A fairly weathered friend

Cassey’s hair
is encrusted with hairspray that I can smell from two tables away. Her pink
nails are at least a centimetre too long and click against the taught leather
of her clutch. It’s black, with diamantes glinting along the silver clasp. I
hate everything about this woman.

“Happy
birthday!” My enthusiasm sounds genuine and I throw my arms around her. We bump
breasts and cheeks and pull back quickly. Her eyes scan my face – skin kept pale
out of Sydney’s summer sun, black mascara, long earrings. She keeps looking,
searching for something that isn’t there anymore, but smiles at the same time,
keeping a polite pace to the conversation.

“Thank you! I’m
so glad you came. Here, do you know everyone?”

I glance around
the table. Her clones are already a bottle or two deep in prosecco.

“Of course, hi
everyone!”

They shriek
back their greetings, their eyes traveling down my indistinct black top to my
jeans and, most astonishing of all, flat shoes. But it’s a birthday! I can almost hear their brains frying with the
confusion.

“Grab a glass,
there’s plenty of bubbly left,” Cassey says, too busy being the centre of
attention to hand me one herself.

“Thanks, but I’ll
go to the bar.”

Someone shrieks
and I presume it is about what I said, until they all raise their hands and
start singing. A song about chandeliers. I leave them to it.

While I wait in
line at the bar, the words of the song grow familiar. Blowing off the cobwebs
of repressed trauma, I think. The most traumatic thing these women have seen is
lipstick where it shouldn’t be.

The bar is long
and heavily staffed, and I place my order quickly. A whiskey, specifying its
Irishness, and soda. He doesn’t blink, just turns to the cascade of bottles
behind him. My reflection in the mirror is partly obscured by spirits with colourful
labels, but my paleness stands out in the sea of fake tan around me. Even the
man beside me, his arms bulging through a polo shirt a size too small, is a
strange orange colour. He grins at me, an instinct he quickly corrects when I
don’t respond. He has better luck with the woman on his other side.

I pay and
return to the table, where someone has bought two more bottles of prosecco. The
empties rattle in their metal buckets, and the table is slick with condensation
from the glasses. Someone is telling a story, something about a dodgy phone
contract. The topic seems unusually dull, even for this audience. Cassey’s eyes
are wide as she nods in sympathy, but her expression becomes glazed when the
story continues for longer than anticipated.

“You had
problems with your phone, didn’t you Cassey—” someone interrupts, reaching a
heavily manicured hand across the damp table “—in Fiji? Didn’t they charge you
some exorbitant amount?”

“Oh they tried,”
Cassey flicks the hair off her neck, as though priming for a fight. Everyone
giggles. “As if Matty would let them get away with that.”

“Finally, that
law degree coming in handy!”

Everyone
laughs, and she basks in the reflected glow of her competent, and
highly-qualified, boyfriend. Her eyes meet mine, and linger. I raise my arm and
take a long, slow taste of my drink. The short tumbler sits among their
towering glasses like a frog among flamingos. I run a chiselled nail along the
condensation on the table, then flick the water off.

“So, Peta, what
are you up to these days?” Their faces swivel to look at me for the obligatory
small talk. I sit straighter, lengthening my collarbone as though pleased to
partake. There is a grease stain on the right thigh of my jeans. Mayonnaise
must have slipped from my sandwich on the train without me realising.

“I’m doing my
PhD.”

Someone should
study groups like this. It is a strange phenomenon watching eight women lose
interest simultaneously, their deadened expressions as well-matched as their
stilettos.

“Weren’t you
doing that last year?” someone asks. She has aquamarine nails.

“Yes, it takes
a few years.” The last three of Cassey’s birthday parties have included this
conversation. I wait for someone to ask what the topic is, and decide that this
year I will give the extended answer. I shouldn’t talk down to them, after all,
as though they were imbeciles. But no one asks.

“Where are we
going next?”

“Charlie’s!”

“Charlie’s!”

“Charlie’s!”

The chorus is almost
harmonised and they laugh. A group of men, including my polo-shirted friend
from the bar, pass by, and holler their approval.

“I didn’t know
we were going anywhere else,” I say. Cassey can pretend not to hear me from the
other end of the table. Her hand is on the downy forearm of a bloke with teeth
that gleam despite the darkness. The woman with aquamarine nails answers me
instead.

“Charlie’s is
having a two-for-one night on bottles of prosecco, plus the DJ is a friend of
Matt’s.” She stops talking suddenly, as though confused by her own words.

“Jackson is
playing?”

“Yes, I think
so.” She turns to the woman next to her as though needing to confirm the name,
but it is clear she wants to avoid seeing me digest the information. Jackson is
Matthew’s best friend. He and Matthew wore matching footy shirts when they went
clubbing. Matthew told me he wore it ironically. I liked that he cared enough
about my opinion to lie, it seemed like a good sign.

Cassey has
released the arm of the man, though he winks at her as he leaves. She turns
back to the table and fans herself with her hands, blowing through her lips as
though she is suddenly too hot.

“Gee – zus,”
she says, and everyone giggles.

“Oh as if you’d
be tempted!” someone shrieks, and slops wine out of her glass with the
excitement. “Not with dear darling Matty waiting for you at home!”

Cassey stops
her playacting and smirks, satisfied that her friends are suitably jealous.

“Where is home,
these days?” I ask. What I mean is, are you still living in the flat I helped
him find? Are you still sleeping on sheets that we fucked on first? But there
is something in her continued smirk that makes me realise her answer is better
than that.

“We’ve bought a
house, over in Franklin.”

“It’s gorgeous!”
someone adds, drawing out the word like she could wrap it around the house and
carry it away with her.

“Amazing pool,”
aquamarine lady says.

“Thanks to
Matt!”

I imagine him
in the backyard in the dusty flat suburb they chose because it’s where families
live, sweating through his t-shirt as he digs and digs, building her a pool.
Except, of course that’s not what they mean. They mean he paid for it.

“Sounds nice,”
I say. My whiskey is finished and I want another one, but not if we’re moving
on. Cassey will expect me to come with her and her gaggle. I was always the
leader on our nights out. Every Thursday night for years ended with me dragging
her to just one more bar. We would trip through doorways, giggling, delighting
at the surprise our disparate appearances had on the crowds. We were above the
superficiality of a well-matched friendship. We liked each other because we loved each other, not because of some inconsequential
interests that made us compatible.

“More bubbles!”
All the bottles are empty but there is no point staying, so everyone collects
bags then we sit without drinks while someone goes to the bathroom and returns
with freshened lipstick.

Outside, the
night is too warm, a heat that rises from the ground to meet its brother
descending from the sky, trapping us in between. There is sweat behind my knees
and I wish I wasn’t in jeans. The women around me are fresh in their short
dresses, bare legs skipping with ease through the heavy air. Everyone wants to
be near Cassey, which means I can hang back. I know the bar we’re going to –
Charlie’s! – and have no desire to get there quickly. Seeing Jackson again is a
feature of this night that I can do without.

A few groups
are at the small tables. Cassey has reserved space for ten people, and the
bartender waves us towards a collection of odd-sized tables that have been
shoved together in the middle of the main space. I go straight to the bar and
get myself a whiskey, then, because I’m feeling generous or lost or perhaps a
bit of both, I buy two bottles of prosecco as well.

My eyes probe
the dark corners of the room as I wait, but the DJ desk is empty and Jackson is
no where to be seen. The music is that electronic pop which is everywhere now,
and sounds generic in places like this when it loses all its distinguishing
features under the squeals of birthday revellers.

I deposit the
bottles on the table, but only aquamarine seems to notice. She says thank you
as she starts pouring, and there are a few vague smiles thrown in my general
direction, but no one wants to be beholden for the next round. The whiskey here
is rougher and burns like cigarette ash rather than a wood fire. My whiskey
pretention only arrived after Matthew left me, but it has blossomed into
full-blown fervour since then. He would have ordered me a Jack Daniels and I
would have drunk it with ease, but not anymore.

“Does Matt know
his girl is out looking like a total bombshell?” Jackson swoops over to the
table and Cassey disappears into a bear hug, though I can hear her shriek from
under his chest. He steps back and surveys the group; his eyes rest on me. “Oh,”
he says, and everyone watches as he tries to control his reaction. “Hi, Peta.
Long time.” And then, catching himself, he strides over and hugs me too. His
cologne is the same as Matthew used to wear. “How are you?”

