There’s a house that sits in the corner of our street, except it isn’t actually in our street. It’s across the road and three doors to the left, which means it belongs to the street around the corner. I’m not sure it should be there, or in our scheme, or anywhere that is – well here. It’s not a real house. It’s one of those kit houses that you buy from Ikea that gets delivered flat pack, in a huge cardboard box with plastic ties around it that you have to cut open with a blade. The instruction leaflet must have been massive and I wonder if they had to pin it to one of the huge oak trees in the field behind the house. It must have taken twenty folk to hold up the walls of the kit house while they bashed in all the rawl plugs to hold it together and I can’t even imagine how many packets of wood glue they used to make it stick good and proper. I didn’t notice it when we first moved here. It just appeared one day; all shiny and new with pink coloured pebbles all stuck to the walls and shiny brown roof tiles. I think all of the rain must fall on the kit house and wash it clean because all of the other houses in our street look orange and brown next to it. Since I noticed it there, I can’t stop looking at it. I’ve been watching it for months now. I want to lean against it and see if it rocks to the side. And there’s always the temptation to pick at the pretty pink pebbles that kind of look like the pink woodchip we had in our last house, and after picking that, I got into heaps of trouble – but that’s a whole different story. I think it must have come all the from Ikea in Texas because it has a porch, kind of like the ones you see on the telly where the front door juts right out; like it’s shouting to the postman that this is the door that you need to shove your letters through. I think if I was a kit house, I’d be embarrassed. It’s not polite to be on show like that and it not polite to shout and scream at the postman either.
I’ve started polishing my shoes since I noticed the kit house, and I make sure my socks are pulled right up over my knees so you can’t see the scabs that are starting to peel off from when we played the Grand National along the back gardens in Randolph Crescent. I tripped over an empty booze bottle and my knees got grazed on some plastic grass. Plastic grass, what’s that all about? I bet the kit house has plastic grass in the back garden, it means you don’t have to borrow a lawnmower from one of your neighbours when the council say that they won’t cut it anymore. I saw a program on the telly last week about a woman who was buying a big old house, a real one, and it had a big old back garden, full of weeds and trees and old bricks and stuff. The man on the telly said she should get rid of it all and put some plastic grass down instead. I don’t get it. Why get rid of all the real stuff and replace it with fake?
I’m watching the kit house right now. I’m hiding in the grass in the front garden just behind the bit of the fence that Bert fixed by nailing the gate to it. This is where I always hide. Bert is ninety-one and lives on the top floor of our flat. He doesn’t fix fences anymore. The council cut his side of the grass because he’s proper old. Ours has to grow. We can’t afford a lawnmower and Mum says you can’t be going and asking people for their lawnmower in this day and age, it’s not like the old days when all our front door where open – whatever that means. I bet in the auld days they didn’t have houses that came on the back of an Ikea motor all the way from Texas. I like the grass to be long any way. Long grass means I can hide. I’m the perfect spy you know, best in Hillpark. I can lie in this grass all afternoon and no one can see me. But I see everything. Like the time Peter’s dog ran away, she came into the garden and lay beside me and I tickled her belly then fed her some of my brown sauce sandwich. I told her to stay quiet and she fell asleep curled up beside me. Peter has four dogs so I didn’t think he would be too bothered because he’d be busy doing all the feeding and cuddling with the other dogs. It was only when he started shouting on her that I started to worry. Then some of the neighbours started talking to him and I heard him saying he was worried ‘cause she isn’t well. She looked fine to me except for the big lumps on her leg that made the fur fall off. Anyway, I took her back a wee while later and said I found her down at the stream. I’m good at telling fibs, all spies are. Peter looked well pleased and Elaine – that’s his wife, she cried a little bit. I got fifty pence for bringing her home and that’s not bad for a day’s work. Another time I was peeping out through the grass and I saw Jimmy kissing a woman in the back of a taxi. Jimmy stays over the hall from us and is well old, and he looks like Santa. It was gross really, because old folk can’t have girlfriends or boyfriends because old people aren’t meant to kiss. My mate Benjamin said it’s because they haven’t got teeth and when you kiss without teeth, you could suck someone’s face off. Jimmy must have had his falsers in because the woman still had a face when the taxi went away. But I did see Jimmy looking all around for the Police or something. The kit house is the best thing ever for spying on though. I heard Marion over the road telling my Mum that it used to be a Bookies, which I think means library because that’s where you get books from. They must have built the kit house on top of the library. I’ve been watching the kit house very closely for days now and I’ve got a rash on my knees from all the midge bites. So far, I’ve seen three people leave the kit house with big heavy bags. And the other day, a weird thing happened, I saw someone go in with a brief- case, he was in there for ages, and when he came back out, he was shaking his head and there was a woman at the door crying. Then the next day after that I got out just in time to see an ambulance drive away. Mum had made me sit on the couch for ages while she rubbed nippy stuff into my midge bites so I missed the good stuff. I wonder if a whole pile of books fell off the shelves and onto someone’s head.
I’m glad it’s the weekend again so i can get back to business. The Red Cross van has just parked outside the kit house and there are two men going inside and coming out with boxes and boxes and black bin bags full of stuff and filling up the van. I wonder if the boxes are full of books because the bookies have so many that they keep falling off the shelves and landing on people’s heads or something. Now the woman who was crying the other day is on the porch, she’s looking over at my garden and I’m worried she has seen my orange cagoule through the grass. I bury my head under the hood, lie flat, and wait. It’s raining today and it feels all wet and sticky, even under my hood. My breath is proper loud, and I have to gulp it back because I can hear the clickity click of high heels close by the fence and I’m scared I’ll blow my cover. The clicking stops but I’m in disguise under here. I can hear a rustle in the grass beside me and I hope it’s not Peter’s dog or she’ll give the game away. But then it stops. I hold my breath. The clicking starts again and it’s further away now. I lift the corner of my hood up just in time to see the door of the kit house closing. There’s a box beside me. It’s just a brown box and it has little rain drops all over it. I look all around and even though my cover is still safe, I don’t know how it got there. I leave it on the grass and open the flap, slowly. My belly is all nervous and it makes me want to pee. Inside the box is dark and my fingers touch cold metal, curved and smooth. I’m scared to open the box right up. I put the lid back down and get on my feet. Carefully, very carefully. I pick the box up and hold it in the palms of my hands. I walk through the grass, slowly, letting it brush against my legs. I carry the box up the two steps and into the hall. It feels heavy and dangerous and I can hear my breath, louder that in my cagoule hood. I have prickles in my hair. I walk into my house. Mum is on the big chair watching the telly.
“Mum, someone left thus in the garden.” I lay the box on the coffee table and stand in front of her.
“What?” her mouth is full of muesli and some of it sprays onto the box lid.
We both stare at it. I watch Mum’s fingers as she lifts the lid. Slow as anything and I grab my hood and pull it up and over so my eyes are covered. Mum starts laughing.
“You’re a donut,” she said, “Look.”
Inside the box is a pair of binoculars. Black metal ones with red lenses. Mum takes out a little card and hands it to me.
To the little spy over the road, I hope you enjoy these as much as I did. From the old spy over the road.
The cork burst from the bottle, hitting the wall and leaving an indent on the yellow wallpaper. Fae poured the champagne into a slender flute, watching the bubbles snap to the surface and dance around the rim. She drained the glass in three gulps, feeling the bubbles gather in her gullet, causing her to hiccough. Replenishing her glass, she sipped slowly this time.
She reached into the ashtray for the half-smoked cigarette. Lighting the tip, she watched the smoked wander into the air before dissolving into nicotine stained cornices. The cigarette made her dizzy, so she closed her eyes.
From a pink paper bag, she pulled out matching underwear; white silk knickers trimmed with lace, and an angel bra. She removed the price tags and slipped the garments onto her soft pale skin. Standing in front of the mirror, she examined her body; tall and lean with curved hips and strong muscular thighs -the result of two months of hunger and anxious floor pacing. From a drawer in her dresser, she pulled out a lace garter, the same garter that her mother had worn when she had married her father. She smiled at she recalled her parent’s recent silver anniversary celebration. From a red and brown gift box, the same one that had arrived in the post two days earlier, she pulled out the silver pendant. She laid the necklace in the palm of her hand and brushed her thumb over the engraving – Evermore. Fastening the thin chain around her neck, she felt a shiver of excitement when the cold metal dipped into the crease between her breasts.
Seated in front of the mirror, she wound her long hair into a fishtail braid and placed a ‘baby’s breath’ flower crown on top. She applied her makeup, bronze shades to her eyes, cheeks, and lips that not only complimented her russet hair but also created a gorgeous monochromatic and glamorous effect. She liked this face. This was a face she had abhorred for many years until it had been touched so tenderly…
The sound of the letterbox roused her, and she heard a pile of letters hit the floor, it was most likely bills or perhaps the Betterware catalogue.
Stepping into the dress was like stepping into a daydream. The rush of excitement and the smell of a new start hugged her. She felt rich, expensive but most of all, worthy. The dress was all over white, with lace trim around the shoulders where the material stopped – allowing for bare-arms. Sequins swirled in waves around the tummy and spread out around the waist before tapering at the thigh. Then stitched neatly in the seam, was the Armani label beside a slim and slender and slightly battered security tag.
Adam paced the floor; the photographer was late. He dialled the saved number on his phone.
‘I’m stuck in traffic.’ The voice said.
‘If you’re not here at two, I’m fucked.’ Adam snapped.
‘I’ll do my best mate. Bank holiday weekend and all that.’
‘Just hurry up or my necks on the line.’ He hung up and put the phone in his pocket. Seconds later it rang.
‘Adam Scott.’ He answered in a professional voice.
‘It’s me, Lucy.’ A panicked voice sounded on the line. ‘Is Patricia there? There’s a security tag still attached to my dress.’
‘Apparently they were all the same.’ Adam said pushing the bar on the fire exit and stepping outside. ‘Just tuck it into something.’
‘But it’s on my hip. Where’s Patricia?’
‘Wear a scarf around your waist.’
‘What? Patricia isn’t here. Why have I got to organise everything?’ He hung up. Taking a pre-rolled joint from his pocket, he held it between his teeth and lit the end.
There was a taxi waiting outside the flat. The driver had his window rolled down and his arm hung out.
‘Bloody hell.’ He said when she stepped out the front door. ‘They never told me you ordered a wedding cab.’
‘I didn’t.’ She replied, gathering her train into a big ball and stuffing it into the taxi before stepping in.
‘Stetford Gardens. 123a.’
He nodded, rolled up the window, straightened the collar of his shirt and started the engine.
‘The bloody cake is melting with the heat.’ Adam was on the phone again. He stared at the four-tier monstrosity with its frills and piping.
‘Can you find a fridge?’ A woman’s voice said.
‘It’s an empty fucking building Patricia.’
‘Put it beside the window then.’ She said. ‘Has Tony arrived?’
‘Stuck in traffic.’
‘Shit. Are you ready though?’
‘You’re a life saver. Thanks for doing this at short notice.’
‘I’m doing it for the money. That’s all.’
She laughed. ‘I’ll be there in an hour, don’t get stoned. Love you.’
Pavel pulled the cab up close to the pavement. He looked in the rear-view mirror. The bride was rummaging in her bag.
‘Should I beep the horn?’ He said.
‘No. I’ll call.’ She replied into her bag. She pulled out a bottle of perfume and sprayed it in a circle around her neck.
The smell wafted into the front of the car and he coughed.
‘It’s me.’ She said into her phone. ‘I’m outside.’
He looked at the flats. Posher at this side of town.
‘Yes. A black cab.’
Her voice sounds nervous, he thought and caught her eye.
‘Of course, I’m wearing the dress.’ She held a mirror to her face and laughed. ‘Come on, I’m dying to see how you look.’
He looked at his watch.
‘What? Twenty minutes?’ She pulled the phone from her ear. ‘There’s been a slight delay.’
‘I have to keep the meter running.’ He said.
‘Fine.’ She slumped in the back seat.
The rattle of the taxi’s engine filled the silence.
Adam felt used. He’d only agreed to her stupid idea because he’d had three lines of coke and the promise of a blow job.
‘It’ll be over before you know it.’ She’d said.
‘But groom…’ he’d sulked. ‘…I’d be a better best man, or an usher… hell, I’d even be a better priest!’
‘For me darling.’ She said and unzipped his fly. And that was that.
Lifting the collar of his white shirt, he clipped the bowtie into place. He was pulling on his trousers when the door buzzer went.
‘Fuck.’ He said and tucked his shirt into his trousers. He was still fiddling with the button when he opened the door.
A woman stood with arms loaded with flowers. ‘I’ve got a carload of these.’ She said thrusting them into his arms. ‘Get a move on.’
He unloaded the flowers onto a trestle table and hurried back.
‘So, which one are you.’ The woman asked in a strong northern accent. She handed over a cardboard box filled with assorted bouquets.
‘Groom.’ He said looking into the box and counting out loud.
‘I was told ten bouquets.’ She said watching him. ‘Is it ten?’
‘As far as I know.’
‘Greedy boy.’ She laughed.
‘Whatever.’ He felt his face flush.
‘If there isn’t enough, they’ll have to share. We only made what the boss lady asked for.’
He helped her carry the remaining flowers into the room then locked the door as she left. He ran back to the toilet, sat down and flicked cold water onto his face. On the back of the door a heavily lined tuxedo jacket hung in a clear plastic wrapper.
She’d had her eyes fixed on the front door of 123a for the last five minutes, and finally out came Clarissa. She was spectacular in a white silk dress that she’d folded perfectly onto her lap. Clarissa waved, blew a kiss towards the taxi and wheeled to the gate. Her long ebony hair was wound into a plait and trailed down her left shoulder, tiny blue flowers were woven through it. She wore a silver tiara and red lipstick.
As she approached, the driver got out of the taxi and opened the back door. ‘I’m sorry I never expected a…’
‘It’s fine, I can transfer.’ Clarissa said. ‘If you wouldn’t mind holding the bottom of my dress though, until I’m …’
‘…And putting my chair in the boot.’
Pavel watched bride number two slip into the back seat. He handed the silken material into the taxi and closed the door. He wheeled the chair to the back of the taxi and opened the boot. Both brides were locked in a passionate kiss.
Adam was terrible at small talk. As far as he could tell, the best man had arrived, an usher and three bridesmaids. There was a Paul and a Stacey, and maybe a Brenda, but he wasn’t sure. He filled some glasses with champagne, smiled and checked his watch.
By the time Patricia arrived, so had Lucy and Grace and someone else in a white dress, but he didn’t catch her name because she was busy chasing two boys and a silver balloon.
‘Thank God.’ Adam said following Patricia into an empty office. ‘Where have you been?’
‘I’m here now.’ She said, putting down her briefcase and stepping back. She eyed Adam from head to toe. ‘You look delicious darling.’
‘You should’ve been here hours ago. I’ve had to organise everyone.’ He put his hands on his hips. ‘That’s what you’re paid to do.’
‘And you’re paid to look beautiful.’ She tugged the lapels of his jacket .
‘It’s as well I love you.’ He stepped forward and kissed her on the mouth.
The taxi pulled up outside the newly built hotel.
‘Are you sure this is the place?’ Pavel asked, having read in the evening Herald that the hotel wasn’t due to open for another four months.
‘It is.’ Both brides said in unison.
Fae wheeled Clarissa up the ramp. They could hear music playing as they approached the double doors. Two boys stood at the entrance, both in black suits and shiny shoes. The one on the left looked up and smiled revealing a missing tooth. Fae paused and Clarissa took her hand.
‘Nervous?’ Clarissa asked.
‘A bit.’ Fae replied. ‘It is my first time.’
The hall was decorated in silver balloons. Sprays of flowers hung on the wall and were stuffed in giant vases. A long navy carpet stretched from the door to a wooden archway.
On each side of the room identical wooden chairs were lined in rows. Some were already filled. Of course, neither bride knew anyone, except Adam. Everybody knew Adam.
Patricia was great at acting cool, but it was an act. She’d taken two Valium on the journey and had just finished a joint with the groom. She strutted into the middle of the hall and stood on a chair. There were two brides in the corner laughing with a half-naked minister, one inhaling helium from a balloon and singing Bohemian Rhapsody, a disabled lesbian bride with her tongue down the throat of a ginger bride, and four brides fighting over bouquets. Patricia clapped her hands together,
‘Can I have everyone’s attention please.’ She began counting. ‘I’m missing a bride.’
Just then a door burst open and out wandered a best man, a partially dressed bridesmaid and a dishevelled bride.
‘Here.’ The bride shouted and the three snorted with laughter.
‘Groom.’ Patricia turned around as Adam strode into the room, finally doing his job.
‘If you could all make your way to the front now.’ She said and jumped off the chair.
‘Okay.’ She said, satisfied that everyone was listening. ‘We are all gathered here today…’
There was a roar of laughter and a round of applause.
She grinned ‘…I’ll start again. We all are gathered here today…’
‘Excuse me.’ A voice echoed from the back of the hall. ‘I’m here for the photoshoot. Is this Wedding Plus magazine?’
Twenty minutes later than scheduled, the blinking seat belt signs suggests they are about to leave. Juliette watches silently as bullets of hail bounce on the airplane’s wing. The early morning’s offering of sunshine that she’d been so relieved to wake up to, is now hidden behind scribbles of charcoal clouds and a heavy sky. She grumbles obscenities under her breath, Meanwhile, Isobel sleeps silently.
There are murmurs around the cabin; clicking of belts and rustling of newspapers. Juliette turns her head toward Isobel, whose flickering eyelids border between sleep and awake. She shushes her back to sleep. Isobel shivers, and her pale hand slides from a gap in her tartan shawl and pulls the garment up to her neck; she purses her lips, frowns, then rests her head on the back of seat.
