They say I have to be on my feet. Well I’ll tell you what, my feet hurt, and I’ve shifted my weight so many times today it’s stopped giving any kind of relief.
They say I have to be on my feet, and that I have to wear industrial steel-toed black leather boots, and I said those are factory boots, those are for folks who work in the factories with machines so that when something drops on their foot the factory won’t get sued. I said that and they said well we don’t want to get sued if someone steps on your foot. Which happens, they said.
My shoes have got rubber soles and the steel toes they said I needed and I’m probably going to find some orthotics to put in them. They aren’t feminine. Everything about a security uniform was made for men to wear, and just about all of it looks stupid on a woman. Most women I know who do security work just take it like their uniform may as well be pajamas—they know they can’t make it look good so they leave it and don’t bother. I get the temptation, but my face is really feminine, like it’d be hard to drag as anything other than a pudgy 12 year old boy, so most mornings I put on base and concealer and eye shadow and mascara. I don’t do lipstick, though. That’d just be stupid. And I’ve thought about getting the uniform tailored, but it does not seem worth my time.
I can’t wear earrings the same reason I need the steel-toed boots, in case I have to fight someone or have to break up a fight or in case somebody fights me. None of these has ever happened, but I bet it’d make me forget what my feet feel like for a few minutes.
I’ve found this spot on the front counter by where the reception sits, just behind and to the left of the counter, where the counter juts out past the wall by about a foot and a half. I put my elbows there like I’m surveying all the way down the lobby, keeping an eye on everyone waiting for food stamps and all their stuff, but then I put my weight, as much of it as I can, onto my elbows and try to lift up, to take it off my feet. It helps a little, but it pulls me off my feet and onto my toes, so then my toes get worn out and my heels get enough of a rest for the blood to return to them and by the time I stand back upright my heels are too sensitive and it hurts.
While I have my elbows on the counter like that I can look at my phone and read the Japanese text message romance novels, as long as it doesn’t get in the way of me breaking up fights or fighting someone or somebody fighting me. Which it doesn’t, because nobody fights as I’ve seen so far. It’ll probably happen eventually. But right now, this is hands-down the most boring job I have ever done or even heard about in my life and I don’t know anybody who could contradict that. I stand guard in one room in the Department of Social Services building on DeKalb Avenue off the G line in Brooklyn. Even when it gets rowdy, like when someone starts pacing and muttering about the wait louder and louder trying to get some attention, most people would rather sit down when I tell them to than leave and wait in line again tomorrow. I’m not allowed to stand in the back of the lobby where I can see the television, but that’s why I’ve got the Japanese text message romance novels.
When I filled out the application for this job, they asked me if I knew what the DSS office was for. I think they can’t ask anyone applying if they’ve ever had food stamps, because that’s probably a labor rights violation, so this must be their tricky way of figuring out if the person in front of them is going to over-sympathize with the customers. I don’t like questions that beat around the bush, so I told them I’d never been on food stamps before. The woman who interviewed me didn’t ask me to clarify whether I knew about their office. I figured that proved my point.
I should have been on food stamps when I was a kid, but my father was a businessman and had too much pride to walk into the Brooklyn DSS and ask for them. We talked about food all the time in my house. How much we had and how much each of us could eat and when we’d get more. We made it last and we each got some each day, but every one of us agreed we could have had more and been happy about it. There were those mornings when we got to school early and smelled the oatmeal from the cafeteria where the kids on food stamps ate breakfast, and that was going to be a bad day. We even heard my mother asking my dad to go to the DSS office to apply, but he wouldn’t and he said he never would. She couldn’t apply herself without proof of his income and he wouldn’t give it to her, so that basically held us all hostage to his idea that we were above any government assistance. It made me hate my father, and it made my older brothers just like him. It made my sister stupid because she went out and found a man just like him. It made my younger brother so fat the doctor says he’s past fat, he’s obese. He knows he’s got to stop but man, he’s too scared to ever let food out of his thick hands.
I started this job at the food stamps office a year and a half ago. When I’d been working here six months, my father died. I felt a lot about that. I got crazy some days, sometimes I felt pissed off at the customers or jealous in retrospect, or some days bitter and sad, but then I found the Japanese text message romance novels and that helped pass the time and ease my mind. Then I read in a travel magazine that some Asian peoples from Nepal shave their heads every year on the anniversary of their father’s death and so I did it, just took my husband’s electric razor and shaved my head when my father died. I don’t think I’ll do it next year.
I was still full of anger about my father when he died, about the food and about lots of other stuff that happened while I was growing up, but the food constituted the major offense. We were hungry. My older brothers are stupid and prideful just like him now, and Terrence is going to need disability soon for his obesity or maybe even a shrink and that would put my mother in her grave.
One day after my dad died I got in a fight with my sister about whether or not it was fair, how we didn’t get enough food when we were kids. She still sucks up to him even though he’s dead. Well we got in a fight about him and I said that’s enough, and I went into his desk and got all his papers about money and income and proof of this and that. I looked at those papers until my eyes went crossed, and then a week more, and I used all my eavesdropping at the food stamps office to determine his eligibility like they say. I added all of it in. I used his income from when we were kids and the eligibility requirements from the same years and I was going to prove that he’d stiffed us on proper nutrients. I thought maybe I’d even get really serious about it and figure out how much money per month Terrence spent on food now and whether we were all shorter than we should have been if we’d gotten all our vitamins. I tell you I took a deep, deep look at those financials.
My father’s business was a convenience store, it sold chips and candy and lottery tickets and sex pills for men and calling cards to anywhere in the world. He said that if he ever had to close his store none of us would ever eat again, so we all shut up when he used family money for store rent and moved us to a tiny shitty apartment to keep the shop going. He had loans from banks and sharks. He owed so much money on that store that it wasn’t even an asset.
When I finished with his papers I calculated whether we could have eaten better when we were kids. There were five of us plus my mother and him, and adults count if you’ve got kids so we were a family of seven until my brothers started turning 21. I was ready to shove those papers back in my sister’s face so she could see what he stole from us—the chance to eat better!—but that is not how it turned out. My family did not meet the eligibility rules.
We couldn’t have gotten on food stamps if he’d let us. I was too surprised at first but then I started picturing this movie, all bit-by-bit at first and then like a full movie I could watch with my eyes wide open, of my father leaving work one day to apply for us for food stamps. He could’ve left and applied and after they denied him for eligibility he could have thought well I’ll just tell them we don’t need that. He could have hid the denial letter from the mail and talked about a man’s pride until we stopped asking. This is something I’ll never know because he was too proud at least to tell us.
When my feet hurt, which is basically all of the time, I think about how people must hurt sitting in those sick plastic chairs while they’re waiting in the lobby, watching television and wondering if they’re poor enough to get benefits. They come in to report a new job they got on the 17th and I tell them to come back next month, get themselves an extra month of food before it gets cut. They work the factory jobs that have high hours around the holidays and low hours the rest of the time, I tell them they better apply before work picks up, either that or wait until February. They ask for a job application and I tell them the name of my contracting agency, and I tell them to say they don’t know one damn thing about this DSS building.
(This story was first published in Issue 11.)
MARGARET REDMOND WHITEHEAD received her MA in Literary Reportage from NYU and was a Banff Centre for Arts & Creativity Literary Journalism Fellow in 2017. Her work has appeared in publications including Good Housekeeping, Reason Magazine, and Narratively. You can follow her on Twitter @margredwhite
As the fast train passed through the station a dead bird landed at Ben’s feet. It happened so suddenly that it took him a moment to realise what had happened. The way it appeared was like the finale to a magic trick, but then he figured that the train must have hit it. The bored faces of the passengers looked out, oblivious to the collision they had just had.
When the last carriage disappeared, a gust of wind whipped up in its wake, causing the collar of Ben’s coat to flap up into his face, and the dead birds feathers to rustle gently. He walked a little way along the platform to get away from it.
He had a heavy rucksack that he carried over one shoulder, heavy exclusively because of the parcel he was delivering to his brother, Matthew. The strap dug into his collar bone. Matthew had called him earlier in the week from a payphone because he didn’t have a telephone in the new cottage yet and the mobile reception in the village was unreliable.
‘I’m having a small anvil delivered to you,’ Matthew had said. ‘I’m worried the post service won’t be able to get it here.’
Ben had said that was fine, even though he didn’t think it was. Everyone was careful about what they said to Matthew these days. You could hear the spaces left by the things that went unsaid.
Their mother referred to it as ‘his episode’, as though it were an episode of a sitcom where the end loops back to the beginning so that everyone can carry on as though nothing had happened. If anyone alluded to it she would change the subject, and if Matthew tried to bring it up she would tell him, we don’t have to talk about that until we’re ready, in a way that suggested that no one was quite ready just yet.
When the train arrived, Ben climbed on and collapsed into a seat, the rucksack landing heavily on the floor. As the train pulled away, a man rushed down the stairs, first seeing that he had missed the train, and then looking down as he noticed the little dead bird.
Matthew filled a copper kettle, put it on the gas hob and Ben handed him the parcel. The anvil was packaged in an enormous strip of bubble wrap, which he unravelled until it dropped into his hand. It was tiny, like a novelty version of the real thing.
‘It’s smaller than I expected,’ he said, turning it around in his hands.
He had taken up leather working ever since leaving his job. For twenty years he had worked at the same company, slowly working his way out of jobs he had enjoyed and up the hierarchy into ones he didn’t, until stress, combined with the gradual dissolution of his marriage, precipitated a breakdown. Now he makes bridles for local horse owners, and belts that he sells at craft markets.
‘What’s it for?’ Ben said.
‘Riveting,’ Matthew said.
The cottage was small. On the outside it looked idyllic’ but inside the ceilings were low and all of his stuff made the rooms feel huddled and crowded. Ben recognised some of the clutter from his old house. His collection of management technique and self-help books were lined up on the fireplace and the old banjo he had never learned to play was in the corner. But most of it was made up of his new leather working supplies. There were hides draped over the backs of chairs, still in roughly the shape of the animal they came from, and tools that Ben couldn’t identify lying around. The place smelled like a damp shoe shop.
Matthew showed Ben what he would be using the anvil for, and where he had damaged the kitchen table by not having one. He showed him a barbaric looking tool that was used for cutting the leather. Matthew found a small scrap and watched Ben struggle to cut it before telling him that the tool was an antique, more a collector’s item than something he actually used.
‘I’m no good with that thing either,’ he said, getting another, more modern, tool and with a single scything motion cut out a strip of leather.
When the kettle started to whistle it had taken so long to boil they had forgotten they were waiting for it.
They sat side by side in the living room with coffees and some plain biscuits that Matthew had laid out on a plate.
‘Sorry about the biscuits,’ he said. ‘The shop only has a small selection.’
Ben dipped one into his coffee. ‘You’re looking well,’ he said.
Matthew smiled and sipped his drink.
The difference in him was remarkable. He had lost weight, cut his hair short, grown a beard that emphasised his recovered jawline. But it was more than just his physical appearance. He seemed relaxed. He was wearing a thick jumper and a pair of old corduroys, and sat low in the chair, one leg crossed loosely over the other. When he spoke, his voice was soft and unhurried and the edges of his mouth seemed they were always leaning toward a smile. He was like a different person.
‘And how have you been keeping?’ he said. There was an emphasis on the word you.
‘Okay,’ Ben said. ‘Alison’s doing well. How are things with Jeanette?’
Jeanette was Matthew’s ex-wife and Ben had never got on with her particularly well. For the first month of their relationship Ben had thought her name was Janet, and no one had known how to correct him. They had never worked out how to talk to each other after that.
