Oleg Antonyevich makes a detour through Kensington Gardens to pay homage to Princess Diana before he gets on the tube. He feels conspicuous in his grey Macintosh because there is no sign of rain. It is one of those rare, sunny March mornings celebrated by the English Romantics whose volumes of poetry he once kept hidden under his bed.
At Kensington Palace, Oleg meanders past beds of flowering bulbs listing their names in his head: Shelley’s hyacinths, Wordsworth’s daffodils, Coleridge’s snowdrops. Snowdrops. He shudders despite his coat and the unseasonably warm day. Podsnezhniki: it’s the name Russians give to the corpses of the homeless, alcoholics and political dissenters that emerge when the snow finally thaws in spring.
Oleg checks his old Raketa wristwatch - he always leaves his iPhone in the office when he goes out on one of his jaunts - and heads for Bayswater station, even though Notting Hill is closer. It’s a thirty-minute journey to his destination but it will take him the best part of two hours.
An hour later, Oleg has completed a loop of the Circle Line and is back where he started. It’s getting on for lunchtime and standing room only on the District Line. The train lurches as it leaves the station, jolting the passengers packed inside. Oleg grabs the overhead handrail to stop himself from slamming into the woman in the seat below.
‘Fuck’s sake,’ she says to the friend squashed in beside her. ‘Look at this, Liz.’ She nods in Oleg’s direction.
‘Ignore the dirty bastard, Janie.’
Elizabeth Bennet, Jane Eyre: English roses transposed into poison ivy.
Oleg looks down. His coat has fallen open. The woman has spotted the bulge in his trousers and gotten the wrong end of the stick. He could explain - he wouldn’t be arrested, unlike at home - but instead he decides to get out at St James’s Park and walk the rest of the way.
In Parliament Square, police hold back protesters brandishing EU flags as a silver Jag sweeps through the gates in time for Prime Minister’s Questions. Oleg carries on to Westminster Bridge. Half way across, propped against the wall, a bunch of wilting lilies, wrapped in soggy cellophane, marks the spot where a terrorist ploughed his van into a group of tourists two years ago.
Poor old Brits, no wonder they’ve started harking back to the past like his countrymen; it’s natural when one feels under threat. Oleg scans the sea of strangers surging towards him for bulging burkas and unkempt beards knowing that just because he doesn’t spot any, it doesn’t mean that ISIS isn’t here.
His gaze drifts towards the Eye as he heads onto Westminster Bridge Road. It had been disconcerting returning to London after thirty-five years living in other European capitals and at home: the skyline had changed but so had the people.
A princess still resided at Kensington Palace and a woman PM at Number Ten but he’d met Kate Middleton and Teresa May and they were nothing like Diana or Margaret: the powerful combination of tradition and progressive thinking that had seduced him in the eighties had ebbed away; the thawed waters of the Cold War frozen back over.
Oleg walks through Lambeth’s streets, bandy legged from his swollen groin. Outside the Old Vic he spots two policemen and crosses the road. Having swapped their tunics and pointy hats for stab vests and flat caps, the Met’s bobbies look as menacing as Moscow’s Omonovtsy.
Oleg zigzags through stationary traffic back to the sunny side of the street. The chafing between his legs is no longer a discomfort but a reminder that there’s no need for his pessimistic mood: what he has in his underpants will make the world a better place.
He arrives at his destination.
It is typical of young Oliver Cardigan-Fitznicely - Oleg loves a British military joke - to pick a location within easy walking distance of his office. The millennials are lazy, unlike the public schoolboys of yesteryear; or perhaps it’s just that the Brits no longer rate his work. Well, soon they will both have a chance to show their metal.
The door to the Premier Inn slides opens. Oleg saunters past the self-service check-in machines to the toilets at the back of the hotel restaurant whose name has changed since he was last here, from Blighty’s to Babushka’s. He is staggered - and impressed - that London’s chefs have managed to transform the watery borscht and greasy pirozhki of his spartan Soviet youth into trendy, mouth-watering dishes.
Oleg locks the far cubicle door, climbs onto the toilet seat and drops his trousers. He lifts the loose polystyrene ceiling tile above his head with one hand, takes the padded envelope from his underpants with the other and slides it into the roof space. He gets the sort of buzz he hasn’t had in decades, knowing this is big.
On his way out, Oleg ignores the young man, whose cardigan actually does fit rather nicely, washing his hands in the sink.
Outside, the weather has changed. It’s cool and cloudy, and Oleg is starving. He passes Starbucks and goes into the greasy spoon he likes on the corner of the street. As he tucks into his egg and bacon banjo - more military slang overheard in the corridors of the MOD - Oleg imagines Oliver Cardigan-Fitznicely back at his desk in Vauxhall Cross, taking the memory stick from the envelope, inserting it into his computer. Calmly observing a scene of debauchery that would make most people flinch.
He looks around the café. Grey faces, hunched shoulders; the proletariat looks glum. Oleg drains his mug of tea, brewed until bitter, pushes back his chair and strides towards the counter, searching his pockets for his wallet.
‘Evryfink okay vif your meal?’
The accent sets Oleg’s heart racing but he retains his composure as he finds his wallet and looks up. The waitress is tall, slim, a brunette. She has the look of a supermodel and her nametag reads Melania. He hasn’t seen her before: she must be new.
Oleg pulls out a ten-pound note, changes his mind and gives the girl a twenty. Tells her to keep the change. Tells himself there’s no need to feel guilty. Collateral damage – like Melania, like the bystanders in Salisbury - is inevitable. His staff in the rezidentura will despise the betrayal but they understand the rules. Just as he understands what comes next: a false identity; a new address; a life looking over his shoulder waiting for the stab of an umbrella, the odd tasting cup of tea.
On the pavement, Oleg checks the Raketa passed on to him by his father the day he followed in his footsteps and joined the KGB. Cardigan-Fitznicely should be on the phone by now, making the arrangements. Oleg tightens the belt on his coat. Dark clouds have eclipsed the tip of the Shard and the temperature must have plummeted because he’s shivering.
He’s light-headed, wheezing too, by the time he reaches the rendezvous point at the wobbly lamppost on Westminster Bridge, but elation takes over as he spots the motor boat with a green Harrods bag tied to its mast powering down the Thames. The extraction plan has been reviewed many times over the past few years. He never dreamed it might actually be put into practice.
Oleg takes his off his coat - with relief because now he’s hot and sweaty - and climbs onto the parapet. A faraway voice shouts ‘no, don’t do it’ and he giggles. The whole of London would be singing God Save the Queen at the top of their voices if they knew what he was really up to.
The boat slows down. Psychedelic circles swirl before Oleg’s eyes. His heart pounds and his ears are ringing. His organs are shutting down. He might not even make it to the safe house where Katya will be waiting with the girls. The boat bobs on the water below. The captain looks up and salutes, signalling that he’s a hero and that it’s time to go.
Oleg dangles one foot over the edge. The sky is black with snow clouds. Soon, he too will be a podsnezhnika lying on the boat’s padded-out deck. He has no regrets. He’s sad about his family but glad about the rest. He trusts the Brits to use his kompromat to expose the world’s biggest threat to democracy: Russia’s greatest agent, Donald J Trump.
Oleg Antonyevich steps off the bridge.
My seat is hard and unforgiving, and no matter how much I wriggle, I can’t get comfortable. All part of the torture, I guess. No sense in worrying about the comfort of a condemned man.
I glance at the couple sat opposite me. They look pale and worried, a mirror image of myself no doubt. We briefly make eye contact but then look away, neither party willing to initiate a conversation, despite our shared fate. You never know who might be listening. Besides, it’s unlikely that we’ll ever see one another again. Better to maintain a position of detached aloofness. If you build attachments in this place it will make their suffering more unbearable.
The couple’s two young children are playing contentedly at their feet, seemingly ignorant of what awaits them. Their parents must have decided not to tell them what was happening; I’d have done the same thing. It’s better that way, otherwise they could turn hysterical. All that screaming and crying could cause a panic that would ripple through the rest of us in no time. Then it could turn ugly. I must be strong. I must control my ever-rising tide of fear for the sake of the children if not myself.
A middle-aged woman with a stern angular face, her hair tied back in a severe bun, eyes us all suspiciously from behind her highly polished and organised desk. A stickler for rules and conformity no doubt. She has a mean look about her that suggests she doesn’t tolerate dissent. She’s seen it all before and knows what’s going through our minds. To her we’re just names on a list. Cattle. There is no compassion in those cold dark eyes.
Her menacing gaze turns in my direction and I quickly look away, not wishing to draw attention to myself. I stare off down the long sterile corridor opposite me. The passageway is painted magnolia with just a couple of abstract paintings punctuating its blank walls.
Our detention room is quiet save for the occasional telephone call which is efficiently answered within three rings by the woman behind the desk. Even when she is on the telephone, she is scrutinising us, watching for anything that might disturb the well-ordered environment which she oversees. Even the two children play quietly at their parents’ feet.
The tranquillity is suddenly broken by a child’s pitiful wailing from down the corridor. What are those monsters doing to her? Nobody says or does anything. We are all too frightened, too worried about our own well-being to intervene. It’s the way of society nowadays to look the other way.
A young girl of perhaps no more than ten years of age, comes scurrying down the corridor towards us, quickly followed by a distraught looking woman, presumably her mother. The woman grabs hold of the girl before she makes it to the door, tantalisingly close to freedom. She whispers something in the child’s ear and after offering an apologetic smile to those watching, leads her back down the corridor.
This time I briefly lock eyes with a middle-aged man sitting in front of me and to the left. We don’t speak but the look we exchange speaks volumes. He looks as terrified as me and ready to bolt. If I make a break for it, he’ll follow, I’m sure of it. Who knows, perhaps if enough of us make a move, some will get away. I wouldn’t want to be one of those left behind though. There’d be consequences.
Perhaps sensing our growing unease, the woman behind the desk stands and glowers in our direction. She is larger than I thought, and like an iceberg, most of her bulk was out of sight. She is formidable, intimidating and she knows it. She is not a woman to be tangled with. I quickly flick my gaze in her direction and then back, silently warning the frightened man who has his back to her. He surreptitiously turns to look. When he turns to face me again the colour has drained from his face.
Satisfied that she has cowed us into acquiescence, the woman sits back down sporting a smug grin. I smile as I imagine I can hear her chair groan in protest, but quickly stifle it. It wouldn’t do to look happy. She’d jump all over it in an instant. Nip it in the bud before it spread.
A pretty, young girl in a loose fitting and unflattering two-piece blue uniform comes marching purposefully down the corridor and without looking up from the clipboard she is carrying, calls out a name. It’s not mine. I breathe a sigh of relief as the man opposite me gets slowly up. His wife clings to his hand reluctant to let go, testing clipboard girl’s patience. The ogre behind the desk starts to once again ease her bulk out of the chair, perhaps sensing trouble.
The man smiles at his wife and gently pries open her fingers. Then after gently ruffling the hair of his son, he follows clipboard girl down the corridor without looking back. I try to smile reassuringly at his wife, but I can tell that my gesture is in vain. She knows what awaits him. What awaits us all. I admire her fortitude. When my turn comes, I hope I meet it with as much courage and dignity as her husband just did.
As if sensing her mother’s anguish, the young girl climbs onto her mother’s lap grasping a book she has picked up from the floor and asks her to read to her. Reluctantly the mother begins to read a story about a frog which couldn’t jump. Her voice is thick, laden with emotion, though her daughter doesn’t seem to notice. We all listen; it is something to pass the time and distract us. The woman behind the desk glares at the young mother, irked by this unexpected disturbance. Any louder and the mother will draw a swift and pitiless rebuke from the overseer.
Time drags. There aren’t many of us left. After the third reading of the story, much to everyone’s unspoken relief, the young girl finally gets bored and resumes her place on the floor next to her brother who is still playing with his action figure. Lost in his own fantasy world populated by superheroes and power-hungry villains, he is oblivious to what is going on around him.
Soon it’ll be my turn.
Some of those called have met their fate with courage. Others not so much. One man tried to run but didn’t get far. His wife caught him and persuaded him to come back. Perhaps she shamed him into staying, I don’t know. She was heavily pregnant and couldn’t run. No chivalry there, just a self-preservation instinct. Shamefaced, he had accompanied clipboard girl down the corridor unable to look any of us in the eye leaving his wife to face the looks of pity and understanding.
I turn and look at the heavily populated fish tank to my right, the occasional burst of air bubbles the only noise. After a few seconds one of the larger fish, an orange one with a thick black stripe encased within two narrower white stripes, approaches the side of the tank and seems to stare out at me. He is as much a prisoner here as I. How many people has he witnessed taken down that corridor of dread I wonder?
The sound of soft footsteps on the laminate flooring catches my attention. Clipboard girl has returned. I avert my eyes as she calls out a name. No one moves.
My nerve gives and I look up and find that from behind her desk, the fearsome woman is staring directly at me. Clipboard girl speaks again and this time I hear my name slowly enunciated. I reluctantly get to my feet.
Praying that my trembling legs will support me, I follow clipboard girl down the corridor towards the sounds of torture and pain.
Halfway along the corridor I pass the mother and young girl from earlier. The girl looks up at me with tear-filled eyes. Her face appears swollen and she is clearly in discomfort. My heart breaks at the cruelty and pain they have inflicted upon her. I vow to go down fighting. I won’t make it easy for them.
Clipboard girl stops and extends her arm, inviting me to enter an open door, as if I have a choice. I take a deep breath, swallow nervously and enter.