As soon as the airplane is in the sky, the cabin fills with chitter-chatter and the smell of fresh coffee. Juliette sucks on a mint imperial, clattering it around her dentures until her ears pop. The tea trolley rattles past with a chorus of, “Any hot drinks or snacks? Anything from the bar?”
A middle-aged woman in PVC trousers and a pink poncho leans across the aisle toward Juliette. “I think Sleeping Beauty there is needing a wee espresso.”
“I’m sorry?” Juliette says.
“Well, it’s such a short flight. We’re hardly up before we’re back down again.” She flicks her hair over her shoulder. “Besides, the sun’s splitting the trees down there in Dublin. You don’t want your woman there to be missing out on a beautiful landing, now do you?”
“Your friend, your sister, your missus, whatever, I’m just saying, there’s a spectacle to behold down there in the autumn.”
And doesn’t Juliette know it. Autumn, as it happens, is a precious time of year. She rests her head on Isobel’s shoulder and closes her eyes.
She’d met Isobel in autumn of 1989. Juliette was on a return flight from Glasgow following four days at a horticultural course in the botanic gardens. She felt tired and her muscles ached from digging and stretching. Isobel had been sitting across the aisle with a group of friends, some of which were being loud and obnoxious. Juliette had noticed the young woman immediately and thought she must have the celtic blood in her veins to be blessed with hair of the color of fire. She caught Red Head’s eye and gave her an appreciative nod. The woman flashed her a quizzical look and turned back to her group. Juliette picked up her battered copy of Orlando and turned away from the hubbub.
Fifteen minutes before landing, her reading was disturbed by the sound of raised voices. She lowered her book and sat up straight to see what was going on. A man in a pinstriped suit four seats in front her was jabbing a finger toward the group of friends. His face was red and twisted in anger. From among the jumble of words being thrown back and forth across the aisle, she managed to pick out “queer” and “gay boys.” Her shoulders tightened, and she dropped Orlando onto the empty seat. She unclipped her seat belt with trembling fingers and was about to rush to the boy’s defense when two cabin crew swept down the aisle to defuse the situation. Juliette sat back in her seat, closed her eyes, and blew out a breath. Her heart was racing.
“Are you alright?” Red Head tapped Juliette on the shoulder.
“I will be,” Juliette replied.
“Do you mind?” She nodded toward the empty seat.
Juliette lifted her book. “Be my guest.”
The seat belt sign lit up, and both women fiddled with their straps until they were locked in.
“I can’t believe people still act like that,” Juliette said, still stiff with anger.
“I know. I’m so embarrassed,” Red Head said. “I told them not to be so, you know, out there in front of other people.” She shook her head.
“Oh no.” Juliette blushed. “I was referring to him there,” she said in a raised voice, pointing at the man in the suit, who was now arguing with his wife.
Red Head cowered into her seat. “I guess I’m just envious. I wish I had the courage to be so bold.”
They sat in silence for the next ten minutes. Juliette fidgeted in her seat, while Red Head twirled a strand of hair around her finger and whistled under her breath.
“I’m Isobel, by the way.” Red Head turned so that their faces were close; Juliette felt her warm breath.
“Juliette,” she answered; the skin of their arms brushed slightly. “Are you Scottish?”
“Can’t you tell?” Isobel smirked.
“You don’t belong to Glasgow, that’s for sure.”
“As a matter of fact, I do.”
“Student accent, I guess.”
“I see. What are you studying, Isobel?”
“I was studying public health. Just finished.”
The airplane dipped its left wing to turn and then begin its descent.
“Have you been to Dublin before?” Juliette asked.
“First time, but I’ve been told if the weather’s clear it’s a beautiful landing.”
“That it is.” She sat back. “Take a look.”
Isobel leaned over Juliette’s lap. A ringlet of red hair fell on Juliette’s bottle-green blouse, and the contrast was striking.
“You’ll be seeing Killiney Bay about now,” Juliette said, “and beyond that, the glorious Wicklow Mountains.”
“Wow. Would you look at the colors of those trees.” Isobel turned to face Juliette with wild blue eyes. “Do you want to see?”
“I’ve seen them a hundred times.”
“It’s like the mountains have captured a rainbow.”
“I like to imagine that every tree and every bush, and all the grass and flowers hold the entire summer inside of them, then in the autumn it all spills out.”
For a second, their eyes locked. Juliette held her breath, and although the blood rushed through her veins, there was a feeling of familiarity, like she’d been reunited with a long-lost lover.
“Thank you for this.” Isobel squeezed Juliette’s hand gently before reaching forward one last time and filling the window with hair the color of fire.
Juliette could see in her mind’s eye the Japanese larch, the pines and the spruce, stretched up to the sky and swaying from side to side, back and forth, sweeping brush strokes in the clouds. From up here, she could almost see the forest breathe.
“I hope you don’t think I’m being too forward, but can I see you again?” Isobel asked as the airplane bumped to the ground. “I’m here for a week and I just thought, seeing as you’re local . . . ”
“What gave you the impression I’m local?”
“It’s the accent, I just . . . ”
“You’re right, I’m just playing around with you.”
“So, do you fancy . . . ”
“I’m free on Wednesday evening if you are.” Juliette laughed and felt giddy.
“I’ll make myself free.” Isobel grinned.
“Okay. Meet me in John Kavanagh’s on Prospect Square. Is seven o’clock okay?”
Juliette wore a pair of pin tuck trousers and a black polo neck. She waited at the bar, sipping Malibu and pineapple through a straw and tapping her feet to “Never Too Late” by Kylie Minogue. A few minutes later, the young doctor arrived. She looked younger than Juliette remembered and dressed casually in double denim with green Doc Martens and matching earrings. The long red curls that had first caught Juliette’s eye were tied into a ponytail. Juliette immediately felt her age. But later that night, as they stood in an alleyway to avoid the rain, Isobel leaned forward and kissed Juliette. It was the first time she’d been kissed like that.
Juliette pulls the inflight magazine from the seat pocket and flicks through its glossy pages; adverts, adverts, and more of the same.
“Excuse me, dear.” A voice interrupts her thoughts. A heavily made-up face leans toward her with red lips pulled into a smile revealing straight white teeth.
Juliette raises her eyes.
“Would you like a hot beverage? Tea, coffee . . . ”
“Someone was here just ten minutes ago,” Juliette says. “No thank you.”
“And for your daughter?” Juliette feels a stab in her chest.
“Yes. But . . . ”
“Nothing for either of us. Thank you.”
“If you change your mind, dear . . . ” She points at a button above the seat. “Just press this one.”
Juliette nods and raises the magazine to cover her flushed cheeks. If it isn’t bad enough being insulted with the title of “dear,” being mistaken for Isobel’s mother is deplorable.
The age gap hadn’t been so obvious at the start; Juliette had just turned forty and her premenopausal body was still trim with a flicker of youthfulness. Isobel on the other hand was twenty-one and glowed. Since their first encounter, they’d kept in contact with each other by telephone at least once a day, if not twice. Juliette was completely consumed with love, and according to Isobel, the feeling was mutual. Yet Juliette was reluctant to commit to a relationship, never mind that type of relationship. She assumed, as one would, that Isobel was just dipping her toes in the water and would soon get bored with the lifestyle of a middle-aged woman, never mind the gossip. But Isobel didn’t refrain from trying. Nevertheless, Juliette kept her lover at a distance for ten whole years, meaning both women would travel between Glasgow and Dublin at the weekends, birthdays, and holidays.
“Do you remember that first flight?” Isobel asked her on one of those sleepless rainy nights as they lay in bed together.
“Of course, I do,” Juliette said, stretching her tired limbs.
“I think about it every time I fly here,” Isobel said. “I almost kissed you on that flight. I’d never felt so drawn to anyone like that before.”
“I felt like I’d found you after years of looking,” Juliette breathed into her ear.
“You old romantic.” Isobel kissed her. “But isn’t it about time we began making new memories? Besides, I’m exhausted.”
The flights to and from Glasgow stopped in the first autumn of the millennium. And when Isobel moved in, not a word of gossip passed from the lips of the villagers. Assuming that unlucky-in-love Juliette was past her mothering years and was now a spinster, what else could the young Isobel be but the spinster’s lodger. After all, she’d been visiting as a “friend” for ten years. This suited Isobel well, although it irritated Juliette, but Isobel’s new career as a family practitioner and the sole female doctor in the practice meant absolute discretion. They set up separate bedrooms in Juliette’s two-bed bungalow, in case, as Isobel pointed out, of a surprise visitor or people passing by the back window. But Juliette corrected her, saying that whenever they were in bed together, the curtains were firmly closed. And as for the people passing the back window, that would only be the village gardener, Juliette herself.
For most of the time, their fabricated life wasn’t an issue; the back-room door stayed closed, the room gathering dust, and their relationship shone. Then one afternoon, Juliette was pruning Mrs. Candleberry’s Arthur Bell roses, when the lady herself appeared in the garden with a tray carrying two glasses of Pimm’s.
“So, tell me about your young doctor friend,” Mrs. Candleberry said, putting the tray on the table. She pulled out a chair and patted it. “Join me for a refreshment.”
“Isobel.” Juliette took a handkerchief from the pocket of her shirt and mopped her brow. “What about her?”
“Well, what’s she like to live with? Has she got a man-friend?” She put her hand to the side of her mouth and whispered, “I hear she’s friendly with Doctor Luton.”
“He’s new to the practice. A handsome young Australian man.”
“She hasn’t mentioned him.” Juliette dug her fingernails into the palm of her hand, leaving a line of half-moons.
“Well, I’m sure two attractive doctors don’t need any help from us old hens, but it wouldn’t hurt to give your little friend a nudge?”
Juliette almost choked on an ice cube.
“Although,” she continued, “I’m sure you don’t want to lose a good lodger. It must be nice to have the company of a younger woman in the house.”
“And the rent, of course. Such a shame to have to manage on your own without a . . . ”
“I manage just fine, Mrs. Candleberry.”
“I was just saying to Hilda and Betty at the church hall this morning that Isobel could almost be mistaken for your daughter.”
“My . . . ”
“There’s such a likeness, dear,” she went on, “over the mouth and . . . ” Her voice was drowned out by the scraping of Juliette’s chair on the concrete. She marched back to the roses.
“I’ve got to get on, Mrs. Candleberry,” she shouted over her shoulder. “Mr. Dingle is expecting me in half an hour.” But she raced home that afternoon, stripped off her grubby clothes, and stood in front of the mirror. Then she cried, all the feelings of doubt returning to her mind.
Isobel shrugged it off later that evening. “There’s hardly a line on your face,” she said, tucking a stand of brown hair behind Juliette’s ear and brushing her lips over her earlobe. “And besides, I would be lucky to look anything like you. You’re stunning.”
“But one day soon I’m going to be an old lady and you, you’ll be in your prime.” Juliette shrugged. “And then you’ll leave me.”
“Why would I leave you?”
And for the next decade their flights remained grounded, and together they celebrated each new wrinkle, cried over ailments, and watched each other grow. But sometimes, on a dark and rainy night, Juliette would lie awake wondering when it would all end.
The plane judders and the seat belt sign lights up again. Juliette gently lifts Isobel’s shawl and checks that her belt is firmly in place, then checks her own. She looks at her watch; they’ve been in the air for twenty minutes now, which means there are only thirty-seven minutes to go. She listens to Isobel breathe while all around her teacups rattle on saucers and a couple shout at a child. At the back of the airplane someone is crying. The cabin girl that earlier called her dear staggers from left to right as she makes her way to her own seat by the door. Juliette considers pushing the little button above her head, then scolds herself for thinking bad thoughts. Suddenly the airplane dips. There are wide eyes and a collective gasp, and someone screams for God. Juliette swings her arm toward Isobel, searching for her hand, and Isobel wakes. She struggles to free her arms from her shawl but, of course, she’s held tightly by her seat belt.
The airplane settles, followed by an apology over the intercom.
“It’s okay.” Juliette twists to face Isobel, who is thrashing around, red-faced. She puts her two hands on Isobel’s face and turns it toward her own. Isobel stops writhing and looks at Juliette. Their eyes lock. Juliette breathes sharply and holds her breath. She searches those familiar eyes, still as blue as the sky after a storm. Isobel smiles; a dimple that’s grown deeper with age bends as her lips stretch.
“Hey, my love.” Juliette’s heart quickens. “It’s me, Juliette.” She reaches out and takes Isobel’s hands.
Isobel clears her throat. “Do you have an appointment, dear?” She shakes Juliette’s hands away and starts pulling things from the seat pocket and dropping them on the floor. “I can’t seem to find my diary. What did you say your name was?”
Juliette feels a familiar gnawing of disappointment, but she blinks it away. “I’m not here to see a doctor, I’m here to see you.”
Isobel frowns and sits back in her seat. “Are we on a bus?”
Juliette pulls the shade down. “We’re on an airplane to Dublin.”
“Where’s Juliette? What have you done with Juliette?” She begins tugging on her seat belt.
“Stop this bus!” Isobel shouts at the top of her voice.
“Isobel . . . ”
“Help! I’m being held hostage!”
Juliette unclips her seat belt and stands up. She holds Isobel by the shoulders.
“Is everything alright?” A bald head pops up from the seat in front.
“Ma’am.” Juliette’s favorite steward stands in the aisle. “Is everything alright?”
“Everything is fine.” Juliette puts her arm out to warn the steward to stay back. “She’s . . . ”
“Are you here for an appointment, dear?” Isobel smiles at the steward.
“She’s radio rental.” A little blonde girl with pretend tattoos drapes her arms over Juliette’s head rest.
“Don’t be so rude,” Juliette snaps, then turns to the steward. “She’s just confused.”
They thought it was fatigue at first, what with the extra shifts she’d been covering due to Dr. O’Brian’s pregnancy.
“You can’t just diagnose yourself with exhaustion, then go in to work on a Saturday,” Juliette snapped after finding an egg bouncing in a dry saucepan on the kitchen hob. “You need to take time off.”
“I can’t. Deloris is as sick as a dog with this wee one, and besides, there’s no one else to cover for her.”
“Fair enough, but remember you’ll have to finish early on Monday, you’ve got a hospital appointment to get that left leg looked at again.”
“My left leg?” Isobel looked puzzled.
“The trapped nerve . . . ”
“Aye, right enough,” she said, limping out of the room.
But Isobel didn’t finish early that Monday, or the following Monday, and as the weeks went by, Juliette lost count of the times she’d canceled and rearranged appointments. But it was six months later when things came to a head.
Juliette was in the kitchen organizing sandwiches onto serving trays. They were expecting a dozen friends over in the evening to celebrate their upcoming twentieth anniversary.
Isobel burst into the kitchen with arms full of shopping bags.
“Is the cake in the car?” Juliette asked.
“Cake?” Isobel dropped the bags at her feet.
“The anniversary . . . ” Juliette began.
A tin of dog food rolled from one of the bags and landed near Juliette’s feet. She picked it up and looked at Isobel. The confusion on her face sent shivers down Juliette’s spine.
“We don’t have a dog, do we?” Isobel said softly.
“We don’t.” Juliette pulled out a kitchen chair and took Isobel’s hand. “Sit down, love.”
Isobel was trembling.
After the diagnosis Isobel took sick leave from work and began reading prolifically. Being a doctor, she had access to the best medical books on early onset dementia. She collected them all and shut herself in the second bedroom and spent weeks poring over them. Then one day, out of the blue, she packed the books into a large cardboard box and took them to the office. Juliette waited in the car.
“Do you want to go on a road trip?” Isobel asked when she returned.
“Today?” Juliette asked.
“Why not. I want to make up for forgetting our . . . ” She held her mouth open, as if waiting for the word to drop out.
“Anniversary?” Juliette lifted her eyebrows.
“Aye, that. I feel so disconnected from everything.” Isobel blushed. “Shall we?”
“Where do you want to go?”
So, approximately three weeks after their twentieth anniversary, they laid their sleeping bags on the ground on top of a thick bed of moss and fallen pine needles at the foot of Wicklow Mountains.
“Who needs a mattress?” Juliette said and breathed deeply. The forest smelled of damp mulch and burning firewood.
Isobel tucked a cushion under her head. “We should have done this years ago,” she said, looking up at the trees swishing in the breeze. “Look”—she pointed—“Fred Astaire and Ginger Rodgers!”
Juliette looked up to see two Scots pines bent toward one another in a romantic embrace.
Isobel turned to Juliette. “Thank you for twenty years of good memories.”
“And here’s to making new ones,” Juliette replied.
“Memory might not be my strong point though.” Isobel sighed.
“I’m sure it won’t be as bad as you think.”
“Oh, Juliette. We need to talk.”
Isobel sat up and crossed her legs.
“I know you’re worried, my love. I am too.” Juliette brushed the palm of her hand over Isobel’s cheek. “But if things get difficult, I’ll look after you.”
Isobel turned to face Juliette. “Promise me you’ll bring me here every year on our anniversary.”
“Even if I forget you, I think this is the place that will bring it all back.”
Juliette reached over and held her hand. She choked back her tears.
“Will you collect me from Glasgow.” Isobel’s blue eyes were heavy and full.
Juliette sat up. “What?”
“I’m going back to Scotland. Everything’s arranged.”
“No. You can’t.” Juliette felt her body trembling. That familiar feeling that had kept her awake for so many nights. “You’re leaving?”
“I’m setting you free.”