‘We’re keeping it civil,’ he said. ‘But Katie has been struggling a little to adapt.’
‘Well,’ Ben said, ‘she’s only eleven.’
‘Katie came to stay a couple of weeks ago, but the second bedroom isn’t ready yet so she took my room and I slept on this.’ Matthew patted the sofa which was clearly much too small for him to sleep on. ‘I think she enjoyed herself.’
Matthew showed Ben around the rest of the cottage, but there wasn’t much to see. The stairs were narrow, his bedroom had a double that took up most of the space and the second bedroom was completely empty.
‘I need to paint before I put any furniture in,’ Matthew said. There were little patches of damp and black mould around the windows. ‘I should be able to get a single bed and a little wardrobe in.’
Ben looked at the tiny bedroom, trying to figure out how exactly.
‘Yeah,’ he said, ‘should be fine.’
It was dark by the time Ben got home and when he walked through the front door Alison was at the oven wearing an enormous dressing gown. The kitchen light was off but she had moved one of the bedside lamps down and stood it on the worktop next to her.
She turned and smiled at him.
‘Bulb’s gone,’ she said.
The ambience the bedside lamp gave the kitchen was mellow and welcoming. Ben walked into the kitchen and hugged her from behind, wrapping his arms around the mound of dressing gown.
‘You okay?’ he said.
‘I’m fine,’ she said.
After Ben and Alison got married, people at his work started to ask why she wasn’t pregnant yet. He thought the question was intrusive but never told them so. He just said that he didn’t know why, and he didn’t. After a while they made an appointment with a doctor who asked them a lot of questions and then ran some tests, and the following week when they were invited back to hear the results the doctor told them that they had options.
Ben had looked down at the speckled blue floor tiles, instantly exhausted because when doctors said ‘options’ what they meant were ‘problems’.
‘Sure you’re okay?’ he said.
‘I’m fine,’ Alison said again, and smiled over her shoulder at him to demonstrate. ‘How was Matthew?’
‘I think he’s gone insane,’ he said.
Ben took off his coat and emptied his rucksack.
‘What’s that?’ she said, gesturing at what he had in his hand.
‘Belt,’ he said. ‘My brother gave it to me.’
‘Did he make it?’
‘Do you want some scrambled eggs?’
‘Can I look at it?’
Ben handed her the belt.
The belt was pleasingly heavy, and Matthew had embossed a pattern into it. It hadn’t taken him long to develop an affinity for his new craft, though Ben didn’t expect he would ever wear it.
‘It’s nice,’ Alison said, handing it back.
She started preparing some eggs for Ben.
‘I know he did well out of selling shares, but how much do you suppose he can make doing this? I don’t know how much the cottage costs, but I assume he has to give money to Jeanette.’
Ben fumbled about in the drawer to find a teaspoon, which was harder with only the lamp light.
‘But did he seem happy?’ Alison said.
‘Yeah,’ he said, ‘but what’s he going to do at Christmas? Has he even thought about that?’
Ben put the kettle on, satisfied at how fast it boiled.
‘It sounds like he’s doing okay.’
He nodded. ‘You wouldn’t recognise him.’
After Matthew’s episode a lot changed. He quit his job, then he and Jeanette separated on a trial basis that quickly became permanent. He moved back in with their parents, into his old bedroom which had been redecorated into a bland guest bedroom with anonymous furniture and magnolia walls. He was quiet for a long time and watched television late into the night when he was struggling to sleep. During the day he helped with the housework and in the evenings he spent time on Skype talking to Katie and helping her with her homework.
He stopped drinking. Then he stopped smoking. Then he started doing yoga at the local sports centre.
Ben had stopped in to visit one Saturday morning and he got there just as Matthew was arriving back from somewhere. He had been wearing grey jogging bottoms which, for reasons Ben couldn’t explain, slightly appalled him.
‘Where have you been?’ Ben said.
‘Group,’ Matthew said.
Ben nodded but didn’t say anything. They stood there watching cars go past until their mother came and told them the front garden was no place for standing and made them come inside.
‘I’m going to be moving out soon,’ Matthew told Ben as their mother set a teapot down on the table. ‘I’ve found a cottage.’
‘That’s one option,’ their mother said.
Matthew leaned in to Ben once their mother had returned to the kitchen. ‘It’s good,’ he said, ‘I can’t wait to show it to you.’
Ben went back to visit again the following weekend and helped paint the spare bedroom. Ben painted the walls, Matthew painted the ceiling. They laid a bed sheet on the floor to protect the carpet and got in each other’s way constantly.
‘I let Katie choose the colour,’ Matthew said.
It was a dark olive green, too dark for the size of the room.
Ben was cautious with the paint at first, carefully loading the roller before applying it to the wall. When Matthew asked if he had done this before Ben said that of course he had, even though he hadn’t. The smell of the paint was overwhelming and after a while they had to open the window.
‘I’ll help you do this one day,’ Matthew said, ‘when you have children.’
Ben stepped around Matthew and put some more paint on the roller. Matthew was applying the white paint to the ceiling in broad strokes and sometimes, when he got too close, little smudges of white got on the walls, spoiling the olive green. Ben thought about saying something, but Matthew didn’t seem bothered about it.
‘You know,’ he said, ‘Alison and I probably aren’t going to have children.’
Then he paused, thought about what he had said and rephrased it.
‘Alison and I aren’t going to have children.’
Matthew put his roller down and picked up his drink. Standing by the window, with the sunlight coming in, Ben could see little flecks of grey in his beard that he hadn’t noticed before.
‘My therapist told me something,’ Matthew said. ‘I didn’t understand it at first, but we talked about it in group and it started to make sense.’
He said the words therapist and group like they were no big deal. Like he had made his peace with them a long time ago.
‘No one ever blamed a stone for lying on the ground. It’s about nature, I think. How important it is to accept it.’
‘Can I ask you a question?’ Ben said.
Matthew turned and leant against the wall. Ben tried to warn him, but before he could he was resting against a patch of fresh paint. He unpeeled himself from the wall, a long olive stripe down one sleeve of his jumper, and they both started laughing.
Ben put the kettle on the hob and Matthew changed out of his jumper. Then they sat on the little sofa and waited for it to boil.
‘The truth is, nothing happened,’ Matthew said. ‘It wasn’t like that. I was driving to work one day and I was stressed about something that was going on that day, and I was stressed about something that had happened at home. It’s like something broke in me. I pulled over onto the side of the road, turned off the engine and I just sat there.’
Ben looked out of the living room window, at the way the trunk of a tree warped in the thick glass.
‘I sat there on the side of the road for nearly five hours. The cars were going past me and my mobile kept buzzing in my pocket, but I just ignored it. I wasn’t thinking about anything. Then a policeman knocked on the window and asked me if I needed any help and I started crying and I couldn’t stop.’
Ben turned to look at Matthew. He was expecting to see tears welling but his eyes were dry.
‘Thanks for telling me,’ Ben said.
‘Can I ask you one more question?’
Matthew laughed gently. ‘Someone said I should try it, so I did.’
‘You really enjoy it?’
‘I like the way I feel when I am doing it.’
‘Happy?’ Ben said.
Matthew shook his head.
When Ben got home, the bedside lamp was on in the kitchen again and he realised what that meant. For seven days in a row he had forgotten to buy a bulb. He found Alison in the living room, curled on the sofa and watching television. The sound was down low and she looked as though she were only just awake.
‘Hey,’ he said softly.
He sat down next to her and she shifted so that her head was in his lap.
‘How was your brother?’ she said.
‘Good actually,’ he said. Then he told her about painting the spare bedroom, about how Matthew got paint on his jumper, about the small details of his brother’s emotional collapse, and when he was done they sat quietly.
‘How are you doing?’ Ben said, but she didn’t reply. He leaned forward and saw that she was asleep, her eyes softly closed, her breathing slow and gentle.
He watched the clock tick away sixty seconds, trying to feel the weight of the time as it passed. Then he tried to extrapolate that up to five hours, but he found he couldn’t imagine what that would be like. Ben turned off the television with the remote and continued stroking her hair even though he knew that she couldn’t feel him doing it. The clock was barely lit by the lamp light from the kitchen and he tried to think of nothing as it continued to tick away.
(This story was first published in Issue 11.)
TOBY WALLIS lives in Suffolk, UK. His work has previously appeared in Glimmer Train, The Dime Show Review and Typishly. He was awarded first place in Glimmer Train's New Writers award, and has been short-listed for The Bridport Prize. He is on Twitter as @tobyshmoby and keeps a website at tobywallis.net
I was in the backyard with my son, Patrick, drop-kicking his favorite ball over and over again. Patrick had named the ball Big Red to distinguish it from his other ball, Small Red. Each time I kicked Big Red, he cheered, and before it even hit the ground, he shouted, ‘Kick it higher! Kick it higher!’
Our backyard was narrow and circumscribed by tall trees. The tallest of the trees was an inward-leaning pine, a Douglas fir that had been planted by our home’s former owner, Larry, when he first moved in with his family back in the winter of ’82. The tree had been his family’s Christmas tree that year, and after the holidays, he had planted it in the backyard to commemorate his first Christmas at the house. He told me this story about a month after we had moved in. He and his wife dropped by to introduce themselves and tell us where all the leaks were.
Larry claimed the tree was eighty feet tall, and I believed him. The tree looked every bit of eighty feet. I could estimate how high I kicked Big Red by how close it got to the top of Larry’s Pine. That’s what Patrick and I called it—Larry’s Pine. If I hit Big Red right in the sweet spot and popped it straight up, I could launch it fifty or sixty feet, but I rarely got it any higher than that.
After about ten minutes of kicking Big Red, I started to get tired, but I kept going because I saw Patrick was still enjoying it, and I knew I was giving my wife some desperately needed downtime. I also have to admit I was deriving some pleasure from the activity myself. It had been a rough Friday at work. My boss, Mr Baumgartner, had called me into his office to tell me my numbers were down. He said I better start working the phones harder if I expected to last at his company. I was working my ass off, but it was no use telling him that. He was one of those self-important sixty-something men with a neatly trimmed mustache, a class ring, and a country club membership, the sort of guy who loved the sound of his own voice and never asked for your opinion. Each time I walloped Big Red I pretended I was walloping his wide, white behind.
‘Kick it higher!’ Patrick yelped. ‘Kick it higher than Larry’s Pine!’
At first, I thought he was speaking hyperbolically. Then I thought, ‘He’s four. He doesn’t understand hyperbole. He actually wants me to kick it higher than Larry’s Pine. He actually thinks I can kick it higher than Larry’s Pine.’ That my son thought I was capable of such a feat wasn’t entirely shocking. I think a lot of little boys believe their dads are superhuman. I know I did. When I was four, I thought my dad—five foot six of him—was Herculean, a God among men capable of hurling cars across parking lots and wrestling wild bears into submission. It came as a crushing disappointment a couple years later when I saw that he couldn’t even move an armchair from the den to the living room without my mother’s help.
I didn’t want to disappoint my son like that—not yet anyway. I wanted to preserve his belief, at least for a little while longer, that I did possess extraordinary powers. There would be plenty of time later on for him to discover my limitations, to realize that I wasn’t a superhero but an ordinary guy who sold auto insurance and answered to a pompous old fart who probably had erectile dysfunction. So I decided right then and there that I was going to kick Big Red higher than Larry’s Pine. I knew I could do it, too. I just had to throw my whole body into the kick. I had to hit that damn ball with everything I had—all of my energy and anger and frustration. Mr Baumgartner, kiss your ass goodbye.
