station’s exit. I don’t see him, but
then again there are a lot of us. Maybe he’s not following me, I think. Maybe he
really just was being friendly, and my imagination is spinning a deeper motivation
from a pair of barely seconds-long interactions. And yet my heart still beats
harder, movement on the periphery of my vision more noticeable. As I continue
to gaslight myself, I exit the station and see him walking away from it, in the
same direction I have to go. The pit of my stomach drops like a sledgehammer on
the plunger of a carnival strength-tester. I look around for an escape. There’s
an alleyway I could duck down that would take me in the same direction I need
to go, but that’s probably far less safe, and then again there’s a fence
blocking it now – that wasn’t there last time I was here.

I get a better look at him this time – he’s wearing a blue jacket and a
red hat. I don’t see what’s on his hat, but I know from experience that people
with red hats are unlikely to be friendly to people like me. He’s got shaggy
black hair and a sparse goatee. He looks a lot like Shigeru Miyamoto, actually,
though I’m wondering if that’s actually true or if I’m just subtly racist. I
try not to look too long, though – people can feel when they’re being watched,
after all.

I walk past him, hoping he wouldn’t notice me. Of course he notices me.
I’m six feet tall, and he picked me out of a crowded subway twice in a row. I
should have waited in the station for a few minutes, I think.

“Hi again,” he says.

“Yes, absolutely,” I say to nobody, my phone against my ear, as though
it were a shield to block his words from reaching me.

“Hi,” he says.

“No problem, do you want me to pick something up?”

“Hey, do you hear me?”

Did nobody ever teach this guy manners? I’m on the phone. I clearly
don’t want to talk to you.

“I know what you are, and I like it.”

God, I’d like nothing more than to just turn around and knock him out.
That’s what I would have done before, when I was pretending to be a man, but
then again I never would have been in this situation before. Even still, I
recognize how futile this will be. The type of guy who follows women and
harasses them on the street isn’t the type of guy to pick a fight with. Who knows
what he’s carrying?

My hand slides into my purse, grabbing my travel-size bottle of
hairspray I keep with me for emergencies. After he starts to walk away, I call
my friends, for real this time. They agree to come meet me, along with their dog.

I’m speed walking toward my friend’s street, now looking behind me,
watching him on the other side of the street talking to someone else, now
looking forward, hoping to see my friends come round the corner to rescue me
with their presence. One of them is a man, and I know this guy won’t mess with
another man. I hate that I have to rely on this. I hate that I need a man
nearby to feel safe. I hate that this is the reality of being a woman, of being
a visibly trans woman. I hate that I am a visibly trans woman. I miss my male
privilege – as ill-fitting as it was, at least I could ride the subway without
being harassed. I hate that I’m a magnet for tranny chasers who fetishize me
because of what they perceive to be in my pants.

I wish regular creeps would follow me.




Kirabiti

It’s on a trip you take to the Isle of Rum that she
mentions Kirabiti. That’s what she calls it. Kinloch Castle is on the far side
of the island to where the ferry boat comes in. You wheel hired bicycles off
the landing ramp and leave the foot passengers trailing. The unsealed road
crackles like bubble-wrap beneath your tyres as you pass finely gritted
beaches, white stucco-covered houses – one with black metal crows above the
doorway – and a community centre you’ll later discover to be the only public source
of wi-fi on the island.

You snort the sea air as you pound the pedals, trying
to keep up with her, feeling increasingly irate that you can’t. She has good
legs, egg-shaped muscles on the backs of her calves. You’ve never noticed them
before. Her rucksack is strapped to the back of her bike, so her white shirt billows
out behind her like an untethered sail. She always wears shirts or cardigans
over vest tops, to hide her broad shoulders.

“Family trait,” she confessed once like a guilty
secret, when you teased her about them, the third or fourth time you slept
together.

No one prepares you for good weather in Scotland. You
are carrying a daypack on your shoulders, containing your top, boots, washbag, and
your new cagoule, ankle gaiters and torch. The torch jiggles against your back,
agitating your skin. The decision to rid yourself of your merino wool sweater,
hiking boots and alpaca socks, to ride bare chested, bare footed, seemed louche
when you set out. But now you’ve sweated off the bug-spray the midges have
swept in, working themselves across your chest and up the legs of your distressed
jeans.

You’d mocked her optimism as you watched her pack,
back in London, two days ago. With departure time approaching, her wardrobe half
empty on her bed, she’d balled up sleeveless tops and cotton shorts and
scrunched them into her rucksack.

“Forecast’s nice,” she’d protested, but she squeezed a
couple of jumpers in anyway, to please you.

She seems unaffected by the midges now, her light clothes
flapping them away. It needles you, her comfort in surroundings that make you
feel so out of place.