Juliette feels the pressure change in the cabin as the airplane begins its descent. There’s the usual hustle and bustle before landing; bags being stowed in overhead lockers; seats being put back in upright positions; last minute queues at the toilets. Isobel fiddles with the air-conditioning above her head; it blows strands of red hair over her face and she laughs.
“Isobel.” Juliette whispers so as not to alarm her. “Do you want look outside?” She pulls the window blind up fully.
Slowly, Isobel reaches over and looks out. “No, no, no!” she shouts. “I think we’re falling!”
“Oh no, darling, I promise you we’re not.” Juliette takes her hand. “Look, we’re flying over Killiney Bay.”
Isobel edges closer, her eyes widening. Suddenly, she presses her finger on the window. “Aha!” she says. “Can you see that rainbow? That’s where I’ll find my Juliette.”
Juliette smiles and nods.
The forest floor is dappled with sunlight. Long lingering licks of amber coat the leaves and branches. Isobel sits in the car while Juliette unpacks. She tries to ignore the ache in her heart while she sets about re-creating the past. She lays out two sleeping bags on the blanket of thick green moss, and two cushions. Beside each she places a bottle of water and a bag of mixed nuts. Even though they’d returned to this exact spot for the last ten years, she checks for their initials on the bark of the spruce that they’d carved five years ago.
“I’ll never stop trying,” she says, tracing her finger over the rough bark.
Before she fetches Isobel from the car, she stands for a moment and breathes the cool damp air. High above her, Fred and Ginger stand still, like strangers.
‘…on some secluded branch in a forest far and wide sits perched an owl, who, full of self-conceit and self-created wisdom, explains, comments, condemns, ordains and orders things not understood, yet full of importance still holds forth to stocks and stones around.’ Michael Faraday.
The room was dark and reeked of damp. Ailith lit a candle on the mantelpiece and watched as the light cast her shadow onto the wall. She didn’t dare open the curtains, for fear of letting the heat out; plus, she didn’t want the neighbours knowing she was awake. They still thought she was the bloody community councillor. Fat lot of good she’d be if she was. She couldn’t deal with her own shit let alone anybody else’s. And it wasn’t that she didn’t like the neighbours, it was just the noise of them that riled her up, the noise and the desperation on their faces, like rabbits-staring-into-fucking-headlights, chapping on her door at all hours and pleading, ‘For Christ’s sake Ailith, what are we going to do?’ And she’d just stand there, shrugging her shoulders and thinking “Christ? What’s Christ got to do with it? Our so-called Lord and Savour has fucked off, shut up shop, and handed the keys to our new friend – drum roll – the OWL – Our One World Leader. It was only half six in the morning and her guts were heaving already.
She sat on the sofa and peeled the lid off a plastic container. She couldn’t eat this crap for much longer. She poked the spoon into the cream jelly; it squelched when she broke the surface and it let out a fart when she pulled it out. What exactly was she eating? She sucked the jelly through her teeth. It wasn’t food. It didn’t even smell like food. It didn’t even smell. The label said ‘nutritious’ but she didn’t believe it. She didn’t believe anything they had forced on her. No. None of their lies sat well in her stomach. A muffled tune disturbed her thoughts. Recognising the OWL Corp. ringtone, she sat up straight and tidied her hair from her face.
‘Answer call.’ She said lifting the chat box from beneath a cushion. A balding man wearing a black suit stared poker-faced at her from behind the glass.
‘Ms McDonald? Is this correct?’
‘Can you confirm your date of birth?’
‘Twenty-fourth of May 2008.’
‘Please scan your identification into your box device.’
Ailith took her ID card from her wallet and placed it on the scanner. She waited for the beep.
‘Thank you, Ms McDonald. I am calling to remind you that you have not yet voted.’
‘And you are also aware Ms McDonald, that this is day three?’
‘Like I could forget.’ She bit a thread of skin from the side of her fingernail.
‘I’m sorry, Ms McDonald, can you clarify your last answer. Are you aware that this is day three?’
‘And do you understand that you are required by your One World Leader to vote by midnight tomorrow?’
‘Obviously.’ And the One World Leader could kiss her arse.
‘And do you know the actions that will be taken should you fail to fulfil your requirement to vote?’
To be or not to be, that really was the fucking question. And she didn’t have an answer. She stood naked in the bathroom and shivered. Day three she didn’t have the balls to do what half the country had already had the balls to do. Filling the sink to the allocated water level, she dropped in two soap pellets. The clock was ticking, and if she did have balls, they’d be shrunk to the size of peanuts. The soap pellets fizzed for a couple of seconds then disappeared. Like the food, the soap didn’t smell of anything. If only her Mum was here to help with the big decision. But Ailith knew what she’d say. ‘Self-Elect. Human beings shouldn’t have the power to decide the fate of others.’ Or maybe that’s what Ailith wanted to believe. But her Mum didn’t have to make that choice, she’d died a year before they announced their plans. She plunged the sponge into the water and braced herself for the cold.
The door intercom buzzed then, Attention, Imogen A L Ahmed requires your attention. She wanted to ignore it but the buzzing set her nerves on edge, so she pulled her dressing gown around her and went to the door.
‘Oh Ailith, thank God you’re up.’ It was Imogen from next door. She squeezed past Ailith and walked into the living room.
‘Imogen, I haven’t even opened my curtains yet.’ Ailith said following her.
‘I’m sorry. I’ve walked past four times, I couldn’t wait any longer.’
‘What’s going on?’
‘It’s Raza. He’s…’ Imogen sat on the couch and dropped her head into her hands.
‘Talk to me.’ Ailith sat beside her and put an arm over her shoulder.
‘He’s going to self-elect.’ She let out a roar.
Fuck!’ Ailith took a deep breath, held it for five then slowly released, five, four, three, two, one.
‘He. Told. Me. This. Morning.’ She said in little breaths.
‘What about you and the kids?’
‘He’s doing it for our future. That’s what he told me’
‘What the hell?’
Imogen blew her nose into a tissue. ‘He’s been reading those stupid e-flyers again.’
‘The deep ecology stuff?’
‘Fucks sake. It’s all brain washing, they don’t even stand by their principles.’
‘So why does he read it? Raza’s not easily sucked in.’
Ailith shrugged her shoulders. She couldn’t understand why anyone would believe the shit they sent out. Or anything on the news. It was all bullshit. It was all – fake.
‘I’m so angry at him. And this self-elect bullshit has gone too far.’
‘You’re right, and we can’t do a bloody thing about it. The protesters are getting five years in prison now, did you know that?’
‘I heard.’ She looked up at Ailith. ‘What am I going to do?’
‘I’ll talk to him, okay?’
‘You can try, but I doubt he’ll listen. He not been the same since the deportation program took his Mum.’
Ailith took her friend’s hand. ‘It must be difficult for him.’
‘It is. He misses her so much. And now he thinks that Pakistan is going to vote for the elderly. That would pretty much wipe out his whole family. It’s not right Ailith. It’s just not right.’
After Imogen left, Ailith blew out the candle and opened the curtains. It was grey and damp outside and drops of moisture ran down the windows. She looked across the street tried to remember the sound of the big old Scots Pine’s that used to swish back and forth in the gap between Peter and Elaine’s house. Or how pretty the pink cherry blossom tree would look in Marion’s front garden in the spring. But it seemed like all the colour in the world had been wrung out. And amongst all the grey – was nothing but empty space. Empty or decayed. Decayed and silent. Ailith wrapped her arms around herself to stop the trembling. She was cold to the touch.
‘Come in Jimmy, you just missed Imogen. Poor buggers at her wit’s end.’
Jimmy lived two doors away. He nodded his head and shuffled past her. He stopped half way down the hall and groaned. ‘My bloody knees are killing me.’
Ailith followed him into the living room and helped him into the armchair. She took his stick and balanced it against the wall.
‘Have you eaten Jimmy?’
‘I had something, not that bloody Nutri-what’s-it-called stuff that they gave us. I can’t swallow it without gagging. I had something though, best leave it that, you don’t know who’s listening.’
‘Fair enough. Just remember to keep your strength up.’ Ailith knelt on the floor beside him. ‘I’ve got the leaflet on the tablet if you’re ready to go through it.’
She opened the OWL web page and felt instantly tense. The screen was filled with children wearing yellow sweatshirts reading, ‘Vote for our future.’
‘Are you ready for this?’
‘Hold on.’ He flipped the switch on the side of his glasses. ‘Okay, ready.’
‘Do you want me to read the jargon at the beginning? It’s just a lot of bollocks about how they are going to end world poverty and provide housing for everyone, and yadda, yadda, yadda.’
‘Are they going to sort out the food? It’s not right. I need meat in my diet. Or fish. Did I tell you I was a fisherman when I was a lad?’
‘Yeah, many times.’
‘I miss fish. Not as much as I miss meat, but God. I miss proper hot food, don’t you? You can’t even get a bag of chips anymore. Do you remember the chippy?’
‘I try not to think about it. They’ve said that once they’ve controlled the population, meat might be re- introduced.’
‘I should think so too.’ Jimmy scratched his beard. ‘And what about the heating? One hour a day isn’t enough, and I’d kill for a hot shower.’
‘Is that a bad joke Jimmy?’
‘Sorry, I never meant it like that.’
Ailith swiped the screen. ‘Right, here we go,’ she flicked past the introduction, ‘Population control is imperative for our survival, not only as a species but for all living creatures. Our ecosystem is depleting rapidly, the extinction of bees sped up this process far more rapidly than originally predicted.
‘The bees, who’d have thought.’
‘To protect the existence of our planet,’ she continued, ‘we must now realise our place on this earth, and that is as equals to our fellow creatures and to our land. Therefore, we must all play our role in the reduction of humans.’ Ailith gripped her hair in her hand. ‘Each country is required by OWL to reduce its population significantly. Your One World Leader has YOUR future in mind. After much consideration, we have decided that the groups nominated for the cull in your country are as follows.’ She looked to Jimmy who was biting his thumbnail.
‘Right.’ She took a deep breath. ‘Number one, All citizens above pensionable age as of October 2028. Number two, all prisoners with a sentence of five years or more. Number three, all citizens with a disability that prevents them from partaking in paid employment. Number four, all citizens who have been unemployed for five years or more and who have been proven to not be actively seeking work.’
‘Harsh,’ Jimmy said after the last one.
‘And obviously, there is the box for self-election.’
‘That’s a tough one eh lass?’ he shook his head, ‘And if we don’t vote?’
‘Enforced termination of life.’
‘World pollution is now being deemed as critical. In a not so distant future, the situation will become increasingly intolerable. It can be controlled, and perhaps even reversed; but we, at OWL, demand cooperation on a scale and intensity beyond anything achieved so far.’
Ailith turned off the T.V and gulped the last of her cup of tea. Such a waste. She preferred her tea ration in the morning, it kept the headaches at bay, especially on work days. Grabbing her coat and hat, she ran out the house.
The bus was full, and she had to stand. Her eyes were streaming from the cold and she felt a hand on her shoulder.
‘We’re all feeling it today dear.’
She turned around to see an elderly woman gripping onto the side of an empty seat.
‘Sit down lass; you look like you need it more than I do.’
‘No,’ she felt her face redden, ‘Honestly, I’m fine.’
‘Are you sure?’ she was already lowering herself back into the chair.
‘Check out the old dear trying to play the sympathy card.’ A voice shouted from the rear of the bus.
‘Fucking pensioners, I know who I’ll be voting for.’
‘Keep your opinions to yourself, idiot.’ Ailith took the woman’s hand. ‘I’m sorry.’
‘It’s okay dear,’ she squeezed Ailith’s hand, ‘I’ve had a lovely life. Five Grandchildren you know. I’ve voted already, you know, for the old ones.’
The car park at the front of her work was full. Fucking customers, she thought, they never stop, they’re relentless. She stood outside the Amazon Superstore and watched the cars circling the car park. Customers were rushing to the front displays like flies on shit, for a special multi-pack of Nutri-fill with beef flavour, and this season’s plastic flowers. Ailith despised them all and their acceptance of everything fake. She shook her head and walked over to a small crowd, mostly men, gathered in front of the gazebo she had seen being erected a few days ago. Soldiers were handing out leaflets and chatting to the attentive audience. The gazebo was plastered in posters like, Be the Best. Self-Elect and Your Country Needs YOU. Self-Elect.
‘You’ve got to be kidding,’ she stared at a picture of a man in a wheelchair wearing a big smile and two thumbs up.
‘Are you going to do it?’ It was Taylor, one of her work colleagues.
‘I… I don’t know, I haven’t voted yet.’
‘I just did. I did it Ailith,’ he actually looks pleased. ‘They’re going to put my name in the book man. I’ll be a fucking hero.’
‘Too right. Look at me, I’ve done absolutely fuck all with my life. I’m thirty-five years old and I’m nothing. I arrange plastic flowers for a living. At least this way I’ll be remembered. Taylor Smith. My name’s going down in history in that Big Red Book. I’ll be fucking celebrated. Taylor Smith saved the world.’
**** The lines at the checkouts were long. Ailith kept her head down and concentrated on the beep, beep of the scanner. It was hard to ignore the conversations at her checkout line though.
Broccoli flavoured curd. Beep.
‘Where are all these people coming from? You’d think it was the end of the world.’
Soap fizzers. Beep.
‘Probably dole scroungers. Gas the lot of them I say. I’m sick of paying for those lazy bastards.’
‘I wish we could vote for two. Get rid of the scroungers and the rapists.’
‘Yeah, and put the old folk into the jails. They’ll get three meals a day, 3D T.V, top quality health care, they’ll be better looked after than they are in those old folk’s homes.’
Plastic roses. Beep.
Really? She looked up at a teenage lad who smiled and raised his eyebrows. She placed the items into the bag. Ribbed for her pleasure, bloody hell, how can he even get it up at a time like this?
‘Thirty-two credits please.’
He handed Ailith his ID card. She scanned it. Beep.
‘Thank you, Mr Douglas. Have a nice day and thank you for shopping at Amazon.’
Jessica was sitting on the doorstep when Ailith arrived home. She felt a lightness in her step, seeing her best friend. Jessica stood up and pulled Ailith in for a hug. They rocked back and forth.
Ailith held her at arm’s length, ‘It’s so good to see you.’ Although she did look tired.
‘Same. Sorry, I haven’t been around for a while, Mum’s not been keeping too well.’
‘Is it getting worse?’
‘Yeah, doctors have told her she’ll need a wheelchair soon.’
‘I’m sorry, Jessica.’
‘I’m glad you came around though, come on, let’s get inside, it’s freezing out here.’
‘Couldn’t let my bestie make the big decision on her own, could I?’
They went indoors and Ailith lit all the candles. Why not? Jessica kept her coat and hat on.
‘It’s cold in here,’ she breathed into her gloves, ‘I’m shaking.’
‘It’ll heat up soon. I saved the hours heating for tonight. Have you eaten?’
‘Yeah, before I left. Go ahead and have yours though.’
‘I’m not hungry.’ Ailith said but her stomach groaned. ‘I’d rather just get this over and done with.’
‘How was work?’
‘Busy. People are buying in bulk.’
‘Pretty normal under the circumstances, don’t you think?’
‘Absolutely not! This is the problem. Everybody’s going about like this shit is normal. It’s not. It’s fucking lunacy. But somehow they’ve managed to dumb down even the most rational of folk.’
‘People aren’t stupid Ailith, they’re scared.’
‘Yeah but rather than turning against the suits, they’re turning on each other. You want to have heard the shit an old wife had to take on the bus this morning.’
‘Yeah, it’s going on all over the place. There’s an autistic lass in our street. Got a brick through her window two nights ago.’
‘Tensions are high. Probably something to do with all the Population Control Centre’s that have sprung up in the last year.’
‘But don’t you think it’s all a big fucking lie, Jessica? I mean, why not spend more money educating folk? Like, teach people how to live responsibly?’
‘They tried that though, then the bees happened.’
‘I reckon someone’s gaining from this shit.’
‘And these population control centres though. It’s sick. It’s like the Nazis all over again. At least the self-elects get the dignity of euthanasia.’
‘Did you hear about Ronnie Coldwell?’ Jessica asked, taking her tablet from her bag.
Ailith noticed her hands trembling. ‘The actor?’
She nodded. ‘Self-elected, it was all over the news today.’
‘But he’s safe surely. He’s got enough credit to feed a small country.’
‘As safe as the fucking Royals, but said he can’t live in a world where people choose to murder other people.’
‘Jesus.’ Ailith felt like she was going to vomit. She turned on her tablet and felt like she was hovering just outside of her own consciousness. ‘Are you ready?’
‘Hold on.’ Jessica loaded the web page. ‘Yes.’ She held Ailith’s hand and tears run down her cheeks.
Ailith closed her eyes for a moment and just breathed. She let go of Jessica’s hand. ‘I’m scared.’
They both loaded the voting page.
‘Please scan your identification card into your device.’
Please scan your left index finger on the box provided. If you are unable to do so, please scan your left eye.
‘Please enter your passcode and answer the five security questions.’
‘Thank you. Please enter your vote now.’
Ailith let out a roar. ‘FUCKERS!’
‘Welcome to One World Tonight, my name is Shannon McCallaghan, it’s the 30th of October 2041. Later in the show, we’ll be live at the opening of Cornton Vale Care – previously Cornton Vale prison – as 76 elderly residents move into the 50th G4S facility of its kind. This follows the outcome of the 2036 population control vote, that saw our population reduced by 15%. The One World Leader has today announced that the next stage of voting will commence early next year. How will you vote?’
Stanley Harrison Unwin Galloway was not supposed to die first.