Inside, another girl dressed in a similar uniform as clipboard girl, turns and smiles warmly, momentarily unsettling me. It must be some sort of psychological ploy to make their victims more malleable. Good cop bad cop.
She takes my coat and gestures towards a black leather reclining chair. Still smiling she tells me to take a seat and that the dentist will be with me shortly.
Nodding timidly, I do as I’m told and settle down to await my fate.
Another day at the office.
Another fine day at the office.
I am in the office kitchen, making a pot of office coffee. Office coffee is the finest coffee because it is free, and because the smell or it overpowers the smell of the mouldy washcloths that live in the office sink. Sometimes, I will wait until I get to the office to have my first cup. It is a thrill. On those days, the bus ride into the office is a dream. On those days, I live in fog. On the bus, I don’t notice the bumping and rubbing, I don’t notice the breath or the sneezing. I float to work on a cloud, my body clunking along behind me as if by happy accident. On those days (which is most days) I take off my coat and rest it on the back of my office chair. I stretch my arms once, twice, and, if I arrive at work in good time, throw in a well-earned third. After my stretches, I walk to the kitchen and start to brew a pot of office coffee.
That is what I am doing right now. Brewing coffee for the office. Actually, more to the point, I am choosing a mug. I am looking through the shelves, leafing through the options. I decide on a peaty looking fellow, brown, with a chipped handle and no visible stains. This mug is one of my favourites because very few people use it. They don’t use it because the chipped handle is very sharp, and people don’t want to get blood all over their paperwork.
I have a secret about this chip. I chipped it myself by clanging it against the metal filing cabinet in the copy room. I smuggled the empty cup into the copy room underneath my shirt. I asked the copier to print a new copy of the latest reports, and then clanged the mug handle against the cabinet when the copier was at its loudest.
“Mmm, can’t wait for a cup of morning joe!” said my co-worker, Ken, who I ignore.
“Save me a cup, would ya? Ha ha.”
Ken also drinks his morning coffee in the office, but he always waits until I come in, because he is scared to use the coffee machine on his own. He made an attempt once, during his first week, and did such a poor job that coffee sprayed on all the walls and all over his new shirt and tie. Everyone thought it was a great day, except for Ken.
I pick up my peaty-brown mug gingerly, careful not to touch the serrated edge of the handle. The hot body of the mug is burning my finger pads, but I don’t care. I walk slowly back to my desk and set my mug of office coffee next to my office keyboard. I reach into the top drawer of my personal office desk, and pull out a roll of white tape. I turn the tape around in my hands for a few seconds, trying to find the end.
I find it.
I methodically roll the white tape around the index, middle, and ring finders of my left hand. The tape is there to protect my supple, fleshy fingers from the jagged, tooth-like handle of the mug. I am not left handed, but I do use my left hand to drink my office coffee. I use my left hand, because most people in the office use their right hand. By using my left, I automatically reduce the amount of lips that have touched my side of the coffee mug by about 80%. I also do it this way because it is also easier for me to tape my left hand than it is for me to tape my right. It is a good system.
I put the white tape back into my office drawer. As I close the drawer, I leave my taped up fingers on the lip, slowly squishing them, testing the tape. It is doing its job well. I hardly feel any pain from the corner of the drawer, but I do have to stop squishing because my circulation is being cut off. I pull my fingers out of the drawer, and rest them on my office keyboard.
The perfect office day.
I take a deep breath in, filling my lungs with the fumes steaming up from my fresh mug of office coffee. Other people are in the office now. I can hear them clacking away at their office keyboards, I can hear them answering their office phones. I turn my head to look at my own office phone. It does not ring very often. I do not like the sound it makes when it does.
It sounds like this: “Brlrlriiiing! Brlrlriiiing! Brlrlriiiing!”.
I pick up the headset, and navigate through the office phone’s menu. I am hoping to change the tone of the ring. I want it to make more of a “Bluuuung!” sound. This sound is not an option, I quickly discover. This is a shame, because I think the “Bluuuung!” sound could make a lot of people a lot of money.
I reach back into my office drawer and pull out an office notepad, and an office pen. I use the pen to write my new sound idea on the notepad, in case I get the opportunity to bring it up and the next office meeting. Usually, the office meetings have very little emphasis on the office phones, but I am feeling optimistic that I will be able to add my item to the agenda.
I reach my taped-up left hand towards my peaty brown coffee mug, and gently lift it towards my lips. I catch my own reflection in the murky office coffee, and notice that my hair has come uncombed. As I adjust my coffee mirror to get a better look at my uncombed hair, I catch the reflection of Ken’s face, who is now standing over my shoulder. I set my peaty-brown mug back down on my desk, and swivel in my office chair so I can face Ken and hear what he has to say.
“Nothing like a cup of morning joe!” he exclaims, smiling at me.
I nod my head in slight agreement. Ken walks back to his office desk and sits down. He looks at me again while raising his own mug, which is red and popular, and takes a thick sip. He sets his popular mug back down on his desk, smiles, and starts clacking at his office keyboard.
I turn back to my desk. I breathe in, deeply. The office coffee fumes settle my nerves, which had just started hopping around inside of me. I feel my bus fog roll densely in, coating arms, my legs, my eyelids.
“Brlriiiing! Brlrlriiiing! Brlrlriiiing!” my phone shouts, booting my cozy fog over the wall of my office cubicle and into someone else's.
I hope my fog does not roll too far away as I answer my shrieking phone. The voice on the other end of the line belongs to Ken, who is making a light hearted crank call. I hear him snicker into the earpiece as he mumbles something about my having won a cruise. He is referencing the vacation time that I booked out months ago.
It is not really much of a joke.
I hang up, strongly. I reach out quickly to grab my mug of office coffee once again, only faintly aware of the dulcet tickle and drip now tapping into my ears. I look down to find the tapping, and notice that there is blood on my paperwork. Bright, cherry, pooling blood. It’s on my shirt sleeves too. It’s on my wrist. It’s flowing from the index, the middle, and the ring finger of my right hand, all of which are expertly chewed and torn from the razor blade of a handle on my peaty brown mug. I loosen my grip, and let the strings of flesh rip away from the ceramic.
The peaty brown mug falls onto my paperwork, crashing into bits, spilling my murky office coffee into the well of cherry blood. In the distance I hear Ken’s footsteps, and maybe some sobbing, or maybe laughing, or sighing. I think he feels bad about his phone call. I feel my special fog roll back over me, pulling down my eyelids, weighing down my arms, my legs.
I lower myself down further into my office chair, and wait.
LORNESSE, ANTARCTICA, YEAR 2318
The girl stood on the 50th floor, staring out through the glass to the city beyond. A labyrinth of skyscrapers protruded through the artificial clouds, the countless white lights illuminating the gentle fall of filtered snow onto the streets. She had been confronted by the view of Antarctica’s main city countless times before, yet it never ceased to amaze her: the millions of people going about their daily lives with only a few metres of sea ice keeping them from the cold dark waters.
Just last year, she'd been on the other side of the world. England. So small on the maps compared to this icy continent she found herself on, yet she remembered it being so much more crowded, especially in London. Not to mention the lack of ice shelves, the occasional penguin and a massive glass dome over the sky, protecting the city from the elements.
On Finals day she'd been given a plane ticket to Antarctica. The only way to get into Antarctica was by being invited. And the only way to get invited was to be the best. She had been among the rare few in each country whose Trial results showed them to be the very best of their generation. A first generation girl, her friends had called her, like it was her new title. Everyone knew it was the opportunity of a lifetime - to live and work in Lornesse District Capital - the capital city of Antarctica. And now, exactly a year later, she stood in the heart of the continent, and she still couldn’t believe her luck.
"Alissa!" A voice called from the stairs, pulling her out of her daze. She reached for her purse and had a last minute look at the mirror. Deep green eyes stared out of an angled olive-toned face. Diamonds glinted on her ears and wrists, contrasting the floor length jet-black dress that hugged her figure.
"Alissa! Where are you?" A tall young man in a deep blue tuxedo hurried through the door and suddenly stopped, his eyes fixed on Alissa. "You look amazing."
She saw his reflection on the window pane, then turned towards him. He had streaked his tousled dark hair with gold dye. "So do you Martin. Nice hair." She raised an eyebrow. "Excited for tonight?"
"I mean, It's only our future careers we’re going to find out. Why would I be excited?," he asked, winking at her.
"Umm, I don't know. Big party, free minibar. Ring any bells?"
"No, not particularly."
Alissa glanced at her watch. "We’re going to be late."
"You got everything?" She nodded.
"Cool, let’s go", he said, and they headed towards the elevator. Once inside the marbled box, their microchips sent instructions to the lift panel to take them to the ground floor. Ten seconds later, the couple stepped out of Block 1A, arms interlocked, and made their way towards the city stadium.
"Thank you, thank you!" David Morris, overseer of first generation 23.02, said over the applauding crowd of 17 year olds, his amplified voice booming across the stadium. He waved a hand, waiting for silence to descend.
"Welcome to your Assignment ceremony. You’re here tonight because last year, you were selected - the best, most talented minds from around the world." The camera zoomed in on his face. "Your microchip implants indicated that you have the greatest abilities of your generation, both mentally and physically. Now, we’ve been assessing your performance in the different placements you’ve done over the last year. Tonight, based on that, the government department you’re best suited to will be revealed, after which the stage is yours." Morris paused as the whole stadium thundered with applause. "At 20:00 hours, every 17 year old in the world will have their job specification sent to them via microchip. Ladies and gentlemen, you have exactly two minutes exactly before your results come in!" The stadium erupted with chatter again.
Alissa sent a message via MC to Martin - although she was standing directly next to him, there would be no hearing her over the sound of the crowd.
Well, in 1 minute and 47 seconds, I'm sure the knowledge of your future department will temporarily distract you.
Alissa curled her lip. How long is temporarily?
As long as you want it to be, darling. What department do you think you'll be in?
Alissa thought for a moment. Either Covert Operations or Military. She grinned sheepishly. I might have stumbled across my department recommendations list.
Mmm. On Morris’ central computer.
The central computer which you have to get into the Staff Block, sneak into his office and bypass all the security protocols to access?
Alissa considered for a moment. Yeah. That one.
Martin elbowed her playfully. To be honest, if they don't put you in Covert Operations then the system must have malfunctioned.
I don't think that’s possible. For the system to malfunction.
Anything can malfunction, Alissia.
Well I guess you’re an expert on that kind of stuff.
What do you mean?
I also might have stumbled across your department recommendations list.
Oh really? What did it say?
Spoilers! She winked at him, and just as he was about to demand she tell him, David Morris’ voice sounded on the speakers. "Ten! Nine! Eight! Seven!" The crowd joined in. "Six! Five! Four! Three! Two! One! Zero!" And with that, there was complete silence across the stadium as thousands of messages were broadcast to the crowd’s microchips.
The voice of Ovra, the government AI, filled her head.
Alissia Lucas of First Generation 23.02.
You have been assigned to the ACO: the federal department of Antarctican Covert Operations, with the role of field agent. You will arrive at the department tomorrow morning at 0600 hours for your initiation. We hope you will enjoy the rest of the evening and use it as an opportunity to get to know your future co-workers. Congratulations and good luck.
Alissia opened her eyes and looked up at Martin. He stood silent next to her, eyes shut. Alissia could tell that his microchip was still engaged. The transmission should have been over by now. A few seconds later, he opened his eyes and met Alissia’s worried look. He began to smile and then suddenly swooped her into a hug. Alissia gave out a squeal and burst into laughter. Just then, the lights around the stadium flashed up, signalling the start of the dance.
Let’s go. Martin grabbed her wrist and pulled her along, down the stairs and onto the dance floor where a crowd was already forming. He put a hand on Alissia’s waist and they began to dance.
"So..." Martin stared at her intently. "Was it Covert Operations or Military?"
She let out a breath she hadn't realised she’d been holding. "Covert operations. I'm going to be a field agent."
"I'm going to have to watch what I say around you then, Miss Spy lady."
"You should. Give me any opportunity to report you, I’ll jump on it," she smirked. "What department are you in?"
"Same as you but different job. I’m a Technology & Weapons Developer."
"So you’ll be designing my guns?"
"You have no idea," he said with a grin.
COMMANDER DIANE RAE
I entered a white panelled corridor, the sound of my high heels echoing loudly off the polished floors. A large window on the left reveals a stunning view of the ice plains 30,000 feet below. Across the deck, one of four rotors whirr at a dizzying speed to hold the airship up.
My comms unit beeps and Williams’ voice crackles over the speaker.
"Commander Rae, we have several hostiles in the air heading straight for the Lornesse DC. How soon can you get to the bridge?"
"I'm on my way now. Have we got counter-missile defense up yet?"
He clears his throat. "It's still being prepped for launch, Ma’am."
“Damn it. What about the city’s dome?”
“Already activated and on defensive mode, Ma’am.”
“Good. I’ll be there in a couple of minutes.”
I hang up as I approach a frosted glass door and place my palm on the scanner. COMMANDER RAE flashes green on the monitor, and the glass panels silently slide open.
The Control Base is a hub of activity. Uniformed men and women sit at rows of monitors that reach across the room, their screens filled with maps and weaponry. Squads of military personnel just docked in from the air jets are waiting by the bridge where Commander Williams, Head of the Antarctic Air Force, relays orders. A young man in his thirties, he stands well over six foot. Silver buttons shine against a deep blue military jacket, and close shaved hair emphasises prominent cheekbones. He turns in my direction and nods, before dismissing the troops to head over.