To psyche myself up, I pictured Baumgartner’s face, his cold black eyes and his saggy bulldog jowls. I imagined him chewing me out and smirking at me as he did it, relishing my misery, delighting in my humiliation. ‘Twenty-two new policies a month isn’t going to cut it here, Andy. I don’t know what kind of Podunk agency you used to work for, but here you have to hit your quotas or you’re out. If you don’t think you can do that, pack your bags now.’
The muscles in my arms and legs twitched. My heart revved. My cheeks filled with heat. I was ready for action, ready to whack Big Red into the stratosphere. I tossed the ball, reared back, and sliced up with my leg. There was a crisp smack, and Big Red blasted skyward. It went up, up, up. Forty feet, fifty feet, sixty feet, seventy feet. It was going so fast I thought it might just keep going, it might rise into the clouds and disappear like a helium balloon. But it stopped abruptly about ten feet above the top of Larry’s Pine. Patrick shrieked with joy. ‘You did it, Daddy! You did it!’
I felt a wash of relief, a great loosening of everything knotted inside of me. My problems—my depressing job, my nasty boss, and my unhappy wife—all of it seemed minor now. All that mattered was that I had just done the impossible. I had just punted a ball ninety feet in the air. My boy would always remember this. He would always remember how I hadn’t let him down.
Big Red didn’t drop straight down as it had on all my previous kicks. Instead, it took a funny turn to the right. There was no wind, so I can only explain the sudden turn as an act of God, a deliberate redirection from a divine hand. I had dared to exceed my human limitations, to achieve the unachievable, and now God was going to punish me for my presumptuousness, my arrogant overreach, by complicating matters. Big Red continued to veer, wobbled a little, and snagged in the branches of a maple about thirty-five feet up.
As soon as Patrick realized Big Red was stuck, he started bawling. His face went all blotchy, and tears cascaded down his cheeks.
‘It’s okay,’ I said, hugging him around the shoulders, steadying his shuddering body. ‘I’ll get it down.’
I searched the yard for some object to throw at the ball, something to dislodge it from its aerie in the maple branches. My gaze locked on a stick about the length and width of a ruler.
‘Here we go,’ I said, picking up the stick. ‘I’ll knock it down with this.’
Patrick’s sobbing subsided. He eyed the stick doubtfully.
I drew the stick back and boomeranged it at Big Red. It whammed a tree limb about a yard away from the ball and cracked in half. Patrick’s tantrum resumed at full intensity.
‘Wait a minute,’ I said. ‘Maybe a rock.’
I hustled over to the rock pile by the wheelbarrow, found a softball-sized chunk of limestone, and hustled back to the center of the yard.
‘This ought to do it,’ I said.
Patrick quieted down, folded his hands together, and directed his eyes up at Big Red. I wound up and pitched the rock. It hit the ball dead center but bounced off and thudded against the ground about ten feet from where Patrick and I were standing.
‘Damn,’ I said. ‘That thing is wedged in there.’
Patrick exploded again.
‘Settle down,’ I said. ‘I’ll climb up there and get it.’ I said it to shut him up. I said it out of desperation. I didn’t stop to consider whether or not I could do it. I didn’t examine the layout of the branches to determine if such a climb was even feasible. But I could tell by the way Patrick’s tears immediately ceased and his glistening eyes flickered with hope that I was locked in. I was going to have to climb the tree and get Big Red down.
Well, I thought, if I can kick the ball ninety feet in the air, I can certainly climb up thirty-five feet and yank it down from a tree. Hadn’t I just proved that anything was possible? I hadn’t climbed a tree since I was a kid, but I didn’t think it was beyond me. I was in decent shape. I wasn’t overweight. I could still bench two hundred pounds and jog a mile without huffing and puffing. There was no reason I couldn’t claw my way up there and get Big Red.
I walked to the base of the tree and stared up at the trunk. The first graspable branch that looked like it could support my weight was about eight feet up. I leapt and attempted to grab it but only got a finger on it. Undeterred, I took a dozen steps back, ran at the tree, and catapulted myself off the trunk. This time I got both hands around the branch. For a few seconds, I just hung there like a drugged monkey, amazed that I was really doing this. Then, pushing off the trunk with my feet, I pulled myself up. Patrick clapped and skipped around the base of the tree.
Straddling the branch, I glanced up to plan my next move. The rest of the branches were more closely spaced, so I didn’t think I’d have that hard a time getting to the ball. I just had to make sure I didn’t put my foot on a branch that couldn’t hold me. I reached for the next branch directly overhead and pulled myself to my feet. From there, climbing the tree was just like climbing a ladder. Up I went, one limb at a time, and in a couple minutes, I was eye-level with Big Red. I made a fist with my right hand and punched the ball free of the tree’s clutches. Big Red sailed to the earth, bounced twice, and rolled over to Patrick who picked it up and whirled it around ecstatically.
My mission accomplished, I began the descent. Holding the trunk with my left hand, I lowered a foot to the branch just below me. As I lowered my other foot, the tree’s bark came off in my hand, and I fell backward. It happened so fast I didn’t even have time to panic. I saw the tree spiraling above me. Branches thumped my back, leaves whipped my face, and then I was on the ground staring at the sky.
I couldn’t move at all, which scared me, but I couldn’t feel any pain either, which I supposed was a blessing. I wasn’t sure if I could talk, so I gave it a try. ‘Patrick,’ I said. ‘Patrick, come here.’ I was surprised by the calmness and steadiness of my voice. I didn’t sound like a gravely injured man. Perhaps I wasn’t gravely injured. Perhaps I was just in shock.
Patrick came into view, hovering over me with Big Red in his hands and a spooked look on his face. ‘Daddy, are you going to die?’
‘No,’ I said. ‘Daddy’s not going to die. But I need you to run inside and get Mommy right now. Tell her Daddy’s hurt. Tell her to call 911.’
Patrick dropped Big Red and took off in the direction of the house. The ball came to rest against my ear. The moment I was able to move again, I promised myself, I was going to pop it.
(This story was first published in Issue 11.)
‘Who was that on the phone?’ Jenny says. Her cheekbones reprove Farley. They always do; he comes from a lower order of men.
He settles himself before the bowl. He’s devoted days to freeing it from the carapace of soil, the crusts and corrosion, and it shimmers like a mirage on the prosaic scrubbed pine kitchen table. Farley rotates it lovingly. The hunters pursue a leaping stag through a forest, its antlers tangling in the branches as it flees the spears and hounds.
‘Well?’ Jenny says.
‘Mason,’ Farley says. ‘Wanted to know if I’m going to the farm tomorrow.’
She sets the table around him with restrained violence, as though barely able to resist stabbing his resting forearm with a fork. She’s weathered the years well. Her dark blonde hair still sways over her collarbones and her skin is soft. Farley hasn’t held up his end of the bargain. Diminishing hair is the least of it. But he’s older, entitled to have gone to seed. Which he has.
He should have reported finding the bowl. You have to report what you find to the authorities, Jenny keeps nagging, sell it to a museum and share the money between the finder and the landowner. As if he doesn’t know this. But Farley can’t betray the hunters, the pact he made when he delivered them from a thousand entombed years. His hands relive the weight of the vessel as he coaxed the reluctant land to release its grip. Gold and silver as heavy as stone, corrugated and moss-black from burial.
The bowl astonishes him, like a new planet.
‘Supper’s coming up,’ Jenny warns. She lofts a serving spoon.
The figures ripple against his palms. He snaps his hands away and stares. The men, motionless now in the metal, had moved beneath them. Though how could they? Farley pincers the rim between thumb and finger, counts the circling hunters. Five, six, seven. Eight. Is he back at the beginning? Eight or nine? He rubs his jaw, tries again. Eight, he ventures, though it’s hard to tell. Sometimes the tallest leads the pack, sometimes not. He’s convinced they shift about on the far side of the bowl as it revolves. Or maybe he loses track of which man he counted first, tricked by the turning. He’s afraid this is all it is, a trick. Afraid the hidden movement in his palms is not the hunters running but merely the deception of his flickering pulse.
‘You’re not out there again tomorrow?’
He glances at Jenny, startled. He’d forgotten she was there. His gaze slides to where the coats hang beside the kitchen door, to where his metal detector reclines against the wall, partly covered. He hasn’t touched it since he dug up the bowl, shoulders braced against an assault of pewter rain rattling across the crouching hills and down the field into his face. The drenched sheep ignoring him.
‘No,’ he says.
Jenny is no doubt angling for a few hours when she can pretend she’s going to help with the flowers at the church and instead slink off to Mason’s bed. While Mason’s wife was alive, Farley and Jenny had attended parties at the farm. Coloured paper lanterns, half the village there sometimes, local musicians, catered buffets. After the car accident and Susan’s death, Jenny developed the habit of stopping by at Mason’s with her own home-made offerings. (She’s a fine cook, her Lancashire hotpot a glory.) Apparently it was a small step from baking cakes to sandwiching herself between Mason’s sheets. She seems indifferent to whether Farley is aware or not. He might resent it more if he didn’t reiterate to himself, often, that her disappointment is an understandable response to finding herself mired alongside him in his dull trudge from birth to death. By degrees, he’s lowered himself into the icy knowledge that she married him only because she gave up waiting for someone more exciting. For Mason.
Farley edges through his life in near-silence. It’s a refuge to him but a burden to Jenny. This realization has crept into him like rain seeping into peat. It pools in his soul, as cold and dark as bog water.
‘Have you told him about it yet? It’s half his.’
‘We need the money,’ Jenny says.
She reminds him of a dog closing in on a marrow bone. He studies his plate, now scraped empty. He suspects she’ll bare her teeth if he catches her eye. Perhaps bite him.
‘We do all right,’ he says, knowing all right isn’t enough for her. It isn’t enough for him either, but there’s no way out.
She runs water in the sink. Her back is as stubborn as his silence.
Farley wonders whether she’s read the thought flitting like a bat through his mind: that he won’t inform Mason. His mistake was hurrying home in the blustery evening with the bowl blazing in his backpack, his boots thudding on the slippery leaf litter in the lane. He shouldn’t have shown it to Jenny. She will, eventually, go behind his back to Mason. He should have protected it. The bowl, the euphoria of releasing the hunters from their never-ending sleep under sheep-nibbled turf, is the only proof he’s ever received that his life matters.
Separation from the bowl will break him.
A narrow man of no particular height with sloping shoulders and an incipient paunch, Farley has overheard people say he resembles a rodent. He files such words away in one of the small boxes in his mind and leaves them there. He’s not bothered by his long-nosed face, its bland contortions before him as he shaves, its crooked smile in the wedding photos. On the infrequent occasions when he inspects his countenance more thoughtfully, pausing in his shaving instead of whipping through it, he searches for glimpses of Anglo-Saxon or Norman blood in its planes and lines. Or Danish, being from the North himself.
In the early days, Farley privately questioned how he’d managed to entice Jenny to marry him. She found it convenient, perhaps. He was a library assistant when they met. A great reader, though not a great talker even then. He was fond of camping holidays in Wales, but after the first trip they endured as a couple (dripping nights under chilly fabric, stray lambs bleating for their mothers, laughter or more embarrassing noises carrying from every other tent) she declined to repeat the experience. Not too hopefully, he sought to interest her in castles instead. She made an effort and so did he, sifting his memory for engaging historical snippets to impart. He did his best to quell the rising clot of fear that he bored her; castles certainly did. Empty rooms and ruined stone, she said apologetically, once you’ve seen one and so on. After that he retreated. Never even suggested his other love, museums. At least at the library his silence made him an asset.
They have nothing in common, but they arrived at this understanding too late.