Another irritant: this fine, unexpected weather, the
sunlight bouncing off cresting waves, is making you think of Lisa. Specifically,
that last holiday you took as a couple, to Liguria for Dee’s wedding. You had
booked an Airbnb with Shaun and Martha: a villa high up in the hills overlooking
Monterosso al Mare. It had a crescent-shaped pool, a balcony and a bar. It was hot
like this, and you’d been sweating then too, basking on a sun lounger, your
skin freckling and freshly pinked. Martha – ever the leader – had gone off in
search of lemon trees, Recottu and triofe. Shaun was swimming lengths in
the curved pool as best he could, training for his next triathlon.

Lisa had been sitting by you, flipping through an old
art catalogue on Futurism that she’d found in a drawer somewhere. She had kept
trying to engage you in a conversation about Balla’s “Mercury Passing”, knowing
full well you had never seen it. Or perhaps you had, perhaps at one of the
countless exhibition openings you’d been guest-listed into over the past three
years – “Oh, you’re Lisa’s partner? She’s a force.
And you’re in … research?” But it had been hard to remember anything in that
fat heat, two Pirlos down with the scent of chlorine and sun cream rising.

Kinloch Castle grows steadily as you approach, red sandstone
stark against blue sky. It’s a rectangular building, stocky round turrets at
each corner. An outer wall fringes the inner one, unnecessarily shoring it up with
archways and buttresses, as though trying to create the illusion of a building
three times the height. Stained glass windows glare down at you, bisecting
sunrays. Some panes are smeared: old handprints; traces of children’s nostrils
pressed against the glass. The entrance is indicated by a tall pink tower,
unmistakeably phallic, set in the centre of one of the long walls. As you pull
up, a tour guide opens an oak door carved with lion heads.

“Welcome, welcome! What weather – can yous believe
it’s September?” Spotting the bicycles, he adds: “We’ll wait for the ones on
foot. Yous took the smart route.”

You prickle gleefully; the bikes were your idea. You
uncurl the wire lock from the bicycle’s frame and look for a place to chain it.
She slings hers onto its side in the driveway as though tipping a cow.

“No need to worry about that here, Toto,” she says. “We’re
not in Kansas anymore.”

You find a gutter pipe to lock the bike to then attach
hers as well, to make the point. Untying the sleeves of your jumper from around
your waist, you pull it over your head as you enter the castle. Your skin barks,
darkening your mood.

“You alright, hon?” she asks, as you join her in the
lobby. You don’t answer.

As you wait together she begins to fidget, brushing an
imaginary stray hair from her forehead, shifting her weight from foot to foot, tucking
the back of her shirt into her shorts. The movements hover in your peripheral
vision like midges; you want to swat them away. Has she always been this nervous?
You try to think back over the last five or six months but the answer eludes
you. As she re-rolls her sleeve you put your hand out to stop her. She
misinterprets the gesture and holds it, smiling gratefully. You shake free of
her grasp – the smile drops – and walk over to one of the blood red walls to
study a painting. It’s a clansman in full tartan garb: kilt, sporran, Sgian-dubh. His hands are on his hips,
his right foot resting on the body of a dribbling stag.

“Amazing, isn’t it?” she says immediately, behind you.
“So imposing.”

It recalls to you – suddenly, perfectly – the moment
you first met. It was at the exhibition launch of some Twitter follower of
Lisa’s, that you’d attended half-hoping she’d be there (she wasn’t). You were
scowling at a gold frame filled with pages from Jeffrey Archer thrillers,
defaced with intricate geometric knots.

“I like to feel something, I guess,” a voice sighed apologetically,
addressed to the fey-looking man she was with then. “Abstract art just never
lets me in.”

You give a non-committal shrug and bend down as though
to study the signature on the clansman painting, which sits next to a small
puddle of spittle. In your mind’s ear, you hear Lisa sigh, slap her catalogue
shut and slip into the pool.

Through eyes that had refused to stay open or closed,
you’d observed her cut across the water with short, determined strokes. Time
took on a fluid quality as you’d ebbed in and out of sleep, images and sounds
careering and colliding. Lisa’s tanned body glimmering like an eel’s as she
twisted, changed direction. Lisa treading water in the centre of the pool,
forcing Shaun to pull up in front of her. Shaun lifting Lisa up on his broad
shoulders. She, tumbling backwards into the water, pushing her wet hair back as
she resurfaced. Lisa eyeing the inverted triangle of Shaun’s torso. The two of
them sharking a slow circle around each other, disappearing behind the water
slide. Laughter, splashing, shrieking, silence.

When you’d awoken, they had been sitting at the edge
of the pool, heads bowed in conversation. The knot of Lisa’s bikini top was
off-centre, but you couldn’t remember if it had always been that way.

The castle door creaks open.

“Welcome, welcome,” you hear the guide greet the other
tourists. “What weather – can yous believe it’s September?”