"What happened?" I ask.
"Ma’am, missiles were detected approaching our borders around 20 minutes ago, at 8:49 pm. More worryingly, their trajectory indicates they’re heading towards Lornesse DC stadium."
I do a quick microchip search. "There’s an Assignment ceremony being held there right now." I look at Williams. "That’s hundreds of thousands of 17 year olds we’re talking about."
An airman tech steps in. "Sir. Ma'am. The counter-missile defense system is up and running. Requesting deployment."
"You have your orders then. Fire."
Julian Rama Mayson did not imagine that his holiday to Malaysia would end up with him having an incestuous fling with his cousin, but the fact was that it happened and she had allowed it to. Amy was seventeen and she was a girl of the tropics, slender with a sharp face and an athletic body. She was like a gazelle with golden skin and she wore make-up with a flick on her eyelids.
Rama had not seen her since she was little, and he could not remember much from his last trip except that she was the eldest daughter of his Uncle Wei Leong and his wife Rebecca, and they lived in a large home on the hills of Bukit Jambul.
He had been so bored at his grandmother’s home in Tanjung Bungah that he thought he was going to get depressed if he didn’t go out, so Amy invited him to a New Year’s Eve party in Belissa Row. It happened outside a club and he had waited until she came out of the bathroom. Then he tapped her on the shoulder and lured her to a corner outside. He leaned onto her, and she pushed him away. But then she laughed and kissed him back.
That night, she took him back to her room, and though he couldn’t be sure what had happened, he remembered her driving him back in the early hours before her parents could find out.
“I want to stop by Kek Lok Si, if you don’t mind,” she said in the car.
The sun had started to rise and Rama could hardly open his eyes.
“What’s Kek Lok Si?” he asked.
“It’s a temple. On a hill in Air Itam.”
She parked the car and they got out at the foot of a 30-metre tall bronze statue. It was Kuan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy and she looked over the inhabitants of the hillside and the island with her eyes closed.
Rama followed Amy into a temple hall, where nuns in saffron robes sold beaded bracelets, jade amulets and this year’s talismans. He watched patiently as Amy walked to a table with little drawers labelled ‘wealth’, ‘health’, ‘studies’, ‘career’, ‘friendship’ and ‘love’. Inside were strips of ribbons, a different colour for each category. She took out a ‘love’ ribbon and headed outside to tie it to a bonsai tree.
“It’s the New Year. You should make a wish for yourself,” she said.
“I’m alright, thanks. Here, let me take a picture of you with it,” he offered.
“No, of the both of us,” she said.
She took out her phone and gave it to a passer-by.
After their time at the temple, Amy treated him like winter. She pretended as if nothing had happened between them, which made Rama feel horrible. Over the next few dinners she ignored him and avoided his gaze completely. He recalled that she had a boyfriend named Justin, but he didn’t think that he and Justin had to be mutually exclusive in her life.
On his last night in Penang, he absolutely had to know. They had had a family dinner at Sunset Bistro in Batu Ferringhi. It was by the beach, and the adults had commenced their drinking. When Amy went to the bathroom, he followed her and pretended to order a drink at the bar.
“Can we talk?” he asked, when she came out.
She was washing her hands at the sink and looked up. “Sure.”
They walked to the beach, where a black ocean ended only where one could no longer see.
“That wind is unnatural,” she said.
“Lots of things are unnatural,” he said.
She looked at him. That night she wore a shawl over a black dress. In the darkness, she looked alluring.
“Look,” he began. “I know nothing can happen between us.”
Amy closed her eyes. “Rama.”
“I know. Well, we’re not related by blood, if that’s what you’re thinking.”
“Still. Can you imagine the talk? I would be disowned. Exiled.”
“So come with me to London.” Rama held her hand, but she shook it away.
“We need to forget this ever happened.”
“So what was that at the club?”
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know?”
“Rama, we’re cousins,” she whispered, as though it was a tragedy. “What do you want from me?”
“I want to know that you feel something for me.”
“I don’t know what I feel.”
“So why take me back to your place?”
“You were so drunk. You couldn’t even stand. And for the record, nothing happened.”
“That’s not true!”
“Maybe you going back to London is the best thing right now. So we can both forget all this.”
A whistle came from the restaurant. Uncle Wei was waving at them in the distant. It was time to go home.
Rama did go home, but how could he forget? He was never the same again after his trip to Malaysia. The weekend before going back to Middlesex University, he went home to see his mother in Essex.
“Your uncle is coming to visit,” she said, sitting on his bed. She held a letter in her hand.
“When?” He pretended not to be interested and busied himself with things to bring for his last semester.
“I’m going away in September,” he said. “To Liguria, remember?”
“Oh yes. But I’m sure you can spare some time for your Uncle Wei. Him and Amy were so good to us in Penang, showing us around and taking us out for dinners. Amy has been accepted to Bristol.”
Rama looked through the books on his desk. There was Kafka’s ‘Metamorphosis’, Murakami’s ‘Norwegian Wood’ and Jack Kerouac’s ‘On The Road’.
“Did something happen between the two of you?” she asked.
“You and Amy. I always thought you liked your cousin.”
“I do,” he said. He was not sure if his mother meant ‘liked’ in a certain way. Either way, he was telling the truth.
Rama started to go downstairs to fix himself a bacon breakfast, but his mother gave him the letter.
“Made some friends in Malaysia, I see?”
Rama took it from her. There was no sender’s address, but the postmark was inked with the words ‘George Town’ over a stamp of a Malaysian fruit.
“Who writes letters anymore these days?” he muttered.
“Romantics,” his mother said.
“When did it arrive?”
“A few weeks back,” she said, heading downstairs.
He tore it open to see a letter from Amy. I’m starting Psychology at Bristol University in September. See you in London, hopefully? A x
There was a picture of the two them at Kek Lok Si, next to a bonsai tree with multi-coloured ribbons tied to its branches. Rama had looked so burnt, wearing a white shirt and dark blue jeans from the night before in the club, one hand in his pocket and the other by Amy’s arm.
He put the photo on top of his book collection, just above Hemingway’s ‘The Torrents of Spring’ and headed down for breakfast.
The first place he took her to was Harrods, its Food Hall stocked with English biscuits and tea. Amy looked like she had put on weight, but she was nonetheless beautiful in an angora cardigan with skinny blue jeans.
He remembered how he had felt when he was in Penang, out of place and totally dependent on her to bring her around. It had only been nine months since his trip, and yet time seemed to have passed by so quickly. Now he was repaying her kindness, making sure she felt at home. She strung a Nikon around her neck, and Rama obliged her by posing with the Harrods bear.
He took her outside to Brompton Place, where they sat on a wooden bench that looked out onto the courtyard of a church. He bought her coffee, and she swept strands of long hair as she ate a chocolate muffin.
“Are you excited about Bristol?” he asked.
“I am,” she said.
There was a lustre in her eyes because the sun made everything look lighter, though Rama was sure that her skin tone had not changed. One thing he was certain of – she was sure to lose her tan in Bristol.
“The weather is good today,” he said. “I’ll show you the real London when you have more time. It’s over in the east where I live.”
“How are things with Justin?” he asked.
She paused. “We broke up. Just after you left.”
“I’m sorry, Amy.” He wasn’t really, but that was the right thing to say. He didn’t want to ask.
Rama held her hand, and she let him. She brought the warmth with her from the tropics, and he wasn’t going to let her go again. Besides, he was on home ground now and he had the upper hand.
After school, I have to play outside. Mammy’s at the factory and Daddy’s in England looking for work. I’m not allowed in the house on my own because I can’t be trusted.
Me and my best friend, Rosemary, sit on the pavement, poking sticks in the soft tar. It’s getting all over our hands and we’ll be in trouble, but we’re bored.
“What would you do if you were rich?” Rosemary asks.
“I don’t know. How do you get to be rich, anyway?”
She thinks about it for a minute. “I guess if you were famous, you’d have lots of money.”
“But how do you get to be famous?”
We both stab furiously at the tar for a few minutes, neither of us quite sure how to go about being famous.
Then Rosemary says, “Well, if you got your name in the paper, you’d be famous, wouldn’t you?”
“Yeah, but only important people get in the paper.”
We wander round to the backyard, where there’s a cold-water tap. It doesn’t wash the tar off but we manage to get our socks and shoes wet.
I have a good idea. “What if we gave money to the hospital like Mr. Brown did? He got his name in the paper.”
“Yeah, but Mr. Brown’s not rich, is he?” Rosemary objects.
“He’s richer than us, though, because he’s got a car and a job.”
“My daddy has a job.”
“But he doesn’t live with you and he hasn’t got a car.”
“You’re right.” Rosemary sees the sense of what I’m saying. “But where will we get the money to give to the hospital?”
I look at Miss Barr’s apple tree in the garden next door and the branches which hang over the hedge into our garden. She goes mad if we pick her apples and I’ve been told time and again not to touch them.
“We could sell apples on the corner to the people coming out of the factory.”
Rosemary follows my gaze and gasps, “Susie, that’s stealing!”
“No, it’s not, because they’re already in our garden. So, really, they belong to us, don’t they?”
She always believes me and I always get my own way. Rosemary’s pretty but I’m the smart one. Too clever for my own good, Mammy says, which is very nice of her.
I climb on the dustbin, with Rosemary hanging on to my legs, and pick the apples I can reach, hitting the far-off ones with a stick so that they fall to the ground. Some of the apples have marks on them. That’s all right. We can turn them upside down.
We find a cardboard box in the shed and carry the apples to the corner. It’s throwing out time at the factory. The women frown at us and hurry past. The men laugh as if we’re funny and give us pennies. Sometimes they don’t even take the apples.
One of the men says, “You’d better watch out, your mammy’s coming.”
All the apples are gone anyway and we trail behind Mammy as she heads for home. Rosemary decides she’s in charge of the money and counts it. “Two shillings and thruppence. It’s not much, is it?”
It seems a lot to me.
“They’ll be delighted with that at the hospital. We’ll take it up on Saturday morning.”
She looks doubtful and I have to give her a pep talk.
“We have to make a start, or we’ll never be famous. Wait til our names are in the paper; everybody will be talking about us.”
“Yeah, you’re right.”
Rosemary clears off for her tea and I go in to wash the dishes from this morning while Mammy cooks.
The lady at the hospital on Saturday morning is very smiley and laughs a lot.
I nudge Rosemary. “See, I told you they’d be delighted.”
“And what are your names, may I ask?”
The lady has her pen out. This is it; we’re going to be famous!
We split up at the corner of my road. Rosemary’s going swimming in the Bann this afternoon with her brother, Adrian. I’m not allowed to go to the river, because I can’t swim. But it’s all right. I’ve got an Enid Blyton book from the library and I get sixpence on a Saturday for sweets.
I help Mammy with tidying up and peeling potatoes for dinner, even washing the dishes afterwards without being told to. When I’m famous, she’ll be saying how good I was about the house.
I’m a good way into The Mystery of the Spiteful Letters and the Famous Five are showing the police how to do their job when there’s a knock at the door. I ignore it, until Mammy shouts, “Get the door, are you deaf?”
Sighing loudly, to make sure she hears me, I make my way to the front door. Norman, from across the road is outside. I know from the look on his face he’s got something he’s just dying to tell me, but I won’t ask him and put on my patient face to stare him out.
It’s a waste of time, anyway, because he blurts straight out with it. “Your friend, Rosemary – she’s drowneded!”
He’s so stupid, the same age as me and he can’t even read yet. I tell him, “First, it’s drowned, not drowneded. And second, if she was drowned, she’d be dead.”
His mother (he doesn’t say Mammy like ordinary people) comes running across the road after him and grabs him by the arm.
“Come away, Norman,” she says and looks at Mammy, who’s come up behind me. They do that thing grown-ups do, talking without saying anything.
I feel sick, like I’d eaten too many of Miss Barr’s apples.
Mammy brings me back into the house and talks to me ever so soft. It’s true. Rosemary got drowned in the river.
“But she can swim. It’s not true. We’re going to be famous.”
I shout at Mammy and slap at her arms. When she cuddles me instead of scolding me, I know it’s true.
The Chronicle comes out on Friday.
There’s a list of people who made kind donations to the hospital. Me and Rosemary are at the bottom of the list with two shillings and thruppence. Over the page, in among things about people who got born or married or died, there’s a picture of Rosemary in her school uniform. Underneath it are lots of nice things about her and how sad it was she got tangled up in the weeds. I find a bit that says how much her friend, Susie, misses her. I expect Mammy put it there.
Anyway, Rosemary is more famous than me because she got a picture as well as her name printed twice. I don’t mind.
Being famous isn’t at all like I thought it would be.
Valerie was stressed. George knew this from the worry-lines on her baby-smooth brow.
“This is very important to me,” she told him for the fourth time that morning. “Mrs Pinkerton is the wife of the—”
“Regional manager. I haven’t forgotten.”
“In this town, a woman like her can make or break you.”
He nodded sympathetically. He hated seeing Valerie so worked up.
“It’s vital I make a good impression,” she went on.
More sympathetic nodding.
Valerie surveyed her domain. The house. The front room to be particular. The poshest part of the house and therefore reserved only for visitors of social standing. Valerie had dusted, hoovered and wiped since dawn. Windows scrubbed with vinegar-sodden newspaper. Curtains changed. Even the fake coals in the electric fire were rearranged for maximum aesthetic appeal.
No wonder she was stressed.