“Fine, I’m
doing my PhD.” It is the only thing worth reporting about my life. “How are
you?” I ask, as it becomes clear he has no reaction to my information.

“Great.” He
wiggles his hand at me, and it takes a moment before I see the ring. “Married Elle
last month.”

“Congratulations.”
He and Elle got together at the same time as Matthew and I, and those first
months of shared dates hover between us.

“I’d better get
to work. Any song you want, tonight, Cass!” He bellows at Cassey as he leaves.
I’m too hot, sitting at the end of the table, furthest from the door and its
fresh air. My whiskey is almost gone, already. The lights start pulsing in time
to the first song Jackson spins. There is a shouted conversation happening
around me but I can’t hear enough of it to join in. My heart is beating too
fast. I force myself to breathe slowly, regularly, out of time to the music.
Some of the women are dancing already. I get myself another whiskey, and when I
return my head tunes in to the conversation, finally. It’s about Jackson’s
wedding, and Matthew’s best man speech.

“Jackson will
have a lot to live up to when it’s his turn!” aquamarine squeals, and everyone
laughs. My breathing stops again, like I’m relying on a faulty machine with a
mind of its own.

“When Matty
finally asks, you mean,” Cassey shouts, and it’s a joke and everyone laughs but
there is something spiky about her all of a sudden. Her eyes are on mine as she
fills her glass with cheap yellow bubbles.

“Jackson and
Elle have been together longer,” aquamarine says, and eyes swivel to me as
though I stole the first year of Cassey’s relationship. My whiskey is finished
again, already, and I tap the tumbler against the table. Someone, surely,
should buy me a drink. A song starts, Aretha Franklin but with a different beat
that suits the dark and the lights and the dancefloor. The table empties and
the women are wiggling, just barely in time. I stay where I am, wishing there
was table service.

“You know,”
Cassey appears in the seat next to me. Her forehead is shining, she was always
a sweaty dancer. “I’m glad you came tonight.”

“I always come
to your birthdays.”

“I know.” She
burps, suddenly, but doesn’t seem to notice. “Except for that first year.”

I grab a bottle
of prosecco and empty it into my whiskey glass. “You mean the year I lost my
boyfriend and my best friend? Yeah, I wasn’t much up for partying that year.”
The bubbles catch in my throat. Aretha has been joined by George Michael.

“You didn’t
have to lose either of us.” Her hand comes down to mine, it’s sticky from the
sweet alcohol. “You and Matty weren’t right for each other, not romantically,
you know that. But we could have stayed friends. We should have stayed better
friends.”

Someone is
calling for Cassey to join them on the dancefloor but she waves them away. She is
still an emotional drunk.

“Why would we
stay friends? We have nothing in common.”

Except Matthew,
of course.

“That never
mattered to us.”

I don’t know
which “us” she is talking about – her and Matthew, or me and her?

My glass is
empty again. Aquamarine is back at the table suddenly, bottles clasped in her
hands. She fills our glasses. “I’m glad you switched!” she yells, as she tops
up my tumbler with bubbles. I drink, and it tastes like metal. Cassey has
disappeared into the messy mass of the dancefloor. I am glad not to have to
talk anymore. I come to these things to keep one point of contact going – so
she can see I am okay, so that I will know when they finally get married. But I
can’t talk about why we don’t speak on any other day of the year.

“It’s great you
came!”

I didn’t
realise that aquamarine was still sitting beside me. Her glass is clasped in
two hands, like something precious she needs to protect.

“I come every
year,” I say again. Why is that so hard for people to remember?

“Yes, but this
year especially. It’s good that you came.” Her lips are all wet and wobbly, and
I realise she is on the verge of tears. My glass thumps back to the table as I
look around for a distraction. “She hasn’t been out in months, you know. Not
since her mother’s diagnosis.” Her voice pitches and rolls with emotion and
alcohol. “She is so dedicated and so selfless, it’s just really good she gets
this night out.”

I stand,
knocking against the table. “Toilet,” I say.

The toilets are
grimy and along the sinks are discarded glasses with drenched limes huddled in
the bottom. I wee, then stand at the sink for too long. My face warps in the
dark mirror and I am suddenly five years younger, waiting for Cassey to finish
throwing up in the cubicle behind me. “Hurry up,” I’m yelling, but she is still
retching.

“You go,” she manages
to say between heaves, and I consider leaving, but then there is a knock on the
door and Matthew is there.

“Are you two
ready?” he is asking, and I yell again at Cassey to hurry up. He blinks at me,
like he is seeing my reflection in a funhouse mirror. He disappears, and is
back minutes later with a glass of water which he pushes under the cubicle
door.

“Thank you,”
Cassey’s voice is weak and pathetic. Last week, that was me, and she got me
water. I grab Matthew’s hand.

“Let’s dance,”
I say but still he looks at me like he has never seen my true shape before.

“Cassey,” he
says, ignoring me and tilting his head closer to the graffitied cubicle door. “I’m
going to stay right here, let me know when you’re ready to go and I’ll get us a
taxi.”

And I am blinking
in the mirror trying to remember why I had wanted to leave my best friend alone
in a club toilet and why that made Matthew see me differently, truthfully, my
stubborn selfish streak suddenly exposed. And from then on he was with Cassey
and her vomity selflessness.

I return to the
table but everyone is dancing. I finish my glass of bubbles and push my way
onto the dancefloor. I grab aquamarine’s arm as she raises it to do the Y in
YMCA. “What diagnosis?” I yell into her ear. It takes a minute for the words to
filter through the alcohol and noise. She yells back, and I see Cassey watching
us. I push through more bodies until I am next to her. “Your mum is sick?” I
yell into her ear. She doesn’t stop dancing and her shoulder bumps into me as I
lean closer. She flicks the hair off her neck and shrugs. “I didn’t know,” I
yell, and she shrugs again. Jackson is watching us, his head moving with jerks
to the beat of Destiny’s Child. “I didn’t know!” I yell again, but she still
doesn’t respond, and there is nothing for her to say. Would I have acted
differently tonight if I had known? She doesn’t know, and neither do I, really.
I am probably still the woman who leaves her friend behind. Matthew chose the
kind woman, and it is only in the heat of the dancefloor as Cassey shakes her
shoulders in a terrible shimmy that I realise he is a better man for that
decision. I put my hand on her arm and yell, again, “I’m sorry!” But she
doesn’t want to talk. She takes my hand off her arm and holds it in the air.
Jackson is still watching and I wonder what he will report back to Matthew. I
drop my arm around her shoulders and we raise our free arms high, our lungs
opening as we bellow the lyrics to a song I haven’t heard in years. Her long
nails flash through the dark and I am enveloped in the smell of her hairspray.
It is familiar as my childhood bedroom.

Hours later,
when the music has ended and Jackson has left, we stand on the street outside.
I am drenched, my jeans feel like I have waded through a river. Cassey is
fanning herself with her clutch, the diamantes spit and sparkle at me.

“Did you have a
good night?”

“Yes,” she
says. She tries to look at me steadily but her feet stumble and she throws an
arm out. “You can go, if you like. Matty will be here soon to get me.” Her
friends have migrated to the pizza kiosk down the block. I don’t want to see
Matthew. I don’t want to see her climbing into his car. I don’t want to see
whatever greeting they have for each other.

“Maybe,” I say.
She staggers again. A man with a ripped t-shirt whistles and his friends roar.
I hold her arm. “It’s fine, actually. I’ll stay.”

Her arm loops
through mine and it’s warm and sticky. She is everything I hate in the world, but
that is nothing to do with who she is. So many nights out together, and so few
ended like this: me standing here, waiting with her.

I know it’s
Matthew’s car before I see him in the driver’s seat. He pulls up in front of us
and shows no reaction at seeing me there. “See,” I want to say. “I can be a
good person.” I help her into the car.

“Thanks Peta,”
he says, and clasps Cassey’s hand as they drive away.




Her Own Executioner

Evening Sun

She was looking through drawers, impatiently turning over paper in search of a safety-pin, when she found the photograph. It was tucked in between sheets of an old essay, right at the bottom of the drawer. She pulled out the sheaf of papers and her fifth-form handwriting squinted up at her; blue, rickety and slashed over with red pen.