Margo pulled the front door shut and hobbled out onto the veranda. She put her mug of hot tea onto the table then pulled out one of the plastic chairs. Fastening her fingers around the handles, she began to lower her fragile body on to the seat. She held her breath, knuckles white under the patio light, arms trembling, but her elbows buckled and gave way. She gasped. Her bottom hit the seat with a thud. The chair skidded backwards – with Margo holding on for dear life – and its four legs scraped the concrete, ripping a roar into the night. She sat rigid, her heart thumping hard in her chest. She blew out a long whistling sigh. Clumsy old fool. A large brown moth tapped the light above her head. She watched as it hovered and tapped and hovered then dived, down towards her face. Unfastening her fingers from the chair, she swiped the air. The moth darted back into the light. Shug would have scolded her for swiping the moth, “God created this world for all living creatures, not just the pretty ones.”
“Oh Shug,” she wrapped her arms around her chest. Her shoulders shook and tears welled in her eyes. She coughed out her sorrow in a whisper.
“Stanley Harrison Unwin Galloway, you were not supposed to die first.”
She wiped her tears on the sleeve of her dressing gown and inhaled the night. Autumn had begun to creep into the corners of the garden in little cold curls, and the air smelled of damp foliage and chimney soot. Margo looked out into the darkness and saw the moon, a white eyelash resting on a purple blanket.
The tea was hot. Margo held the mug to her chest and twirls of steam rose into the air, dampening her face. She turned away and caught her reflection in the patio window. How time had altered her face, it used to be so soft and smooth but now it hung in folds of sagging flesh. And those lips – sucked dry into a shrivelled line. She swept a strand of hair that had blown onto her cheek and tucked it behind her ear. How she missed her long fiery curls, her most defining feature back in the day. Now her hair was as grey as the chimney smoke chugging the air. Shug had barely noticed her changing though. “You’re bonnier than the sunset o’er the Forth of Firth,” he’d say, “as bonny now, as the day we met.” Shug had gone grey first. He was only twenty-three when it happened. In a single year, Shug’s hair transformed from bold black into fading grey. It was the year after Pearl died. Margo sipped her tea from trembling fingers. She heard the sound of a door opening, closing, and then footsteps. In the darkness, she could see the silhouette of a tall slim man walking down the pavement. It was Billy, her friend’s Grandson.
“Evening Mrs Galloway,” he waved, “Starting to get a bit nippy out eh?”
“Aye Son, it is.”
He continued walking. She watched as he stopped at the far end of her fence and lit a cigarette. The flash of orange light glowed for a moment, then he disappeared into the night. All that remained was the sound of his footsteps and a dancing orange dot. The smell of tobacco drifted through the air, lingered for a few seconds and she felt a flutter in her chest. She inhaled deeply. Margo had never smoked, never even tried it, but she had grown used to the smell of a newly lit cigarette. It reminded her of the first day that she had met Shug.
It was a warm afternoon in the spring of 1964. She was working from home at the time, a seamstress by all accounts, though a self-trained one. She had even built herself quite a reputation in the village where she lived. A craftswoman, the locals called her, “with an eye as sharp as a needle and fingers that can turn a tattie sack into a gown.” When Shug turned up at the foot of her steps, a handsome young man with a pair of trousers draped over his left arm and a cigarette paper balancing between two fingers, she stood in the doorway and watched him. He knew she was watching, but his eyes were focused on his fingers while he tore the wiry brown tobacco, spread it into a line then folded the paper, rolling and licking and rolling again. When he was done, he put the cigarette into the corner of his mouth and looked up.
“Are you Margo McNabb?” he cocked his head to one side.
“Aye.” She blushed and looked at the trousers over his arm.
“Great, my Maw said you could maybe take up the hem of my trousers,” he held them out. “Can you do it for me?”
Margo looked at the trousers and then at her visitor. He was short and stocky and the trousers would have been a good two inches too long. She sniggered.
“Aye okay,” she turned her back, leaving the door ajar, “Come on in.”
He followed her and closed the door.
“Who’s your Maw?” Margo asked taking the trousers and nodding her head to an empty seat.
“Betty, Betty Galloway. She said you two were pals during the war. Do you mind if I…?” he pointed to his cigarette and raised his eyebrows.
“Aye go ahead, but you’ll need to take it into the scullery. Do you want a cup of tea?”
“Go on then.”
He got up from the seat and followed her through. Margo filled the kettle and put it on to boil.
“So you’re Betty’s laddie. Stanley is it?” she asked dropping two teabags into the teapot.
“Aye, but call me Shug, hardly anyone calls me Stanley anymore.”
“Alright Shug,” she leaned back against the wall and folded her arms. Shug lit his cigarette. He took a long draw and blew the smoke up to the ceiling.
“Nice place you have, Mrs McNabb.”
“Not Mrs,” she felt her face burning, so she turned to the cooker and fidgeted with the kettle, “Just Margo will do.”
“Just Margo eh? Interesting.”
She turned back around and watched as he blew little hoops of smoke into the room.
“Me and your Maw, we had some good times together, she used to wash and iron the clothes that I fixed, she was always singing, kept us all going so she did.”
“I bet you could hold a tune yourself,” he winked.
“Well I tried.” She twirled a lock of hair around her index finger. “Anyway, those were hard times back then, nae money for luxuries and all that.”
“Make do and mend,” he said, “Aye, she still goes on about it.”
A car engine rattled, snapping Margo out of her memory, and abruptly back to 2010. She jumped, and looked out into the street. It was normally so quiet at this time of the night. The car drove past. Lifting her mug, she took a gulp of tea but it was almost cold. She put the mug back on the table. Television lights flickered in the window opposite and an upstairs light in the house on the left, turned on. A curtain twitched. She watched for a moment then stretched her legs out in front of her. Flopping her head back, she looked up at the darkening sky. She closed her eyes and sighed, letting her thoughts drift off again. ‘Make do and mend’, she thought, ‘just like our wedding.’ In the space of a year, they had gone from talking in the scullery to walking down the aisle. It was a shame it had been such a small ceremony. Not many people approved of the twenty-seven year age gap. Shug had looked so charming in his taken-up trousers and suit jacket, while she had worn a dress she made herself. Oh and how wonderful she had felt in that beautiful dress, satin and lace that expertly skimmed her three-month baby bump.
Pearl was born in the back of an ambulance, eight days late, and after seventeen hours of labour. She was a scrawny little pink bundle – with a temper as fierce as her fiery hair. And those eyes, those little blue eyes that looked up at her Mother and filled her joy. They had fallen in love instantly. Margo remembered bringing her home, swaddled in a crocheted shawl. It took Shug a few days to hold his daughter on his own though.
“She’s not a bomb for goodness sake,” she took the baby from him and told him how to position his arms. He sat back in the rocking chair, and she placed the little bundle back into his arms. He stared down at her, a new twinkle in his eyes.
“She’s a gem.”
“Aye,” Margo smiled, “She really is. Are we giving her a name?”
“Pearl,” Shug replied, “Her name is Pearl.”
“Pearl.” Margo whispered her daughter’s name into the night. “I’ve missed you all these years.”
A cold breeze ruffled her hair and tickled her face. It felt like tiny ghost fingers touching her playfully. With her eyes still closed, she held on to the lingering chill. She touched the pendant that hung on a silver chain around her neck. Shug had bought it for her birthday in 1968, the year that Pearl died. She could still remember him dropping the pendant into her hand and closing her fingers around it. The stone had felt as heavy as the ache in her chest.
“I don’t want it.” She threw the pendant back at Shug. She hadn’t even remembered it was her birthday. After all, she had only buried her daughter three weeks earlier.
“But it’s Mother of Pearl,” he placed it on the bed side table, “Like you, the Mother of Pearl. It’s to remember our little girl.”
“What? You think a stupid necklace is a replacement for my baby? Really?” her body convulsed and tears fell from her swollen eyes.
“You’ll always be her Mum, Margo. You will.”
“Her Mum? But it was my job to look after her, not to dilly dally at some stupid ladies group. She was only three, for Christ’s sake, my only child. I should have been with her.”
“It’s not your fault,” he sobbed, “I should have been watching.”
Margo looked away from him and clenched her teeth.
“I only took my eyes off her for a second to roll my fag. I didn’t see her run. I didn’t see the car.”
“Come on Margo, you have to believe I’d never have let anything happen to our wee girl, not on purpose.”
“Too late. Where is she now Shug, eh? Where is my bairn?”
Shug bent down to touch her face. She swiped his hand away.
“Don’t touch me!” She shouted and pulled the covers up to her neck. “Just don’t”
“I’m so sorry,” he fell no his knees and wept into his hands, “I’m so sorry. Oh God. Oh God!”
Margo could still remember his cries, even now – forty-two years later. She shook her head, dropped the pendant onto her chest, and stared out into the darkness. Poor Shug. He’d never been the same after the accident. It hadn’t been easy for either of them to – just get on. But they did – get on – or at least they did their best. The television had stopped flickering in the window across the road. All the other windows were dark. She was alone.
Margo had always imagined that she would die first. Shug had joked about how he would go off and travel the world with all of their money when she was gone. After all, the success of her sewing business had allowed her to save for many years; so much so that she had comfortably retired at sixty. She remembered asking Shug to consider early retirement from his job in the carpet factory.
“I’ve plenty years in me yet.”
“But we can afford it, and you’ve worked so hard for all these years, don’t you want to spend more time at the dancing? You love the dancing.”
“We can dance anytime. Look,” he took her hand and pulled her into an embrace, then spun her around, catching her and kissing her on the nose.
“But we could do other things. You know. Together.”
“Get on a train and go somewhere new. My goodness, we could travel the world.”
“I already told you,” he slapped her bottom, “I’m going to travel the world when you’re dead and gone. What else am I going to do with all that money you’ve got stashed.”
“Stanley Harrison Unwin Galloway, you are a bad man.”
But alas, it wasn’t to be. Shug was forced to retire in 2004 due to ill health. He was diagnosed with emphysema and heart problems. It had begun as a cough that had lasted for three months.
“Is it no about time you gave up on the cigarettes?” she’d asked him, knowing full well that he wouldn’t.
“How am I supposed to give up the fags now,” he said, “I’ve been smoking since I was eight.”
Shug had often recalled his early childhood memories to her. He had worked in his uncle’s cigarette factory when he was just a boy. He told her how he would sweep under the machines, collecting the loose tobacco in a paper bag so him and his pals could meet in the hay field after school and smoke the scraps. Margo had laughed about it, and people didn’t know the risks back in the fifties, and most of the boys did it.
Margo worried. Shug had lost his appetite and had grown thin, adding years to his face. His bottom lip was tinged in blue. He spent much of the day asleep or sitting up in his armchair reading the paper. Margo began to sleep in a chair beside his bed. One night, at the beginning of 2005, his heart stopped.
“I saw her Margo. I saw her standing there, waiting for me,” he gripped her hand through the bars of the hospital bed.
“She’s waiting, I saw her, and she was smiling.” Shug tried to sit up, but she put her hand on his shoulder and bent over him. Her back ached and her eyes filled with tears.
“She forgives me, my little girl.” He closed his eyes.
“It’s not time yet.” She said and kissed his finger then held them to her lips. “I’m taking you home.”
“Oh Margo, I’m ready to go now,” he turned his head towards her but never opened his eyes, “Don’t let them bring me back next time. Promise me?”
“I, I don’t know.” She whispered.
“Don’t let them bring me back.”
Margo looked up at the sky. It had turned black. She was glad that Shug had managed another six years after that, and although he began to fade away, his love never faltered. And he learned to laugh again. “You better get spending that money, Mrs Galloway.”
She reached for her mug; it was as cold as stone. Pouring the remaining tea into the wilting fuchsia in the flower box, she sighed deeply. She pushed her arms against the plastic chair and steadied herself. Her legs trembled and she shivered. The night had sunk into her dressing gown. She had waited long enough. Straightening her back, she walked slowly into the house. It was just as she had left it. The armchair, the ashtray filled with cigarette ends, and Shug. She kissed his cheek, closed his eyes, and watched another white eyelash fall to his purple blanket.
“Stanley Harrison Unwin Galloway, you were not supposed to die first.”
Tears rolled down her face. She picked up the phone.
Alistair stands in a doorway on the corner of Admiralty Lane. The streets are quiet today. A cold air has swept up from the Forth keeping the locals indoors. He shivers and pulls his scarf up over his nose and his woollen hat over his ears. It’s four o’clock and there’s Claire sneaking out of the office again, that’ll be the third time this week. She walks briskly on the opposite side of the road. Alistair follows, keeping close to the old sandstone buildings. He ducks behind parked cars and stops briefly behind a white Winnebago when she slows. The wind whips her coat tails and they splay out behind her, allowing him the briefest moment to catch the slender silhouette of her body. She continues past the Ship Inn. He imagines, just for a second, that she’ll go in, sit by the log fire, order a glass of red, then call him to join her. But the thought passes as quickly as she does, and she doesn’t give the place where they first met a second glance. He falls back, watching her hurry along the coastal path then up toward the cliffs that overlook Ruby Bay. She crests the hill and disappears. He runs to the beach. The boat is still banked in the sand where he left it. Untying the rope from the cleat, he steps in. The sea is calm, and his oars cut through the water leaving a trail of ripples. Bowing his head, he rows beyond the bay. He sees a fisherman cast his line, but it’s unlikely that anyone will know him out here. He sees her standing on the cliff high above the sea. Her face, though partly shadowed, looks void of emotion. He feels a sickness in his stomach. There she is, one hundred feet above him, tall and solid, and morbidly unashamed. He hates her, hates what she’s trying to do to them. Just then, she pulls a bottle from the inside pocket of her coat and throws it over the cliff. His eyes follow the bottle until it hits the water with a short splash. He waits until she’s gone, then rows towards it.
She stands in the shadow of an old oak tree. Over the cliff the grey sky has melted and spread like oil over the sea, with no end and no beginning. She watches his boat glide quickly through the water and feels pleased, she’s played him well. He’s a fast rower though. She’d only found out recently that he could row. He’d spun her a yarn one day about almost drowning in a river when he was a boy, right after her best friend Craig and his husband Terry suggested they all go on a weekend cruise together. ‘But you’ll be safe on a cruise ship.’ She’d told him. ‘I don’t like boats.’ He snapped. ‘No, you mean you don’t like Craig.’ She’d always known it, but they’d never actually spoken about it. ‘You’re right. I don’t like the way he touches your arm when you’re having a conversation,’ Alistair told her, ‘and all the “in” jokes that you have with him. He should have married you.’ She tried to reason with her husband. ‘Craig’s gay,’ she laughed, ‘and we’ve been best friends since we were five.’ But Alistair shook his head. ‘I don’t like him, and I don’t like how close you are to him.’ So, she’d declined Craig’s offer, telling him that she’d catch up with him soon. She hasn’t seen Craig since, he won’t come to the house when Alistair is there, and Alistair is always there. That was eight months ago.
She steps closer to the edge of the cliff to watch. Alistair reaches the bottle quickly. He pulls it from the water, holds it under his arm and pulls out the cork. The sky is darkening. He’ll struggle to read the gibberish she’d written anyway, besides, he isn’t wearing his glasses. He hadn’t worn them in over a year. ‘I can’t see a thing when I wear them, so what’s the point.’ He’d said and thrown them across the floor. It was a month after he’d been sacked from the gas board following an accusation of an affair between himself and a customer’s wife. Of course, he denied it. ‘I can’t afford a new pair, so I’ll do without.’ He folded his arms like a child. She offered to save to get him a new prescription, but he shook his head. ‘Keep your money,’ he said, ‘Besides, you’ll need it to pay the bills. Personally, with the lack of money coming in, I’d make cut backs. But seeing as you can’t live without your beloved Facebook, you’ll have to pay for the internet too.’ She ignored his snide comments for as long as she could. Then one day after work, she’d come home to find Alistair on her laptop looking through her online messages. ‘How dare you.’ She pulled the laptop from him. ‘Those are private messages between me and my friends.’ Alistair stood up and walked out of the room, not uttering a word. She’d spent the rest of the evening looking through all her messages to see if there was anything that he might misconstrue. About a week later, he called the phoneline provider and had the line cut off. ‘Because it’s a luxury we can’t afford.’
She sees him strike a match, can almost hear the hiss of the flame. He lights the corner of the paper and lets it float into the air. She winces at the sight of it burning and looks down at the scar on her right hand. She’d been out for a drink with Kelly and Omar from work one Saturday afternoon. It was Omar’s fortieth birthday. Alistair had been invited along but he said he’d rather watch paint dry than go out with a bunch of accountants. An hour after she’d left, the texting began. ‘Is Omar your new best friend?’ and worse, ‘Will you be giving him a ‘SPECIAL’ present for his birthday.’ She tried to ignore the messages, but they kept coming. Embarrassed, she excused herself and went home. Music was blaring from the stereo when she arrived, and she could smell burning. Panicked, she ran into the living-room. The rug under her desk was on fire. An ashtray had fallen from the arm of the sofa and scattered on the floor. ‘Alistair. Fire!’ She screamed then ran into the kitchen and filled a basin of water. When she returned, her desk was on fire. Flames ripped through the wood, catching books and paper and all sorts. She threw the water. It barely touched the flames. She reached out to grab her precious memory box, but it was so hot it burned her hand and she dropped it. Suddenly, Alistair ran into the living-room. ‘Give me your phone,’ he yelled and grabbed it from her coat pocket. He dialled 999. The fire brigade saved most of the house, but she never saw her phone again. ‘Lost in the fire,’ Alistair said. ‘But you’ll have a note of your contacts anyway.’ Yes, in her diary, on her desk! She watches him throw the empty bottle into the sea, then slips back into the shadows. She takes the quick route home. She’d discovered it about a month ago. That was the first time she’d realised that Alistair was following her. In her panic, she’d ran down the cliff and climbed a fence that lead into someone’s back garden. Luckily, when she reached the other side, she realised she was just a street away from her own. Since then she’d purposefully let him follow her to the cliff, just long enough to be one-hundred percent sure that it took him twelve minutes to get home. It only took her three. And with that certainty, she planned her escape. She hadn’t realised how bad things had gotten at home, until one morning about three months ago. Alistair had begun insisting that she went home for lunch, and that morning was no exception. But he was in a particularly foul mood and she did something out of character, she lied. ‘The secretary is sick, so I’ll have to cover the phones.’ She needed space. So, that afternoon, she left the office, picked up a sandwich, and walked toward Ruby Bay. She used to come here with Alistair when they first started dating, when life was happy, when life wasn’t suffocating. She climbed the gravel slope to the cliff and sat. In the distance, the beach was busy with dog walkers and joggers. Seagulls swooped to the sand hoping for scraps. She sat on the grass, unwrapped her sandwich and opened her mouth to take a bite when she realised that she was crying. She put the sandwich back in its wrapper and went into her bag for a tissue. She pulled out a notebook too. That’s when she saw the empty bottle lying in the grass. I’m lonely. She wrote.