“Honey, why don’t you take a couple of your pills and have a nice laydown.”
She glared at him as though he were an exceptionally stupid dog.
“The polishing won’t do itself.”
George put a comforting arm around her. “I’ll do that. You have a kip before she comes. I’ll polish the mantlepiece, the windowsills, the shelving, the coffee table and the sideboard.”
Valerie thought for a moment. “You are a love,” she replied, kissed his cheek and disappeared in the direction of the medicine cabinet.
Alone, George studied the wood and Formica surfaces. What could he do to tease out the shiniest lustre from them? A sheen so bright, Mrs Pinkerton would be dazzled into submission. Of course! Out in his shed, he started concocting. He mixed beeswax and coconut with a generous dash of linseed oil, a killer blend! Only one problem remained. The goo proved a solid lump. George racked his brains. How could he dissolve it into a liquid state?
“Methylated spirits,” he cried triumphantly. One of George’s trusted remedies for all household ills. He stirred in the purple saviour until the gelatinous dough magically melted. It achieved perfect fluidity. He reached for the atomizer…
Augusta Pinkerton was a bird-faced woman with a fashion sense stuck in the previous decade. Her floral print dress was as dull as it was bright. She perched on the sofa, sipping tea and chirruping on about social undesirables. There was a look of disdain stamped upon her beaky face. Valerie sat opposite, murmuring agreement in full sycophantic mode. George hid behind DIY Monthly, pretending to be deaf.
In keeping with her name, Pinkerton’s cheeks began to glow. Actually, they were reddening like sores. And then came the tiniest of sneezes.
“I seem to be catching a cold,” she said, nose twitching. Another sneeze, a third, and more, each louder than the last.
“Are you alright, dear?” Valerie asked. August sneezed heavily in Valerie’s face.
“Dear God, I hope it’s not my allergy,” Pinkerton cried, rising to her feet.
Valerie wiped the snot from her face and replied, “Excuse me, I run a tidy establishment. Not a speck of dust in my house.”
“It’s not dust, you idiot,” Pinkerton snapped, in-between increasingly violent sneezes.
George felt a sinking feeling. “It wouldn’t happen to be methylated spirits? Your allergy?” Pinkerton nodded desperately, floods of mucous pouring from her nose. She tried to speak, but the sneezing was too much. She gestured to the phone.
“Shall I call a taxi?” Valerie asked.
“A—a—ambulance,” Pinkerton stammered.
“George!” Valerie screamed. “She’s going into anaphylactic shock!” Sure enough, the woman’s skin went from red to corpse-white. Her lungs gasped in a rapid but shallow frenzy.
“Do something,” Valerie screamed.
It was too late. Mrs Pinkerton dropped like a stone; heart imploded. She was as dead as Valerie’s career options.
Sitting in a cafe by the Serpentine with a gin and tonic should have been the perfect way to end the week, but there was a problem. The call heralded trouble.
Cynthia, my lab assistant, had found something odd in the samples we’d been sent from the Institute of Developing Deadly Diseases. Could I return to have a look?
‘I know it’s Friday but...’ I could hear the concern in her voice, ‘... if this is what I think it is.’
If Cynthia was the sort of woman to panic every time something odd came up, then I’d have ignored it. She was quite capable of dealing with things. She’d had to. I’d fallen apart when my wife left me. Drinking too much. Late mornings and stupid mistakes. She’d had to do a few cover ups. Patience was running thin.
With a sigh I headed back to the lab. It’s a private lab and IDDD depends on our discretion. They pay us enough for that privilege. So, much as I wanted to ignore it, I knew my Friday evening was now taken care of.
Our lab is well concealed. At the front is an expensive photography exhibition. The only people interested are lost in the city, or with more cash than sense. I mean, who the hell pays 2k for a photograph?
I keyed in the code, entered and changed into my white coat and mask before entering the lab. Cynthia met me with worried eyes.
‘Sorry, Phil. It’s...well look for yourself.’ She pointed to the microscope. One glance and I could feel my heart rate increase.
‘Smallpox? But how? All known samples are held in high security units. This can’t be smallpox. Where did it come from?’
‘In our usual batch from IDDD but no label or identifier.’ Cynthia raised an eyebrow. ‘What do we do now?’
I scratched my head. I needed to be sure before we went any further. If it really was smallpox, then we’d have to inform the authorities and wait for the shitstorm to follow.
‘Where’s the rest of the sample?’
It didn’t take long for us to check that it was all contaminated with what was a deadly virus. It had been sent with our usual delivery. Who had done that and why?
‘You need to go, speak to the Institute.’
Cynthia was right. Another trip out of the city. IDDD’s well hidden. Big house in the country. No-one would believe what goes on there. Top secret. It’s the sort of place you want to avoid, and where you don’t ask questions. But - there was no choice. I had to find out what was going on.
It was dusk when I arrived. You’d never guess that the place was a cover for top scientists to perform their magic. They produced vaccines and pathogens. I didn’t have clearance so was wary about my welcome. I needn’t have worried. They saw me coming and the door opened before I could ring the doorbell. A tall attractive blonde smiled at me.
‘Dr Boyle. Welcome. I’m Selina. We’ve been expecting you.’
A glance showed that this was no ordinary place of work. I didn’t know where they did the science stuff but from what I could see it looked like one of those old country hotels. All comfy armchairs and log fires in the winter. I almost expected a corgi to be sitting on the sofa.
‘Drink? Beer? Wine? Spirits?’
Remembering the gin and tonic I’d had earlier I decided more alcohol was not conducive to a clear head.
‘Low alcohol lager, please.’
‘I’ll just be a moment. Please feel free to look around.’
The room was large with a bay window to the front and what looked like original oil paintings on the wall. Whoever had put this together had plenty of cash, that was for certain.
Selina returned with a tray. A can of lager and glass and what looked like fruit juice. Placing the tray on a low coffee table she gestured with one perfectly manicured hand. I opened the can to a stream of froth. Damn. She passed a box of tissues and smirked as, feeling like a fool, I mopped up the beer from my hand and the table. While I did that, she poured the beer into the glass and handed it to me. She raised her own glass in salutation, and I did the same, taking a greedy gulp.
‘So, Dr Boyle. Tell me what you’re thinking.’
She crossed her legs and leaned forward exposing more cleavage than I’d expected so I didn’t want to say what was on my mind. But, there were other things I needed to know.
‘Who are you and what the hell’s been going on here? We’ve got something that looks suspiciously like a phial of blood infected with smallpox. Sent from here. That’s lethal stuff. As far as I know the only samples are held securely in Russia and the States - so what’s in my lab?’ I could feel my voice rising. There was something dodgy about this set-up. She raised one perfectly arched eyebrow.
‘The sample is a synthetic form of horsepox. We’ve been developing a virus. We think we may have a smallpox replica.’
‘Christ.’ The implications of that statement were huge. Smallpox could wipe out a city, a country. A weapon of war.
‘And do you have an antidote?’
She shrugged her shoulders as if the question was insignificant.
‘Possibly. We need to test it.’
I frowned. This was big stuff. Why the hell was she telling me?
‘So, how do you find your job, Phil?’
I was startled by the use of my name. Only Cynthia and my wife, ex-wife, used the short version. Everyone else called me Philip or Dr Boyle or even just Boyle. The change of direction unnerved me further.
‘It’s hard to say. Things… have been... well... I’ve felt a bit vulnerable since my wife...’
Something about her made me want to spill my guts, unleash my frustrations with the work, the secrecy, the demands on my mind, my time. She was a good listener. I’ll give her that. Ten minutes later it had all been laid out bare - no holds barred. At the end I felt released, cleansed even.
She tilted her head to one side.
‘The virus,’ she said.
In my unburdening I’d almost forgotten why I was there. ‘Yeah, what about it? Do you have a vaccine if that thing gets out?’
‘We’re hoping you can help us with.’
‘Hey, I just analyse the bloods and write reports. I know nothing about how to make, or fight, a virus like that.’
‘No, but we’ve been working on it.’
I nodded and smiled. That was a good sign., wasn’t it?
‘We think we’ve perfected a vaccine. We know, from Cynthia’s reports, that your behaviour has been somewhat erratic of late. You’ve no relatives, your wife left you and you’ve taken to drinking.’ She shook a finger at me. ‘Tut tut. Not good. But we’ve an idea how you can redeem yourself, become an important member of the team again, in fact.’
My gut twisted. They knew everything. So much for loyalty. I thought Cynthia had kept quiet about my little misdemeanours but apparently not. I was so wrapped up in my own thoughts I barely registered what she was saying.
‘So, you see, we want you to play a major part in this development. We’d like you to help us.’
They were offering me a way back in - a way to regain my status. I nodded. My head was so fuddled it felt like blancmange.
‘We want you to be part of the experiments.’
‘We’re going to infect you with the virus and then the vaccine. See how effective it is.’
That’s when I discovered my legs weren’t working. She just smiled. I was beginning to hate that smile.
‘There’s no point in struggling, Phil. I slipped a paralysing agent into your drink.’
She opened a silver embossed box on the coffee table and, as I watched, removed a syringe. I was helpless. I didn’t even feel her roll up my sleeve and stick the needle into my arm.
Now, I don’t know where I am. It’s a room with a window, triple glazed with bars on the outside and shutters that close at night. All I can see is a roof top and sky. I’ve lost track of time. They’ve talked to me through an intercom system. Food and water provided through a chute. A shaft to throw away debris.
The bathroom is the only place I have privacy, so they haven’t seen the pustules yet, itchy and red. The fever has started. She told me they’d given me the antidote. I hope she was telling the truth. Otherwise I guess I’ll never have a drink by the Serpentine again.
Jo had been sent to the shop with exactly the right money for his cigarettes. If the price had gone up and she went home without them, Jo's husband would hit her. So she hoped that they were still on offer.
A tag was bright on the wall she walked beside. JACK, in yellow and orange, unashamed sun-colours. Jo imagined being Jack, and seeing herself as something colourful to share with the world. Yellow, orange. She never wore them. Just the dark, baggy clothes that Simon picked out for her.
"You're too old for bright colours," he explained. "And you don't have the figure. You'd look like an old whore."
That was after he'd thrown out her favourite dress. It was a soft blue and Jo had felt happy in it.
Now, without realising, Jo had stopped in front of the tag.
"Graffiti. Disgusting," Simon always said. "They're animals. They should be birched."
I'm just glad that someone, somewhere, isn't ashamed of who they are, thought Jo.
She smiled at Jack's tag.
It smiled back.
The colours curved at the ends, and Jack was now grinning at her.
Oh great. Now I'm going mad.
But it wasn't scary and it didn't feel wrong. Jo had a sense of friendship and understanding.
She blinked away the tag, and trudged on through the greyness of wet streets.
Sanjeev's shop was brightly lit and he smiled a welcome. It hadn't occurred to Simon that Jo might be friendly with the owner. Naturally Simon was racist as well as everything else, and he assumed that Jo, as a white person, would be too.
But Jo smiled at Sanjeev. "Twenty Bensons, please," she said. "How's Pritti?"
"As pretty as her name and as sweet as a wasp," sighed Sanjeev, and they both laughed.
"You'd be lost without her."
He named the price.
It was a penny more than the week before - the offer was over.
Fear hit Jo like a punch, and the weight of life dragged her face and shoulders down.
She put what she had on the counter and whispered, "Can I owe you the penny?"
"Of course! Just forget it. It's OK!"
Jo could feel Sanjeev's embarrassment and pity like slaps on her hot cheeks. He had seen her bruises, when Simon had been careless.
"Thanks," she said, her voice husky, and she fled.
Her feet dragged on the way home. Simon would be there.
A red graffito caught her eye across the road. It was a space invader, a happy little thing. Jo remembered the game: rows of aliens moving down the screen, only to be shot and destroyed. Yet still they came, a crowd of them, and they always won in the end.
Jo found this strangely cheering, and again, in spite of everything, she smiled.
The space invader smiled back and waved a red arm, or perhaps tentacle.
There are decent people in the world - friends you haven't met yet.
The thought popped into her head as if the alien had spoken.
I ought to be frightened by what's happening to me, thought Jo. But I'm only frightened with Simon.
Jo saw Jack laughing at her husband, and the invader pushing him away inexorably, defending her.
Further along the wall was a stencilled image - a political thing of a man in a balaclava, holding a bunch of flowers.
"Hello," said Jo.
The figure bowed to her, and offered her the black ink flowers.
Suddenly Jo could smell honeysuckle, lilacs and roses. Oh, so long since she had smelled them.
She reached her front door.
The key turned in the lock.
Change is possible, thought Jo. She could feel a strength rising in her. I am not as helpless as he thinks. The possibility of colour and disobedience. She wouldn't mention the price increase. And Jo knew where Simon kept his secret stash of cash. Tomorrow, while Simon was at work, she'd get the locks changed and phone a solicitor.
She could do this.
Jack laughed. The invader jumped up and down with glee. The balaclava man danced. All along the wall, graffiti applauded her, a crowd of letters dancing, figures waving, faces cheering.
My heart has been tilted off its axis and it’s free spinning and I have not yet calculated if it will land in fear or excitement but I know that I need to walk faster or I will miss this train.
Legs scorched in the cold air, I wonder if the houses that face the main road recognise me as the lady that runs for trains. I hope they do. I hope they would notice if I died or moved away. If a child would ask about me, with a mouth full of questions and over-cooked broccoli it’s small hands covertly dropping carrots to the unfaithful dog. Children notice things like that. I hope.