She flicked up the top-sheet to read on and saw her eyes. The shock was the shock of grief. She put her hand to her mouth. It was that school portrait; her hair down around her shoulders, her face and neck lifting hopefully out of the green-striped shirt and scratchy green jersey.

Her eyes were the same. Almond-shaped and bright brown, emphasised by the line of her plucked eyebrows. They struck at her, lit with strange triumph. Was she fourteen or fifteen? The photographer’s white light clung to the curves of her cheeks, her young skin. She had the shine of a new coin.

There was a paperclip holding a piece of paper to the back of the photo. She turned the picture over and detached the faded square. A smudged red-brown fingerprint, faded to the bracken colour of old blood, anointed the wide-ruled lines. It was as violent as a bullet-hole in flesh.

She took the picture out, gently, and walked away with it to the kindest mirror in the house. In the cold hall she looked back and forth between the glass and the photograph. She touched her skin, her cheeks, her hair; gingerly, as if her face might crumble under the pressure of her fingers.

It was a cruel, cruel, thing to find. Her eyes in the mirror were cruelly the same as the eyes in the photograph; almond-shaped, fine and bright. Everything else had mattened and crumpled; her red-veined cheeks, the swag of her jowl, the grey flecks in her eyebrows and coarse hair. How she had betrayed the girl in that picture. Why hadn’t she stopped it?

A dog barked from the kitchen. Nick must be home. She went quickly back to the dresser, put the picture back between the essay leaves and closed the drawer again.
“Laura!” Nick shouted. “Are you there?”
“Yes” she called back, feeling doubled and distant. “I’m here.”
“I’ve got a load of mistletoe. Can you come and help?”

That afternoon she went to dig in the garden, turning over clods of clay for the frost to get at. As she worked the robin flew down and sat in the holly-tree, watching her. The day was slatey-cold and grey, the sky pressing in and making the land seem smaller; limited. The robin’s breast was almost painfully red against the drained winter colours. The little bird sat among the sharp holly-pricks without harm, head cocked.
“Hello,” she said. The robin often watched her digging, hoping for worms. Its fatness and its little bloody chest were usually heartening Christmas signals in the frost-ashened garden. Today its black eye seemed critical, a judgement.

Her gardening gloves were stiff and clotted with mud. She pulled one off and put her earth-dusted fingers to her face again, feeling the soft husky skin beneath her eyes. The robin stared, its tiny black eyeball shining in the socket, swivelling between Laura and the ground. Under the newly-turned lumps of soil the garden was full of worms, the agents of decay. Nature’s erasers unwriting life cell by cell, remorseless as water.

As she gazed at the bird, something green and white stirred behind the holly-leaves. Before she could focus on the movement, the robin flicked out its wings and flung itself into the air. Blinking, she stared at the brown-grey flower-beds behind the holly. There was nothing living there.

Firmly, she put her glove back on and began to dig more vigorously.
“Age cannot wither her,” she said under her breath. “You stupid woman, you stupid, vain woman.”

It was nothing to do with Nick doing Sara, his 26-year-old PhD student with her long scarves and Cupid’s-bow smile and her injudicious texting habit. Laura hadn’t even mentioned it to Nick when she found out. They had both made mistakes along the way and the thought of another fight, another night on the sofa, another week on the bottle, just made her feel tired to desperation. Beyond tired: bored. No, it was nothing to do with Sara.

And it was nothing to do with the empty nest – Hannah and Sophie both gone. It was not the sudden dead unresonance of the house and the wary brightness of Nick’s attempts to link up worn or broken chains of companionship. It was deeper than that. It was more fundamental than marriage or children. It was her old friend, the old companion of her youth, Death, come for a catch-up and a chin-wag.

The feeling moved through her like blood upwelling through earth. A spring of blood, pushing up from somewhere deep. How long had it been since anything made her angry, exultant, afraid? Suddenly she felt as if the cold had stripped her of skin and her sinews and veins, her very bones, were exposed to the air.

She became acquainted with death the day the photograph was taken. She remembered it now, diving straight into the memory as though the fathoms of years, heavy and resistant, were nothing but water; as if she could tear straight through the membrane that grows over young feeling.

Her period started while she was waiting in the queue for school photos. Leaning against the wall while pupils filed in turn round the side of the photographer’s screen, she suddenly felt the heat and rush of blood.

It had never happened before but she knew what it was. She had gone through her mother’s drawers in the warm, suspended guilt of Sunday teatime while the cups clinked downstairs, and practiced unfolding the towels and pressing them into her knickers. She had even hidden one at the back of her own drawer at home, where it was now, useless.

Abruptly, she pushed herself away from the wall.
“I need to pee,” she said and walked out of the hall and across the corridor to the dark old toilets where every drip echoed. There was no-one there. She went to the dispenser, realising even as she put her hand on it that all her money was in her bag upstairs.
“Hell,” she said. Then she heard footsteps at the door. Frightened, she moved into the nearest cubicle and locked the door, pulled down her tights and sat. Someone walked past and went into another cubicle, sighing as they sat down. The sigh was an older woman’s.

Trembling, she looked at the small bright slick in her knickers and tore off toilet roll to dab away the wetness. She felt sick. She pulled away more toilet roll, folding and wadding the shiny, crackling stuff into a thickness. Then she positioned it in her knickers and pulled her tights up again.

She waited while the other person flushed the loo, came out, washed their hands, dried them. She felt like a fox tensed beneath brambles with thorns pointing in around her every way and death pouring over the ridge of a hill towards her.

When she heard the door to the toilets swing to again, she came out. She washed and dried her hands and went to the dispenser one last time in case someone had left money in it. There were no coins but as she drew her hand away the door swung open again and Mrs North stepped through it. Laura started like a killer with her hand on the knife.

Mrs North looked at her sharply. She taught French and was French. The girls thought her ugly and were afraid of her sharp tongue and the way she pounced on chatterers and daydreamers. The hair on her head stuck out all ways, rough and dark, and there were black hairs on her upper lip and her legs too. The hairs on her legs looked like spiders running down her calves. She always wore very red lipstick and dark eyeliner with a Carmen flick to it, and she moved quickly and freely. Her rare laugh was raucous as a bar-dancers. Altogether she was a terrible object.

“Are you all right?” she said. She smoked 60 a day and her voice was a soft rasp. Laura found she could not move her tongue to speak.
“Is that thing out of order again?”
She came over and jerked at the dispenser.
Laura swallowed. “No, I – “
Mrs North cast her black eye on her. She smelled strongly of smoke and a heavy perfume.
“You don’t have a pound?”
Laura shook her head.
“Neither do I, I’m afraid. Hold on. I left my bag here.” And she walked fast to the cubicle, her wide rump in its pleated skirt switching to and fro. She came out of the cubicle again, rummaging in a blue leather handbag. Eventually she drew out a tampon and held it to Laura.
“There we are,” she said. “Is that OK for you?”
Laura took it, nodding, clutching it to hide it in her fist and looking away from Mrs North’s red lips that moved under her moustache.
“You are sure you’re OK? You would like me to stay?”
“No, no, I’m fine.”
“Well. Be sure you don’t miss your place in the queue. I’ll tell them to wait. Shall I send a friend to you?”
“No thank you.”
“All right then. I will be just outside.”

Laura’s mother never used tampons, so she had never practiced with one. They could give you toxic shock and kill you. Could she put inside her something that might kill her? Briefly she looked at herself in the mirror. She was very pale.

Chained in misery she went back into the toilet, sat down and unwrapped the tampon. It felt rough. Gingerly, she took it up and moved her legs awkwardly apart, trying to fit it inside herself. It would not go and it hurt. She pushed harder and it hurt more. Now there was blood on her fingers and she was crying, silently. She could not make it go.

She took the tampon and put it in the bin, wiped her fingers and threw away the first wodge of toilet paper with its darkly embossed seal. Then she folded up another, even thicker, and padded it into her knickers. She sat for a moment, eyes closed, willing the tears to stop. There was no help to be had. This was a thing to do alone, like dying.