When they married, Jenny relinquished her share of the chores on the family smallholding (early morning milking of a small dairy herd, raking out of chicken guano) and took a job at the Citizens Advice office. She baked and entered cakes in the village fair. They frequently won. Her Victoria sponge, luscious with clotted cream and home-made apricot jam, was almost enough on its own to justify Farley remaining married. Throw in the hotpot and it’s a deal, he’d joke, but only to himself. In any case, he was dogged in clinging to his marriage, shrinking from acknowledging the probability that Mason was tupping his wife.
The first frisson of marital doom emerged when he arrived home on a Tuesday evening and Jenny told him about Susan’s death. She was crying and he wanted to hold her, but she stiff-armed her way out of his hug. He assumed she was inconsolable, though she and Susan weren’t close. It flummoxed him until he understood that the emotion burning in her wasn’t grief. It was anger. Anger that she had surrendered and married Farley instead of holding out for Mason. He sealed this nugget in another of his boxes, before a tide of bile could flood his throat and drown him.
He refuses to stand down, but he no longer touches Jenny. He doesn’t know how he’d take it if she recoiled in bed as she did from the comfort of his hug, repelled from him by her desire for Mason’s hand. He lies awake in their moonlit bedroom, straitjacketed by loneliness, carefully preserving a six-inch strip of unwrinkled sheet between them, the no man’s land that separates him from his wife.
Farley had achieved a degree in biology and he thought he was on his way. Teaching appealed to him and a private girls’ school hired him. He had a friend or two at the time, others he’d met in teacher training, and they were agog, envious of his luck, lamenting their own troubled placements at out-of-control comprehensives.
But the posh girls mocked his Northern accent. Geraniums were part of the term’s lessons on reproduction. Pots of them lined the windows. The girls renamed him, not calling him Mr Moore but Geranium, the way he pronounced it. Ger-ehhh-nium, they brayed from the biology lab’s scarred and Bunsen-burnt benches, when they didn’t lock him out altogether. The few girls that refrained from joining in the taunting contemplated him with mute pity, daring him to report the rabble, but he didn’t. Not then. Not until, in a muck sweat of mortification, he showed a card made by the ringleaders to the head teacher. She loomed over him, a stern caryatid in size nine pointy shoes. It wasn’t so much the suggestive pansies stolen from the school flower beds and glued to the card’s front that put him over the edge as the handwritten ‘FUCK OFF, GER-A-NIUM’ in green biro inside.
He resigned at the end of the term. That was when he started at the library. He’d never been much of a one for history, but in England, you can’t turn around without stubbing your toe on a Roman mosaic or blundering upon an Iron Age fort. As silence conditioned him, the past thrust itself into his sinews. The lives of his unknown ancestors wove themselves into a thread that began its journey thousands of years before and tied itself to him, as much a part of his existence as his own living bone and blood.
Jenny, when he let fall he’d been a teacher before she met him, encouraged him to go back to it; the salary was better than his library pay. It was the early days of their marriage and they were renting a worn one-bedroomed flat over a chip shop. He hadn’t the talent for it, he said, without confessing to the geraniums, and he was brought up hard when out of the blue she produced a pot of them ‘for the colour’. He revolted against the flowers. They smelt sour, he said. They nauseated him. She’d never heard him vehement about anything. They were sitting on a second-hand sofa with a sag in the middle, the geraniums condemning him from the windowsill. She cast him a baffled, disillusioned look. It was the first trickle of contempt. The next time she raised the subject of teaching, he told her the only reason he’d been employed was because there was a shortage. She didn’t contradict him, but perhaps she hadn’t heard. She was ramming the vacuum cleaner under the sofa at the time, and she didn’t mention it again.
Farley unravelled over the years into a worn, stooped man, like one of those beige blokes you half-notice in a park with a little dog and immediately forget. It disconcerts him. He’s fifty-six. He was young once, with worthwhile hair and a bit of a lift in his walk. When he tries to assemble the steps that carried him here, they seem extremely few.
Four in the morning. The chair chafes the tiled floor as Farley seats himself at the kitchen table. He hasn’t been able to sleep for the past hour, the bowl gnawing at him. He floats his hands over the hunters. He counts again: eight, nine, eight. They stir unseen against his palms, warm and vibrant. Distant shouts and the trampling of a stag’s hooves reach him, arriving from afar on a fitful wind.
‘That bowl,’ Jenny says.
She’s rigid in the doorway from the hall in the first glimmer of dawn. Farley gathers the living metal against his chest. A spear point jabs his sternum.
‘What are you doing, holding it like a baby?’ she says.
She advances, her dressing gown bolted around her like armour. He jumps to his feet and backs against the counter. The bowl batters his naked ribs.
‘It has its own life,’ he says.
He has to raise his voice over the jubilant yells of the hunters. Have they killed the stag?
‘This nonsense has gone on long enough,’ Jenny says. ‘I’m telling Mason today.’
Farley wraps himself about the bowl to contain its bucking. He’s light-headed. The stag’s antlers clatter between his ribs. The baying of hounds threatens to overwhelm him. Can Jenny not hear them?
‘I know about you and Mason,’ he shouts. ‘He’s not getting his hands on my life.’
‘You’re not making sense,’ Jenny says.
She seizes the edge of the bowl. Gold cleaves to bone, bone to gold. He loses the sense of where flesh ends and metal begins. The stag bellows, or perhaps it’s Farley himself. Hounds trample him, their horny paws bruising his limbs. The hunters are running, but one slows as he passes Farley and their eyes meet. Farley reaches for him. Grasps his hand. The hunter wrenches him beneath the trees. The rank smell of the stag’s fear buffets Farley’s face and its cloven hooves spatter his skin with torn leaves. Branches rattle against antlers. A hound’s rough fur scours the back of his knee. He stumbles and halts to catch his breath, leaning the butt of his spear against a tree root. He’s the ninth man in this golden land of woods and streams, the land of his ancestors.
Jenny’s hand touches his face. It bends him back once more to his old world. He must stay with the bowl and he flinches away. Can she see him? She’s on her mobile.
‘Mason,’ she says. ‘Something’s happened to Farley.’
Her voice oscillates into the distance.
Surrounded by the joyous singing of the hunters, Farley strides into the forest.
(This story was first published in Issue 11.)
ROZ DEKETT is a British writer who lives in Philadelphia in the US. Her previous publication includes a short story in Fish Anthology 2017, a short memoir piece in the York Literary Review, and non-fiction in the American children’s literary magazine Cricket. Another short story won second prize in the 2017 Bedford International Writing Competition. She’s a former BBC radio and newspaper journalist and is seeking publication for a novel while working on another. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram @rozdekett or on her blog at www.rozdekett.com
There is a boy living in your closet. He’s quiet in there, like the pajamas hanging over the edge of your hamper. He is respectful of your space, keeps himself curled in the corner beside your least-favorite boots.
The boy in your closet hardly ever comes out. You bring him bottles of water when your mother isn’t looking, slices of lunch meat. You’ve seen him trying on your shoes.
It’s not like the boy in your closet has always been there. You found him on the street, huddled under some cardboard. He looked out at you from below his eyelashes. You had never seen such long eyelashes before. Not on a boy, not on anyone.
You tempted him out like you would anything else you found on the street, curling and uncurling your fingers, whispering here boy, here darling, hunching your shoulders, making yourself look as harmless as possible.
You are always bringing things home, hiding them from your mother. Kittens and crickets and glass for recycling.
Please, your mother says. Please, we just don’t have the room.
When you were small, you brought home a duckling that you’d found in the gutter. Hid it in the bathroom, pulled the curtain on the tub. Bobbed the duckling in the water, making waves with your hands. Named it Fuzzy.
You told your friends at school all about the duckling, the way you’ve told them about the boy in your closet. But when you got home, there were only feathers in the tub, damp from the water that hadn’t drained.
You worry that the boy in your closet is lacking for entertainment. You give him your cell phone at night so he can play games, text, check Instagram. You like the way the glow lights up his face; you like the moment when both your hands are on the phone, nearly touching.
The boy in your closet is very cautious. If he is texting anyone, he deletes the evidence before he gives you back your phone in the morning. All he leaves are the smudges of his fingers.
You never have your school friends over. You only tell them stories about the boy in your closet, let them think you’re lying, let them call you names behind your back. You have the boy in your closet. They have the words crazy bitch, liar, whispered when you can only barely hear.
You put your hand against your closet door. On the other side, you wonder if the boy in your closet is doing the same.
Your mother is an old mother. She’s always saying things that old people say. Sees shoes dangling from the wires outside, says: I’ve heard that means there’s gangs around.
Your school friends laugh when you tell them.
That’s what my grandparents say. And they laugh and laugh.
Your mother had you late. That’s what makes her an old mother. Pregnant with you when most of her friends’ children were heading to college. You were her unexpected baby, her surprise.
Don’t think that means I didn’t want you, she says. I wanted you plenty.
She eyes the shoes dangling by their laces from the wire.
You just be careful, she says.
You think the shoes on the wire are yours. The scuffed soles look familiar, the worn tread. Maybe the boy in your closet has tied them together, slung them over the wires. You imagine him doing it, creeping out of your closet while your mother is at work, while you’re at school. You imagine him standing on the sidewalk, throwing your shoes up and up and up again, till finally they catch. You imagine the look of concentration on his face, the fluttering of those long eyelashes.
The shoes, you think, are a symbol, are a message. Your peer up at them from the sidewalk, trying to read the meaning in them.
What are you doing? your mother calls to you from the window. There could be gangs out there.
You think you see movement in your bedroom when you look up to the window from the sidewalk. When you get inside, you lie down on your bed, feeling for warmth. The boy in your closet is still there. You can hear the creaking as he stretches his legs, the soft hum of his exhale. You put your mouth to the crack of your closet door.
You’re there, you say. You’re there, aren’t you?
You say: I saw the shoes.
You say: I saw the shoes, what does it mean?
And wait, and wait for the boy in your closet to answer.
(This story was first published in Issue 11.)
CATHY ULRICH doesn't have room for anyone in her closet because of all the comic books in there. Her work has been published in various journals, including Monkeybicycle, Memoir Mixtapes and Occulum.
They were supposed to take turns driving, but Elaine fell asleep before they’d even left the M25. Mark glanced at his wife and then back to the road. He reached down for the button that reclined her seat; Elaine moved a little as the seat went back and then settled. Her hands rested in her lap. The odours of sweat and stale food drifted from her blue Staff Nurse’s uniform.
They had planned to leave early and make for the cottage before rush hour started, but a late shift handover had trapped Elaine. They would still have Friday, one full day and night, in the cottage before the new owners came to collect the keys. Most of the furniture had already gone and there wasn’t much they needed to do, but he wanted to spend a little time there, take a final look around.
As they headed north in darkness, most of the traffic died down. Secure in the warm cocoon, Mark watched the red tail lights’ blur and felt the comforting drone of the engine. They crossed into Wales after midnight and wound through hills and mountains, their headlights picking out jagged dry-stone walls, stunted trees. As they passed Llanberis and turned towards the village, Elaine yawned, stretched, rubbed her eyes. She pulled the taut seatbelt from between her breasts and raised the seat.
‘Why didn’t you wake me up?’
‘I felt fine, and you looked out of it.’
Elaine stared into the early morning darkness. ‘I was; that was a bad one.’
Outside the village, the road became a steep switchback. Even after all these years, Mark almost missed the turning into the cottage; he reversed up to the driveway and stopped the car in front of the gate.
‘You want me to get it?’ Elaine asked, undoing her seatbelt and reaching back for her jacket.