I’d better concentrate, listen and ask questions not just invade the conversation. Again. He’s a Nice Man you see. I no longer know what that looks like, but I’m pretty sure it still has the same currency as before. That’s if I trust my sister’s judgement. Which I don’t. But I must, because I need to challenge myself before I become too comfortable with being a hermit.
My hermit routine is almost perfect, like I’ve lost the flavour for any meal other than porridge. Which I eat every morning. At the same time. Even my body won’t stay in bed past eight.
The bus I had been waiting for passes me, collecting people like a politician collects his thoughts: consciously planned and today I was not in his favour. A man beeps his horn at the red eyes of the bus and then from his mouth hurls gum onto the road.
He’s a Nice Man, she said. I don’t think he is the type of man to do that, but I’m not the most perceptive when I’m drunk. And I was drunk.
I blame the straws; it’s like a race to get to the bottom before the clock strikes midnight and I’m drinking papier-mâché.
Horn Beeper’s chewing gum joins the pattern on the road, kissing the words: ‘traffic’ into the hard cushion of tarmac. My toes go numb. I am nervous. We’ve had sex already, but I am nervous. He either feels cornered into the date or wants me for sex. There’s no middle ground.
Which seems unfair. I’ve pushed him into a hyper-masculine-lack-of-feelings or a hyper-feminine-fragility. But I can’t think in anything less than extremes.
I have a tendency to be optimistically morose and verbose sometimes, but that’s why I know I will make it to the train. I stretch my legs two steps at a time forever grateful to the rich fuckers that made trousers popular.
It’s Spring and the birds are alive. That’s what they’re telling us. They’re calling to the still drowsy buds to wake up, even as the sky burns a tragic death into the horizon. I check my phone to see how many milliseconds I have until the train. But mainly to see if he’s texted me to cancel. He hasn’t. I punch up the stairs as the train closes in.
I enter the stale warmth of the first carriage with a Woman whose bag is at an angle that makes her look like she has an erection. She sits a few rows away but I can see her in the train’s reflection. Her cheeks are taught, her corners turn down, brows in and if her eyes look up I would see the second before tears walk out.
‘Hi there, my name is Vera. Can I help you?’ No.
‘Hi there, my name is Vera. How are you feeling today’. Sounds too much like a phone call centre.
Maybe I could give her tissues. If I had tissues. I’m not the sort of person to bring tissues. Or rather clean ones. In my backpack I have used scrunches of toilet paper worn by friction into fragile threads or hardened clumps.
Instead I look out. Give her privacy. I think I’d want privacy.
It begins to rain outside and two seagulls slip through it: single file wings smooth like a pebble on a beach.
We stop on the tracks to let a train pass, it’s carriage so long that time stands still. The baby in the expensive pram waits till the train fades, before it lets out a wail so high my ovaries shrivel.
I used to want children. My children with the Nice Man would be attractive, tight curls and caramel skin. I’m getting ahead of myself, dropping feelings like I’d dropped my not-quite-lingerie. That won’t happen again, I promise my reflection in the window. I want him to like me.
Mechanical blue cranes fish for something in the network of scaffolding. Soon to be but not yet. That’s what London feels like here: Soon to be but not yet. Uneven brickwork, graffiti walls, broken windows and thousands of chimneys all with new signs promising construction.
The train stops suddenly and no-one notices mayhem flicker near some kindling. We all think another train will pass by. The dog ten legs away from me quivers, legs rigid, ears up. No train passes by. But we wait.
The Man with gold statues hanging off his lobes whispers too loudly to his lover and we all enter a shared world of panic.
There’s a Man with a Knife on the tracks.
We all gradually get up.
Uncertain if we are safe in this metal can. Metal is thicker than flesh I think. But I’m not sure anymore.
Feelings are written in the air.
The Driver cracks open the speakers to tell us that we are ‘experiencing minor delays due to an obstruction on the track’.
The Driver does not know that we can see the man with the knife, but I’m sure the carriages behind feel relieved.
The Man with the Knife on the tracks wears no shirt and is stabbing the air. His stomach is four beers pregnant with grey chest hair that hangs straight.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen straight chest hair. If he was closer I could see that it was in fact a trick of the light and was curled like everyone else’s. Like the Nice Man’s.
He is closer. They are straight. He is now stabbing the side of our carriage and the Woman with the Erection Bag is suggesting we emergency open the door on the other side, whilst the Man with the gold statues on his ears is feverishly arguing that we go to the next carriage down. The dead light catches the gold swaying with his fear. His lover is a photograph, long limbs frozen in fear. His body had rejected both fight and flight.
I cannot feel my toes.
The Man with the Knife and Grey (straight) Chest Hair is at the door to our carriage and seems to be fiddling.
The Driver gives up the pretence and tells ‘carriage one to embark into carriage two as calmly as possible.’
I shuffle in time to the scurry of others.
The expensive pram has been left.
The dog is barking.
The carriage door locks in a way that makes us safe from the Man with the knife but makes me suspicious of what would happen in a fire.
The drama climbs off unsatisfied. The police slowly arrive and we recover our private ignorance of each other. We are strangers again.
But I think I’m giddy.
So I arrive late.
And we have sex.
And I don’t cum.
And I take the train home.
He’s a Nice Man.
“To the beach!” said Butch Henderson over his shoulder, sitting in the front of the taxi that was taking us to Teluk Bahang. His Malaysian wife Suna, who sat in back with me, gave me an inquisitive look, to see if I was OK tagging along with them, the odd man out.
Impressed with my hat, Henderson bought one for Suna and him when we stopped at Batu Ferringhi to pick up some suntan lotion along with some fruit, snacks, drinks, plus a plastic ball to play catch. At Teluk Bahang, a Chinese fisherman, Ah Khoo, agreed to take us to and from Pantai Kerachut. With piles of fishnet scattered about the deck, the boat turned out to be more suitable for fishing than for passengers, a detail we had overlooked. Making the best of the situation, Henderson plopped down on the deck and gestured for Suna and me to do the same.
I stretched out my legs toward Suna, who was sitting across from me. She playfully nudged me with her foot.
Later, Henderson nudged me with his own foot and said, “See how that guy keeps his left leg up like he’s part flamingo? Wonder what’s wrong with him?”
“Didn’t he say something about stepping on something?” I said, glancing at Suna for confirmation.
“A stingray,” added Suna.
“Aren’t those babies poisonous?” asked Henderson. “I hope he’s not going to die on us. Got a show tonight.”
“Not that you’d be missed,” said Suna.
“Not that I’d be missed.”
After passing the lighthouse at Muka Head, Ah Khoo rounded the bend….In the distance a beautiful, empty stretch of beach beckoned us like a mysterious lover. When the boat came nearer, I had this overwhelming sense of déjà vu. That empty white beach, those slanting coconut trees, that verdant green hill, that majestic blue sky….I had seen it all before on the ceiling above my bed.
“Honey, we’re home!” said Henderson, and kissed Suna full on the lips.
Unable to bring the boat all the way in without getting stuck, Ah Khoo asked us to wade in the remaining distance on our own.
“Now don’t forget to come back and get us,” said Henderson, holding up his towel and slippers so they didn’t get wet. He tapped his watch. “Seven o’clock. Got it? We wouldn’t want to get marooned here. There doesn’t appear to be a bar in sight.”
Ah Khoo laughed. “No worry, I come back.”
The boat was soon gone leaving the three kilometer stretch of beach just for us.
After dropping our belongings on the soft sand, we peeled off our clothes down to our swimsuits. Henderson didn’t stop there. Grinning like a schoolboy, he dashed naked for the water and called back, “Last one in is a rotten egg.”
Amused, Suna shrugged. “Modesty never ran in Butch’s family. I have to think twice.”
Suna unfastened the top of her bikini, followed by the bottom.
Henderson called from the water, “Hey, Steve, you coming in, or are you just going to stare at my wife’s beautiful bod?”
I lowered my trunks. “You heard what the man said. Last one in is a rotten—”
Suna got a jump on me, but I caught up with her and we reached the water in a dead heat. As we swam out to Henderson, I kept thinking about Suna’s breasts, mentally comparing them with the ones I saw in my dream-cum-reality. They seemed just right for her body; not too large, not too small, not too uneven. Patricia used to complain that her breasts were lopsided and too large for her frame, worried they would cause her back pain later in life.
Suna splashed water into my face. She tried to flee, but I caught hold of her foot. In her struggle to escape, she landed a kick to my stomach and broke free. I was about to give chase when I noticed Henderson swimming toward me.
“Paradise. This is absolute paradise,” said Henderson. “Quick, pinch me so I know I’m not dreaming. On second thought don’t…it may lead to something. We’re both naked.”
Henderson dunked himself. He resurfaced and banged one side of his head with his palm; then the other, dislodging the water from his ears.
“If only we had a dozen bare-chested beauties sashaying around us, stuffing grapes into our mouths, this really would be paradise.”
I agreed, though I was thinking of the bare-chested beauty a coconut’s throw away.
“Actually,” said Henderson, “what I could go for is a pizza…. Yes, that’ll be an extra-large pepperoni and two dozen bare-breasted beauties to go.”
Henderson fetched the plastic ball….Our game of catch soon turned into Monkey-in-the-Middle….Suna’s breasts would flop every which way as she charged toward me while trying to take the ball away. When it became obvious to her she would forever be the monkey, she gave up and the game fizzled out….We retired to our towels, put on our swimsuits and clowned around by taking goofy photographs of each other and then applying generous doses of suntan lotion over our bodies. Henderson buttered up Suna’s front, while I worked on her back. She returned the favor. Her light touch reminded me of what I had been missing all of my life: a pair of soft, patient hands that could do no wrong. With Patricia, everything had to be quick as if the meter were running.
Later, after feasting on the fruit and biscuits, Henderson nudged Suna and said, “Shall we do a little exploring, my dear?”
Suna caught my gaze as if to make sure it was all right.
“You guys go ahead,” I said. “Don’t worry about me. I’m a big boy.”
I watched as Butch and Suna strolled away, wishing it was me and not Butch leading Suna by the hand to look for some hidden nook, some convenient hideaway, far away from prying eyes. I couldn’t blame him. Pantai Kerachut was perfect for making love.
Bored with lying around, I dug my toes into the sunbaked sand and wandered off in the opposite direction. The only footprints around were the ones I was making. It felt good to be out on my own…away from Patricia, away from Copycat Boston, away from everyone who had ever placed demands on my time. Moments like these where I felt oneness with the world came far too infrequent. I needed this, if only to catch my breath, to reflect on my life with Patricia, and to think about my future without her….I then toyed with the idea of settling down in Penang and trying my hand as an expatriate, never going back to the life I knew. I dug my toes a little deeper into the sand and pushed on.
The longer I walked, the more I enjoyed it: the sand beneath my feet, the sunshine in my face, the waves eager to rush in yet reluctant to leave, the crabs scurrying from hole to hole in their elusive quest to stay dry. What I enjoyed most was the anticipation, the not knowing of what may lay ahead, perhaps even a treasure that beachcombers from years past might have overlooked. What I found were seashells. Small colorful shells that my eyes gleaned from the sandy carpet. I picked up the ones I liked only to replace them with those of a superior quality. When the seashells became difficult to juggle, I recruited my hat to carry them in.
I returned to the towels, but neither Butch nor Suna were around. Ah Khoo wasn’t expected to arrive for another hour, so we still had plenty of time….I considered going for swim to cool off, but instead I inspected the seashells that I had collected. I knocked out the sand and arranged them inside the tote bag, careful not to damage any, especially the sand dollar in excellent condition.
Fifteen minutes passed and still no sign of Butch and Suna. The last I saw they were heading for the boulder outcrop at the far end of the beach. Judging from the distance I just came, it was a good twenty minute walk. Maybe longer. I didn’t like the idea they were cutting it so close. What if something happened to them? Unable to get that thought out of my mind, I slipped on my T-shirt and sneakers, grabbed the plastic ball, and headed in their direction, sure that at any moment I would see them in the distance.
But I didn’t.
Despite heading straight for the boulders, each step I took seemed to take me farther away. Twenty minutes passed and I was barely halfway there. What would Ah Khoo do if he arrived and none of us was present? How long would he wait? It was foolish paying him all the money in advance. What if the poison from the stingray prevented him from coming back? Before long it’d be dusk, then nightfall. Out here, without light, it’d be totally black.
I quickened my pace…I began to jog. After a while, my legs felt wobbly and my right side began to ache. Sand had crept into my sneakers and was irritating my feet. I sat down, out of breath, and emptied my shoes. Perspiration poured off me like rain.
The beach had tapered inland significantly. The jungle seemed awfully close, intimidating….A piercing shriek jolted my attention. One shoe on, the other off, I stared at the cliff-like wall of jungle where the noise came from. I hurried into the other shoe, tied the laces and stood up. Another shriek rang out…followed by another. The sounds came directly from the jungle and grew in frequency. About halfway up the hill, I detected some movements…. Something dropped from a vine and landed on the sand—a good-sized monkey. It advanced several steps toward me. Curious, it stood up on its hind legs. I kept still. More monkeys scrambled from tree to tree, making wave-like movements through the foliage. There seemed to be hundreds of them. Mesmerized, I watched them, wave after wave….I expected more monkeys to drop to the sand to join their friend, but none of them did.
The monkey kept a wary eye on me and the plastic ball, my only weapon. Perhaps it thought I was holding fruit. The monkey started to run on the sand parallel to the jungle. It leapt back into the greenery and disappeared.