When she came out she scrubbed her hands raw and dried them, splashed her face with cold water and retied her hair. The door opened and Mrs North looked in.
“All right?”
Laura nodded, holding herself upright.
“Come through then, it’s your turn.”
She walked with Mrs North across the corridor, feeling the thick paper move between her legs. She lifted her chin to keep the tears back while Mrs North, the fat spider – woman, the ugly squat horror of a thing, the bitch, walked beside her as if she deserved to be in the world at all; as if she deserved to be bleeding the same as Laura was, from her slack thick body that was fit only to crumble and fold in round itself and fall back into the ground.

Laura would not look at Mrs North. She did not thank her for waiting for her and walking with her. She went past the line of whispering girls from the class above her and round the front of the photographer’s screen. The rest of the room disappeared.

The photographer was adjusting his camera. His moustache was fox-coloured and the thinning hair on his head was tawny brown. He was probably only in his 30s but the creeping baldness made him look older. Laura stared at the obscene patch of pale pink skin rearing through at the crown of his head, while the assistant came up and gave her a white disc to hold under her chin and reflect the light.
“Had a bad day?” asked the photographer, not looking at her.
She could not speak. She stared at him, mute.
“Can you give us a smile? Make your mum happy.”
She could not. Dizziness shimmered around her; she tried not to breathe it in. She was dying. She had put something inside her that could kill her and now it was killing her.
“You’ve got lovely hair,” said the assistant, trying to warm her up. “Very unusual, that real, dark gold.”
People often complimented her on her hair. She put a hand to it and pulled out the elastic so that it fell to her shoulders.
“Beautiful,” said the photographer. “OK. One – two – three – smile now.”
The flash flared.
“Had your eyes shut. Try again. Hold it. One – two – three.”

She pinned her eyes wide and sat upright, dying, waiting for her last photograph, feeling the heat and pulse of the blood coming out of her and the soft weight of her hair on her shoulders. She stared him down, thinking: I am dying. I will never die. I will not die.

The flash went, searing her wide open eyes. In the after-dark of it a woman appeared standing right in front of her. Her shoulders were thick and the line of her cheeks square and loose. She was very close. She stared at Laura’s face, her own a negative blank. There was a smell of rot. She was reaching her hands towards Laura’s face: she wanted it. The hands came up and up and for one second she was there, plain and raw, old and dreadful, thick-fingered; then the flash died and the air ate her from her feet to her finger-tips. Laura blinked, and there in front of her was only the photographer and his camera.

When the finished photograph arrived in the post in its brown-and-gold card frame, she set it up on the mantelpiece and sat staring at it for some time. It was the first picture of herself that had ever held a promise of beauty. Her hair and her bright eyes glowed. The girl in the photograph was a person whose life could be something extraordinary. She could be a fire burning; a light that other people would fly to.

After the photograph she began to think, in a way she never had before, about death. The appearance of age obsessed her. She checked her own face for wrinkles, she touched her jaw-line to see if it was firm, she pushed her cheeks up and back. She watched her mother’s morning beauty routine. The foundation that filled in the cracks, the powder that smoothed them over, the shadow and blusher and liner and lipstick that brought back the colour.

Her father told her off for staring, rudely staring, at old people in the street; at the havoc life had wrought on their faces and the way Death had got hold of them and was slowly pulling them apart, strand by fibrous strand.

She resolved then, with perfect simplicity, that she would never grow old. She would never allow herself to decay in that manner; visibly, grotesquely, displaying such weakness of body and will. It was not that she considered a forced reversion. Even now she had not tried plastic surgery, Botox, chemical peels, microdermabrasion; those credit-card youth banks. She simply decided she would never allow it to happen to her.

She would hold it back with her own strength of will. She would not fail. She wrote herself a vow. When she got her next period, at the dark of the moon, she put a finger inside herself and brought it out tipped with blood. Alone in her room, with one candle burning, she pressed her finger to the paper and left a rusty finger-print. She clipped it to her photograph as a secret symbol and a threat. Holding it tight, she stared at herself in the mirror and said: “I shall never grow old. I shall never grow old. I shall never grow old. I shall die by my own hand rather than grow old.”

She vowed it to herself again every month when she bled, each month taking her closer to death, her own self an hourglass bleeding time. She would live. She would live fiercely and she would live bravely, with violence if she had to, and she would be beautiful and young and nothing and no-one would ever wither her, tame her, dull or blunt her or make her ordinary.
Now, sitting at the kitchen table with a whisky in front of her and the photograph beside her, staring out of the window across the darkening lawn, Laura saw quite how badly she had failed.

She had forgotten to remember not to grow old. She had become something other than what was intended and now there would be no mercy. When had her heart closed? When had it blunted? Who had stolen her fierce, bright beauty?
The day was so pallid that the encroaching darkness did not advance itself by shadow or blue dusk. The greyness simply grew greyer, leaching colour slowly from the holly, the bricks of the shed, the white birch-bark and its few yellow leaves. Nick had gone out so she was quite alone.

The eyes in the photograph beside her gazed up at the ceiling, past her hands around the glass and her fingers that were too thick now for her wedding-ring; past her square loose cheeks, the lines at her mouth, the darkening outline of her hair.
The shock of the thing she had seen in the mirror that morning, the shock of herself; the warning she had taken at fourteen but failed to prevent, was only now translating itself from distress into fear.

Her implacable schoolgirl eyes stared from the photograph, determined in their absolute rebuttal of age. Their fixed and eternal youthfulness condemned her. She had been judged. Now she was waiting for the executioner.
“I am not that person any more,” she said aloud. ”I am not that girl. I haven’t got it in me to harm a creature. I never would. I never would. Ah God, I never would.”

There were no lights in the kitchen. The tumbler between her hands called in the last palenesses of evening to itself. Out in the iron garden, a flash of red dived from the birch across the lawn to the holly tree.

Now something else moved at the far end of the garden, from where the robin had flitted. It slipped out from the birch. A whiteness, a greenness; white face, hands and legs and a green body. Dimly she saw it come on across the grass, stepping lightly through the low mists smothering the lawn.

Laura watched, unbreathing, unmoving, through the thin glass of the window as she walked towards the house; young, pale and slim, her hands ready and cold.




In the School Reception One Wednesday Morning

School

Alistair couldn’t have known exactly what was wrong with our school’s secretary when he went in there. Mrs. Tinsley had just put the phone down and begun blubbering at her desk—singsong sobs that at first sounded to me like she might be joking. But Alistair Duffy knew better than I did. Soon he had risen from his seat in the waiting room, walked into Mrs. Tinsley’s office, stood by the desk, and let her hug him. Alistair said nothing. Mrs. Tinsley only said, Oh and Heavens and Have mercy. Their embrace lasted roughly forever. The next day, our teachers told us that Mr. Tinsley had died at home from a heart attack. With a day’s worth of hindsight, the event became an earnest and soft-spoken Lesson on Death. But on that Wednesday when it actually happened, there were just the three of us there in the school reception. I sat there idle, watching through the service hatch that connected the office to the waiting area, looking at the strands of snot being left on Alistair Duffy’s school jumper, listening to Mrs. Tinsley sniff and weep for her newly dead husband.

I was there because I’d taken ill. Earlier that morning, my mum had ignored my moaning about an aching tummy. She had told me, as she always did, that I’d have to be at Death’s door to miss another day of school. I’d been held back for a year when I was seven after breaking my left hip and femur, damage caused after I tossed myself sideways over the upstairs bannister whilst pretending to be a contender on Gladiators.

During that year, three days a week, I would go to work with my mum at the city council. Her office, unlike our school, was wheelchair accessible. I couldn’t begin to tell you why that was the case. The inner workings of the council and even my mother’s job title at the time remain unknown to me. From those days spent at the office, I learnt only how to play Minesweeper and Solitaire on a decade-old PC, as well as how to be in a room with someone for seven hours and stay completely out of their way.

Four years on, I was still letting the injury define me until I could come up with something better. The time off made me the oldest in my year, and though I’d spent much of it with my mum or watching sitcoms on daytime telly, I believed I was somehow more hardened to the world than the other kids. I’ve seen things, I thought. I’ve stayed overnight on hospital wards.
I was quiet when I came back and hoped people would think that meant I had some kind of secret out-of-school knowledge. No one ever asked me what I knew. If they had, I’d have been able to sling them nothing more than a line from Norm on Cheers. “It’s a dog eat dog world and I’m wearing Milk-Bone underwear.”