‘It’s okay.’ Mark left the engine running and climbed out. The rusting metal gate felt rough and cold and wet as he pushed it open. He parked on the grass in front of the cottage and went back to close the gate.
Elaine stood in the short grass in front of the cottage, shivering in her NHS fleece jacket and thin cotton uniform. Mark stood beside her for a moment before slipping his arms around her. They could see the sharp lights of Anglesey Island across the strait, and the cold stars above. The cottage lay behind them, dark and squat, merging into the hard ground.
‘I can smell the sea,’ Elaine said.
‘The wind’s from the west. We always got the worst of the weather. Made me wonder why anyone would build a house up here.’
‘A home. Not just a house.’
He nodded. ‘I’ll get the fire going.’
Inside the porch, his key scraped along the door until it found the lock. As usual, the main room of the cottage felt cold and faintly damp. Mark found the electricity meter on the wall above the doorway and slid the prepay card through the slot. A single bare bulb flickered on as the meter came to life.
Mark ignored the coal-fired cast-iron room heater and reached for a small electric fire, a sad thing of fake wood veneer and plastic coals. As the nichrome bars began to glow red they filled the air with burning dust.
‘Cozy,’ Elaine said, looking around the bare room. Most of the furniture had been sold off weeks before, and only a small oak chair, a scratched melamine table, and a pile of books and magazines remained. A frayed carpet, once red and gold, covered most of the original stone flags.
Mark brought in folding camp beds, sleeping bags and pillows from the car and set them up in front of the fire. ‘Will you be comfortable enough?’
Elaine smiled. ‘I could sleep on my feet.’
When he switched the fire off and slid into his sleeping bag beside Elaine, Mark looked through the window and saw the first faint streaks of dawn against bunched cloud banks. He lay back for a moment, with one arm behind his head, and stared into the darkness. He had lost count of how many nights he’d spent in the cottage, as a boy and then a married man. The memories drifted in like flotsam on the tide, each one turning and twisting in the flow.
Mark woke to the smell of coffee. Still in his sleeping bag, he swung his feet to the floor. He looked at the glowing bar of the fire and blinked, unsure for a moment who or where he was.
Elaine kissed him and held out a mug of fresh coffee. Her other hand still held the old Bialetti percolator, the hexagonal steel and chrome machine Mark’s mother had brought back from France.
‘What time is it?’
‘Ten; you overslept.’
‘So should you.’
‘Force of habit,’ she said. ‘The shifts screwed up my body clock years ago.’
Mark gulped his drink. ‘What have you been doing?’
‘Getting washed in cold water and making breakfast.’ Elaine had drawn her long blonde hair back into a ponytail and changed into jeans, sweatshirt and boots. She still wore her jacket, despite the fire.
‘I didn’t think there’d be enough gas left in the bottle.’ The new stove in the kitchen ran off squat bottles of liquid petroleum gas.
‘Just enough for this,’ Elaine said, holding the Bialetti. ‘But we’ll have to eat out later.’
After sharing stale supermarket croissants with Elaine, Mark washed and shaved in lukewarm water. The tiny bathroom had once been a storeroom for coal, firewood and barrels, and still opened out into the back yard of the cottage. Mark pulled the stiff door open and stepped outside.
The cottage had been built into the side of the steep hill, so that the ground at the back was level with Mark’s eyes. In the small space between the rear of the cottage and the retaining wall, basically a wide trench, Mark’s parents had created a stone garden. That’s what Mark had called it, never expecting to see any living plants flourish. The neat flowerbeds, edged with local blue slate, had been filled with pale gravel. Gravel of a different colour, almost honey in shade, filled the pathway running down the centre of the long, narrow space.
Mark was surprised to see plants surviving among the weeds and couch grass: California poppy, ceanothus, astilbes and campanulas all erupted from the sea of gravel. Clematis clung to the irregular, stepped surface of the walls, while ferns huddled in the shade of the far corner. A few autumn-flowering bulbs had pushed their white and lilac heads up through the gravel; their delicate, top-heavy stalks swayed gently.
An empty bird feeder—a long transparent plastic tube suspended from a cable slung between the cottage and the wall—moved in the wind. As Mark watched, a sparrow flew to the feeder and pecked at one of the oval openings, then flew away, disappointed. Another bird, with a wedge-shaped head, sleek brown feathers and bright eyes ringed with scarlet, landed on the feeder, but saw Mark and flew off.
Mark remembered laying the skeleton of that garden with his father, pushing the slabs of slate into the hard earth and carrying the bags of compost and gravel from the car. The garden had been created for his parent’s retirement, a private, enclosed space they could work in when they moved out to the cottage for good. Now the shrubs were overgrown and untidy, and fighting for space with the weeds.
Mark found Elaine in the main room, loading books into cardboard boxes. She asked, ‘Are we keeping all these?’
‘Let’s see.’ Mark took a handful of books at random and leafed through them. Most were paperback mysteries and Westerns, with a few romantic novels thrown in, all good diversions for winter nights when the storms tore at the cottage and the coals glowed in the grate.
‘They’re not much good,’ Elaine said, holding up a hardback book whose spine had peeled away like flayed skin.
‘I know, but I’d like to keep them.’
Elaine stared at him for a moment, then nodded.
In the bedroom, Mark found the old iron bedstead stripped of its mattress and standing alone. At the foot of the bed, the small window, set deep in the two-foot thick walls of the cottage, looked out towards the village below and the sea beyond. He said, ‘I think I’ll drop in to Llanberis. Want to come?’
Elaine appeared at the door. ‘No, I’ll hang on here. But you could bring something back for lunch. And a bottle of wine.’
He kissed her on the cheek. ‘See you later.’
He drove into the town and found a supermarket in place of the grocery and bakery he remembered. He bought bread and cheese, salad, and two bottles of Shiraz. As he carried the food in his arms to the checkout, he noticed bird food on a revolving stand, and added two packets to his pile.
When he got back to the cottage, he found Elaine talking to a man by the front door. She had her arms crossed and her head tilted to one side.
Mark climbed out of the car. ‘Everything okay?’
The man, unsmiling and sallow-faced, stood with his hands in his pockets. He wore a torn waxed jacket and brown trousers. Small wisps of grey curled from under his cap.
‘You must be Gwen’s boy.’ The man’s voice had a soft lilt.
‘That’s right. Mark.’
The man nodded, but kept his hands in his pockets. ‘I knew your mother’s family. I been keeping an eye on the place, these past few months.’
‘We appreciate it,’ Elaine said, glancing at Mark.
The man turned away for a moment. ‘It was a bad usiness, I heard. These roads can take you by surprise, even in the spring.’
Mark said nothing.
‘I know Gwen wanted to spend her last few years out here,’ the man continued.
‘So did my dad,’ Mark said.
Elaine looked from Mark to the visitor and asked, ‘Do you know the family who are moving in?’
‘I do,’ the man told her. ‘It’s my friend’s son and his wife. They been looking for a place round here for two years now, but couldn’t afford the prices. They’re fed up renting.’
He turned to Mark and said, ‘You know, you could’ve got a lot more money if you’d sold it to a tourist. They’re loaded with cash, and always on the lookout.’
Mark looked at the cottage. ‘Maybe so.’
The man nodded again. ‘Well, I’ll be leaving you, then. I got work to do.’
Elaine and Mark watched the man walk to the gate; he paused and turned back to them. ‘You got a decent place, here. Gwen had a good eye.’
Mark carried the groceries inside before helping Elaine clean the cottage. They wiped down the thick whitewashed walls and brushed the stone flagged floors. The kitchen, little more than a deep Belfast sink set beside the stove, filled with sunlight as the day wore on. Mark brought coal and kindling in from the small stone shed. He opened the charred fire glass door of the cast iron room heater and laid twists of newspaper, kindling, and then coal inside, ready for a fire.
Elaine cut bread and cheese while Mark opened the wine. She said, ‘Let’s have a picnic.’
They sat on the stone bench outside the front window, with the food laid out between them. Mark poured wine into two mugs, since all the glasses had been packed away. As he ate, he looked out over the land below, at the empty fields, and the distant waves catching sunlight. The wine, hot and peppery, warmed him.
‘He was right,’ Elaine said.
‘Our talkative visitor.’ She broke off a piece of bread. ‘This is a nice place.’
‘You think I shouldn’t have sold it?’
Elaine said nothing.
‘The money will come in useful,’ Mark said.
She smiled at him. ‘Nothing. I was just wondering what it was like, living up here.’
‘Cold,’ Mark told her. ‘Very cold, wet and isolated.’
‘But there’s a village a couple of miles away, and then Llanberis.’
‘It feels alone.’ He searched for words. ‘Even when you see the lights at night they seem a million miles away. Especially when the snows come. But it is beautiful—a great place for children.’
Elaine laid her hand over his, without looking at him.
‘I remember Christmases up here,’ Mark continued, the food and wine forgotten. ‘Real trees with fir cones and candles. Sometimes, I’d bring one of my friends and we’d take our sleds up that hill. Later, when the snow was right, we could ski not far from here; not much of a run, but still good. And then you’d come back to the fire and thaw out. Sends you to sleep, a real fire.’
Elaine squeezed his hand.
Mark patted the rendered wall beside him. ‘It needs a family, this place. It needs people running through it, happy. It needs life. I didn’t want to think of it lying empty and forgotten, deserted. Maybe only visited a few times a year.’
‘They seem like a good couple,’ Elaine said. ‘I’m glad we sold it to them.’
Mark stood up and stretched. He walked over to the spot where the old caravan had stood; he thought he could detect the shallow depressions that the tires had left in the ground. His eyes travelled along the low wall that defined their property; the wall had crumbled in places, allowing the outside world in.
No matter how many times he had visited the cottage, Mark still felt like an interloper, an intruder. Like his father, an outsider who had married a local girl, Mark had never felt accepted, but instead had been caught in the middle, neither one thing nor the other. And the cottage, grounded in the landscape, part of the hill itself, belonged to someone else.
‘Let’s leave,’ Mark said. ‘We can find a hotel or a bed and breakfast tonight. I’ll buy you dinner at that Italian restaurant in Llanberis.’
‘I thought you wanted to spend another night here?’
‘So did I,’ Mark said, ‘but I think it’s time to go.’
Elaine stared at him a moment, nodded, then smiled. ‘Come on.’
After they had packed their belongings into the car and turned off the electric fire, Mark carried the bags of bird food through to the hidden garden. He took the feeder down and poured the seeds and pellets inside, then hung it back on the line. He heard a flurry of wings and turned from the doorway to see a handful of small birds attacking the food through the oval openings. The supporting line bobbed under their movements.
He watched them for a few minutes: they concentrated on the food, oblivious to Mark. He closed the back door and bolted it, then walked through the still, waiting cottage to Elaine.
(This story was first published in Issue 11.)
TOM BRENNAN is a British writer based in Liverpool but his work has appeared in the US, UK and Canada. He enjoys reading and producing a variety of fiction, from genre to literary.
I knew him vaguely because he was in my young fella Bryan’s class. It was obvious he was a kid with problems—always hanging around street corners with a can of Amstel, a drinker too young to buy booze, a smoker too young to buy fags. Every time I saw him, I’d think, thank God mine wasn’t like that. Not that my Bryan was perfect. We couldn’t prise him away from his laptop, for one thing. But he was generally safe in his room, and he’d look me in the eye when we spoke. This kid—Deccy—looked like he’d never made eye contact with anyone.
He was sitting on the low wall staring out to sea that evening, as I rounded the high bend before the long descent into the village. I suppose he could have been waiting for someone, or admiring the view, but somehow I knew what his intentions were.