I glanced at the time. It was getting late….Ignoring the pain at my side, I jogged the remaining distance. Upon reaching the base of the boulders, I called out, “Butch! Suna!”
No one answered….I found a foothold, then another and climbed among the giant boulders. There were dozens of them that curved blindly around a bend. Soon the stretch of beach was out of view.
Again I called, “Butch! Suna!” Again no reply.
On the far side of the boulders, hidden from the sea, was a cave opening, an ideal hideaway. I peeked inside the shallow cave fully expecting to see Butch and Suna. The sandy cave was smooth and dry but also empty. I came upon a second cave, wider and deeper than the first. It too was empty. I glimpsed the mouth of a third cave up ahead, and then a fourth.
How many more caves are there?
Frustrated, I moved onto the next one. Like the first two caves, the third was empty.
The fourth was not.
With a mixture of relief and annoyance I stood at the entrance as Butch and Suna lay side by side covered with sand, their clothes cast aside. One body light, the other dark. I called out their names as seductively as the Sirens yet failed to wake either of them. Not wanting to disturb their privacy by coming any closer, I rolled the plastic ball and it struck Suna on the leg. Instinctively, she reached for her clothes to cover her body.
When she saw me gazing at her, she looked back at me without speaking. It was a longing look, a desperate look of desiring what neither of us could have….During our game of Monkey-in-the-Middle, Suna’s hands and body were all over me. I wanted those same hands and that body over me now….To hell with the consequences. To hell with Ah Khoo’s boat. To hell with the rest of the world.
The wan autumn sun bounced off the rain-splattered asphalt leading to the large lumber and hardware store entrance. John steered his Toyota pickup down the ramp between the lines of dark-haired, dark-eyed men who positioned themselves as work supplicants, attempting eye contact with the incoming drivers who aimed for parking stalls in the large lot. These workers-in-waiting were not always clean-shaven, but their clothes were clean and their dignity remained intact. Their labor was a commodity in demand for do-it-yourselfers who needed strong backs for their hard labor.
Eva had warned John against starting his garden project so soon after his doctor told him about his heart condition. “No heavy lifting, straining or stressing,” Dr. Osborne had instructed. The instructions also included losing weight and getting more structured exercise, and actually taking the blood thinners he had prescribed. Although he was skeptical about conventional medicine, John knew Eva was right and he promised to take his health more seriously.
“Sure,” he had promised Eva. “I’ll start soon. But I’m also going to start my project in the garden while the weather holds.” What he started was reading and thinking about the meds the doc had prescribed. And all their side effects and how dependent on them he would become. So he decided to wait just a little while before taking them.
The workers’ wait to give an honest day’s labor for an honest wage lasted often over half their workday. But they hoped to get a day or two or even a week of work. That would put food on the table and gas in their old cars. These men chose not to stand on freeway ramps. They carried no signs asking for handouts. Their status caused them to look over their shoulders
John’s white Toyota pickup with a bed liner bore a recent and distinctive sticker his nephew had given him: Tough Mudder. Tough Mudder was a popular extreme obstacle course young folks did who wanted more than just marathons and Iron Man competitions.
As John slowed his descent down the narrow lane into the parking lot, some of the waiting men moved toward the driver’s side.
“Hola, senores,” middle-aged John smiled and waved to the assembled workers, his gray hairline losing out to his naked scalp line. “Hola, senor,” came the response in chorus.
“Yo necesito, uh…” and that was the end of John’s abbreviated Spanish language skills.
“It’s okay, senor, we know some English,” responded one of the men. “And we’re here to help you,” answered another.
“I am called Jesus,” a medium sized man said with a thick mustache to go with his thick dark hair. He pronounced it ‘Haysoos’, so John didn’t connect the name with the Savior. Jesus had been hanging back, but he crowded his way to the front of the waiting men. Pushing through this crowd of men was merely one in a series of obstacles he had overcome since leaving his village in the south of Mexico. Having made it to this driveway was proof that he was a “Tough Mudder.” The difference was that instead of a ribbon or handshake, he hoped he and his family could survive and pull themselves out of poverty. Jesus and the others had their hands and their eyes open and their backs ready, but they didn’t want a handout.
“Hello, Haysoos,” John greeted the man leaning on his door as he noticed his size and strength. “Why don’t you meet me down in the parking lot and we’ll talk.”
And they did talk. They agreed on ten dollars an hour and one and maybe two days work. Then John headed into the store to get the supplies he would need to finish the job he’d started the previous summer, while Jesus waited by the pickup.
When they got back to the worksite, John and Eva’s back yard, John showed Jesus the task at hand: to move several river rocks from where they had been dumped to the site of a small depression in the soil, the designated space for a promised pond and gurgling fountain for his Eva. He would surprise her. She would come home and see the progress he and Jesus had made.
“I have a hand truck and a wheelbarrow, but these stones are damned heavy.”
“Si, senor,” Jesus responded as he moved to the rock pile and lifted one on the hand truck. Jesus was wiry and strong, but John could see the rocks were a two-man job and hurried to help. After working with Haysoos on three medium-sized rocks, John felt something he had felt before. Before he had gone to the doctor and before he had promised Eva to slow down and work smart and before he had hired Jesus and had learned how to pronounce his name.
What John felt was a pain in his chest and this time he noticed how much he was sweating. He thought, “I guess I’m not a very Tough Mudder.” Then he felt dizzy and he felt out of breath. First one knee buckled and then the other. He felt himself falling. He felt his vision blurring. Then he felt nothing.
He didn’t hear Jesus calling to him, asking him if he was okay. He didn’t notice when Jesus took John’s phone from his pocket and dialed the three digit rescue number. Jesus never learned CPR in his village so far from here. So John wouldn’t have recognized what a desperate, inexperienced Jesus was doing in concern and fear and anger as tears formed in his eyes and his inexperienced fists started flailing and pounding on John’s chest as he pleaded, begged, prayed to his namesake Jesus to save this nice gringo man.
As it happened, John was lifted high above the ground while sirens blared and disembodied voices and radio chatter assaulted his senses with the prize of a new life. Jesus, the Tough Mudder, forever looking over his shoulder, moved hastily away from all the uniforms of officialdom.
I dreaded Christmas. The lights, the decorations, the gift-buying, the social events, all of it felt like a burden, a set up for disappointment, a confusing morass of sadness and depression. Nevertheless, I played the game, especially when my kids were little. I gave and gave, only to arrive exhausted on that special day of celebration, watching them rip into their presents, then trying to make a big deal out of the bottle of smelly hand cream or scented candle I received in return.
I had no idea why I was such a scrooge until my mother lay dying from lung cancer in a nursing home in 2014, in and out of consciousness, rambling about memories past. When the MRI showed the cancer had spread to her brain, her biggest fear was forgetting who we were. Fortunately, that never happened.
One afternoon, as I kept vigil by her bed, she awoke from a restless nap.
“I remember one Christmas, when you were about three or four years old,” she began in short, gasping breaths.
Why she remembered this particular Christmas story in the middle of August on a muggy Virginia afternoon, almost fifty years later, was odd, but not a mystery. The mind regresses toward the end. What she communicated to me, though, whether intending to or not, exposed the roots of my conflicting emotions about the season.
There were four of us siblings, my brother David, a year and a half my elder, then me, then my sister Janette thirteen months later. Our caboose-sister Katey came along six years after Janette, so she wasn’t on the scene yet.
“You and Janette both wanted these new dolls for Christmas, the kind that cooed and cried and peed after feeding a bottle.”
I had absolutely no recognition of this doll.
“So, way back in July,” she coughed weakly, trying to clear her raspy throat, “I went to Sears and ordered two of them. When they arrived, I didn’t even open the boxes. I hid them in the basement until Christmas.”
Mom always bought two of everything for Janette and me. The same slippers, the same sweaters, the same cassette tape players and clock radios. To tell them apart, she would get different colors, or mar them with our initials in permanent marker. But since we opened our presents one at a time, from youngest to oldest, I always knew what I was getting when Janette opened hers. I remember the disappointment, having to act surprised and grateful when I already knew what was coming.
“On Christmas Eve, your father and I got out all the gifts from Santa. We put together a bicycle for your brother,” she even remembered the color and model of the bike, “and then made sure all the toys had new batteries. But when we got to the dolls, one didn’t work.”
I thought I knew what was coming next, because it was what happened my entire childhood. I was always the smart one, the strong one. “Your sisters are more sensitive,” they’d explain.
“Your father and I had to decide who we thought would be better able to handle the disappointment on Christmas morning.”
So, there it was. I got the broken doll when we opened our presents Christmas morning. The doll I had begged for and convinced them to buy.
“Your doll wouldn’t make any sounds, and the tube that was supposed to go from the mouth to the bottom was missing,” mom wheezed.
Not only was the poor doll broken, it was defective. I felt sad for the little girl who was me so many years ago. And, though I don’t remember the broken doll, I do remember anticipating disappointment on Christmas mornings after that. I now understood the source of my dread.
Mom looked at me then, her eyes watery and drooping, oxygen pumping into her nostrils. She looked so pale and frail, so scared. I took her cold hand in mine and scooted my chair closer to her side, suddenly afraid that soon she would be gone from my life forever. How could I be mad or upset at this tender, helpless, annoyingly imperfect woman who was my mother?
“I’m so sorry,” she said.
I could barely hear her through labored puffs. “It’s okay, mom. You did the best you could.” I thought of my own failings as a mother.
“I’ve always been so proud of you.”
I stood up to lean over the hospital bed and hug her awkwardly. She held me for a long time, saying more with her embrace than she could have with her words. All the petty insults of youth melted away. I sobbed in her arms. Somehow, I knew this was it. This was the goodbye of a dying mother.
“I love you,” I said.
“I love you, too, my dear daughter.” Before releasing me, she whispered in my ear, “Take care of your sisters.”
Three days later, mom passed. It was a sad, glorious moment when we all gathered around her for the priest’s final blessing. She had left nothing unsaid, carried no regrets. A graceful death was her final gift to us.
It turned out mom was right. Janette was the weaker sister. A mother, of course, knows these things. Her instincts are primal. Did Janette get more attention than me, more financial assistance from mom and dad for her various attempts to launch and relaunch over the years? Yes. But she also survived a devastating car accident, three back surgeries, two divorces, and was about to enter the worst of her battle with brain cancer.
Because of her disabilities, Janette didn’t work. It was she who stayed in the house with dad and coordinated mom’s palliative care while the other three of us labored remotely, struggling to bridge time and distance to visit when we could. As respect and compassion for my sister grew, my repressed resentments faded, which, until that conversation with my mother, I hadn’t realized I was harboring inside.
With renewed insight, I faced my first Christmas without a mother. Our father was grieving, Janette was back on chemotherapy, we had a second grandson on the way, my brother wrote a controversial book that almost derailed his career, our little sister Katey had another mental breakdown, and my husband and I were becoming more and more disenfranchised with our corporate careers. In other words, life went on. But Christmas, I decided, would be different from here on out. It was time to start some new traditions.
My husband and I discussed our options. We knew we had family obligations, his mother lived in a retirement community in Florida, my father and Janette made ends meet in Front Royal. There was my other sister Katey, my brother, their kids, my two sons and their significant others, my two stepdaughters and their husbands and kids. Scheduling one Christmas celebration was unrealistic, considering geography and blended families and job responsibilities.
We worked with each family member to arrange two or three pre-Christmas gatherings for a meal and gift exchanging for whomever could make it, at our place or not, with or without a tree, which I decided not to put up that first year, but always with good food. This freed my husband and I up to have the day of Christmas and the week afterwards to ourselves, a gift that has never disappointed me since.
My husband and I enjoy planning ahead for this special week together. The first year, we flew to Germany to meet our newest grandson. In 2015, we drove to Winchester to attend Janette’s wedding to a wonderful man she met after mom died. One year, we traveled to Charleston, and another to Myrtle Beach, for the area’s annual Christmas-to-New Year’s duplicate bridge tournament. Another year we got a group of friends together for Richmond’s Tacky Light Tour and rented a cabin at Hot Tub Heaven in the mountains. This past year we took a road trip to Florida to visit his mother and soak up the sun.
Sadly, in December 2017, Janette died from her long battle with brain cancer. I will forever treasure the bittersweet hours we spent together during her seven years of illness, bonding as only two sisters with completely opposite dispositions can. I took care of my weaker sister, the real broken doll, just like mom wanted. She made me strong like that.
I am sitting in the window of a café, in Norwich, nurdling the dregs of a cappuccino. The framed notice on the wall next to me, its words digitally printed in a swirling calligraphic script, tells me that this place is rumoured to be haunted.
I look out onto St Stephen’s Street: cluttered bike-racks, bus stop, Argos. It’s Saturday, a decorated December mid-morning. The bright sun has burnt off the frost. Shoppers, dressed for the cold, have their top buttons undone, scarves loosened, gloves removed. They carry bags of what might be gifts. They talk and laugh, beyond the glass, emitting small ghosts of steam from their shining faces. Life goes on.
I’m here on a pilgrimage, of sorts, to deliver… I’m not sure yet. An apology? Or, an acknowledgement, at least? To earn some sort of… atonement?
I have imagined: boldly standing up at my table, announcing my intention to read out a short document, then doing so.
But I can’t. I don’t know what holds me back: fear of seeming foolish? (Certainly, I’m not comfortable being the centre of attention…) Not wanting to cause an upset? Shame…?