She pulls the backpack from the corner of her wardrobe, it was tucked under some winter clothes.
It was two weeks after she’d written the first note, rolled it into a tube and stuffed it into a bottle that she received her first letter at work. She really hadn’t expected it, and at first, she felt panicked. The sender, however, turned out to be a six-year-old girl who had found the bottle on the beach in Burnt Island. She’d drawn a picture of the beach with a big yellow sun in the sky and a red boat on the water. Attached to the picture was a note. You’re not alone, keep reaching, scrawled in adult handwriting. So, she did. She wrote note after note, rolled them up and tied pretty ribbon around them and popped each one into a glass bottle and sealed it with a cork. Then at lunch time, or if she could slip away early from work, she’d head to Ruby Bay to throw the bottles from the cliff. She felt free in those moments.
She checks her watch, Sheila should be here in fifty-nine, fifty-eight, fifty-seven. Shelia was the fifth person to reply to her message in a bottle. Up until then, she’d received some encouraging words, not to mention a fridge magnet, a leaflet for the Samaritans, and a postcard, but there was never a return address. Still, it was wonderful to feel connected. But with Sheila, it was different. I can help. She wrote in a letter. Please write back. It turned out Sheila was an elderly widow who ran a small B&B in Broughty Ferry. Her dog Millie had found the bottle on the beach one morning and dropped it at Sheila’s feet. They began writing to each other regularly and soon became friends. Then one day, during work hours, they met face to face. That’s when they began to make plans.
She pulls back the blinds. Two car headlights flash. From her rucksack, she takes out a glass bottle and places it on the coffee table. Then she pulls on her backpack and walks out the door. She only looks back once at the house that was once her home.
‘She’s slipped away again.’ Alistair moans. The last three times he’d rowed the boat as fast as he could, then ran all the way home, but he never caught up with her. By the time he’d reached home, she’d be in a change of clothes and with a mug of tea in her hand. ‘Were you at the library again?’ She’d ask. He would nod then go into the bathroom to calm down. But tonight, the sofa’s empty, the kettle’s cold and although the lights are on, she isn’t home. Then he notices it. He pulls the cork out and tips the bottle. A thin roll of paper, held together by a gold wedding band, drops onto his lap. He unrolls the note. ‘Disconnected.’
It’s been a few days since I was awarded 2nd place at the SMHAF writing awards and I’ve received so many kind words since. I promised you a link to my prize winning story, but I have something better, a link to all of the short listed pieces here.
I think you will agree that the judges must have had a difficult time deciding the three winning pieces because all twelve entries were excellent. I feel proud to have my work showcased with such talent and diversity.
There has been some excellent write up’s about the event, as well as photographs and even live streaming. If you are interested in any of the above, please visit SMHAF and BipolarScotland and like their pages, both organisations do fantastic work.
Thank you if you were able to come along and hear us read from our work, and thank you for your lovely comments about my story.
Finally, thank you to SMHAF and Bipolar Scotland for an amazing event, to Emma Pollock for performing on the night, to Ian Rankin for hosting the event and being an inspiration to us all, to the judges whose job it was to read through hundreds of pieces of work, to those brave enough to submit their work, to the short listed writers who were brave enough to have their work heard by an audience -regardless of who was reading -and finally to the readers who make the job of writing worthwhile.
When I think of food, I think of full bellies, and clean plates. I think of empty pots with sticky ladles, and big belly burps. I think laughter. I think love. But I haven’t always thought of food in this way. I was a hungry bairn you see, not starving by any means, but never quite satisfied. My wee Ma’ did her best though, and with a lack of money and a cooking education that barely stretched further than tin opener – you could count her recipes on one hand. But she did make a mean cheese and potato pie, and on a good week, she was a dab hand at a savoury flan – although my wee Ma’s definition of savoury is another story.
Being a hungry bairn meant that wherever I went, food was always on my mind. So, it’s no wonder that when I think of it now, my thoughts take me back to my hometown of Bonnyrigg. It’s the late 1970’s, we are off school for the summer, and its market day. The sun is unusually yellow, the pavements are packed, and my jelly bean sandals are stuck to the tar that’s melting like treacle beneath my feet. And I Am Ravenous. The air is thick and warm with a mishmash of flavours; sweet and salty, sticky and burnt, the kind of smells that clings to your soft pallet. I imagine it’s like dusting your tongue with icing sugar then dipping it into beef dripping. But for a hungry bairn, that wasn’t quite starving, but never quite full, market day was like a disco on my taste buds.
‘You could spread a piece wae yon smell,’ I can imagine my wee Ma’ saying, ‘thick as the potted meat you get o’er the counter in Campbell’s.’
Reaching the high street was always a thrill for me, the thrum of the sidewalks, the rhythm of the market trader’s, ‘Twenty-four eggs for-a-pound. Get your eggs here.’ And it was hard to miss the beatboxing butcher with his ‘Back bacon, shoulder bacon, any bacon here.’ My feet would skip, passing the gathering crowd, who were anxious to ‘pick two packs for-a-pound,’ and with my nose to the sky, I’d suck the smells of the market, deep into my belly. That was nourishment! Whenever my wee Ma’ stopped to talk, I would look up and see arms in the air, waving and reaching, bidding for shoulders, legs, thighs. In a decade when ‘what was on the dinner table that night’ was of such high importance, it was no wonder that the butchers had to auction their meat.
But the market wasn’t just a place to buy and sell, it was a meeting place for grownups, filled with chittering and chattering. It was the weekly news update in a pre-Facebook era; the who married who, and the who got who pregnant; and the biggest scandal on everybody’s lips, was the waiting times at the doctor’s surgery. I loved seeing my wee Ma’, surrounded by friends, super animated and smiling; this, I guess, was how she nourished her mind.
My Nana has a jewelry stall right in the back corner of the market – she used to make her own costume jewelry, and because I didn’t see her very often, I’d get a free bracelet or a beaded necklace. On a good day though, I’d get shiny fifty pence pressed firmly into the palm of my hand.
“Buy yourself a wee sweetie hen, but dinnae be greedy. Share them with your brother and sister.”
I would nod and trot off with my riches, the unlikelihood of sibling generosity dwindling, the louder my belly growled.
There were several sweetie stalls at the market, but I preferred Cathy’s sweetie shop on the high street. Cathy was oldest looking person I had ever seen. She had short purple curly hair and a face as soft as pudding. She would sit on a wooden chair behind the counter and read the local newspaper over the top of her half-moon glasses. I remember leaving my wee Ma’ outside the shop while, like a big girl, I went in on my own. The doorbell chimed as I entered, and Cathy stood up straight. She coughed, smoothed down her gingham pinny and smiled. The sweetie shop smelled glorious, like even the air was tinged with sugar. It’s neither wonder the customers often left with a smile and a bounce in their step.
“What’ll it be the day hen?” Cathy clicked her falsers together while she waited for an answer. My eyes trailed over the wall of plastic tubs, filled with multi coloured shapes resting on a thick sugary layer. There were cola cubes, sour plooms, sweet peanuts, jazzies, pear drops, lucky tatties, Chelsea whoppers, pineapple cubes, bubblies, and sherbet.
“Sour Plooms please.” I pointed to the tub filled with dark green balls.
“I’ve got fifty pence,” I held out my hand, “is that enough for Chelsea whoppers tae?”
“Aye, plooms and whoppers.” I held out two paper pokes, one in each hand. “Dae ye want one?”
On the corner of the counter was a huge silver weighing scale. Cathy poured my sweeties into the dish, added an extra two, then popped one in her mouth. She rolled it around then held it in her cheek. I could see it there, like a massive pluke ready to pop. She poured my sweeties into a brown paper poke and folded my whoppers into another. Then she took my fifty pence. I don’t think she thanked me for the stolen ploom, but I must have let her off for being nice.
“Did you buy something guid?” Ma was sitting on the wall waiting for me.
“No hen. I’m saving myself for soup.”
I stuffed my sweeties deep into my cardigan pockets ‘cause it was a sure thing I’d need them later on if it was soup day.
We walked up the coal road hand in hand. I turned, just once to sniff the air, but market day had been packed up, loaded into vans, and driven off to somewhere new.
I was alright in mid-June apart from the weather which was typically Scottish. Charcoal clouds were scribbled over the only green hill that formed part of our view. The air was thick. A warm breeze swayed the vertical blinds and they clattered together.
“I can’t concentrate.” I said, saving the document I was working on. I put my lap-top on the couch and got up to close the window, but Helen began coughing. She sat forward, red faced and I thumped the top of her back, careful to avoid the line where the nerve pain started. “Are you alright?” She shook her head. “Not…” “What can I do?” I asked. She pointed to the window and wagged her finger. “You want it left open?” She nodded. I hurried to the kitchen and edged a glass between last night’s dinner dishes and the cold tap. I filled the glass with water. “I need to clean the kitchen,” I said when I returned. “You said you’d do it later.” “I know, but it stinks.” “It’s just last night’s dishes.” “It’s disgusting.” “I’ll do it then.” She sighed. “You try to do too much, and you need to work on your dissertation.” “It can wait. Besides, I can’t have you struggling to stand at the sink.” I kissed her cheek. “You worry too much.” “You’d be better going up to the university to write. There’d be less distraction.” I shrugged my shoulders, sat down and I lifted my lap-top onto my knee. The blinds rattled.
I was in the kitchen a couple of hours later when I heard the letterbox snap shut. The mail flopped on the floor. It was mostly junk, a Farmfoods leaflet, money off coupons for Domino’s, you know the likes, when I heard the Post woman’s footsteps echo down the stairs in the communal hallway. I considered opening the door and pointing at the sign above our letterbox: NO JUNK MAIL. But I didn’t. I realised for the first time, I couldn’t. “Anything for me?” Helen called from the Living-room. “Something from the council.” I took it through to her. “Maybe it’s about the wood-worm.” “It’s too soon.” I said. “Although it would be my luck to have the council ripping up floors while I’m trying to write a dissertation.” Helen opened the letter. She raised her eyebrows. “They’re coming to lift the floor, aren’t they?” She nodded. “When?” “In a fortnight, and they want the house empty.” “What about us?” “They’re putting us up in a hotel. Guess we have some packing to do. Should I ask some friends around to help?” “No!” I said too quickly. I even surprised myself.
At the beginning of July, the weather was still drab but there had been the odd rumble of thunder in the distance. I couldn’t help wishing it would hurry up, if only to clear the air. “Could you pop over to Peter’s and ask him if he’ll run us to the hotel on Monday?” Helen asked. “I’ll just finish packing this box.” I said laying an ornament on a piece of newspaper and triple wrapping it. “I’ll finish that.” Helen said. “It’s okay, I’m nearly done.” I snapped. “Sorry.” She backed away and I felt a pang of guilt. “I’ll go in a minute.” “I’d go myself, but I can’t do the steps.” “I know that.” I threw the wrapped ornament into the box and turned away from her. “What’s wrong.” Helen sat on the floor beside me. “Are you crying?” I hid my face from her. “I can’t go.” “Go where? The hotel?” I let out a sob. “Kirsty?” “I can’t go to Peter’s.”
By the time we got to the hotel the following week we could barely see a foot in front of us. The fog was thick and white, and our world shrank to the size of the cave we were temporary living in. “What time are you meeting you tutor?” Helen shouted from the other room. “In ten minutes, at the bar.” I sat on the toilet and my stomach cramped. I emptied my bowel. Again.
“Sorry I’m late.” My tutor said and ordered us a pot of tea. “How are you?” “I’m well,” I lied but I wanted to run back to Helen and hide. “How’s the dissertation coming along?” “Fine.” I said a little too loudly and I felt everyone in the bar look at me. I waited for them to laugh. In my mind they did. “Are you in touch with your classmates?” “I’ve been too busy.” I lied because I felt too stupid to say that some of my friends hated me now because I was apparently the teacher’s pet. I felt stupid saying that they were horrible to me – and now I was lost.
It was January 2018 before I realised, I had social anxiety. I was standing in the back garden of our new home, inappropriately dressed for a blizzard but poised, perfectly still with a camera in my hand. Through the lens, I watched a robin on the fence have his breast feathers whipped up by the wind as flurry of snow danced around him. I clicked.
“What time is everyone arriving?” Helen sticks a tahini dip covered finger to my mouth. “That’s amazing.” I lick it from my lips. “Two o’clock I think.” I finish breading the cauliflower and pop it into the oven. “Are you feeling okay?” She asks. “With, you know, people coming around?” “I will be.” I tell her. I lift my purple headphones from the table. “I’ll be back in fifteen minutes.” I go into the spare room and close the door. Before I press play on the app, I check to see how many people will be joining me. 12,351.
Find a quiet space where you feel comfortable. Sit on a straight back chair or on a meditation cushion. When you hear the gentle chimes of the singing bowl, close your eyes. Breathe in to the count of five. Hold. Breathe out to the count of five. Hold.
This story was highly commended in the short story category for the Carers UK Creative Writing competition 2017. To purchase the anthology in which this story appears, click here. Carers UK provides carers like myself helpful information and support.
The Impracticality of Home
I sit on the sill of the bay window watching the midday sun wink in the rooftop puddles. A small red helium balloon bobs over the roof of the neighbouring hostel and the sound of a child crying echoes in the alleyway below. I turn around and look up the narrow cobbled road, dotted with bikes and benches, brown haired tourists in matching ponchos, and a road sweeper. The shh shhhhh shhhhhhh of the brushes of his machine hiccough as they suck the remains of somebody’s late night shenanigans. I hug my knees letting the warm breeze that sneaks through the crack in the window touch my face; while the smell of charred meat, chip shop grease and warm bins curls up my nose. The blue curtains billow.
We’d both picked those curtains, trailed for hours around all the charity shops just to find a pair that was long enough for the main window in our new home. Our first home together. Our, we-don’t-care-if -we’ve-only-been-going-out-for-six-months overpriced flat in the centre of a busy student town. I remember sitting on the threadbare sofa, watching her stand on the sill stretching right up to the curtain pole to clip the curtain on to each tiny little hook. ‘Be careful,’ I said and she screwed up her face and told me, ‘I’m the D.I.Y person, remember?’ and I shrugged my shoulders because, in fairness, I could barely hang a picture straight.
I hear a horn tooting and I push the window open wide. It isn’t the patient ambulance service, it’s just a taxi. I hear a thundering of footsteps descending the stairs in the hall. The front door vibrates as they pass the landing and head to the ground floor. I see four of the neighbours burst out the main door in a flurry of neon feather boas, grass skirts and permed wigs and I know tonight is going to be a noisy one.
It was the third flat we’d visited and the best value for money by a mile. I was intrigued by the hand carved double bed on stilts in the small room, while she fell in love with the old Persian rug that covered most of the solid wood floor. ‘It’s a good size,’ I told the estate agent as I sat on the sill and looked around. One of the walls, papered with a grey brick effect looked dated but quirky; the mismatched cushions scattered randomly on the sofa and chairs could easily have been ours and the gap in the wall where a T.V was meant to sit, would be perfect for the plant I’d bought you for our one month anniversary. ‘We’ll take it,’ she said, standing in the centre of the room with her arms stretched wide open. ‘Are you sure?’ I asked, ‘It’ll be noisy.’ And she laughed and ran to the window where some dude in a straw hat sat directly below us playing Wonderwall on his guitar. ‘What’s not to love about that.’ She said and I loved her a little bit more.
The letterbox snaps and a pile of junk mail flops onto the floor along with two white envelopes and a pink one. I can tell from here it’s get-well-soon cards. I wish they sold, ‘I know you’ll never be the same but if you ever need anything just ask’ cards, or, ‘Congratulations on learning to walk for the second time,’ cards. Get well soon is a little presumptuous but I suppose if that’s all there is then…. My phone vibrates in my pocket. I’M HERE! In square letters across the screen. I look out the window to see the top of the ambulance pull up outside the tall heavy iron gates outside the flats.
I remember when we moved in. ‘This place has better security than Buckingham Palace,’ she’d said, as she held the gate open for me to pass through with another box before humphing it up twenty-four steps. ‘It’s your turn next,’ I shouted and kicked over a half empty can of Special Brew that was sitting on the stair.