As the lobby fills, he strides up the stairs of the
Great Hall to a mezzanine level to signify that the tour is starting. He stretches
out his arms like an emperor at the Colosseum, the group looking up at him.

“Kinloch Castle,” he says, “was built in 1897 as a
hunting lodge for George Bulloch, who inherited the island from his father. The
sandstone was imported from a quarry on the Isle of Arran. Construction took three
years and involved up to three hundred workers. The young Master Bulloch, as
you’ll see, was not a modest man. In fact, this whole castle was designed to
emphasise his position at the top of the Highlands and Islands social ladder.”

The group trails his steady stream of patter around
the building: the Gold Ballroom, the Billiard Hall, the Lady of the House’s En Suite,
bedrooms with four-poster beds, a secret passage to the maid’s quarters (her
hand brushes your arse through your jeans). Stag heads adorn each wall, their
antlers great skeletal hands that hold an alternative history, of the land
clearances that made way for hunting reservations like these. Back in the Great
Hall, the guide opens a mahogany cupboard under the staircase, revealing an orchestrion.
The group oohs and aahs at a series of long brass cornets, lined up like
hunting rifles, a small drum perched on a shelf at their mouths, a rusted
triangle poised beside it.

“Only three of these exist in the world today,” he says,
proudly. “This is the only one that works.”

He loads a cylindrical cartridge dotted with braille
into the machine. As the room fills with a noise like off-tone bagpipes and
childhood days at the seaside, the line loops in your head: the only one that
works.

She hadn’t liked it when you told her you’d agreed to
meet up with Lisa at the start of the summer. But she’d listened while you
explained it to her, nodding sadly as you said it was something you needed to
do, were going to do. You had always been clear about your feelings – certainly
she couldn’t charge you with that. The pub was on the canal by Camden Lock, one
of those awful, busy, minimalist places that Lisa knew would annoy you. You had
perched on the end of a wooden bench beside a concrete table, nudged
intermittently by the elbows of a girl having an argument with her boyfriend.

“I just want you to care,” she was shouting, “to actually
give a shit.”

You’d ordered a cortado so you could finish it before Lisa
got there, to emphasise her lateness.

When she’d arrived it was in a flurry of activity, as
always: talking hands-free, smoking a cigarette, taking off her sunglasses to
squint down at your face.

“Bye-bye-bye,” she’d said to the person on the phone
while smiling at you.

She’d looked good: healthy, athletic. You wondered if
she’d been training – then, with whom. She’d sat down as you got up to hug her,
but otherwise you’d chatted away like this was any other date, like you’d never
left her, like there’d been no year-long void. She’d teased you for re-reading
Rilke (“Relic with a God complex”). You’d feigned offence that she hadn’t
invited you to the Tate’s Clinton Hill retrospective (“The ICA’s”). She’d asked
if you’d ever finished that PhD and when you’d said you had her face lit up
with childish joy, an exact copy of the first time she’d ever seen her name on
the RA’s Summer Exhibition programme, six months into your relationship. And
for those fleeting moments it was like old times, like the oldest – those that
sit inside the bones of you and make them strong and, later, unbearably weak.

Eventually, because you’d known she wouldn’t say it
unprompted, you’d asked if she was seeing anyone.

“Yes,” she’d replied, carefully.

“Shaun?”

An eyebrow arched. “Of course not, silly.”

Her tone had left you with more questions than
answers. She hadn’t asked if you were dating again. You’d considered telling
her anyway but couldn’t find a way that didn’t seem like return fire. Besides,
you didn’t even have a photograph.

“Is it serious?” you’d said at last.

“I think so,” she’d replied, offhandedly. “They bore
me, though. You didn’t bore me.”

It had felt good to hear her say that, even though
you’d doubted it was true.

“Leave him, then,” you’d given back.

“For who – you?”

It was like a guillotine falling.

“Thought not.”

She’d waved for the bill and paid, even though she
hadn’t ordered anything. You’d stood up as she left, so she’d be obliged to peck
you on the cheek, at least. Her hair smelled of oranges, which reminded you that
it always had.

Back in the lobby at the end of the tour, under a
bronze cast of an eagle eating a monkey, the guide’s tone turns serious.

“This house is falling down,” he says. “Such was
Bulloch’s desire to show off his wealth, he demanded construction be rushed, so
the structural support is poor.” You wait for him to ask for a donation on the
way out, to support a roof fund or some-such. But instead he adds: “We can only
work to preserve it as long as possible.”

“Like Kirabiti,” she breathes beside you.

“What?”