I’ll just have to read it to myself, under my breath; say the words in my head. It’s nearly the same thing.
From my pocket I remove an envelope, grubby with smudges of fine grey-brown dust. Finger prints; some of them mine, some older. Rubbing my fingertips together, I feel the disintegrating matter of personal history.
I pull out a single leaf of brittle, yellowed, writing paper. The top-left corner is flaking and frayed where it’s been bent and scratched – by a paper-clip, I suppose; this page must have been attached to others at times during its past 50 years or so. There’s a deep brown stain smeared across it, beneath which the fading ink is even harder to read. The handwriting is spidery and uncertain.
My father (after whom I am named) recently passed away. Eighty-six. I discovered this letter “in his papers”. Originally – before I even existed – it was found next to the mess of his father’s body. Gave himself both barrels, apparently. A dark, family secret; a chronic embarrassment… “not in front of the children”.
“It all happened long before you were born,” was all I could get out of my parents for years, as if that made it any better.
I shudder, imagining the fleeting presence of his victim. As far as I can tell from my research, I am now sitting in what was once the front-room of her home.
Handling the paper with care, not wanting to touch the stain-that-must-be-blood, I read aloud, in my head:
November 20th 1956
Please try to understand: things were difficult for us during the war. Farm labour didn’t pay me well. Your Mother was too ill to work, but even had she been able, her hands were too full with you children. We struggled to keep you all fed. I really wanted to keep you in school – especially you – but we just couldn’t make ends meet.
I fell in with a rough crowd; black market and the like. With so many people putting in extra shifts, homes were left empty for hours. There were many opportunities.
April 27th, 1942. The Baedeker raids. A big terrace-house on St. Stephen’s took one through the roof. I was first on the scene. Whole place burst open. The flames had almost blown themselves out, didn’t get a hold again until later. The upstairs’ furniture was all broken and littered about downstairs. I just walked in and helped myself: money, ration books, silk stockings, a watch.
There was a bed, looking like it had just been made, standing on its chunk of bedroom floor, crushing a couple of lounge-chairs. Hoping to find something underneath – a suitcase, or a box, perhaps containing valuables packed in readiness for evacuation – I peered beneath the bed-frame. And there she was, all bleeding, moaning, trapped and helpless. The daughter of the family: Mary. She looked at me; knew me, too. She managed just one word: my name.
I ran. Yes, I left her there to die.
Every day since then I have been haunted by the thought, hearing her voice, over and over… I pray that she was able to leave this world before the flames caught hold again.
I am so sorry.
May God see my true remorse and forgive me. May He grant me some peace.
‘Robert,’ someone says at my shoulder, in hushed tones.
I turn, see only the rough bricks of the stripped-back wall.
I look the other way, the echo of my name still whispering in my ears. There’s no-one there – but I would swear, to a priest, I’d just heard a woman’s voice, close by.
I peer around the room, hear the chatter of conversation, a gaggle of laughter, the clatter of crockery, the gurgle-hiss of the milk-steamer; all the slurps and satisfied sighs of imbibing humanity, rushing me back to the here-and-now.
There’d been a faint sound, accompanying that voice… a wash and back-wash, like sea in a shell; background radio static. I notice its absence, hear the return of everyday life, its ordinariness crowding out of my mind the memory of someone quietly saying my name… my father’s… and my grand-father’s name.
I shudder, and although the logic in my brain tells me the smoke I can smell is from the kitchen, from overcooked meat, I suddenly feel the need to escape.
On my way out, I am stopped short by the sight of an old photograph, its sepia image hung by the door, framed in dark, distressed wood.
“The Residents of St Stephen’s Street, Circa 1942,” standing in a row.
My gaze is drawn to a pale young woman, at the right-hand end of the untidy line, turning away from the camera, from the others, as if about to leave. Trapped behind the glass, a pattern of tiny flies traces a join-the-dots “M” beneath her feet.
One final check round the room.
Three o’clock on a Thursday was an odd time for a visit, but it was the only downtime between my part-time jobs that suited Jo. More unusual was the one-to-one rendezvous in my bedsit with someone about my age and attractive.
It had been a jokey idea at first. On Friday, a big group of us - mostly staff from the pub we both worked at - were queuing for a club after our shift. Jo’s bunch were up ahead. She was refused entry because of her ripped jeans (both knees, like wide smiles). Her pal, Beth, joked that I could sew them up, given the upholstering training of my youth. A few days later, during a slow shift, Jo and I ended up arranging the visit.
At 2.58 Jo texted to say she was nearby.
Of course, I had tidied up. The main task was to clear my junk off the armchair so there would be a choice of places to sit. The bed as the only option might be awkward. Jo mentioned a boyfriend once so I was surprised when she suggested coming to my place. I didn’t know what she was thinking, and I didn’t have the skills or inclination to ask her straight out.
She knew that I was single. In conversation I was very much an ‘I’ person rather than a ‘we’ person. Not out of choice. On the contrary, it was about time I found someone, or someone found me.
The door buzzer went. As she came up the last few steps, I noticed the offending jeans. I should have guessed she would wear them. I would have put them in a bag.
A quick hug and she came in.
‘Oh my God!’ almost a shout. ‘This is amazing. What is this place?’
I lived there. I was used to it. Sometimes I forgot.
‘Where did you get all this? It’s like … I don’t know. A Bedouin tent or a medieval castle - they have tapestries, don’t they? But it’s more William Morris.’ I just let her talk.
There was something like love in her face. I caught a touch of it as her eyes met mine on the way round the room. She was wide-eyed, mouth half-open, with the start of a smile.
‘I had no idea,’ she said.
‘You can keep looking while I mend your jeans.’ I said.
‘Can I look round first, and touch them?’
She went over to one by the fireplace and placed both hands on it.
‘I love this one. It feels so soft.’
The late-spring afternoon sunshine gave gallery-quality illumination to the detail. It was one of my favourites, too; a forest scene with something of A Midsummer Night’s Dream about it.
‘Where did you get them?’ Jo asked.
‘All over. I just find them.’
She pointed at a pale brown canvas, lower down, by the chair.
‘Why’s that only got one bird?’ she asked.
‘That’s mine. I mostly repair them – sometimes I have a go. I gave up on that one.’
‘Why? I like it. It’s funny.’ She knelt down and ran the palm of her hand over it. She would be getting the feel of the soft gentle bumps of the wings.
‘The canvas is too thick for the thread. It took me the robin to find out. It’s a reminder not to make that mistake again.’
‘We all make mistakes,’ she said.
I gave her a tour. She had points of reference from her college course - an arts foundation year with a few weeks of photography, then fashion, ceramics, and so on.
She found another one to get lost in.
I stood close by. She smelt of honey shampoo. Her hair under the dry outer layers was still wet. The sunlight showed up the flaws in her skin. She must have had an adolescence like mine. Her nose ring was golden-coloured, maybe real gold. Her eyes jumped about the tapestry. Her pupils were large, with a hazel ring around them – green and brown, overlaying a base of glowing amber.
She must have sensed me studying her. She locked onto my eyes in her innocent, open, carefree way. It was her most common expression.
I reciprocated with some verbal frankness.
‘I was just looking at the colours in your eyes.’ Hopefully, she would respond to that.
‘Would you like to embroider them?’ It seemed a serious question, then an ironic smile broke out.
‘It’s a funny way of saying it, but I would, actually.’ My voice was croaky. I thought of making tea. Too much directness for me.
‘Yeah?’ she went. ‘That could be interesting.’
Her eyes began to sparkle. She caught her own smile, biting her lower lip that released itself slowly then popped back out to a pout. She had no make-up on, but her full lips were cherry-red.
She laughed and threw her head back. Her brown hair swung round. The darker wet bits showed and must have felt cold on her throat.
‘Maybe we should get on with what I’m here for,’ she said. ‘Shall I take them off?’ she asked.
‘I can do it with you wearing them,’ I replied.
She sat in the armchair and I knelt in front of her. She leant forward so she was sitting up quite straight. She clasped her hands, almost in prayer, keenly watching me.
‘Maybe you should rub your hands - like a doctor - if they’re cold,’ she said, with a mischievous cheeky grin that made her look years younger for a moment.
I did feel like a doctor, inspecting a wound. I played along, although I already knew the prognosis. A patch would be best, but she didn’t want that. After some explaining, she compromised and agreed to let me sew a dark-blue corduroy patch to the inside. The jeans would have to come off after all.
She took them off sitting down, with a total lack of self-consciousness, and put her coat over her legs like a granny rug.
I sat on the bed and got on with it. I could see her looking round the room.
‘I knew you did upholstery, and I knew about your apprenticeship, but this is something else. You could display this.’
I smiled politely.
‘People would pay to see your collection,’ she said.
That was funny.
‘No, really,’ she said.
We were back to our pub-shift banter.
I focused. One of the tapestries caught her eye and she was up and wandering about, peering and stroking them. Her coat slipped as she walked around.
She came over and sat next to me. The mattress wasn’t great. It sunk and rocked us close together so that I nearly pricked myself. She didn’t notice. She leant against my elbow to watch.
‘It’s so funny to see you sewing.’
I didn’t know what to say to that. I finished off and secured it; turned the jeans back out and handed them over. She looked satisfied, if not happy. She dropped her coat on the bed and pulled her jeans on.
‘It feels warmer. No draughts.’ She was happy again. ‘Thanks. Look, I’d better go.’
At the doorway she threw a final glance around the room, smiling, eyes shining, her pupils dark and large, her mouth hanging half open again.
Her hazel eyes rested on me. ‘I had no idea about this part of you.’
I felt her hand on my shoulder. She leant in and kissed me on the mouth.
When she stayed there, for some reason I counted, one thousand, two thousand, three thousand …
‘I’m leaving my boyfriend this week. It’s been coming,’ she said.
‘Maybe I could come again next Tuesday?’
‘Yes, sure,’ I said.
She skipped down the stairs.
I closed and then leant on the door. Sun beams were falling about the dusty floor.
I always thought I was mad to collect the rugs and tapestries and wall-hangings. But it was the best thing about my life. You get so used to everything being shit, you treasure and cling on to the good stuff.
I wondered what Jo was really like.
In the following days we stole secret kisses at the pub. She didn’t wait until Thursday to visit.
After a month she went back to her old boyfriend, who I never met. She kept him hidden, like I did with my tapestries. I gave her the robin on her last visit. It might serve her as a reminder of past mistakes, as it had for me.
In the autumn I got together with Jo’s pal, Beth. I moved in before long. Beth had a proper job and a new-build flat with white walls covered with framed posters. I left my tapestries under a bed, in suitcases, at my parents’.
I never saw Jo again. But we heard that she had gone to Leeds to study textiles.
Taking the elevator back to his hotel room Jeremy flipped through the pictures on the camera display. Wearing a dark blue suit and tie, the tall man still resembled a quarterback more than a businessman. Silver streaked through his short beard and hair, giving him a distinguished look.
He had shadowed his target at a distance and had captured a few good shots of her from across the park. Already a foreign agent tried to place her under surveillance and that had meant the word has gone out within the intelligence community of their breakup. Jeremy felt justified in keeping an eye on her, and if truth be told he was not willing to accept it being over.
For the last three years, Erin thought Jeremy was a low-level government clerk in Israel, however, he is anything but. After twelve years in counterterrorism, Jeremy has recently moved into covert operations. Where he was sent for missions, the words plausible deniability for the Israeli government would be invoked, should he ever be compromised.
The elevator opened up at the seventh floor and keeping his eyes constantly scanning back and forth, Jeremy walked down the hall to the stairwell and descended to the sixth floor. Ingrained habits to avoid detection and to help shake anyone following were automatic, especially when he knew that at least one foreign agent was closing in.
After he walked the full length of the hotel, he took the stairwell up to the eighth floor and stood outside his hotel room. The sign still hung on the door handle, asking that he not be disturbed. He had a quick look at the top and bottom of the door on the hinge side.
Before leaving his room, he had taken a few precautions: a small piece of paper was wedged into the door hidden from sight and a long hair was stretched from the door to the frame and held in place with a little spit on either end. Should the door be opened the paper would fall or be displaced, and the hair would separate and hang down.
Both of these marks were in place, and not triggered.
Holding the white plastic passkey against the sensor, the LED light flickered green and the door clicked open. He reached down to pick up the small piece of paper as he walked into his room.
After the door closed behind him, the Mossad agent froze while he slowly looked around. The sudden adrenaline surge caused his heart to beat faster and his muscles twitched with contained energy.
Everything seemed exactly as to how he had left it with one exception. Laying in the middle of his bed was a piece of paper, folded in half so that it would remain tented.
After he crossed the room in three long strides, he picked it up.
Thank you and have a nice day.
The smiley face on the end at first infuriated him, then it caused him to chuckle as he thought about the situation. He was outplayed, it doesn’t happen often at his level.
As soon as he wondered about the ‘thank you’ part, his stomach seemed to drop and a feeling of dread washed over him.
Throwing down the note he darted over to the bathroom and slid under the counter, looking up.
The silenced Glock 17 that was hidden under the counter, the only weapon he had smuggled into the city, was now gone.
Moving to the small couch in the seating area, he pulled the cushions off and shoved his arm down the back-seat gap and reached up inside the backrest cushions.
The small laptop he used for work was no longer there.
This can’t be happening…
Leaving the couch cushions on the floor, Jeremy opened the closet and pulled down his camera bag. The largest telephoto lens inside the case wasn’t real, and he popped the end open and tilted it down to look inside.