I would have been too embarrassed to share the only real brush with grown-up turmoil I’d had in that year of absence. It happened at the council offices shortly after I had graduated from the wheelchair to crutches, the rhythmic clinks of which announced me everywhere I went. Between my mum’s office and the men’s toilets was a walk-in storage closet. Having been sent on the odd mission to retrieve paper clips since becoming a bit more able-bodied, I’d gotten to know the shoebox room fairly well. Whenever I had gone in there, the door had been unlocked for me by the office manager, Angela, a smiley cube of a lady who never failed to remind me that she also had a son and that he had once been a seven-year-old too. On the afternoon in question, Angela must have breezed into the cupboard without giving it half a thought. By the time I clunked past on my way to the toilets, she was trapped. I heard her ask if it was me on the other side of the door. I stood dead still and failed to answer. “Hello?” she called. “Luke, love. Are you there?” she said again. Pivoting away on my crutches, I really believed I could un-witness the pickle Angela had put herself in.

Back in my mum’s office, I didn’t mention her colleague stuck in the storage cupboard. Instead, I sat quietly at the spare desk, feeling for the first time like I needed to be back at school. As we left that day, we saw Angela in the car park and she gave us the same favourite-aunt smile she always did. In the car, before she could start the engine, I declared to my mother that I hated going to work with her.

It might have been my slightly advanced age that gave the teachers and staff the idea to make me the school dogsbody when I came back. I was in charge of the class headcount in the playground at the end of breaks. After PE lessons, I was the one to supervise the tidying up of equipment, lock the hall cupboard, and return the key to the specially labeled hook by the classroom door. On the Wednesday that Mrs. Tinsley was widowed, I made two trips to reception. The first was the usual business of being sent by Mr. Pearson to drop off the morning registration. Alistair was already in the waiting area then, his face between the pages of The Amazing Spiderman. Through the slender, wire-crossed window of the Headmaster’s office (next door to Mrs. Tinsley’s), I could see the bearded profile of the man who sometimes picked Alistair up from school. Alistair Duffy’s dad. He was smiling and shaking his head. As I left, Mrs. Tinsley thanked me and called me Petal. Alistair lowered his comic to get a look at who had seen him there.

I had to cross the playground to get from the main building to the mobile classroom Mr. Pearson’s class was stationed in. I’d left my coat off and the snap of the November air made me feel light grey and cold sweaty. Halfway between buildings my mouth filled with a flashflood of saliva and I walked on, hoping nothing else would follow. Seconds later on the bottom brown wooden step outside the caravan classroom, I chundered up that morning’s soggy Weetabix and a portion of semi-chewed spaghetti from the night before. The glass of orange juice my mum had made me finish as medicine that morning left an acidic sting in my throat and gave what thickly dripped down the steps a cartoonish colouring.
When I got inside, I must have looked like I was about to retch again. Before I could tell him about the mess on the steps, Mr. Pearson said, “Get yourself straight back to Mrs. Tinsley.”
“I feel a bit better. I—”
“Tell her I sent you. Tell her to ring home for you.”
“There’s no one at—”
“Off you go, Luke. Mrs. Tinsley. Now.”

Alistair Duffy was in the school reception that Wednesday because of the trouble he’d caused the Wednesday before. Alistair was new. He’d moved from Manchester during the summer holidays. He was new, but a week earlier he had made himself well known amongst the pupils and teachers at High Grounds Church of England Junior School.
Most days, assemblies took place in the school hall. All of us would sit cross-legged on the dusty floor to watch a class performance of a fifteen-minute play about the food groups, or listen to Headmaster Hickey read out Churchill quotations and talk in spirals, trying to explain what they meant. A fanatic is one who can’t change his mind and won’t change the subject. Solitary trees, if they grow at all, grow strong.

Wednesday morning assemblies, however, were always held at the church at the bottom of the road. Each week, bookended by our teachers and some volunteer mums, we filed down there in chatty, puffy-coated pairs. These assemblies were delivered in the form of a sermon, the local vicar, Reverend Ryan, sharing New Testament stories softened for a congregation of schoolchildren. He had a posh accent—Exeter or Hertfordshire—that droned through the lectern’s tinny microphone and hit flatly off the cold stone floors and walls. We stayed silent throughout his speeches, too frightened by the old building, the reverend’s collar and the crosses, to misbehave in the pews.

All church assemblies ended with the Lord’s Prayer, which, like my home phone number and the alphabet, I knew by heart but could not remember ever actually being taught. After the Reverend revealed the moral of his story, he would say, “Let us pray,” as though asking permission. Then the pews would give an orchestral creak as we all slid off them to kneel on solid leather cushions and mumble our way from Our Father, who art… to …and ever. Amen.
The week before I threw up and Mr. Tinsley’s heart gave out, as the Lord’s Prayer began, Alistair Duffy kept his backside in his seat.

He sat with his class two rows ahead of mine at the aisle-end of the bench. I mouthed the words of the prayer and watched as Ms. Jenkinson scurried over to ask in a whispered shout just what on earth Alistair Duffy thought he was doing. As though he’d raised his hand to answer the question, I heard him tell her that he did not think he believed in God and did not feel like praying to Him. Ms. Jenkinson removed her glasses and took a beat to stare into Alistair’s eyes, perhaps searching for something behind them. Then she grabbed him by the forearm and dragged him up the aisle and out into the churchyard without his puffy jacket.

Since Alistair Duffy hadn’t yet made any friends, the speculation about him after church assembly only lasted through lunchtime. In the queue for smiley potatoes and sausage rolls, I heard Stacy Enright tell her friends that she lived on the same road as Alistair. “His dad’s got a sticker on the boot of his car of a fish with feet,” she said. “And you know what that means.”
Stacy was the tallest girl in school. She had two redheaded disciples, Hannah and Harriet, who listened to everything she said as though they might later be quizzed. At home time, our mums, who had known each other when they were in school, would gossip until everyone else had left the playground. Stacy and I would stand there at our mothers’ sides, looking everywhere but in the other’s direction, exasperated, our bones itchy to go home. I wasn’t friends with Stacy or Hannah or Harriet, but I sat with them at lunch that day, the week before I puked.
“His mum must have died,” Stacy said. “You might not believe in God either, if your mum was dead. I bet he prayed for her to live and then she died. It’s only him and his dad that live there.”
“Just because his mum doesn’t live there doesn’t mean she’s dead,” I said. Hannah and Harriet looked at me. Then they looked at Stacy.
“Who asked you?” Stacy said. “And who told you you could sit with us?”

Alistair was made to eat his packed lunch that day at the naughty seat—a cramped 80s-era combination desk and chair, which always faced the wall right next to the door of the teachers’ staff room. I passed him as I went in to fetch the hand bell for Mrs. Marlowe, the head dinner lady, to ring in the playground. Sometimes, having carried the thing by the clapper so that it wouldn’t chime until it got outside, Mrs. Marlowe would then let me ring the bell to signal the end of lunchtime.
Alistair sat at the desk with his cheek resting in his propped hand, a scuffed purple lunchbox and a stack of lined paper in front of him. I couldn’t make out the sentence he’d been made to write out a hundred times—I must not NOT say the Lord’s Prayer in church assembly?—but the blue ink cursive looked as rail track neat as Mr. Pearson’s.

The naughty seat was bad; from there the next step could be suspension. It might have been that he was new, but sitting there, Alistair looked completely calm. Bored but not restless. His eyes faced the wall but seemed not to be looking at much. Does not believing in God mean you’re not worried about being in trouble with your teachers, Alistair? Are you not worried they’ll phone your dad?

Alistair didn’t get suspended. I kept an eye out for him in the playground for the rest of the week. He liked to sit at the same bench during breaks, the one closest to the blue, arched climbing frame. The bench that had been left vacant since two of last year’s leavers, Jack Sanders and Linden McKee, were spotted there kissing each other on the mouth on the last day of school. Alistair wouldn’t have known that bench was contaminated—no one had told him. At breaks he sat there positioned like a spy waiting for a dead drop. Legs crossed, foot bouncing, an American comic proudly held at eye-level, concealing his face.