I run down the stairs as fast as my legs will carry me, past the wheelie bins, over-spilling with junk from the Chinese Takeaway next door, through the black iron gates and to the back of the ambulance where the driver has just opened the two back doors. There’s a smile on her face as big as mine and I reach out my hand as she steps onto the platform and the driver lowers her slowly to the ground. She takes a step forward and wobbles. I grip her hand a little tighter as her feet test the un-even road. It’s shaky at first but we clear the cobbles and edge down the strip of the gutter to the gates. I type in the code twice before I can turn the handle and push it open. She kisses me softly as she passes, and I can’t believe I haven’t kissed her here for over two months. ‘Are you ready?’ We stand at the foot of the stairs. ‘How many is it again? She frowns and I notice her face looks a little paler outside of the hospital bed. ‘Twenty-four.’ I say and take the first step. I hold out my hand. “One…….
This short story was published by Fairlight books on 13th November 2017. Click here to be redirected to their site.
She pulled a bunch of ribbons from her jacket pocket, selected a red one, then squeezed it in the palm of her hand. “I wish,” she said, and closed her eyes, “I wish that today will be the day that I find you.” She took the ribbon to the large elm tree and tied it onto a low hanging branch. It flapped lazily in the breeze. From her backpack, she pulled out a folded handkerchief and unwrapped it. It held a rusty nail with a battered head, but with a newly sharpened tip. Crouching down to half her height, she traced her finger over the neatly carved lines already on the tree trunk. Nineteen lines for nineteen years, and the first, still as deep as the day her father helped her carve it. She pressed the nail into the bark, and tapped it with a large stone that she’d found by the loch. She carved line number twenty. It was still early morning and the sky was a brilliant blue. She sat cross-legged on her sleeping bag, drinking strong coffee from the lid of her flask and let her eyes trail lazily over the rugged outlines of the Trossachs. A lone osprey flew from the east and soared over the wide loch, its white belly and black-tipped wings, mirrored in the still water. “Look at the giant seagull Kim, look, look!” Kim held her breath as it dipped its wings, swooping downwards and breaking the water with its claws. “Did it steal a fish?” Blinking hard, she sighed. “Where are you Nora?” The osprey was already back in flight by the time she shook off the memory, rising to the sky, before disappearing into the forest of Scots pines on the opposite bank. All that remained was a ripple in the calm. She took the longer route to avoid the main campsite; weathered hill walkers tended to stray away from the paths and the noise of people. The terrain at the south side of Loch Chon was reasonably accessible, although rock scatterings hidden amongst the greenery at the foot of the hill could be tricky underfoot. She dug her trekking poles into the grass and took long strides, breathing in the smell of mulchy earth and sweet oily bog myrtle. It was late spring and the hills were alive with wildflowers. Smatterings of dog violets grew amongst the long grass that swished in the breeze. She paused to watch a woodman’s friend bat its tiny orange wings as it landed on the spike of a blue bugle. “Is it a moth Kim?” “I think it’s a butterfly.” The valley led down to an old stone bridge, where twenty-one years earlier, she had found a little red shoe among the reeds. The shoe was still warm, perhaps from the sun that shone on its shiny patent surface, or perhaps from the foot of her five-year-old sister Nora, who was nowhere to be seen. She climbed onto the bridge, took off her backpack, and leant over, watching the reflection of her orange cagoule flickering in the stream. “Count to fifty then come and find me.” “Fifty is too long Nora.” She bent forward and put her face into her hands. “One, two, three…” She said out loud. “Are you playing hide and seek?” Kim stood up, startled. A little girl, no more than five years old, stood beside her. Her eyes were red and her cheeks glistened with tears. She crouched down to the little girl’s height. “Nora?” “No, I’m Phoebe. Who are you?” “Oh God.” She leaned against the bridge wall for support. “Sorry Phoebe, you gave me a fright. I’m Kim, where’s your Mum and Dad?” She stood back up and looked around but there was no one else in sight. Phoebe began to cry. She held the sleeve of Kim’s cagoule while her little body shook. “I got lost,” she sobbed, “I lost my Mummy.”
“It’s okay Phoebe, don’t you worry. I can help you find her.” “Will I be in big trouble?” “No silly, you won’t be in trouble.” Kim took a tissue from her backpack and wiped Phoebe’s eyes. “Now blow your nose and we’ll find her together.” She held the tissue to the girl’s face and laughed when she blew a trumpet. “Now, which way did you come?” She asked, pulling her backpack on. Phoebe pointed her finger east and Kim figured she must have come from the campsite. It was a five-minute walk on flat land, and easy to find. “Can I take your hand?” Phoebe asked. “I’m scared.” “Sure.” She held it out and felt the tiny warm fingers grip hers. They passed through a grove of elm trees, stepping over protruding roots and clumps of moss. The temperature dipped in the shade. “How did you manage to get lost?” “I was following the big seagull.” Phoebe said. “Did you see it?” “Yeah I did. But that big bird was an osprey. They look a bit like seagulls but they’re bigger and prettier.” “Offspray,” Phoebe giggled, “Off. Spray.” “Osprey, aye.” Kim laughed. They emerged from the grove and found the man-made gravel path that led to the campsite. Kim could see a group of walkers ascending a softer hill in the distance. The odd tent was dotted around the flat ground while others clung diagonally to the side of the hill. When she saw the loch glistening at the far end of the horizon, she knew they were close. “Kim. Who were you playing hide and seek with?” “Oh. I was just pretend playing. I used to play with my sister Nora, she was five.” “I used to be five. I’m seven now,” she smiled showing a gap where her front tooth had fallen out, “How are you going to find her if you’re taking me to my Mummy?” “I’ll find her,” Kim pressed her lips together, “One day.” “But isn’t she too wee to be left alone?” “She’s lost Phoebe.” Kim took a deep breath before continuing. “She’s been lost for a long, long time. I come here sometimes just to look.” “My Grandad got lost. He was in a home. Mum said he went to heaven but I heard her telling my Auntie Kate on the phone that they lost him.” “Oh.” Kim squeezed Phoebe’s hand. “If people get lost then they can get found too, can’t they?” “I guess.” “I think they can.” She nodded her head. “My Grandad leaves me clues. Like one time when me and Mum were out walking Timmy, that’s my dog, and we found a card with a number eight and a heart on it…” “Uh-huh.” “Well, eight is the number of his old house, before he went to the home, and the heart is because he supported the Hearts.” “That’s a brilliant clue. Maybe you could be a detective when you grow up.” Kim laughed. “Aye, that’s what my Mum says.” Phoebe’s little blonde bunches looked so much like Nora’s did on the day she disappeared. “When I’m big, I could help you find your sister.” She put her hands on her hips and raised her eyebrows. “I’d like that.” “Good. Does Nora leave you clues like Grandad does?” “I’m not sure. I think so,” she said, “maybe I’m just too grown up to see them now.” “How can you be too grown up to see clues?” “You’re right Phoebe. Maybe I just forgot how to find them. Thank you for reminding me though.” “You’re welcome.”
“Oh my God. Phoebe. Where on earth have you been?” Kim stood by the door of the park ranger’s cabin. She smiled warmly as Phoebe’s mother ran towards them and scooped her daughter up into her arms. “I got lost Mummy. I’m sorry but I was following an off spray, it’s like a big seagull you know, and then it flew away over the big mountain and then I didn’t know how to come back. But I found Kim.” She said, pointing at Kim who nodded her head. Phoebe’s mother mouthed a thank you and pulled her daughter in for another hug. “You shouldn’t run off on your own. I’ve been worried sick.” “It’s okay Mum, I only got a wee bit lost.” “Well thank goodness you found Kim.” “I know. She was playing hide and seek with Nora when I found her, but Nora got lost. Like Grandad.” “Oh.” She lowered Phoebe to the floor and rubbed her hair. “Is your daughter lost Kim, do you need some help?” “Twenty-one years ago, I’m afraid, and she was my sister.” “I’m Kim, I’m so sorry. That must have been awful for your family.” “Yeah, it was. Mum passed away the following year and Dad never forgave himself for losing her.” “Is your Dad with you?” “Gone too. Four years ago.” Kim coughed and looked out of the window. “Sorry Kim.” “It’s okay, but thanks.” She felt her chest tighten. “I come back at the same time every year hoping to find something, you know…” “Clues.” Phoebe interrupted. “Yeah, clues.” Kim laughed. “I don’t know how to thank you for finding this little rascal.” They both looked at Phoebe who stood with her tongue out. “I’m Sandra.” Kim took Sandra’s outstretched hand and shook it. “Nice to meet you. She’s a good kid.” “I’m so glad you found her, she tends to wander. I only nipped to the toilet, she must have run off.” “Well, no harm done.” Kim smiled. “And it was Phoebe who found me, honestly. In fact, I think she might even have been sent as a clue.” She winked at Phoebe who clapped her hands in delight. “Can I get you a coffee or something?” Sandra asked. “or a hot chocolate?” “No thanks,” She said. “I need to get on, I’ve a bit of walking to do and I’m heading home tonight.” “Please Kim.” Phoebe took her hand and pressed her face against it. “Not just now,” She whispered, “I need to go looking for clues.” “Oh aye,” she whispered back, “I hope you find some good ones.” “Me too. Hey, maybe you could both come around to my tent after dinner. I’ll let you make a wish on my faerie tree.” “You have a faerie tree?” Phoebe’s eyes opened wide. “Do faeries live in it?” “Yes, they do. Now, do you have a ribbon?” “Have I got a ribbon Mummy?” “Erm, I don’t think so.” Sandra said. “Don’t worry, you can have one of mine.” Kim smiled. “I’ll come by here at six.” She patted Phoebe on the head. “See you later detective.”
She climbed down the rocks blow the stone bridge. Gripping onto a dangling root, she lowered herself onto the pebbled bank and walked into the cold shadow of the bridge. “Watch out for creepy crawlies.” She ducked her head. The water echoed around her like whispers and she hunched her shoulders to her ears. She found the line she’d etched into a large rock the previous year and set down her backpack. Using the ends of her trekking poles, she flicked pebbles one by one into the water. After each plop, her eyes scanned the ground – searching. She got to her knees, cupping the stones in her hands, sifting through them with her thumbs, before throwing them into the stream. “Where are you?” She dug her fingers into sand and mud, scooping up wet clumps, and throwing them to the side. “There must be something.” She wiped the sweat from her forehead with the sleeve of her jacket. Just then, she saw the surface of a rounded piece of glass partially hidden in the dug-out hole. She pushed her finger into the mud and edged it out slowly, discovering a glass marble, cold, and smooth with green and yellow swirls through the centre. She washed the dirt off in the stream then rolled it around in the palm of her hand. Was it Nora’s? “Come on Kim, play with me.” She squeezed her eyes shut, searching her mind. Nora tugged her sleeve, blue eyes staring hopefully. Her pink freckled cheeks dimpled as she smiled. A smile that stretched over decades in Kim’s memory. The red velvet dress with white trim was as clear as the photograph in her purse. Shiny red patent shoes. “Count to fifty and don’t peek.” “One, two…” Did Nora play with marbles? “Three, four…” I can’t remember. “Five, six, seven…” “Damn it!” She threw the marble into the stream and it barely made a splash.
The sun had begun to dip behind the mountains by the time Kim had led Sandra and Phoebe to her pitch. They stood beside the slow burning wood fire and Kim looked over the loch. It lay flat and still, reflecting sky and mountains and creating the illusion of endlessness. “It’s like the sky is upside down.” Phoebe pointed. “I think it looks like the edge of forever,” Kim said, “like you could walk right inside the belly of the world.” “Forever-land.” Phoebe said. “Like Peter Pan.” “That’s Never-Never land.” Kim laughed. “It’s pretty though, isn’t it?” Sandra said and put her arm around her daughter’s shoulder. Phoebe nodded. “This is the best time for wishes.” Kim said, “It’s when the faeries come out to play. Come on.” They walked up the stony bank. The oak tree stood alone on the grassy hill at the rear of Kim’s tent; its wide trunk topped by a full head of leafy branches. “Where are the faeries?” Phoebe asked as she stepped into the shadow below the tree. “You can’t see them, but listen.” They huddled together, listening to the tree branches creak, and the leaves rustling gently. “They whisper to one another,” Kim continued, “Can you hear them?” “I think so.” Phoebe put her ear to the tree trunk. “What are they saying?” “They’re waiting for your wish.” Sandra said. “That’s right.” Kim smiled and took two pink ribbons from her pocket. She pulled down a long thin branch to Phoebe’s height, then held it while Sandra helped her daughter tie the first ribbon. “Don’t let it go yet.” Kim said as she fastened her own ribbon to the branch. “Now make a wish.” “You first.” “Okay.” Kim took a deep breath. “I wish that one day I’ll find a great big clue that’ll help me find my Nora.” “I wish,” Phoebe squeezed her eyes tight shut, “that my Grandad will look after her until you find her.” Together they let go of their ribbons and watched as they flapped freely in the breeze.
Everything is hushed, even the waves hemming the sand seems to hold their breath. Dawn is breaking and teasing the horizon. The world seems warmer. Tiny orange crabs scurry sideways into jagged rocks and now I am alone. I feel naked. Alive. All that I hold are my most intimate thoughts and a new respect for life.
Visiting the Maldives had been a distant dream of mine, since – well since forever. I had lost my mother seven months earlier. Her sudden departure from my life was not only tragic but deeply confusing. Life as I knew it had changed. I found myself searching for answers instead of comfort and could not see beyond the noise. Seven months had passed and I found myself frustrated. I spent too much time sitting on my doorstep, looking to the sky and searching. I found nothing. Waiting for nothing is the most desperate way to pass the time. You feel the outside expanding rapidly from your doorstep while you slowly shrink inside your own head. After receiving a small windfall, it didn’t take me long to find my escape. “If I can’t find you, I’ll try to find myself.”
I watch the sun climb. Shocking red and orange slices flash upon the placid sea. Blood rushes around my body; my head feels light and my skin tingles. I want to grab this vision and stamp it urgently in my memory; nothing had been or ever could be this beautiful.
Sunrise is followed by nature. The salt water and wet sand creep up and swallow my legs. Schools of fish swim daringly close to me examining by pale white limbs. I enjoy teasing them with my toes. A stingray skims the surface of the shore, round , large and flat like a piece of old leather being carried by the waves. I stand up and follow it until it disappears into deeper water. “Time is irrelevant. Time is unconnected to the world outside. The world outside is now extinct”.
I am walking. My island has opened up to people. Swimwear – bright and cheerful which somehow looks dishonest here. Every soul I see equally treasures the silence. I see the emotion on every face that turns toward me. Passion has touched their soul. Passion has touched my soul.
I find a spot under a palm tree. It is a light relief from the burning sun as the fan like branches shade my skin. A tiny lizard scurries up the rough bark and hides from me. I have stolen its place. I close my eyes and breathe in a smell of warm salty sea and dry foliage. It is the pure and clean smell of the natural world, stripped back to its rawness, undeveloped and unpolluted. Unspoiled. All of my senses are kick-started. I am alive.
Hours pass, or perhaps it is just seconds but the next thing happens alarmingly quick. The brilliant blue horizon turns charcoal grey. In the blink of an eye the neighbouring island vanishes. The atmosphere feels instantly charged. Excitement and fear presses heavily on my skin and I watch in wonder as the sea trembles and spits out her waves as she chokes in the dense air. Colossal globes of water pelt from the heavens onto the world below. All at once I am alone again. Noise booms in my ears from the waves and rain and the intense screeching from the unhappy bird high above my head in my palm tree. I am motionless. I watch the storm gather itself, teasing my island with its wildness and ferocity, and I long for it. My heart pounds in my chest, my ears scream as I suck in the humid air and hold it as my body wretches. My eyes explode with tears cascading from deep inside my broken heart. I clench my fists and my eyes stare ahead, finally seeing myself through my blurred vision. I sob for my mother, I weep for the loneliness I feel without her and for my uncertain future.
Almost as quickly as it begins, the rain stops. The world stops. Only for a moment.Like I am caught between when time began and when time ended. I am nothing but am everything. The sea throws its last wave onto the wet sand then lies still, tranquil. Silent. Before my eyes is a florescent sea. A bright shocking bath of glory against a cruel bleak sky.
My eyes dry. The grey moves along the horizon until all that remains is a flawless sky that never ends. The sun lies down on the clear and rested water and time resumes.For the first time in a long time I understand. My close encounter with a tropical storm has awakened me. Like the storm, my grief is fierce but beautiful and will eventually pass. I am alive. I can be whole.
This is my family, or part of it. That’s me on the left in my pink and white gingham dress, smiling because I don’t care that the elastic around the sleeve irritates my arms and the neckline strangles me. My socks are brilliant white, the proper wool ones that you steep in a sink of boiling water for hours until a thick film of soap powder floats in clumps on the surface. John has matching socks. He’s my little brother, he is three years old in this picture making me six. John doesn’t look as happy as I do, perhaps because Mum cut the sleeves of his favourite red jumper and made it into a t-shirt; he cried for hours afterwards. John and I are both wearing shiny patent leather shoes, good ones from Clarks. We often went there to get our feet measured. They put your foot into a strange wooden contraption and then the shop person slid a bar down the front of it until it touched your toes, it always tickled. Right in the middle of us is my Mum, she looks happy. Mum must be thirty-one years old in this picture; I don’t remember her being this young though. Look at how tanned we are. You can almost see the white line at the top of John’s arm were the sun couldn’t quite reach. The little dog to the left of me is Prince or at least I think so, it might be Ben, my Auntie Annie’s dog. We had a dog called Prince but Dad gave him to the local police man. I’m not even sure why he gave him away, I think I was sad about it but I don’t remember.