“Kirabiti,” she whispers. “You know, the island. The
one that’s disappearing because of climate change. Rising sea levels, nothing
can change it.” The volume of her voice rises, becomes more animated, as she
sees your interest is piqued. “There’s a weightlifter from there. I remember
seeing him on the Olympics. He dances after every attempted lift, whether he succeeds
or fails. It’s so that people will love him and remember him and remember Kirabiti.
He came third or fourth, I’m not sure – but I remember the dancing and
Kirabiti, so it works. Isn’t that amazing?”

“It’s Kiribati,” you say.

“What?”

“Kiribati. You said Kirabiti.”

“Oh,” she says, going red.

That night, you stay together in a pine camping pod,
the shape of a fortune-teller’s caravan. The shower is outside, surrounded by a
staked fence, and charges fifty pence for hot water that never comes on. She
hasn’t said much since the tour, but she makes a campfire, deftly spinning
pieces of kindling between her fingers, lighting the match and slowly feeding the
flames with smaller sticks until the logs can go on. She has a patience with this
sort of thing that you’ve never had for anything practical. She catches you
watching her.

“Girl Guides,” she says and laughs.

It’s an apologetic laugh, she uses it often: at
academic functions you’ve guest-listed her into, when she’s asked who she’s
reading and she replies “Karin Slaughter, mostly”; with the few friends you’ve
introduced her to when she has to remind them of her name. You find it
embarrassing in front of other people yet here, alone, it’s endearing. There’s
an assurance she needs that only you can give her. And, away from everything, it
feels like something you can give.

You
read Rilke aloud to her as she works:

“Whoever’s homeless now, will build no shelter;
who lives alone will live indefinitely so,
waking up to read a little, draft long letters,
and, along the city’s avenues,
fitfully wander, when the wild leaves loosen.”

“Lovely,”
she says. “Really nice.”

It doesn’t last, of course, the weather. The rain comes
down, the fire’s snuffed out, and you retreat into the cabin. She has midge
bites on her ankles from where she took her socks off before making the fire.

“Silly,” you tell her giddily, brushing your thumb
across a blushing sore. “I told you to put the spray on.”

The cotton sticks to her skin as you try to pull her
shorts down. She wiggles out of them, yanking her knickers back up as if trying
for some ridiculous sense of striptease. You push them aside and lick her
hungrily where her thighs meet. She resists for a moment – embarrassed by her
smell, the sea, the sweat – before parting her legs, the stubble raised up on
goose-bumps. You make her beg before fucking her.

Later, when the rain stops, you roll yourself
carefully out of the camp bed, your back objecting. She is snoring comfortably,
has been for the past four or five hours. You, meanwhile, have been staring at
the ceiling of the pod, shivering and counting spiders, real and imagined. You
step out on the porch, roll a cigarette and light up, idly fizzing bug-spray into
the air to keep the midges at bay. The sun is rising, you can see it through
the haar, a Pointillist blur. She told you earlier that the twilight hour, the
pinking dusk, is called the gloaming. What is the opposite of “gloaming”, you
wonder? Perhaps they covered that in Girl Guides too.

It can’t carry on, you know that. She must know it too.
It’s the subtext undercutting every nervous laugh, every action designed to
please you: “I just want you to care, to actually give a shit.”

The last time you heard from Lisa was two weeks ago, when
she’d phoned to say she was getting married and asked you to give her a reason
not to. Your heart had stalled but you’d kept your tone neutral.

“How many exes are you phoning tonight?”

“However many will pick up,” she’d answered
sarcastically.

“Shaun?”

A sigh. “Of course not. Silly.”

After a pregnant pause you’d told her to send you a “Save
the Date” and you’d be sure to raise a toast to the happy couple from afar.

“I keep giving you these chances,” she’d said.

“To what?”

Her hair still smelled of oranges, even over the phone,
even after she hung up.

You hear her stir inside the cabin, call your name
unsurely, as though you might have run away in the night. It grates. She’s like
the weightlifter, you think, always dancing in your presence. The image is
pleasing: her with a great inflated body, tucking the back of a t-shirt into a
leotard, a stupid grin on her fat face. Her cheeks puff out and her skin
purples as she hoiks the barbell to collarbone level, squats to the floor.
Slowly, she straightens her wobbling legs, then places one behind her ready for
the jerk. But the angle is bad: her arms push forwards and the weight slams to
the floor. She reels backwards onto the mat, and sits there for a moment,
stunned. Then she gets up, bows, laughs and starts to wriggle. Her hands draw
circles as her weight shifts from foot to foot, her bottom swinging,
desperately trying to draw attention to an island already drowning, already
gone.

You take the last drag of your cigarette and stub it
out on the wooden porch. It leaves a black mark which you press your finger
against, to feel the residual burn. There’s a new bite on your wrist; the
little fuckers get through every time. But there’s something else hovering just
outside the frame, something you can’t swat away. It keens towards you now, steeling
itself to bite.

“Because if she is the weightlifter,” it says, baring
its teeth, “what does that make you?”