I’ll admit it, for a split second I was tempted not to get involved. Pretend I’d seen nothing and assume the next person to drive by would stop. But I thought of how Grainne and I would feel if the cops came to our door with the worst news imaginable about our son, and my foot hit the brake, conscience in my toes if nowhere else.
Everything was peaceful as I got out of the car. The only sounds were of seagulls screeching as they hovered like kites, and the soft thump-thump of Deccy’s trainers against the wall. I felt sick at the thought of the sheer drop to the sea below his dangling feet, yet some insane part of me was admiring the fact that he’d at least picked a nice spot for it. It’s my favourite place in the whole world, the one thing I’d actually take in as I flaked home from the office every evening, a loop of should-have-saids playing in my head. As you approach that final bend, the bay appears, sheltered and serene. I’ve lived here all my life and I still get a buzz from it. High cliffs and a huge sky and white sails on sparkling water. Magic.
Though he must have been aware he had company, Deccy didn’t turn around. My shirt clung with sweat to my back, my heart was going like a hamster trying to outrun its wheel. Taking a few slow steps towards him, I tried to summon the right words to say. Everything sounded crap even in my head, the don’t-be-blues and the look-on-the-bright-sides. That kind of glib talk would have made me want to jump myself. I tried to imagine what would work on Bryan in a terrifying, no-margin-for-error situation.
‘Did you see the match?’ was the best I could do.
There was no reaction. Deccy had his hands jammed in his pockets, earphones in his ears. Grainne says I never notice anything about people, but even I could see he was as white as the bockety roll-up hanging from his mouth. I took another step.
‘The match?’ I said, louder. ‘Any idea what the score was, bud?’
His head turned a fraction, but he kept his gaze on the water. I could faintly hear his music. It was that death metal stuff they like, a relentless roar of fury.
I sat on the wall facing landwards, about ten feet from him.
‘Grand evening,’ I shouted over the music. He ignored me.
‘Isn’t it? A grand auld evening.’
‘I heard you,’ he mumbled, the roll-up wobbling. ‘And it isn’t.’
‘No?’ I tried. ‘Oh.’
‘Why d’you say that?’
He gave me the are you thick or what? look. ‘There’s just nothing grand about it.’
‘Sorry you feel that way.’
A pause. An eternity, moss plunging to the sea where his trainers dislodged it. Then, ‘Yeah, well, I do.’
‘You’re in my lad’s class, aren’t you? Bryan McNally’s class?’
I took a chance. ‘Look, this is none of my beeswax, bud, but are you okay?’
He shook his head slightly, and I’d swear his chin wobbled. Just a kid.
‘Can I help? Give you a lift home?’
‘No way I’m going back there,’ he said, shifting so abruptly I thought he’d fall without meaning to, with not even time to whip his hands free of his pockets.
‘Okay, okay,’ I said. ‘No hassle.’
My nerves were bad watching him. A simple loss of balance was all it would take. And I didn’t trust myself to grab him in case I botched it. I am a natural-born botcher.
‘What’re you listening to?’ I shouted.
‘Edge of Sanity,’ he said, tossing his roll-up stub and watching it sail through the air. It looked surprisingly graceful.
‘Oh yeah, they’re good,’ I lied. ‘I used to be an AC/DC man. When I was your age.’
I kept my eyes on his face, trying to read him. ‘I loved Motörhead too. And Iron Maiden, Judas Priest. We used to draw the names of our favourite bands on our denim jackets. And when they played metal at the discos, all the lads would be out headbanging like mad eejits. It’s a wonder none of us got an embolism. Mind you, I gave myself a nosebleed once. I was an absolute legend in the yard afterwards.’
He rolled his eyes, but I noticed he’d pulled out one earpiece.
‘Who else was there? Oh, Metallica, of course.’
‘Metallica are cool. They’re on my playlist,’ he said, firing me a look I’d like to think was approval.
We shot the breeze for a while, the golden ball of the sun melting into a bronze band that flooded the horizon. He loosened up and started telling me about his dad who only came home for money, about his mum who cried in front of his little sisters. He told me about the kids at school calling him a weirdo. He talked about how pointless every day seemed, how he couldn’t see it ever getting better. I didn’t offer him advice because I had none. Other than the good thing I had with Grainne and Bryan, I had to agree that life basically sucked. Doing a job you hated, with a boss you spent all day trying not to punch, knowing this was it until you were put out to pasture. It isn’t a great sign when the best part of work is driving like crazy away from it. I couldn’t tell him he’d no longer be bullied when he got into the real world because they were out there too, getting their kicks out of telling you you weren’t worthy of a raise. I didn’t say any of that, but once he’d said his bit, he looked less pale.
It was getting chilly, and Deccy shivered despite the hoodie he had on. I was frozen in my damp, short-sleeved shirt. The hairs on my arms were vertical, but with the cold now rather than fear. I rubbed them and chanced saying, ‘Bit nippy, isn’t it? How about that lift? I can drop you wherever you want.’
And just like that, he swung his legs back onto solid ground.
I dropped him by the Spar. Common sense told me he still wasn’t out of the woods, but I was damned if I knew what more I could do.
‘It was a draw,’ he said as he hopped out.
‘The match. It was a draw. Nil-all. There was no winner.’
In the rearview mirror, I saw him stroll past the Spar and duck into the off-licence where they weren’t fussy about age.
It stayed with me. I’d wake in the night, sweat-drenched and convinced my fingers were loosening on something I was meant to keep hold of. I worried that maybe I should have gone to the police, or his crying mum, or at least asked Grainne’s advice. But by the time I got home that night, I felt foolish for thinking he’d intended to do anything drastic. So I said nothing, and I’d occasionally see Deccy around, still avoiding eye contact, but alive.
Some time afterwards, he went on the radio. It was one of those talk things people call in to and a professionally outraged DJ helps them see their issues are even worse than they realised. They were doing an item about the high suicide rate among young men, and Deccy was one of the callers. He talked about my helping him and said it had been a lifesaver, someone asking if he was okay and genuinely listening to the answer. He said he was now on anti-depressants and hoped to train in IT after leaving school. I didn’t hear the show because I was doing battle at work, but Grainne told me when I got home. She was kind of mad, to be honest, and asked why I’d said nothing.
‘Because I didn’t do much,’ I said.
She said she couldn’t believe I’d keep such a thing to myself.
‘Why do you always have to be such a closed book?’ she said.
Deccy’s cousin set up a Facebook page in my honour. ‘Hero Mick’, she called it. I checked it obsessively the first few days and gave all the posts a thumbs up, notifications constantly pinging on my screen. People said the world needed guardian angels like me, especially with the mental health services in such a state thanks to that shower in the Dáil.
Then the comments changed, and some were unreal.
‘U shd of left the loser jump,’ one person said.
‘Waste of space, lol,’ said another. I didn’t know which of us they meant.
‘It was totally irresponsible not to ring the emergency services,’ said someone else. ‘This could easily have ended in tragedy for that young man.’
I asked Deccy’s cousin to delete the page, but she said she’d do what she wanted because she was the administrator, and she’d made new friends through it. I stopped looking after that.
For a while, I was off work. I couldn’t concentrate, exhausted from nights of trying not to let go. I started screwing up, sending emails to the wrong clients or forgetting to email altogether. My boss smirked as he splayed his hands on my desk and said I was on borrowed time. The doctor signed me off with stress, advised against rushing back. But while I hated work, despised the backstabbing and the front stabbing, I didn’t know what to do with myself at home. It didn’t suit Grainne either, me dragging behind her around the supermarket and watching daytime TV with the curtains closed. She thought up projects to keep me busy, but we were in a newish house on a newish estate, so there wasn’t much that needed doing. There are only so many times you can cut the grass and clean out the barbecue. She suggested I do classes, learn a skill.
‘But if I could do that, I could go back to work,’ I argued. I shouted a bit too loudly, may have thrown a few things. One of those things may have caught her on the forehead, but it was an accident, I swear on my life. She said she’d had enough, but wouldn’t specify enough of what.
She discussed me with her friends. I knew this because if she was on the phone she’d go quiet when I walked into the room.
I went back to work because it was easier to pretend to function. Eventually, it was preferable to being at home, with the rooms full of no talking. Preferable to the wary looks she’d started throwing me, and the way Bryan avoided any contact on his rare appearances out of his room.
I think of Deccy every time I drive home now, as I approach that final bend. I still get a kick out of it when the bay opens out ahead. It’s a sight for sore eyes. The kind of view you would choose as the last thing you’d like to see in your life.
(This story was first published in Issue 11.)
ANNE O’LEARY lives in Cork, Ireland. She won the From the Well 2017 short story competition, was shortlisted for the Colm Tóibín Short Story Award in 2016 and 2017, runner-up in the UCC/Carried In Waves 2015 Short Story Competition, and longlisted for the Greenbean Novel Fair 2016 and RTE Guide/Penguin Ireland Short Story Competition 2015. Her work has featured in Halo, Spontaneity, The Incubator and the Sunday People newspaper. She blogs about writing at anneoleary.com and twitters at @wordherding
Like the building he has seen better days. When he is outside, looking back from the beach, he examines the wide sweep of its deco walls, the planar immensity of it dirtied now by peeling paint, the yellow and brown stains of salt and gull shit miring the clean edges. It is then that he feels the call of the water again.
He is, he supposes, not the only one to find a second chance here. He observes the yellowing net curtains at unlit windows and wonders who lives inside, imagines pensioners and others, like himself, newly poor. His own window is now devoid of any barrier to the view, like a freshly capped tooth in a neglected mouth.
This is home now and he will make the best of it. He places pictures here, on his mantelpiece, of the children, bright faces smiling on a Greek beach, two years before. He likes his new view unimpeded, and switches a light on when he leaves, a guide on dark mornings.
The hut is a hidden boon, included in the rent, the agent told him when he had come, jittery and nervous, to view the flat. It is the only one in the row of brightly painted huts not boarded up for the winter. It sparked memories, that first time, of swimming as a child, beach holidays where his parents, too poor to go abroad, had piled them in to the car for days out from London, to the coast. Before sunscreen, he had fled the sun, playing all day in the sea.
Exercise, the counsellor at the Phoenix Centre said, was good. She’d urged him to go for interminable walks between group sessions, once the shaking in his hands receded. He spent his time trudging the fringe of a lake at the centre, past drab ducks sat idling in the water. He’d thought of swimming then, remembered those childhood beach days, remembered too his father, bone weary from roofing, sat in a deckchair, perpetually tanned in his shorts, drinking beer after beer while they played, part of the tide of memories that had crept up on him since he had stopped.
This beach is better in winter. The gulls are raucous of a morning and evening, wheeling loudly above his flat. The sound of them, the thought of the hut and the view from the window had let him imagine, that first night alone there, what it would be like to swim again, to be free from the cinching constraint of his clothes, to float free of himself in these waters. He imagined it as he sat there in his new armchair in the gloom of the late afternoon, watching the dog walkers along the shore and the ebb and flow of the tide, cradling the idea, like his fragile sobriety, close to him, nurturing it.
He wakes now without need of an alarm each winter morning from dreams of his wife, asleep elsewhere, alone he hopes, and his children. He lays a moment in the dark, scanning, by habit, the state of himself, surprised still to find his head clear, the voices of his children still ringing, in an echo from his dream. He anticipates the cold outside the duvet, holds himself inert a moment longer, joying in the potential for movement. Then he rises, stands in his shorts by the window, quiet, checking the sea, looking out from the flat’s darkness for the quiet pulse of the tide. Most days it is calm, a little chop on the water all there is to see. Others, it churns with heaving shore break and he knows that the visit will be brief and scary, a stepping into forces way beyond his own, a surrendering to the elements, the crash of water and susurration of stone.