The sky looks grey above our heads but this is an old picture and the summer had been wonderful. I was on my first long holiday from school and Mum took us to King George V Park. We’d been visiting Granny who lived behind the park. We’d have come in from the back gates. I know this because we are far away from the church tower; you can see it above Mum’s head looking like a giant green pencil. It’s the parish church, built in 1845 and the cornerstone of Bonnyrigg; this is where I went to Sunday school. The big old chimney at the far left belonged to a coal mine, it’s gone now. I can still remember the smell of the smoke. They stacked the coal up in huge black pyramids in the yard.
My big sister Marion is missing from this picture, Marion would have been ten. Going by low the angle that the picture is taken from, my sister may have been the photographer.
We all look happy. Except John that is. John is biting his nails. Maybe because Mum is about to feed his chocolate bar to the dog. Maybe because Dad isn’t there. This is likely why Mum isn’t wearing her wedding ring and looks full of life. For me? I’m smiling because I have two adhesive tattoos on my arm, a tiny glimpse of the person I was to become.
Everything is dark. I wonder if the orange heat has burned my eyes out. Some of my whiskers have fallen off because I keep banging against the dark. The night has grown walls all around me. I am normally free when the sun goes to sleep. It is the time when we own the world, when we can stretch our legs and run and play with hardly any fear. You see, before the orange heat, we could see quite fine when the day turned black. I need a diddle but I keep banging into darkness and there is no room. I want my Mummy.
I had thought we were together, all seven of us, and Mummy. I guess I was wrong. Everything had felt confusing, with all the orange heat mixed up with the night blackness, which turned into poisoned air, and made seeing and breathing ever so hard.
My tail is all cramped and curled up and it stings from top to bottom. I cannot sweep it out for relief and I have to sit on it which makes it feel burny and sore . The dark is like shut-eye and I feel confused. My fur is all itchy and sticky. I want to ask Mummy what to do. I am afraid. Wait. There is a little stripe of light in a part where the dark isn’t mixed up. I press my nose really close to it but the tip of my nose nips so I shuffle onto my side and stretch my paw out and scrape. Everything smells wrong. There is a scratchy smell and it bites my throat. I push one claw into the light stripe and it gets stuck. I think maybe the world has shrunk.
I think my foot is broken. It won’t move and it feels like it is facing the wrong way. There is a sharp stretchy feeling wrapped all around it. When I try to press it on the floor I feel my head go all wishy-washy and I nearly get sick. You see, I think it broke because I was looking at the light stripe and I nearly pushed my paw right into it but then everything started to move. My body flew upwards but the night has grown a roof and I was crashed back down hard onto the floor and it kept happening over and over. I tried to get my paw out of the light stripe but it stayed stuck and I tried to shout out but I choked. I think my head is still moving up and down. I’m really too hot and I need something to drink. I think I diddled on the floor, it smells really horrible and it’s in my fur.
Everything is noisy. I can hear my heart beating really loud like it’s outside of me. As well, there is a loud squealing sound that I think is in my brain but its outside of my brain too, squeezing me tighter and tighter, and I have to breathe proper fast to stop it crushing me. I don’t understand where I am. Is this the world? I’m scared and I can’t run because there is no forward or backward, just a solid end in the darkness. I think my breath is the only air around me and I have to keep sucking it back in just in case it goes away and I can’t breathe anymore.
I wish Mummy was here, or my brothers. Callum is the oldest, he is three and even though he bites my tail sometimes he is still big and strong and could easily push hard into the light stripe. I think the light stripe is where the world used to be and I am stuck outside of it. I know I’m trapped or stuck or something. Billy is the same age as me; he can chew his way through everything. He once chewed a whole white shiny bag that flew into our nest and got stuck. Only instead of spitting out the shiny stuff he ate it and was proper sick then pooped out white curly snakes; it was rotten. I bet he could chew a hole through this outside world and let me back in to the proper one. Philip, Lawrence, Salvador and Russell are all my age and we cuddle lots. We had only just got our brown fur when the high sun came last week. It’s nice to nuzzle your nose into your brothers soft warm belly. Mummy has the best fur though. It’s long and white and smells like grass and corn and sunshine, even in the night. It’s always night here but it’s not freedom. This night blinds me, it is a prison with walls and a roof and no day, except the light stripe. Perhaps the sun has been folded up and the dark has squeezed it so tight it can only peep through the edges of night.
I don’t know how I got here. We were playing just outside the nest. Mummy was having a snooze, and the daytime was nearly packed-up. The field was all soft and swaying. The corn was making lovely long grey shadows on the ground that were shaking and shivering, and we were trying to catch them. The field was swishing and whistling and Mummy was snoring in the nest. Then all at once we stopped. There was a new sound. It was like a hissing and crackling and we could hear screaming and laughing from the people folk that pass by outside of our field.
“Stay away from the people folks,” Mummy always warned us with squinted eyes which meant ‘no joking’.
“They can never catch us Mummy, we are too fast,” Callum said with some reassurance.
“Keep away,” she just kept saying, “Them people folks don’t like us mice.”
So we were standing listening to the crackle and hissing and snapping when the air started to get terribly hot. Through the grass and corn, the air looked thicker as if it was not clear and see-through anymore and it made my eyes water. We ran to tell Mummy, her nose was already twitchy because the air smelled thick. She woke up just as we were about to shake her and her eyes were the biggest fear balls I ever saw.
“Fire!” she shouted. “Run.”
None of us knew what to do except trust in those big round fear eyes and follow her. I looked behind me and saw the orange heat. I think that’s what fire is. It was big and fast and chasing us. It swayed and stretched higher than the corn and spat little pieces of orange heat up into the sky, then angrily grabbed them back down again. It whipped and waved and grabbed the corn and grass into its belly which just made it bigger and angrier.
We were fast but the orange heat was faster. I ran and ran. I couldn’t see my family anymore because we were running in black air. It wasn’t just the dark, the dark was our friend, it was the night, the night had come down too quick and it got mixed up with the orange heat. It made my breathing hurt. It’s hard to run with your tail off the floor but the night had attached to my tail and the orange heat was nipping it. I ran faster and faster until I was up on a hill outside of the field. I felt like my eyes were going to pop right out of my face. I stopped to look at where our little nest was but everything was orange. I was about to carry on running when I started to fly. It was like my tail was pulling my up to the sky. I wriggled and shook my body and closed my eyes tight to stop my brains falling out of my ears. Then I felt floor. The orange heat was gone and the world had gotten so small that I couldn’t move.
I think I am outside of the world. I think I flew into a pocket of the mixed up night by accident and I got stuck. If I go to sleep, maybe when the day comes the light stripe will grow and melt the night away and I can find my family. I miss my family. I diddled again and my paws are dipped in it. I feel really hot but I can’t stop shivering. I will try to sleep, if only I could stop shaking.
It’s still dark but I cannot see like I normally can. The light stripe is fading away and I think perhaps the weird darkness has stolen me and I am sinking deeper and deeper into it. The squealing isn’t so loud anymore but my heart has moved from my belly to my ears and I can feel it just as loud as I can hear it beating. If I push my face right up to where the light stripe is fading, I can smell something new. It smells like turnip or cow droppings or both mixed up and made worse by the warmth. It isn’t a good smell but it feels cooler that this dark pocket which smells of diddle and orange night and rotten skin. My paw is still very sore but I can move it so maybe when you’re lost you can’t be broken because you don’t really exist in the world. I wish it would make the pain less though. I want to sleep again but my tongue is stuck to my teeth and I need to hold it inside my mouth to make a little wetness, otherwise it might fall off. Besides, if it hits the floor it might taste diddle and then I might die.
I feel like I am moving but I haven’t even sat up. I might be dreaming. But the light stripe is bright again and I think I can smell the world, the real world.
I felt like I was falling forever but I have landed exactly where I was. It hurt, my bones are shaking and I can hardly stand up. It is still night and I am still almost blind. I bundle myself tight into a ball and cry. I want my Mummy so bad.
Just when I thought I was lost forever, the day came again. I was sucked back out of the mixed up night with my tail, and I seemed to hover in the air upside down for such a long time. I squeezed my eyes shut but when I didn’t move, I opened one of them just a little and saw a giant eye with long wiry eye-lashes blinking at me. It was huge and green with a giant black circle in the middle that grew and grew. I twisted and shook and screamed so hard because I had never seen anything so awful in my life.
I am falling to the ground, like in slow motion. The grass is warm but ever so short and I can’t even hide. My eyes sting and my legs are shaking but I manage to run a little. I have to keep going forward and never stopping for fear of the orange heat and tangled darkness catching me again. Maybe if I can stay in the light long enough Mummy will find me and take me home. I wonder if I have a home.
Sep 1783 It is to my gladness to write this account on the eve of my inevitable return to Wuthering Heights. Many years and too long have passed since my parting and it is, therefore, with haste that I will surmount to obtain what is rightfully my own. Returning to Liverpool was the mere consequence of my own disgrace. I sought retribution from a man who dared to call himself a father. This deplorable man saw fitting, that after the death of my mother he should flog me to slavery within his own trade. My father was an animal, whose sadistic conduct he bestowed upon me, determining my impending misfortunes. Alas, had I been saved from this cruelty by a gentler man, a man with whom was once my own heart, my fortune would have been my worthiness. I write to ease my agitated state upon my eagerness to see my love, my Catherine. It is exhilarating to think that so soon my eyes will set upon her beauty. Insomnia shall keep me roused for the remains of the evening, but I have a candle for each hour and enough recollections to fill the parchment before me. After the death of my mother, my father commanded my immediate departure. A brawny rogue with the darkest skin, darker still than my mother’s had been when she had breath in her body, wrenched me from within her cold dead arms. He was ordered to put me on the first vessel departing from the dock and secure a fair exchange for my labour. My escape was bloody. I braced myself as I was struck repeatedly and was almost lifeless when I grappled myself loose. I ran for all my life worth and hid in a darkened church yard, cowered beneath its long dark demonic shadows In daytime I hid amongst the dead. The air was thick and humid and smelled of rotten flesh and bile that emanated from the cesspits that piled high behind the tall houses. My fear of being captured by one of my father’s slaves, or by that of the night watchmen who guarded the streets, refrained me from daring to find food even by darkness. Many days and nights passed and I remained silent and still beneath my shroud. I scrutinised the stinking streets which were crowded with men. The gentlemen disassociated themselves from the labourers. They stood idly, smoking tobacco and flattering one another with accolades that sickened me to my stomach. My father would have looked quite the protagonist in their midst. It was during this period that my eyes first set upon Mr Earnshaw. His presence struck me immediately. He looked out of his station amongst these highbrows. His attire was as formal as any gentleman, yet outmoded. He possessed a placidness that was out of touch with his gathering. I was unsure if it was not my imagination that caught him looking directly at me, for I hid in the darkest and most wearisome part of the cemetery. I was quite unsure on several occasions if I were awake or in a dream. My body was starved from food and my mind was altered significantly. It was unsurprising how impervious I was when Mr Earshaw lifted me from the gravestone that had become my cradle. He was a bulk of a man who towered over me with a frown on his brow deeper than any scar. He smelled of soap, sweat and tobacco that were neither comforting nor vile. He grunted as he took me in his arms and carried me out of the shadows. He paraded around the church entrance asking those who cared to look, if they knew from whom I belonged. He sought honesty and kindness from those imposters who frequented the church in pursuit of god. Most people hung their head. Mr Earnshaw sensed my fear as I struggled from within his limbs. He whispered reassurance and concealed me within his thick woollen coat. I pressed my fingers deep into the rawest contusion on my arm in order to arouse my consciousness. Mr Earnshaw spoke to me in a muffled well-spoken manor. He questioned the whereabouts of my family and why I was inclined to be hiding in such a sombre location. I tried to reply but my arid throat closed and the words were distorted. He told me that he feared leaving me in my derelict condition and that he must take me to his home. I would be raised as his child for I had no man to call my father, for no father would leave a child to starve on the streets. It was neither trust nor weakness that allowed me to be removed by this stranger. It was merely the comprehension that I was soon to be dead. The pleasure my heart felt at this understanding allowed my first sleep in over seven days. I dreamed blissfully of perishing. I felt the wind rip through my hair and felt not Mr Earshaw carrying me on that torturous journey to Wuthering Heights, but my mother. She was as light as air and she sang to me as we floated together over the moors. When we rested, I was miserably awakened to flesh on my bones and a beating heart. I was given water and dried meat which I greedily devoured. The food was poison and for every morsel I ingested, I felt my mother fade away. My body was so malnourished that the consumption of my meal caused me excruciating pain. I clung to that pain like a trophy, for at once my mother returned to me and we continued our journey. Wuthering Heights was the bleakest and most tragic residence my eyes had ever set upon. Monstrous beasts grew from the stone walls. Thorns grew like ropes tempting the throat of a dejected soul. It was a dark and sinister building, surrounded with the bleakest dankest countryside. There was no shelter and the bitter wind howled and groaned like a maddened spirit. I cowered within Mr Earnshaw’s coat, afraid not of dying within this residence, but of living. Upon entering the house I was at first struck with the searing heat from the colossal fire. Flames flickered threateningly outwards, like arms of the dead trying to reach out to the living. The room was dark and unfavourable. My eyes wandered around this dreadful space. The floor was hard and smooth and as white as dead bones. The furniture looked rigid and large and unwelcoming like church pews. The windows were so small that not a face could fit within to look upon the gloom of the nothingness that crushed this home. I was at once surrounded by pale faced children. There were two girls and a boy. One child appeared ill fitted to the family and I later found her to be ‘Nelly’, the daughter of Mr Earnshaw’s help. She stood quietly behind the other children. The boy, who I leaned to be Hindley, looked cross. His face was twisted and distorted and he looked at me with venomous eyes. He was of my height but his frame was thin and awkward. His face although older, was not of a man but an arrogant child. I felt no threat from him when he clenched his hands tightly into a first by his side. He grunted and growled in my direction. I cared not for him or his pitiable manor. He appeared spoiled and selfish and I instantly abhorred him. It was of no wonder that Mr Earnshaw would look for a more suitable son. I was however drawn to the smaller child with the curious eyes, her name? Catherine Earshaw. Her glorious face fit her glorious name. She has long black silken hair. Her face was alive and wonderful. I had never seen such an elegant little thing. She did not speak to me but prodded me instead. I would have gladly stood and stared at her had it not have been for Mrs Earnshaw. She was a stern woman with the blackest hair framing a ghostly pale complexion. She was thin and wiry and unlike a mother. Her brows turned down as she looked upon me with distaste. She shrieked at her husband. Her revulsion for me was written on her obnoxious face. She started toward me in such a fury that I clung to the leg of Mr Earshaw who scolded her rightly on my behalf. My arrival at Wuthering Heights had caused such a calamity that I thought I might be fortunate enough to be sent back out into the great abyss. It happened that Mr Earnshaw had the final word over my residence in the household. I was given the name Heathcliff, which to this day I respectfully adopt as my own. My prior upbringing was never a topic of question within the family but rather of assumption, that because my skin was not of pasty white that I must be a gypsy. I had no intention of telling them of my father’s wealth and his perverse love for my mother, so I let them assume and remain unaware. Even to this day I have remained silent. Even after all that has gone and all of the bad fortune that has crossed my path. My time will come. The ignorance of my silence had left me ill-informed of the merit that wealth would have upon my life. I had been blissfully unaware of my unworthiness as a suitable mate for my one true love Catherine Earnshaw. Her pride grew as she became a woman yet in her eyes I became a lesser man. Had love alone been enough to fill her heart with mine, I would not be here tonight. Had I pleaded my father when I was a child, when grief filled his heart and hatred for me was his only solace, then perhaps I would have happened upon my Catherine in different circumstances. Perhaps she would have valued me as her suitor if my father had raised me as his rightful heir. When I returned to Liverpool three years past, I had no money in my pocket and my appearance was not desirable. I sought out the man who was once my father but my place of birth was empty. I wandered the streets looking for the fiend who had ruined my life and ended up at the docks were I blended in much sounder than on the streets. I found myself employment loading supplies onto vessels and doing general hard labour. The meagre salary that I earned was enough to rent a tiny room in a basement from a lady lucky enough to be blessed with the name Catherine. She was by trade a lady of pleasure. Her knowledge of the gentlemen in Liverpool led her to ascertain my father’s whereabouts. As payment for her services, I beat upon the scum who mistreated her. My father greeted me as the stranger that I was. I had no intention of frolicking with his humour so I identified myself. His astonishment was inscribed on his haggard face as he recognised the boy within the man. He sensed within me the anger and grief that I had held since a child. As he stood to shake my hand he lifted from his mantle a copper candlestick. His ancient legs betrayed him and he fell to the floor at my feet dropping his weapon by his side. I did not harm a hair on his unsightly head for I saw behind him my mother. I was not alarmed by her presence, but alas their love I understood. For that reason alone I let him live on the provision that he bequeathed me what was rightfully mine. I took it all. Alas it is dusk and I will return to you at once my dear Catherine. I am at last the man to which you deserve. I have wealth of plenty and a love that has deepened and grown. Together Wuthering Heights will be ours. But for now I must conclude my account as I must be on my way.
I sat on the doorstep. My head was filled with a itchy buzz that drowned out the noise from the road fifty yards away. The afternoon was damp and humid and a smell of rotten leaves hung thick. The air licked my skin and my scalp prickled as I sucked life into my lungs, attempting to clear the fog that stifled brain. I had been grinding my teeth ever since I received the phone call at 11am that morning and now my jaw ached. Outside, the doorstep was my reprieve, a place to escape. The mourning. It was the crying; the fear, it was the look of desperation etched on faces; pale, ashen and distorted. Outside I was alone, raw and separated from the solid hugging arms of collective grief and crumpled bodies. Fat blobs of rain began to fall, and I looked up to charcoal clouds scribbled over the sky.