I suppose if Alistair had been in real, proper trouble the day he decided not to pray, he’d have been sent to wait outside the Headmaster’s office. But it wasn’t until a week later that he ended up on a cushioned polyester seat facing the shut door of Headmaster Hickey and Mrs. Tinsley’s open one. By the time I joined him there, Alistair’s father was gone and the rest of the school, including our Headmaster, were headed down the hill to hear Reverend Ryan preach.

The phone was ringing when I walked in. Mrs. Tinsley might even have had her hand hovering above it, but once she saw me her priorities changed. She marched over with a big dinted tin bowl and a white towel, the bleating school telephone making everything urgent. She told me I looked like death warmed up. I didn’t get a word in.
“We’ll give your mum a ring as soon as I’ve taken this call, Petal,” she said. “You sit yourself down.”
The only other seat was the one next to Alistair Duffy. When I took it he lowered his comic and alternated his stare between my pallid face and the towel and bowl in my lap. He seemed about to speak. Something in his expression convinced me he was about to begin the sentence that would initiate our lifelong friendship. But then came the first strains of Mrs. Tinsley’s grief, and Alistair was called away to action. What were you saying, Alistair?

The way he hurled his head around towards her and gazed a moment was like two panels from a comic. Our hero hears the screams; draws back for an instant in preparation of his next assertive move.
Meanwhile, I was cured. My queasiness became a memory when I saw Mrs. Tinsley spin and tip forward in her office chair and clasp her frail arms around Alistair. I gripped the lip of the bowl with my hands and felt the cold tin turn warm. I felt the colour coming back into my face. I watched. Where should you look at a time like this? Alistair moved his arms from his sides to reach them around Mr. Tinsley’s back. He rested his hands there but did not pat or rub the surface of her wooly cardigan. Mrs. Tinsley’s crying continued but quieted after a time, as though turning inward as she pressed her closed eyes harder into Alistair’s bony shoulder.

The phone went again and the rings chimed weirdly in the quiet reception. When whoever was at the other end gave up, the last peal of the abandoned call hung in my head like newly obtained knowledge. Someone’s dead and Alistair Duffy knows what to do. When Coach died on Cheers they replaced him with Woody. I stayed there in my seat, looking on. All I know I can do to help is stay out of the way.
This was November of Year Five, the week after Alistair Duffy got banished from church assembly for good, the day before all my classmates started jumping over the steps I’d been sick on as they went in and out of the mobile classrooms. Pukey Luke, my new identity; Stacy Enright its originator. I doubt I am present in Alistair or Mrs. Tinsley’s recollections of that day. Who was I? My presence was about as significant as the colour of the carpet. Alistair and I never did talk. Is Mrs. Tinsley even still alive? Was Alistair at her funeral? No, they do not exist together outside this moment and I do not exist in either of their memories of it.

But I was there too. The towel and bowl were in my lap and Alistair’s Spiderman was there on the seat beside me. I leant over the arm of the chair to open the comic but did not pick it up. There was nothing extraordinary on those first couple of pages, normal city folk going about their day. I looked again at Mrs. Tinsley and Alistair. He had not moved since placing his hands on her back. Alistair Duffy: duty bound. He will hold her for as long as it takes.

Flipping through the comic, I followed the flow of the paneled pictures from left to right and tried to understand the story without reading the bubbled dialogue or boxed captions. Soon, I stopped hearing Mrs. Tinsley’s crying altogether, but Alistair did not come back to his seat. The illustrations kept me occupied until Headmaster Hickey returned to the reception. The Headmaster coughed and used Mrs. Tinsley’s first name—Brenda or Edna—then he asked me just what in the hell had happened now. I inhaled, about to speak, but he had already moved past me to stand in Mrs. Tinsley’s doorway. I started watching the scene again—the head of our school dithering at the threshold as Alistair Duffy turned to face him. Someone’s died, sir. You’ll understand soon enough.




IRONY 101

Corn Fields
Photo by Roger Dueck

We waited on our new front porch. The field of corn and silo in the distance looked like a calendar page.

Adam and I agreed, the peace we felt here was exactly the sort of thing that Rob and Marlene would be unable to recognize.

Their silver SUV slowly turned in our drive. Light bouncing off the windshield refracted into my eyes at migraine intensity. When I squeezed Adam’s hand he didn’t squeeze back.

“You didn’t tell us how far it really was Adam!” Marlene exclaimed as he opened her door.
“Well you’re right on time. Did you enjoy the drive?”
“Nothing but farmland. Weren’t they going to build an outlet mall around here?”

She straightened up, bracelets on her arms clinking. She was always in full regalia when I saw her.

Lots of make-up and jewellery plus her signature perfume, Orchard Mist.
My couch cushions reeked after a visit. “Hello dear.”
Her smile was all teeth, reminding me of a documentary about primate behaviour. Even chimps recognize insincerity.

Her eyes widened as her hand rushed up to cover her mouth and nose. “What is that horrible smell?”
There was a small dairy farm over the rise behind our yard. The low, weathered barn could barely be seen. A faint odour of manure hung in the air.

“That hasn’t bothered us much Mom,” Adam quickly explained. “We never open the windows.”

Rob finished folding a map and joined us. “Quite a commute you have now Adam.”

“Only takes me about 45 minutes. I don’t mind the ride, just getting so built up here that getting on the freeway is a hassle in the mornings.”

I was surprised Adam admitted any flaw in our move to the country. We had agreed to a unified front in the face of his family’s opposition. The whole process was difficult enough without listening to Marlene complain and Rob refer to “common sense.”
Add my sister-in-law Carol’s scornful lectures about “urban sprawl” and one would think we were committing a crime.
Marlene hurried in the front door, her long nails still splayed across her face as if to block the smell and display her manicure at the same time.

I noticed with a tug of satisfaction that her ankles in their gold-strapped sandals were swollen. Appearances were everything to her.

I had cautioned the girls about the visit. They were dressed up and on their best behaviour, shielded from Marlene’s scorn.
They rushed up to their grandma all exuberance and warmth. I wondered if they’d really missed her or if they were becoming convincing actors.

They took her for a tour of the house. I fussed in the kitchen. I’d made a roulade stuffed with spinach, mushrooms, and Gouda. Plus fruit salad, new potatoes, and cheesecake for dessert. Anyone would love it. Well, except Marlene.

Manure was her topic of choice during the meal. She barely parted her lips to taste the food. I couldn’t picture her with an appetite. Her fork halted partway on a reluctant journey to her mouth, cheese dripping from one side, while she went on.

“It just seems so dirty to have a farm close by. You know the wind carries more than just that awful smell. You’d think farmers would get the idea. Developing the land is worth a lot more than what they can make mucking around getting filthy. Don’t you think stores will be going up behind you some day soon? Of course, the builder would have to haul away all that manure.” She shuddered.

Sophie snickered, “Mom wants some of that manure for her vegetable garden.”
I glared at her. “I always had luck growing my tomatoes with Miracle Grow,” Rob said. “Science is way ahead of crap.”

He laughed heartily and Marlene joined in with breathy giggles, lipstick smeared on a tooth. Adam’s glance asked for silence. He and I had discussed starting an organic garden. We knew synthetic fertilizers tipped the natural balance, affecting the interplay of microbes and birds and earthworms which we respected although didn’t understand. But I wouldn’t bring it up. I staunched the shame in my chest each time I bought produce at the store, knowing it had pesticide residues and lower nutrients, knowing it was trucked from thousands of miles away. At least it was cheap.

I said, “My garden may not even get off the unfertilized ground this year. We haven’t landscaped yet and I don’t know if I’ll have the time.”
“How are you girls doing making friends at that new school?” Rob asked, sitting back to square his shoulders. He was football captain in his time. He hadn’t understood when Adam was a painfully thin teen, pimpled, and unpopular.

Sophie was already involved in two clubs and had a part in the school production of “Glee.” Brin had a group of 13-year-old friends who held sleepovers at each other’s houses on the weekends and texted constantly in-between. They regaled Rob with enough details to assure him that they were in with the in-crowd. I kept busy clearing dishes for dessert. We hadn’t met more than two neighbours. Our housing development was still being carved out of farm fields. Everyone had a long commute with little time for social gatherings. One neighbour complained about the wi-fi offerings and the lack of lawn care services. The other was hoping I would sign her petition to mandate control of what she called agricultural nuisances.
She didn’t like the sound of tractors running in the evening. I explained that farmers had a hard time making a profit, forcing many to hold day jobs and work the fields late. She snorted. She was used to the suburbs, where the city council tried to please noisemakers like her.