He likes the flat days more, days when he can stay out, floating.
He turns the light on only when he leaves the room, goes to the bathroom and pulls on the wetsuit he has left to dry from the day before, in the bath. He stands a moment to admire how the taut stretch of neoprene pulls his gut in, smooths his lumpen, changing shape. He looks sleek, he thinks, and new in these smooth black curves, the stretch of the suit an extra layer, the retort of its elastic like a sheathing that snaps back with him, gives his movements control and urgency.
Then he is down the stairs from the flat, out into the cold air of an unheated corridor, the key to the hut in hand, past the blank doors of other residents, hearing the slap of his flip-flops on the echoing stairwell that curves around the outside of the building. He emerges from the stairwell’s shelter to the first gust of cold wind, the fresh reek of salt air and seaweed’s iodine rot.
He unlocks the hut, pulls the metal bar aside, lays its cold length down, gently, hearing the sound of its crunch on the pebbles, each sound a wrinkle in the cold quiet of the winter morning. He pulls the doors open, shakes the jerrycan of water he fills each week to bring down here, checking it has not frozen. He fills the kettle, glad for the hut’s gas stove, lifts the canister each morning, knowing that soon he will have to spend some of his dwindling savings to replace it. He readies the matches, places bag and sugar and milk in position for his return. Then he pulls on the hat, feels the crimp of rubber and neoprene against his temples, the crunch of his compressed, greying hair concealed beneath the tight shell. He pulls the goggles tight, prepares himself.
When he slides the sandals off, the first pebbles close to shore are still a shock on bare feet. He keeps his feet and hands exposed despite the weather, flexes them now as he stands and waits, drawing warming breaths into himself. He has considered boots and gloves, but this, he thinks, is cheating, the sacrifice of his skin part of the deal, a necessary baring. He bounces on the spot, waiting until the compulsion of the plunge frees him from thought.
The first bite of the grey waters always shocks, but he welcomes the slide of it creeping up his legs as he strides further, the resistance breaking as silver foam as he strides out past the shore break. And then, on the good days, when he does not have to contend with the surge and crash of waves, the sharp slap against the face, the windmilling of arms, darkness of water, slide and gasp for cold, bright air, the warming and falling to a rhythm, chop and beat of his legs fluttering. Those, he knows, are the magic moments, when he moves and glides, his body taut and buoyant, the suit working with him to bring his arms chopping down. It had been difficult at first, each stroke a struggle against burning lungs. Now he knows the rhythm of it, plays with the bob and rise of the water, the beating insistence of his kicks, the gradual warming of the air and water in the suit.
He stops, breaths heavy clouds when he reaches the final buoy half a mile from shore, and looks for the distant pin-prick glow of his flat, his light. Often, that far out, he can see other lights too, immense tankers gliding further out, the pinpricks of fishing boats hunting for the morning catch. But he turns always, looks for again for his building, thinks of the old chair sat in his new flat, there by the window, the pictures of the children. When he finds it—and it is not hard, white and immobile on the shore—he steadies his breath, releases himself from the bobbing of the yellow buoy. He sets off across the bay, tracking the coastline, his daily pattern now, returning home.
Afterwards, he struggles up the beach, shakes feeling back into numbed fingers, bounces on the spot again and dances on his frigid toes, bobbing and flexing, his limbs heavy without the forgiveness of salt water.
The hiss of gas, the sulphurous crack of a match sends a spurt of warmth into the cold air of the hut and, as he waits for the steel kettle to sing, he cups his hands around the flame, coaxing feeling back. Above him, on a shelf, his boys smile down at him, a single picture that he has brought there, one he wills himself, each morning, not to look at until his return. He nods a silent greeting, imagines them coming here in the summer, the crowd of beach toys in a corner and laughter.
The sweet tea is a blessing and as he drinks it, he feels the joyous ache of new muscle and enjoys the play of warmth and cold that comes with the sun’s first winter light, and the comfort of his hut against the wind.
(This story was first published in Issue 11.)
JOHN HERBERT is a teacher from Brighton, UK, holds a PhD in modernist fiction from the University of Birmingham, and is an alumnus of New Writing South's Creative Writing Programme. He is a multiple winner of the AdHoc Fiction and Microcosms Fiction competitions, was highly commended in the 2017 Brighton Prize and appears in their print anthology this year. His short fiction is published in The Forge Literary Magazine and DNA Magazine in 2018.
He is elsewhere.
The rooms are much smaller without us in them. I move our chest of drawers away from the bedroom wall to check for fallen jewellery and find a huge brown spider last seen a month ago, nesting in the radiator pipes.
This is your room now, I whisper. You must pay the rent.
In the kitchen, I wrap the plates I want to take with me in newspaper and stack them on the worktop. I open the cupboards, thinking of washing-up that still has not been done, hair matted in the shower drain, all the pitiful tears and promises made… The mess will go mouldy and he will cough and gag as he deals with it. He will not have learned anything, despite listening. I think I am beyond anger, somewhere in the eerie realm of apathy.
There is not much I want from the living room. I stand at the fireplace, perusing our collection of found objects on the mantle. Behind an empty record sleeve I discover a stack of council tax bills, unopened. I turn the record over, appreciating the cover art. He bought this standing in the line waiting for another band, outside the venue, but he has never played it aloud. We do not own a record player.
I lift the limp head of a flower we have let die. I’m sorry, I say, we should have cared about you.
I regard our other ornaments of nostalgia. What use do either of us have for a rusty bicycle gear? Or two red flags, stolen under cover of night, from the eighteenth hole on the nice part of town? Or a shark’s delicate egg-pouch, black and salt-dusted, plucked from the pebbles under Brighton pier?
I bring the pouch to my nostrils and imagine I smell sea foam… I see the sky as it was then, making a great matchstick silhouette out of the pier. Our shoes crunching on the rocky dunes; the joint, fragrant on my glove fingers, and scarf pulled close.
He has the egg-pouch in his hand. He is yelling something along the lines of: ‘That is utter bullshit! You’re absolutely lying, there’s no way this thing came out of a shark!’ He is waving the pouch around like it’s an outrage. He shouts to a woman walking her dog, ‘A shark egg?’ She flinches as he gets close. ‘How is a shark supposed to fit in this?’
And I can barely stand for laughing. Later he, outside the car, emptying sand from his boots, me in the passenger seat, jotting down a few lines about strong wind coming off the surf, and car doors slamming; the pink clouds comparable to a bar at closing time when no one wants to leave, and something about love in the distance, like thunder, oncoming.
I put down the egg pouch and have a smoke break out front. Children have left their shoes in the street and they’re playing on the grass. I count four cats perched on four different garden walls. A neighbour calls out in greeting and I smile back without really looking. Hoping she cannot remember the week we moved in, when she offered to spare us a few recycling bags and we declined. Hoping she cannot smell the alley down the side of our house where the blocked drain floods, and all the food scraps we fail to catch in the sink come spilling out to turn rancid on the path.
I flick my filter over the fence, onto next door’s lawn. I close our door on the cul-de-sac and the house vanishes with me inside it. We should never have lived here, among such nice families. We have hurt this place. Trodden our dirt into the carpets; greasy pizza box stains; turned the pristine bathroom tiles orange. In his study, in the desk drawer, there is a crystal ashtray overflowing with roach ends. He thinks his indoor smoking is a well-kept secret but he is careless. I have known all along.
I move to the back door and take the heavy green curtains in my hands. The rail is loose in the wall; one strong tug and they could fall. I realise mine will be a botched disappearance, a paradox of vanishing. I want it to be like I was never here at all. At the same time, I want him aware of my absence like a deep bruise aching on the bone. In the calm of a hollow house, in the privacy of a closed mouth, I can admit that I want him hurting.
Movement. I turn; outside on the patio sits a cat with patchy fur, no collar, whiskers drooping at the tip. We are not strangers. She is waiting for an invitation. He never lets her inside—he kicks his slippers to shoo her away. He is adamant we will never leave food out for her. ‘It’ll just come to expect it.’
I open the back door and the sound of it scares her—she scurries under the bushes. I kneel and hold out my hand, waiting for the tiny, wet press of her nose investigating my fingers.
Nice to meet you.
When she trusts me, I step back inside, and a moment later she follows.
We go room to room, exploring. She, sniffing everything at nose height; I, presenting from the doorways, as if this is an open house and the cat is interested in buying.
And this is the bathroom… The cat finds an empty toilet roll and bats it into a corner. She emerges with spider webs draped across her back. No bath, I’m afraid, but you’ll manage, I’m sure.
At the top of the stairs, we pause to inspect the skirting board. I sit cross-legged on the carpet like a child. This is where his sister got sick. The cat doesn’t say anything. She is enjoying the carpet, kneading it with her claws. Where we found out, I mean. His mum called. His mum never calls. The cat accepts a gentle scratch under her chin.
He was fine at first, but then he said he couldn’t breathe. I told him, It’s all right, darling, it’s going to be all right, and went to make him a cup of tea. I heard him yell and, when I returned, found him clutching his hand to his chest, slumped beneath the hole he’d just made in the wall. I called him a stupid bastard and rolled him into my arms. He wouldn’t cry in front of me.
The cat allows me to stroke the length of her body. With her yellow eyes on me I feel we have known each other our whole lives. There is something beautiful about not having to find the words. It is acceptable for me to abandon her here, with no explanation. I will never have to say out loud what she means to me. I am not expected to explain that of course I still love her, but it’s not what it used to be, we both know it; and she will never call me a coward for leaving like this, and it won’t end in me screaming, ‘I just can’t stand the sight of you anymore!’ knowing I have no real reason for feeling this, it being just one of those terrible things.
She bores quickly of our bonding and totters down the stairs. Now I am the one who follows. In the living room, she settles on the worn sofa cushions, and I know by the sight of her there—a detail from the life we should have had, but out of place in this one—that it’s time for me to go.
She watches me gather myself; fetching the plates in newspaper, my case for contact lenses, a house plant. I take the unheard record off the mantel and tuck it under my arm. These songs will be a comfort to me, in this new time. They are the only ones left untainted.
I turn to my old friend. She does not look hurt. She does not look happy. Something is stuck in my chest—as if I have tried to swallow an entire potato without chewing it. This is an image he coined in a bout of man-flu last year, but I won’t allow this thought to carry me off to happier memories. Perhaps hating me will make it easier for them, the cat and him.
I say, I’ll leave the door unlocked. Don’t feel you have to stay. The front door completes its full swing closed, the lock clicks, and the cat, with my whole life around her, vanishes.
(This story was first published in Issue 11.)
VIVIENNE BURGESS is based in London/North East and holds a First Class Honours in English with Creative Writing. Her short fiction has been published online by LossLit and 356tomorrows, and in print by Cuckoo Press and Brunel University London Press.
‘It’s a game-changer, that’s for sure. Science is changing the way we view things. Physically altering our view. Tadpoles. Blind tadpoles with eyes transplanted into their tails. There’s this miracle drug that allows the eyes to grow into their nervous systems…’ The man’s eyes are full-moon-wide, his hands gyrating helicopter blades of excitement.
‘Does that mean they would swim backwards?’ The woman is ponderous and slow from her fourth gin and tonic. The syllables fall out of her mouth—dense and clunky—like the ice cubes bashing around dodgem-car-style in her glass.
‘If you were a tadpole with transplanted eyes…’
He stops. Sighs.