“This,” I thought, “is how the sky ought to look today’.
From behind the rooftops of an adjacent tenement block of flats, a single black helium balloon appeared. I watched it stagger over the sky, bashing into thick air then sucked into jets of cold.For a moment it hesitated.
“Where are you Mum?” I shook my head and watched as the balloon skittered off into the distance. The world above was black and white.
How was I meant to feel today? How are you supposed react when you get a call at 11am on a Sunday morning telling you that your Mum is dead?
I had often tried to imagine how I would feel when this day arrived, especially more so in the last year as I noticed how fragile my mother looked and how tiny she had become. One thing was certain; I had always known my heart would break. What I did not expect was confusion, fear, emptiness and a feeling of no longer being safe. I got up and went back into a house that was no longer home.
Loss. I had experienced it before.
It was a Wednesday afternoon and I was off school. I wasn’t even sure why my Mum had let me have a free day but it was bound to be great. I got to pick my own clothes because Mum had gone out to see Granny in hospital. Before she left, Mum told me to be good and remember to brush my teeth. When I went downstairs to see who was looking after me, loads of aunties and uncles had come to visit. I felt really excited because that usually meant a party. The room was filled with pipe smoke and old lady smell.
“I got a free day off school,” I said, and tried to squeeze in between Uncle Jimmy and Auntie Agnes.
Everyone was looking at me and pulling weird faces. Auntie Phamie was crying. Auntie Isa had a crumpled up face and was looking at the floor. Uncle John coughed and left the room. I was afraid I had done something wrong.
“Your Granny died this morning,” Auntie Isa said, looking up.
I laughed because I didn’t believe her. My Granny was in hospital. Auntie Phamie started wailing so I turned around and stood in the corner.
“Poor Eleanor, not getting there on time,” Uncle Roberts voice came from near the kitchen.
I knew my Mum was called Eleanor, and I wondered if she had missed the bus this morning.
“And Chic, poor man, going home to an empty house,” one of the Aunties said. I wondered who Chic was and if he’d been burgled like the folk on Jackanory yesterday. I nervously picked wood-chip off the wall, and it fell in between my feet and on to the green carpet. I was hungry because no one had made me anything to eat. This didn’t seem like a party to me at all. I was scared to turn around, partly because I could still hear Auntie Phamie sniffing and grunting, and also because there was now a pile of wood-chip on the floor at my feet. I stood and looked at the mess for ages and thought about my Grannie. Why did they say she was dead? I thought this was a nasty lie to tell.
After what felt like hours, I heard the front door open and turned around. Mum walked in with Auntie Nan and Papa and everyone got up and started cuddling, just like at Christmas, except no one was singing. Papa was crying, and I felt like I should be crying as well but didn’t know why. My Mum took ages to come over and see me and when she did she crouched down so her face was close to mine. I wondered if my Mum would like what I had picked to wear.
“Your Granny died this morning,” she said.
I frowned and turned my back on my Mum, then felt warm pee dribble down my leg and into my sock.
The following short story was published by McStorytellers – Pop along to their page and check out some of their other work.
‘Don’t You Read The Papers?’
‘Hiya Jeanie, how was work the day?’ Wullie slouched in the middle of the sofa wrapped up in a double duvet and yesterday’s Herald. The blanket of fag reek that rested above his head scattered when she bent down and kissed him on his jaggy cheek.
‘No the best,’ she replied. She pulled back the curtains and opened the window then walked into the kitchen. ‘I’ll tell ye about it after I put these messages away.’
The kitchen was a shit- tip. It was even worse than the shit-tip she had left at half-five that morning; last night’s dinner dishes sat in a basin of stinking cauld water with fat blobs of gravy and grease floating on the surface; soggy teabags lay piled in a heap at the side of the sink leaving a brown trail running along the grooves of the draining board. The toast crumbs were new though. They gathered in a thick sticky line on the worktop beside an open tub of Stork, a knife stuck in its shiny yellow spread. Jeanie dropped the message bags on the floor then ran her hand through her hair. She took a deep breath, held it, and then slowly puffed her cheeks out in a sigh. She kicked her shoes into the corner of the kitchen and they landed on a pile of dirty bath towels by the washing machine. Teeth clenched, she flicked the button on the kettle.
‘I’m sorry Jean I’m stopping your overtime. From this week until the foreseeable future you’ll only be required to work your contracted hours.’
Jeanie shuffled her bum on the chair and the PVC groaned. Mr Sanderson raised his eyebrows and Jeanie blushed.
‘It was the seat,’ she said.
‘Of course it was,’ his face went red and he frowned.
He looked at his desk and began fidgeting with a pile of application forms. There was a yellow post-it note stuck to the one on top. It read PENDING. He chewed the end of a ballpoint pen and scraped at a patch of angry skin at the side of his nose.
‘As I was saying,’ he continued, rolling dry skin between his fingers, ‘Head office has cut the overtime, the store has overspent on the budget, and I’m left with no choice.’
‘But I’m only contracted eight hours a week, how am I meant tae manage on eight hours, ye ken Wullies no working.’
‘I’m sorry Jean; it’s out of my hands.’
She stared at him, unblinking. Pompous prick, sitting there playing grown-ups in his dads suit. Who is he to call the shots when folk can barely earn enough to eat.
He swivelled his chair around to face the computer behind him.
‘That’ll be all Jean. After your shift today, you won’t be needed until Saturday.’
She stared at the back of his head and gritted her teeth. He picked up the phone. The meeting was over.
Back in the bakery she loaded a tray with part baked white rolls, onion batons, tiger rolls, and pumpkin bread. Twenty-five years she had worked for the Co-op and never had single day of sick. She hoisted the thick heavy metal tray up into the hot oven and slid it into the grooves; she set the timer, then slammed the door shut. Twenty-five years and she had always been the one to get the overtime. The heat whooshed onto her already burning face. He’d regret this, she was the only one who knew how tae work in all the departments in the shop. Seventeen minutes until the rolls baked. She splashed her face with cauld water and leaned over the industrial sink. Him, he’s no been in the door five minutes and he’s up head office’s arse, who does he think he is, swanning aboot the shop like he’s the big man, like he kens it aw.
After the final bake of the day, she cleaned out the oven, clattered the trays in the sink and scrubbed them with a soapy scourer. She washed the worktops and filled out her paperwork so that the Monday staff would have a proper stock count. Then she brushed and mopped the floor and set up a tray for the following morning’s bake. She hung up her apron and clocked out. Passing Mr Sanderson on her way out of the stockroom, she flipped open her phone and glared at the screen.
‘Finishing sharp today are we Jean?’ he asked but she continued walking by without acknowledging him.
‘Pompous little shit,’ she mumbled under her breath.
At the front of the shop, she picked up a metal basket and marched over to the produce section. The aisles were busy and the checkout supervisor was calling all available staff to the checkouts. Available staff, that was a joke, there were no available staff; they were all on the bloody checkouts. The reduced section was rammed packed full; someone would be getting his arse kicked for over-ordering. She picked up some cheap salad, tatties, tomatoes, oranges, and apples then crossed the aisle to the meat section. Score, another full reduced section. The brilliant thing about finishing at three o’clock was that any stock dated for the following day was marked down at half past two. She filled her basket wi mince and pork chops, meatballs and breaded fish cakes, all stuff she knew she could freeze.
‘You could at least leave some for the customers,’ Mr Sanderson had crept up behind her and was staring into her basket. He leant into the fridge and rearranged the remaining meat.
‘It’s cheap Mr Sanderson, and I am a customer. Anyway it’s about aw I can afford seeing as ma hours have been cut.’
‘I’m sure you’re not the only one who is struggling Jean.’
He turned his back and strode away, his keys jangling on the loop of his oversized trousers.
She separated the meat and fish into individual freezer bags, labelled them, and organised them into the little freezer box at the top of the fridge which was empty, apart from four frosty garden peas. At least they wouldn’t starve while this overtime ban was on. They would have to skimp on the heating for a wee while though and Wullie would have to have another go at his e-cigarette but they’d survive – just. At least they had a roof over their heads and food in their bellies, no like some of they wee African bairns that you see on the telly. She put the towels into the washing machine and washed the dishes, put the lid on the Stork margarine and wiped the work-tops. Order restored for now. Pouring two cups of tea, she set the teabags aside to use later.
‘Here’s a fresh cup for you Wullie, have you been over the front door the day?’
Wullie pulled the duvet up to his chin, scattering ash onto the cream carpet.
‘Nah, what’s the point. Did you bring me fags?’
‘We cannae afford them. You can have the rest of ma baccy,’ she pulled a pouch of Amber Leaf from her jacket pocket and put it on the side of the sofa where he sat.
‘I’ll no manage on that,’ he said.
‘You’re gonnae have tae. I’ve just had ma hours cut, nae bloody overtime.’
‘Aw for fuck sake’, Wullie replied and reached for the Amber Leaf.
‘I’ve worked aw the hours that God sends in that place, aw the bloody hours and now I’m only needed on a Saturday and Sunday. It’s because of that bloody bonus system. He’ll be rolling in it if the shop meets target and what do we get? Nothing, no even a bloody thanks for lining his pockets.’
Wullie opened his mouth to speak, but Jeanie hadn’t finished.
‘He must be on thirty grand a year that laddie, probably more in fact. Thirty grand a year and living up yonder in them new houses in Brommieknowe. If it wasnae for you being off work Wullie, I’d tell them where tae shove it. Twenty-five years Wullie, twenty-five years. And…’ she took a deep breath.
‘Hold the bus Jeanie,’ Wullie interrupted. ‘The laddie is only trying tae do his job and I dinnae imagine it’s all that easy. Poor bastard is nearly bauld and he’s only twenty-two. Give him a break eh.’ He sat up straight, lit a cigarette, and took a long drag. ‘Thirty grand isnae exactly rich ken, no under the fucking Tories. He threw the Herald into her lap. ‘Don’t you read the papers Jeanie? The country’s fucked.’
Jeanie sat silently seething. Wullie spent too much time wi his head in the newspapers these days. Ever since that goddamn referendum, all he cares about is the bloody SNP. It’s SNP this and SNP that, bloody Scottish Nose Pickers. She didn’t see what all fuss was about. Before aw that nonsense her and Wullie used to go line dancing up at the Poltonhall Miner’s Club on a Saturday night, he was even good at it and didnae care if she couldnae get her steps right; they would laugh about it over a chippy and a cup of tea when they got home. Now she had tae go wi Brenda Carmichael who was too bloody smart for her own good; she had the full get-up, cowboy hat and boots to match. Brenda didn’t do chippy food though, Brenda did Weight Watcher’s on a Sunday and didnae eat all weekend. Jeanie had kept up wi the dancing though, she enjoyed the music, and it got her out of the house for a wee while. Wullie said there was no point in it anymore. He didnae seem tae care, no about the dancing, no about her, no about anything except the SNP. In fact he didnae care if it she’d have tae spend the next month worrying about topping up the electricity card because his face was stuck in a bloody newspaper all day while she kept things ticking over.
It was a forty-minute uphill walk to Gorebridge. Jeanie wore her white Hi-Techs over a pair of a pair of American tan tights. The trainers felt nice and comfy, they were wide and didn’t make her feet sweat as much as her shoes did. She looked down at her navy pleated skirt that swished from left to right as she walked, quickly to the beat of Billy Ray Cyrus’s Achy Breaky Heart. She played the music at full pelt on her mobile phone to distract from the ache in her varicose veins and the nervous feeling in her belly. Wullie had smiled at her for the first time in ages that morning.
‘Dinnae worry Jeanie, you’re doing the right thing.’
The main road took her up through Nitten and round by the auld miner’s cottages. She dodged in and out of grey recycling tubs that were arranged neatly against the auld brick walls. The tubs spewed the week’s rubbish; empty pizza boxes, crisp bags, Carlsberg cans and cheap red wine bottles. She boaked when she saw a dog licking the inside of a fousty chicken soup tin. Some of the tubs were so full that squashed beer cans had fallen onto the pavement and lay there ignored. Bloody disgrace. She slowed outside of the mining museum and nodded her head to the tall black tower with it’s big motionless red wheel that stood alone, like a dusty ornament, in the heart of the village. Jeanie remembered her dad coming home from the pit in his orange and black overalls and grey bunnet, his soft face blackened from the coal dust, and his eyes, two bright aquamarine gems. She remembered how quickly that soft black face had turned white. She upped her pace again as Any Man of Mine by Shania Twain accompanied her over the main road and up the steep hill. Overgrown fields passed her on the left and a buckled Co-op trolley lay abandoned in some jaggy nettles. Mr Sanderson would have a fit if he knew one of his precious trolleys had been stolen. He might even end up missing his target if he had tae order a new one. Tough titty. Up ahead she could see the high-rise flats of Gorebridge, they stood grey and morbid against the blue sky.
The food bank was in a sad brown looking parish church at the end of a row of shops. The windows of the shops were shuttered and had dark doorways that smelled of piss. It would have been hard to tell if the shops were open except for a group of young lassies piled out of the middle one and passed a can of Monster between them. One of the girls wolf whistled at Jeanie as she walked by. Jeanie turned off her music, put her mobile phone into her handbag and quickly zipped it up. She stared straight ahead, feeling her heart palpitate. There was already a queue outside of the foodbank and it was only ten to twelve. Jeanie hung her head, she didn’t like to stare. The shame. It was the bairns that clung quietly on the arms of their mothers that got her. The silence outside that church was eerie. She walked past the line of faces that looked at the ground and stood at the front. No-one stopped her.
‘I’ll be open in aboot ten minutes everyone, thanks for coming.’
A young man stood in the doorway; he had long brown hair that was scraped back into what looked like a grannie bun, which sat on top of his head. His face was decorated with an assortment of hoops and studs and when he smiled, his eyes smiled too. Jeanie caught a flash of her dad in those shiny blue eyes and she immediately relaxed. He wore a dark green tabard over an orange hoody and a lanyard around his neck that said ‘Volunteer. I’m here to help.’ The name Bennie was written neatly across the bottom in black marker pen.
‘You’ll need tae wait your turn,’ he said. ‘Some of these people have been waiting outside since before I arrived.’
‘I’m not here for food son, I’m here tae volunteer, I was told tae start the day,’ she laughed. ‘Couldnae spend another day in the house wi that man of mine moaning about the state of the country so I thought I’d dae my bit. I’m Jeanie’
‘Aw hiya Jeanie, thank you so much for coming, I’m snowed under the now,’ he held out his hand but Jeanie pulled him into an awkward cuddle.
‘It’s nae bother son,’ she patted him on the back, released him, then followed him intae the church.
It was cooler inside of the church than it was outside. The small frosted glass windows didn’t let in much daylight and the single strip light on the ceiling was left switched off. The little room that Jeanie was ushered into was closed off from the main part of the building by a big silver padlock. It was clean and tidy though. The dark wooden floor was polished and shiny and the air smelled of Dettol. A grey metal dustbin sat in the corner of the room beside a folded up wheelchair. Jeanie saw a large desk with cardboard boxes stacked up against the wall at the back of the room. The walls were decorated with posters; NHS nutritional advice, Trussell Trust posters with smiling volunteers wearing matching tabards, and a Gorebridge Parish Church poster:Here for you Because of Jesus. Jeanie shook her head from side to side then followed Bennie through tae the little back area behind the desk and hid her handbag under a pile of blankets. Bennie gave her a green tabard that he took from a coat hook on the door. She slipped it over her head and smoothed out the creases.
‘Was all this food donated?’ she asked as her eyes moved around the small room, which was filled, floor to ceiling, with boxes and tins and colourful packets.
‘It sure is,’ Bennie replied. ‘It’s not enough though.’
Once the doors were open, it was all go. Lines of people made their way to the front counter as Bennie hurried back and forth with identical parcels, each containing cereal, pasta, tinned meat and fish, tinned vegetables, sugar, UHT milk, a little dessert, and a small bar of chocolate. Each parcel was exchanged for a food voucher.
‘Ye get all sorts comin in here eh?’ she said to Benny, ‘I thought it would aw have been homeless folk and junkies, no folk like you and me, mibbie our Wullie was right after all.’
Benny nodded, ‘Yeah, hard times Jeanie.’ Before long the parcels were running out so Bennie was making them to demand. People had to stand a little longer and the queue was still stretched to outside the church. Jeanie stepped out from behind the counter.
‘And what’s your name?’ she squatted beside a little blonde haired girl who was tugging at her dad’s hand.
‘Wendy,’ she replied, ‘what’s your name?’
‘I’m Jeanie, here’s a wee lolly for you.’ She handed her a little sugar lolly-pop from a jar that she had found behind the counter.
‘Thanks,’ the girl’s father nodded his head to Jeanie.
At half past three, they had a quiet spell where Jeanie had a turn in the back making up parcels. She opened several boxes at once and placed one item from each of the numbered shelves into each box. Once she had four completed boxes, she sealed them shut with sticky tape, stuck a green label on their side and initialled them. She then called Bennie who came through and carried them to the front where he stacked them up behind the counter.
‘That’s nearly four o’clock Jeanie, I’ll be locking up in a minute so just finish that parcel that you’re working on and get yourself ready.’
Bennie handed over the final parcel of the day. He took the voucher, initialled it and put it on top of the large pile already beneath the counter. He walked to the door, wishing the man a good afternoon.
‘Hold on, I forgot tae put the bars of chocolate intae the parcels,’ Jeanie ran out from the back area and up to the man who was exiting the church.
‘Excuse me sir,’ she put her hand on his pale thin arm and felt the muscle tense, ‘I forgot tae put this in your parcel.’