I had pictured a close-knit rural community. Cookouts in backyards, lawn chairs together at summer band concerts on the village square, Christmas caroling across the snowy yards. Delusions created by the movies, apparently.

I wanted to meet the old man whose farm was behind us. I didn’t even know his name. Sometimes I could see him working, bent and slow. Adam was impressed with the guy’s ancient tractor. He pointed out how the farmer used what looked like antique implements
to plow, spread manure, to cut and bale hay. I didn’t know what the farmer must think about the raw new houses rising up at the back of his fields. I didn’t know if he’d want to meet me. I didn’t know what I’d say.

Taking refuge in my new kitchen, I started the coffee. I leaned my elbows on the windowsill and looked at the barn lights gleaming in the distance. I looked for those lights every morning as I woke for work and every evening as I prepared supper. They made me feel everything was all right. Grain in the silo, hay stacked in the barn, cows waiting to be milked—assurances that someone held fast to the rituals of earth that kept us all fed. I pictured the old man answering the lowing of his cows, working as he’d worked for years. I sent a silent prayer for his work worn body and his honourable ways.

Then I carried out the coffee and dessert. Rob and Marlene left soon after. They wanted to get home before dark, what with the
unfamiliar roads and all. They weren’t ones to fritter away time with family.

I didn’t say a word of derision to Adam after they’d left. I almost opened the windows to rid the house of Orchard Mist. Instead I joined him on the couch. We agreed we’d made the best move ever.

The alarm always jolts me awake like a shock to the heart. I can feel palpitations slam in my chest, erasing the last remnants of my dreams. I get up much earlier than necessary to enjoy the silent house. I read the paper, drink coffee, let my own
thoughts ramble before the day is cluttered with obligations.

This morning I lean on the windowsill a long time before I realize something is wrong. Lights are not on in the dairy barn. I nurse my concerns, putting another load of laundry in the washing machine and packing lunches, stopping to look out the back window often. When Adam and the girls wander in the kitchen for breakfast I tell each of them, but they don’t share my worry. “Hey, he slept in” or “His power is probably out.”

I am running late now. My family has left and I’m still in my nightgown. I know I could run across the field. I see myself leaping over clods of dirt, through knee-high grasses, entering the barn. I can practically feel the desperation of the cows, heavy with milk and confusion. The farmer is lying on the floor, his face slack with a stroke. Or he’s hurt, but I stop the bleeding. I learn to milk the cows in his weeks of his recuperation and we form a quiet understanding. Sure, I get chapped hands, manure on my shoes, but I learn the old ways from him. I earn his respect. And I come to understand the real work that’s being left behind.

I hold thoughts as I get dressed, start the car, and head down the street. I can pull in his driveway. I am still telling myself this until I merge onto the freeway and head towards work. I can turn around. Maybe he really needs help. But someone has to open the store, and I’m the one with the key. I am annoyed that my suit seems to smell like Orchard Mist.

Botched orders make me miss lunch. Regina calls in sick so I have to train the new employee. A dull pain in the back of my head keeps me from concentrating. I remember the farmer again only when I start the drive home. It feels like I have forgotten one of my own children. Why do I feel so connected to the fate of this one old man?

There are no lights that evening either. I don’t know who to call. I try my neighbour, the one with the wi-fi complaints.
He says the farmer’s name is Chester Moore. He suggests I call the village trustee, he’s heard they are buddies. I look the name up on my village map and call. He says I must mean Chester Morton. Bad news there. He’s dead. I gasp, clawing for answers.

It seems Chester fell getting into the shower. Broke some bones. He lay there, water running on him till it turned cold. Probably the cold that killed him, he says.

I can’t go to work the next morning. I stare out the window. I envision myself running across the fields to his barn, my nightgown pale in the morning light. But already I see his fields scarred with earthmovers, houses rising up where the cows once grazed, the tractor sold for junk.




Inkubation

I’m in the shower when I see it: a black dot, just above my elbow, static under the suds slithering down my arm.  I assume it’s biro and carry on soaping my shoulder, thinking what an idiot I am, drawing on myself.  But when I reach for the towel, I notice it again.  This time I raise and twist my arm to get a better look, completely forgetting I can’t see close up without my glasses.  Squinting in frustration, I pinch the surrounding flesh.  Colour drains from my skin, but the mark doesn’t change.  A splinter, perhaps?  I rake a fingernail over it and find the area’s smooth, no different from the rest of my skin.  It must be a mole.

As I wrap myself in the towel, I start wondering if any other new moles have appeared over the winter.  The only full-length mirror is in Mum’s room, so I go in and stand with my back to her old wooden cheval.  I don’t use it normally, because the glass distorts things, but Mum loved it.  If I threw it out, she’d never forgive me.  Taking a deep breath, I drop the towel and peer over my shoulder.

My reflection peers back.  We regard each other with distrust, like warring siblings.  I remind myself what I’m seeing isn’t really what I look like, but it’s hard not to turn away.  The reflection’s pastier than I am, and a stone heavier.  From the waist down she’s wider and rounder, and dimpled with cellulite.  The sight of her makes me want to cry.  The only good thing about my mirror-sister is her lack of moles.

***

Sally announces she’s holding a barbeque at the end of the month to mark Perfectly Groomed’s five year anniversary.  I tell her I always visit Mum on Sundays, but she won’t accept any excuses because, even though I haven’t been there long, she wants everybody to celebrate.  Then Sally says she realises how hard parties are when you’re shy, and offers to arrange for someone to give me a lift.  In the end, she makes it so hard to refuse that I agree to go, even though it means not putting out fresh flowers until the following weekend.

The day before the party I rummage through my wardrobe for a dress that still fits, and squeeze into an old halter-neck.  While I’m checking its effect in the mirror, I catch sight of my new mole.  I can’t be sure but it seems bigger, more of a heart than a dot.  Not something that could be mistaken for biro or dirt.

Vaguely concerned, I do what I should have done weeks ago and Google moles, comparing my arm to the magnified images on the screen.  The cancerous moles are irregular and gingery.  They sprawl and blister as they enlarge, groping their malignant way over the skin’s pores.  But my mole’s dark, and a nice shape, delicate and precise.  Even if it is bigger, it’s still no more than three millimetres across.  I skim through the text – about sun damage and foreign holidays – but none of it applies to me.  My mole’s nothing to worry  about.

***

The summer’s long and hot, and the girls at work organise a trip to the beach for the Bank Holiday.  I think Sally has a quiet word with them about including me, because I don’t get an invitation until the day before.  And, when they do ask, they make sure she’s in earshot.  Not being able to think of an excuse quickly enough, makes me so flustered that I squirt shampoo into Mr Conway’s shih tzu’s ear.  It wriggles and shakes, and over its barking I hear myself saying that I’d love to go.

While they all sunbathe or cool off in the waves, I hide under the parasol and keep my cardigan buttoned.  I tell them I’ve got eczema, but I can see by their eyes they don’t believe me.  They think I’m too old for a swimsuit.  And they’re probably right – I know Mum would agree – except being over the hill’s not the real reason I need to cover up.  But I keep quiet, let them think what they want, and accept their fake sympathy for my fake illness.

***

The mole didn’t stay a mole.  I don’t think it ever was one.  Within days of going from dot to heart it opened out like blossom, then started changing.  Stretching, flattening, morphing, like a foetus taking shape.  Every stage seemed intentional, controlled, as if the original dot had been just a fragment of a blueprint.  It never sprawled though, or blistered.  If it had I might have mentioned it to someone.  Instead I dithered, and ended up doing nothing.

Tendrils emerged from its core, stubbly at first but soon elongating into graceful antennae that danced above the veins in my forearm and climbed the steep slope to my armpit.  Spikes grew from the tendrils and matured into shoots.  To begin with their changes were subtle but, as they developed in width, their outlines became fluid.  Fascinated, I began thinking of them as silhouettes which fluctuated between flora and fauna.  As the design unfurled across my skin I became enamoured.  Single cell organisms developed into complex
life forms.  Insects, fish, lizards, rodents evolved from the shoots.  And all the while, dense foliage, tinted green, red and yellow, sprang from vines which threaded their way amongst the creatures until I had a shoulder-to-wrist sleeve of colour and movement.  Beautiful, but more tattoo than mole.