‘You know what I mean,’ he continues. ‘If you were blind and had the option of getting yourself some new eyes… where would you put them? You couldn’t have them on your feet. Too much danger of a shopping trolley running over them. That could be messy. You couldn’t have them on your coccyx. Because your arse would crush them. You really wouldn’t want them on your hands. Think of all of the things you wouldn’t want to get an up-close-and-personal visual of, if your eyes were on your hands. No, that’s me stumped. How about you?’
The woman drains her gin and tonic, fingers the slice of lemon before putting it to her lips and seducing the bitter moisture out. The man’s gaze is drawn to a few droplets that cascade onto her chest.
‘I’d have them on my tits,’ replies the woman. ‘I’m pretty sure it would improve a direct line of eye contact with a lot of men.’
And then the man wishes he has no eyes. Wishes he were a tadpole. Wishes he didn’t all of a sudden feel so very much like a frog.
(This story was first published in Issue 11.)
JANE ROBERTS’ fiction has featured in a variety of anthologies and journals including: Litro, Bare Fiction Magazine, The Lonely Crowd, Wales Arts Review, LossLit Magazine, Flash: The International Short-Short Story Magazine, NFFD Anthologies, and Unthology 9. She has been a participant in the Writing West Midlands’ Room 204 Writer Development Programme 2017/18, shortlisted for Bridport and Fish Prizes, longlisted for a Saboteur Award for Best Anthology as part of Literary Salmon, and won Bloomsbury Writers' and Artists' Flash Fiction 2013. You can follow her on Twitter @JaneEHRoberts or visit her website at janeehroberts.wordpress.com
I get home from work early. It’s around two and the street is decluttered of cars. It’s cloudy, of course, but still warm enough for open windows and short sleeves. The newspaper is on the mat so I pick it up and carry it through to the kitchen. The kettle is warm against the back of my hand. Good. She’s up.
I take two mugs from the tree. More ginger tea for her. Green for me. The taste was a little bitter at first, but she was right. It got better.
The house is cool. I imagine she’ll be curled up in the window seat of our bedroom with a book and a blanket.
I imagine wrong.
As I reach the top of the stairs, I hear noises coming from the study. ‘Michelle?’
No answer. The norm these days, so it tells me nothing.
Pausing in the doorway, I set her mug down on the desk loudly enough to announce my presence. Again.
She doesn’t look up.
Boxes occupy most of the floor space. When did she get them?
‘I thought you were supposed to be taking it easy, love?’
‘Yes, because these are so heavy.’ She’s tossing items into what is no doubt organised chaos.
I bite back a sigh. I’m not supposed to get annoyed. I promised myself.
She carries on, ignoring the subtle implications of my silence. I take the opportunity to observe. The boxes are labelled. Charity is scrawled on all of them but one: Keep.
It’s too soon for her to be doing this. I voice the concern.
‘What are we supposed to do? Keep this stuff forever?’
I don’t have an answer. I haven’t thought about it. It’s too soon for me.
Michelle huffs. And stops. I pass her her tea, half-expecting to end up wearing it. She takes it and holds it in both hands, bending to inhale the spicy scent. The ritual soothes her.
She wanders out of the study and down the stairs, and after collecting the four mugs decorating the windowsill, I follow.
The dishwasher is full, but I’m determined to fit them in there before turning it on. It takes me a couple of minutes to figure out where Michelle’s gone. The patio door’s open. I find her at the bottom of the garden, staring at the ground. It isn’t until I’m right beside her that I see it.
Laid out with one of our hexagonal stones as a backdrop, tiny drops of blood leading off to one side. It’s a blackbird, I think. Or it was.
‘That ginger cat, I’d wager. Two doors down.’ Michelle’s voice doesn’t waver.
Feathers border the fence. The poor thing made good feline entertainment. There’s a nasty tear along its chest. I feel the urge to press it shut.
Michelle shrugs in my peripheral vision. ‘We’ll have to bury it. God knows what that cat’ll do if it comes back.’
I’ll have to get a shoebox from her wardrobe. My eyes sting and I blink the unexpected tears back. Michelle rubs my back.
I don’t want her to watch this. I ask her to fetch me a box, then send her inside. The cardboard coffin is far too large for the deceased. You could fit half a dozen blackbirds inside. I shake that thought away and seal the lid with masking tape. I don’t want to have to do this twice.
When all’s secure I set about the grim burial, but I can feel Michelle watching me from the window seat upstairs. I keep my back to her, sheltering her from the worst of it. Hiding the tears that accompany the task.
‘It’s keen-wah.’ She’s laughing at me.
I snatch the package out of her hands. ‘No! That can’t be how you pronounce it because that’s… no.’
Michelle gently prises my fingers off the plastic and takes the keen-wah over to the sink. To my wide eyes, she explains, ‘You have to rinse it first.’
This seems like an abnormal amount of effort for a dinner party. She opens a cupboard and pulls out—the tea strainer?
‘Don’t you want the sieve?’ It’s not supposed to sound condescending.
A hand finds one of her hips. ‘It’s too small for that. I’ll do it in batches.’
Bonkers. The world has gone bonkers.
I ask her if I can help.
Michelle puts the tea strainer down and walks over to me. Her lips are warm on my cheek. ‘Stay out of the way.’
At her suggestion, I sit on the sofa with the book I’m reading. It’s set in the Elizabethan court and political tensions are running high. There’s this Duke, of Anjou, and he’s trying to woo Elizabeth, but… well, it’s obvious how that will turn out. I found the novel on one of Michelle’s shelves. I just wish Elizabeth would get her happy ending. They seem all too rare these days.
I can’t focus on the book today. I walk through to the dining room, thinking I’ll set the table. But it’s already done. Our wedding china adorns the linen-covered table. Freshly cut peonies form the centrepiece. I didn’t know it was a centrepiece kind of dinner.
The wood is cool under my feet as I pad back to the kitchen. It’s somehow immaculate, but Michelle isn’t here. She never cooks in the same clothes she eats in—something about the smells. She’s more sensitive lately. I’m under strict orders to avoid aftershave.
She descends the stairs in what looks suspiciously like an oversized t-shirt. I’m hit with flashes from this morning’s shower. Soap suds trickling down her still-flat stomach. She’s tiny. But I understand why she wants to be careful this time.
She stops two steps up from me and plants a hand on my chest. ‘We’re not saying anything.’
We’re not. We won’t. Not after last time. The never-ending chain of lasagnes and apple crumbles was bad enough, but coupled with the early morning phone calls and unannounced visits?
I tuck her hair behind her ear. She’s still the most beautiful woman in the world. But there are blue-grey circles under both eyes. She used to fall asleep the minute her head hit the pillow, dead to the world. Now she lies there, rigid, until she thinks I’m asleep. Sometimes I am. I wake up at three and find her sitting in the rocking chair in the study, knees up, an oversized teddy bear tucked under her chin.
The doorbell rings and I step back so she can jump the final two steps. They want to see her, not me. Old Jill and Greg. They cross the threshold, bringing wine and smiles.
Once we’re seated I discover keen-wah is a dish best served cold. The four of us push it around on the wedding plates until Michelle decides to have mercy and whisk them away. She catches my eye and gives a wry grin. I follow her to fetch the stoneware baking dish. When I set it down on the table, her parents sit back in their chairs, relieved to see pasta, not polenta.
Their smiles are tight today, and after everyone has a plateful of puttanesca we find out why. Michelle’s sister has a German Shepherd, Sophie. She’s just had a litter.
Greg tries first. ‘They’re trying to find homes for all of them. Should have spayed her when they first brought her home.’
Jill takes over. ‘We thought maybe the two of you would like to take one.’
They know I’m terrified of dogs.
Michelle puts her fork down. ‘Why?’
‘Well they’re lovely dogs, don’t you think? Sophie’s so playful.’ Jill’s skating on thin ice.
Michelle sighs. ‘But we don’t want a dog. And Chris doesn’t feel comfortable around them, remember?’
Greg’s focused on his dinner, but Jill persists. ‘It would suit your lifestyle very well. You could take it with you when you go on your walks. Would give you a good reason to get out and about.’
Michelle is frosty for the rest of the meal. She presents a Tupperware box of tiramisu for dessert.
That night, for the first time, she doesn’t come to bed with me.
I first meet Michelle at an adult education class. We’re learning French—or trying to. The teacher is outragé that not one of us can list all of the ingredients in a traditional onion soup and I’ve changed my place of birth because I can remember how to say east but not west. Michelle comes off as haughty. I later find out that I exude arrogance. We don’t chat in the coffee break and I quit French class shortly after because it’s a waste of argent. I’ll keep meaning to pick it back up for the next thirty years.
The next time I meet Michelle, we’re both more than a little drunk. I can’t believe how giggly and smiley she is. She can’t believe she doesn’t hate me. We make plans to meet at a book launch the following afternoon and both turn up. By the time I realise how deep her love of fitness and health foods runs, it’s too late.
One morning that June she calls me at eight to invite me on a hike. She picks me up in her battered blue Polo and drives for a good half an hour. We’re the only car parked on the ring of gravel she pulls into. Stepping out, I shudder despite the warm air. We’re on the edge of woodland, shadowy oaks towering overhead. Michelle’s practically bouncing.
The path is on an incline and after we’ve walked for an hour, my t-shirt is stuck to my back. Michelle isn’t even out of breath, but she leads me to a stone bench.
If we just walk for another twenty minutes, she promises it’ll be worth it.
The pay-off is an abandoned house at the head of a clearing. Michelle heads for the front door with purpose. She’s done this before.
It’s more shell than house; the inside is devoid of furniture. We enter what was probably once the living room. The window is smashed and a fox has left an unwelcome present on the floor. Michelle grabs my hand and tugs me onwards to the back of the house.
The garden fence is intact, but the outside is as run down as the interior. Weeds climb to knee-height and overgrown trees cast us in shadow. I follow her to the bottom of the garden and stop abruptly.
She stands right on the edge of a sheer drop. The land has simply disappeared. Michelle laughs. She’s looking at my face. Slowly, ever so slowly, I inch forward until my feet are level with hers.
Together, we stand in near-silence, broken only by the occasional invisible bird. Heart in my stomach, we stare down that drop together.
It could be seconds or minutes, then Michelle is eager to get moving again, pausing to retie her shoelaces before our next adventure.
When we get back to civilisation, I ask her if she has time for a coffee. She doesn’t drink coffee. But she always has time for tea.
In the café, I watch her add two sugars to her tea. Sweet tea always makes me think of car accidents and long waits in hospitals, but it makes Michelle think of--
—‘My mum. When I was seven she took me to Hannover to visit my aunt and we sat in the train station drinking apple tea and honey. I don’t know, it’s just comforting.’
Her lips are a pale pink. They stand out against her milk-coloured skin. Her features are slight. Precise. She’d make a rather convincing porcelain doll. I’m admiring her nose when she coughs.
‘Are you okay?’ She’s frowning. I laugh, caught out. The salt shaker on the table suddenly becomes interesting.
I ask her if we should go. She looks out of the window and smiles. There’s somewhere she wants to take me.
I squint as we exit the building. The sun is lower in the sky, though it’s still warm enough for us with our bare legs. I climb into her car, ready to see where she’ll take me next.
(This story was first published in Issue 11.)
KATHY CHAMBERLAIN moved to Swansea in 2011 when she embarked on her postgraduate studies. Her doctoral thesis consisted of short stories characterised by isolation and anomalousness, reflecting her interest in all things quirky. She's a fan of circular narratives and plain style prose. Kathy teaches undergraduate classes in Creative Writing and English Literature. You can follow her on Twitter @KathyChmberlain