I never understood the attraction of tattoos before, especially on women.  I thought they looked common.  Tarty, Mum called them.  So I was surprised when the Guildhall held a Tattoo Convention last winter.  A flier came through the door about it and, for a while, I saw leaflets everywhere.  One rose up on an eddy of wind as I walked to work, and caught on my arm, wrapping around my elbow like a cuff.  Its main picture was of a man with a skull tattooed over his face.  He looked inhuman, like Death.

***

While my arm’s transforming I carry on as normal, although knowing what’s going on under my clothes makes it hard to concentrate.  At work I go into the toilet whenever I can to check how much the design’s changed.  When I’m challenged about leaving Mrs Griffin’s poodle half-way through its lion cut I claim to have IBS.  Sally tells me to take sick leave and says I’ll need a doctor’s certificate if things don’t improve.  Being signed off would make life easier, but how could I explain my arm’s shifting patterns to a doctor?  Medics would want to prod and poke at it.  They’d hurt it.  My design needs protection.

I stay home for two weeks, but when I go back I can’t even clip nails without breaking off to look at my arm.  In the end, Sally she says she’s done her best, but if I won’t help myself there’s nothing else she can do.  If I won’t produce a doctor’s note, she says she’s no choice other than to let me go.

With my days free, I spend hours watching my skin.  When my arm’s full, the vines send out creepers which snake their way along my collarbone and between my breasts.  They cling to my ribs and circle my middle.  A conspiracy of lemurs clusters around my right shoulder, waiting until the stems are strong enough to support its weight.  Once they deem it safe, they travel along the vines, emigrating over my torso and across to my left arm.  After that the design moves down, spreading over my hips, thighs, knees and shins.  Every space  becomes inhabited.  It’s beautiful.

I wonder how I ever put up with being pale and blank.  Bland and boring.  I’ve no idea how or why the design came, but I’m so glad it chose me.  Mum’s money won’t last forever, but I’m confident everything will work out.  Sometimes I lie in bed stroking my skin, hoping the design knows how happy it’s made me.

***

When the first tendrils appear on my neck I feel betrayed, as if an agreement’s been broken.  I plead for things to go back to the way they were, but fresh shoots edge towards my ears.

During November I wear high polo necks, which no one thinks strange.  By the end of the month, though, concealer won’t cover the green veins stretching along my jaw, and I stop bothering to wear make-up altogether.  After that, I can’t bear to leave the house.  I don’t even go to the cemetery.

The design’s a parasite.  I can’t control it.  I realise now, that the beauty I admired was a trick, a visual anaesthetic to ensure it was nurtured while newborn and vulnerable.  I should have had it removed the moment its tiny heart began to pulse.

I stop answering my phone, pretend to be out if anyone knocks and shop online, giving instructions for deliveries to be left in the porch.  I hang a blanket over Mum’s cheval, take down the hall mirror and smear every other reflective surface with Windolene, which I leave to dry into pink powdery swirls.  I start getting panic attacks when I undress, so I bulk buy onesies, which I wear day and night, and only get changed in the dark.  I give up showering too.  Instead, I make a floor length poncho from an old sheet and stand by the sink, washing with a flannel.

***

In December a flier comes through the door: the Tattoo Convention is back at the end of the month.  Seeing the skull-man’s picture again quickens my pulse and brings a lump into my throat.  I swallow it down, and push the hateful paper back through the letterbox.

Thanks to carol singers, I spend Christmas Eve wedged under the kitchen table with all the lights off.  Most give up after a chorus of Jingle Bells but others warble on and on, as if they know I’m home and are carolling out of spite.  Inside my onesie, pins and needles deaden my feet and creep up my legs.  Just as I think it’s safe to crawl out, there’s a knock at the door.  The bell rings, once, twice, three times and knuckles rap the door again, but there’s no singing.  For a breathless moment I think it might be Sally, wanting me to come back to Perfectly Groomed.  Then, I hear footsteps, and am so intent straining to hear more, that I only catch a flash of something, someone, flit by the kitchen window.

I freeze – should I grab a bread knife, or reach for the frying pan?  As it is, I manage neither.  Just bite my lip, hold my breath, and wait for the door handle to twist downwards.

Biting … holding … waiting …

Waiting.

The handle doesn’t move, but a sheet of paper appears under the door.  I puff out my held breath in surprise.  With my legs tingling, I slide from under the table and along the lino until I reach the paper.  It’s a flier.  Even before I’ve turned it over I know it’s for the Tattoo Convention.

In the moonlit kitchen, the black and white contours of the skull-man’s face seem three dimensional, as if they might move across the paper in the same way my design moves across my skin.  The feeling we’ve a connection nags at me.

I run my fingers over the image and try to imagine the man browsing in a library, pushing a trolley around Asda, or as a groom waiting at the altar.  Tracing around his blackly defined cheek cavities I picture him working as a teacher or dressed as a surgeon scrubbed for theatre, only the dark hollows around his eyes visible over his mask.  The images are strange yet somehow familiar.  I visualise the deep rooted teeth that edge his jaws puckering to kiss a toddler goodnight.  Then think of him older, embracing grandchildren, buying ice-creams, feeding ducks, with wrinkles scoring his solid white cheekbones.  And, as I imagine the skull-man leading a normal life, I work out what’s so familiar.  It isn’t him.  It isn’t the tattoo.  It’s what we share.  Humanity.

With my legs still numb, I grab the door handle and hoist myself upright.  My feet are heavy and clumsy as I climb the stairs, walk across the landing and push open Mum’s bedroom door.  The curtains are drawn and the mirror stands shrouded in the corner like a ghost.  For a moment I lose my nerve.  The flier drops from my hand and lands in the shadows by my feet.  His picture’s hidden, but I can feel the skull-man watching me, urging me forwards.

I flick on the light and get a surge of adrenaline as I walk towards the mirror, take hold of the blanket and rip it from the frame.  Dust spirals upwards.  I shut my eyes before they can focus on the glass, and tug at the zip of my onesie.  My heartbeat fills my ears, shakes my legs, threatens to overwhelm me.  The fleecy material slides over my shoulders and falls to the floor.

The air prickles my skin into goose-pimples and the creatures, unused to exposure, chatter and scurry into the warmth of the foliage.

I swallow, mouth dry, and open my eyes.

For the first time in my life, I look into a mirror and don’t see my reflection.  I see myself.  Roses bloom across my cheeks and my eyes are edged with an exquisite golden filigree that extends over my forehead and down my nose.  I smooth my hands over my stomach and allow my gaze to linger on parts of my body which I refused to acknowledge before.  Its lumps and curves look natural.  Normal.  I twist to view myself from the back. I’m womanly.  Rounded.  The backs of my legs ripple with cellulite but, it’s me.

The doorbell and the first lines of Good King Wenceslas interrupt my thoughts.  I turn to the window but the song’s already breaking up, the voices dissolving into the night.  When I look back into the cheval I’m no longer alone.  The skull-man stands behind me, reflected in the glass.

I don’t move as he takes off his jacket and unbuttons his shirt.  Geometric patterns run the length of his fingers.  On his stomach a white stallion rears up under a star-filled sky.  A Chinese dragon, mouth aflame, curves over his chest and a scorpion crouches on each shoulder.  He turns to lay his clothes on the bed and I see tiger eyes straddling the base of his spine, the vivid orange and black fur around them camouflaged by leafy fronds.  A snake, its scales creating iridescent zig-zags of venomous colour, coils around the gnarly tree trunk that encases his spine, and a jungle canopy hangs between his shoulder blades.  Above it, a solitary bird rises in flight, its beak skimming the hair at the nape of his neck.

He rests his hands on my shoulders.  The animals on my body stir, and the scorpions on his shoulder begin to dance, their tails stiff.  When he kisses my neck, honeysuckle blossoms open under his lips and fill the room with their sweet fragrance.  Our designs blend, making me shiver with pleasure.  Vines loop around his fingers; my back tingles with the heat of his dragon’s fire.  Without turning from the mirror I lift my hand to his face and feel the warmth contained in his monochrome features. Acceptance floods through me.  The decoration that swathes our bodies doesn’t mask or change anything.  A caterpillar is always a butterfly.  We are who we are.