His lockpicking tools, backup passport, identification, and currency were gone.
Everything else was expendable and could be replaced. The missing laptop, however, spelled his death sentence and the consequences would be dire.
The Trident Spear cut through international waters without any problems or issues. The new class of Triple E container ships is considered the largest ocean-going vessels on the planet and they can easily hold over 18,000 twenty-foot containers. The Danish company, Maersk, is the largest shipping company in the world and handles mainly shipping between Asia and the States.
Nestled within the foredeck stacks lay three blue containers, only one thing separated and identified them from the others. Above the lock and sealed gate end of the shipping containers, a small half-sphere of polished black glass was secured into the metal siding, that was transmitting signals to a satellite. Three separate signals were being relayed out, and after bouncing around various servers and computer systems across the planet, the tracking results were easily displayed on the screen.
William Richmond leaned back in his office chair and picked up a secure satellite phone, dialing a number from memory. The MI6 agent resembled a librarian more than a covert operator with the short white beard and bifocals perched on the end of his nose. The phone was answered immediately after the first ring tone.
The voice was crisp and with that one Chinese word, a ‘no-nonsense’ tone was expressed quite clearly.
“The laptop was secured. Everything is all set on my end.”
“The General is prepared. Are you ready to change the world?”
Without waiting for a response both parties disconnect. Keeping all calls below a ten-second duration ensured that they would not be traced.
William gently placed the satellite phone down on the antique desk and took a deep breath. It was too late now to change his mind.
Typing in the activation code, the devices within the three shipping containers began the countdown as they approached the Port of Los Angeles.
“To withdraw myself from myself has ever been my sole, my entire, my sincere motive in scribbling at all.” Lord Byron
Losing all dignity, I am dragged slowly across the uneven floor. The rough, filthy carpet scratches harshly against my rubbery face as the boy tenderly, silently steps towards the decaying window. I can feel the fear emanating from the core of his being: I am not the victim here.
I shan’t repeat the screaming swearing his parents threw at each other. The expletives flew across the room quick enough to cut skin and penetrate the soul before self-defence was possible. It would’ve been a shocking attack for a thirty year old, let alone a five year old.
Flinching back from the sight, he searches desperately for a place to hide. There isn’t anywhere. No furniture, no cupboards, all of his favoured hiding places don’t exist here. In blind terror he runs to the lone furnishings, two tattered, opaque net curtains. They appear to have been sliced by the fingers of a blade, or ripped by the pure anger of a previous visitor. Nonetheless he saw them as a solace from the danger and burrows into what’s left of them, forcing me to come with him for protection, for reassurance. As he attempts to conceal us in the disintegrating folds, their putrid smell burns a brand into our nostrils: “inadequate” it reads, echoing the views of his parents and society whenever they look upon our scraggly, matted hair and ill-fitting clothes. However, it was a slight haven from the open confrontation of the world and gradually I heard the decrease and quietening of his heartbeat to a more natural level, quiet enough so that we could hear a door slam and a car drive hastily away outside, setting it racing, pirouetting again.
Now truly alone, the silence weighed down on our small shoulders, menacingly encompassing us instead of offering a friendly difference. Behind me, his breathing stopped, held in by nervousness, unreasonable self-inflicted punishment and fear for the inevitable pain of what would happen next. The heaving gags ripple almost uncontrollably through him, showing his body’s desperation for oxygen, but he will not give in, this I know. I can hear the voices ringing around his head, echoing his parents’ cruel words “you deserve this.” Five more minutes and his body would force him to let go of the only thing he can control in his desperate life, sagging victoriously into a faint against the wall and inhaling deeply. Only then would the mask of tension fall from his pain-stricken face.
I wait until the moment has arrived.
My opportunity has come. I shall put him out of his misery now, take away the pain entirely, for he has endured it far too long. He will thank me later, I know it. All those sleep-deprived years will be recompensed now and he’ll be free to live a pain-free childhood.
Easing my podgy body from his slackened grip, sitting up and panting for a moment for it has been so long since I’ve moved that my body has seized up and the effort of it is excruciating. Summoning my strength, I focus on what needs to be done and slowly slip my hands around his neck, using my bandana to choke the breath, the life, from him. His body suddenly erupts into life, arms windmilling, flailing, failing to stop the assailant. Failing to stop me. He “never tries hard enough”, my thoughts quote his parents as he finally gives in.
Now I drag myself slowly across the uneven floor, its rough, filthy carpet scratching my porcelain legs. Reaching the open window, I haul myself up, over the threshold and plunge into the unknown of the car park below. I shall join you now; you will never be without your favourite dolly...
Cold freezing mist swirled around our legs, circling us. It had crept up from the north side and snaked its way across the top of the mountain. We might have been the only people left in the world; everything beyond the mist was another universe.
‘I’ll take your picture,’ said Dan, striding away from the cairn where we had halted, catching our breath before the wind turned the sweat on our skin to a chill. I turned towards him and watched him step backwards. A few more steps and he would be swallowed up, sucked into an abyss. The wind whipped my hair across my face like tiny rats’ tails and I forced myself to smile for the camera.
‘One, two, three,’ he called.
‘I know you’ve been cheating on me,’ I shouted into a gust of wind.
But Dan didn’t hear and only gave me the thumbs up as he walked back towards me. Then we heaved our daysacks onto our backs and walked through the mist down the mountain.
The pool was sapphire blue, water diamonds sparkling inside it as sunlight caught its ripples. Dan paused at the side, long enough to garner attention, before diving into the depths. Then he swam underwater from one side to the other, surfacing only to refill his lungs. I sat on a sun-lounger, a book held up to shade my face and so I could ignore him.
One chapter later and a shadow appeared above me. He dripped water all over me as he leant down and kissed my cheek, shaking his hair like a puppy. ‘Enjoying yourself?’ he said, smiling with his perfect aligned teeth. Without waiting for my reply, he strode off and posed again at the poolside. Once he had dived in and began his underwater strokes I decided to answer him.
I walked to the edge of the pool. His body wriggled under the surface, refracted by the light waves travelling through the water. I stood there, imagining throwing a spear like a stone-age hunter, trying to catch a seal.
‘I’m going to leave you,’ I called to him. But he carried on his sub-aquatic journey, unware of my declaration. I returned to my sun-lounger, pulling it into the shade of a hibiscus tree, and holding up my book to block out the idyllic scene, playing out in front of me.
We raised our glasses to each other as the bubbles raced to the surface. The restaurant was as quiet as a museum, only the murmur of polite diners and the clink of cutlery. The waiting staff prowled, looking for empty plates or a stray napkin to be scooped up from the carpet.
‘Happy anniversary, Emily,’ Dan said, smiling. Then he winked; a remnant of our past flirtations which I had once found charming. Now it seemed like a shortcut, an invitation. ‘I’m interested, are you?’ it said. I wondered how many women it had worked on.
‘Ten years,’ he mused. ‘Did you think we would last that long?’
I drained my glass. The honest answer, until a year ago, had been yes. We were the perfect couple with the perfect house, holidays, life. But then the scales had fallen from my eyes; wrenched unwillingly would be more accurate. A quiet warning word in my ear from a friend, the possessive attachment to his phone (always on silent, always password protected) the things I found in the pockets of his jeans that no married man needs. But I was stuck, trapped in that land between staying and leaving. I had needed time. Paperwork had to be gathered, precious possessions transferred to a safe place, arrangements had to be made. And I’ll admit, I thought about putting up with it, turning a blind eye. But once the day came when the touch of his hand on my skin made me twitch I knew it was over. It was just a case of biding my time.
Everything in the house was neat and tidy when I left. I even hung up the washing and left him milk and a microwave meal in the fridge. My letter explaining my decision was on the kitchen table, instructions not to contact me and my lawyer’s address for him to pass any paperwork onto. Putting my case in the boot I felt a lightness in my heart I hadn’t felt in months. Freedom was a plane trip away; my three month job contract on the other side of the world could be extended if it suited me, or I could go somewhere else. I locked the front door behind me, and then backtracked. I twisted my wedding ring off and placed it on top of the letter, letting the door slam behind me as I stepped back outside.
When my phone rang I nearly ignored it. But something made me look at the screen and press the green button.
‘Emily, it’s Dan. He’s been taken to hospital,’ Dan’s assistant’s voice was breathless and panicky. ‘You need to go there straight away.’
I drove to the hospital in a trance. ‘This is not happening,’ pounded through my head as I walked into the A&E department. Down corridors and round corners and then Dan was there, lying prone in a bed, machines whirring and clicking. Nurses recorded numbers from screens, checked drips, padded around the bed silently. I stood in the doorway, stuck between going in and walking away.
A doctor appeared behind me and led me down the corridor. ‘A stroke,’ she explained. ‘A serious one. There’s a good chance he will pull through but there may be some damage.’
I looked at her blankly. This was not part of the plan.
‘I know it’s a lot to take in,’ she said in a reassuring voice. ‘But there is rehabilitation. With some modifications he may be able to come home. We can support you, to help him recover.’
She pressed a leaflet into my hands and disappeared.
A nurse led me back into the room and sat me in a chair by Dan’s bed. His eyes were closed and I wondered if he was dreaming, or hovering in another world, a blank dreamless state that only the very ill visit. I glanced at the leaflet, its paper glossy under my fingertips. The lines of letters marched like ants in front of my eyes until I folded it and put it in my pocket.
Time ticked by. I looked at the clock on the wall and thought about how I should be checking in, answering security questions and putting my watch and jewellery in a grey plastic tray while I walked through the scanner. I phoned the number on my ticket and told them I wouldn’t make my flight. The voice on the other end was polite but curt; it was an everyday occurrence to him. For me, it was my future slipping away.
I stared at Dan. He was motionless, like a copy of himself. He was never normally still for a moment – he had always been a whirlwind of action, decisions, adventures. Now he needed me. In sickness or in health. Those were the words we had said to each other. For better, for worse. This was when it counted.
‘I brought you a cup of tea,’ said a nurse. She had a stud in her nose, a blue dot against pale skin. I took the cup, even though I never drank tea. I couldn’t taste anything anyway.
‘These things can come out of nowhere,’ she was saying. ‘Can’t predict them.’
I nodded. A tear slid down my cheek. She passed me a tissue and left the room. I let the bleep of the machines synchronise with my breathing. I took Dan’s hand in mine and lay my head on the cool white sheet. I felt the smooth gold band on his ring finger as I slipped into my own thoughts.
Later, the kind nurse with the stud in her nose touched my arm. ‘You’ve been here all day,’ she said. ‘Why don’t you go home and get some rest?’
‘Yes, I think I will,’ I said and stood to leave. Leaning down, I kissed Dan’s cheek. Then I picked up my handbag and left. The car was exactly where I had left it, my case still in the boot. I turned on the engine and drove.
I would probably need to buy a new ticket. But I was getting on a plane, one way or another.
When she opens her eyes in the morning, he’s still there, sprawled next to her, almost tangible. She doesn’t dare to blink, afraid he’ll disappear into the thin air, like so many times before. She always hopes he’ll seep out of her dream and into this alternate reality she creates in her head. And in it, it’s an ordinary Saturday morning, and they have just woken up together. The room is stuffy with remnants of sleep, just like back then, when they shared it every night.
“Hey,” she says, clearing her throat and lifting her head from the pillow, smudged with the makeup she forgot to take off last night.
“Want some coffee?” she adds when he remains silent, his dark eyes scanning her face. She gets up and sits on the edge of the bed, groping with her feet for her slippers.
“You have to let me go,” he says before she shuffles out of the bedroom, her back stiff and straight.
“I dreamed of you again,” she says, looking at her chipped nail polish as if it contains the secret to life. Or death. Or this thing in between. The coffee machine he bought a week before he died softly purrs and the rich aroma floats through the sunlit kitchen. It’s difficult to keep heart-wrenching hope out of her voice. Every time she wakes up next to him, her mind is split between a shaky pretense at normality on one side, and the underlying fear this would be the last time she sees him, on the other.
“So that’s what’s keeping me here,” he says. His voice is indistinct barely audible, just a shadow of the vocal timbre she knows and loves.
“Where would you go, anyway?” she says off-handedly, giving him a slight smile.
He reaches out to her smeared cheek and lets his fingers hover a fraction of an inch above her skin. She's quiet underneath this almost-touch, determined to take what she can. She wishes she could brush his hair away from the wound on his temple, a splotch of red on his pale skin, the last thing his body remembers.
This is the moment I want to live in, she thinks. When she closes her eyes, she sees their life together stretching ahead of them like a shimmering wave they can ride on forever if they just lock their hands and never let go. Stay, she beseeches him in her mind. I want to keep you and hide you from the world and time.
Going out to run errands feels too risky, so she keeps postponing it until it becomes inevitable. What if this is the last time she sees him? What if this is the inevitable full stop at the end of the sentence they have been weaving together ever since they met, the sentence that ended so abruptly? When she closes the door behind her back, she runs down the stairs to prevent herself from going back in to check if he’s still there.
She finds him where she left him when she comes back home with bags loaded with groceries. The way his eyes go wide when he sees his favorite cereal brand, the way he licks his lips as if he could taste it, brings her to tears. She cooks vegetable soup with noodles he loved so much, and he watches her eat, stating that’s enough.
They don’t discuss what happened that night. They don’t discuss what-ifs. What if she hadn’t left him alone that weekend and gone to visit her mother? What if he liked her mother enough to go with her? What if with his best friend hadn’t started a bar crawl with armed thugs? It’s pointless. She knows a harmless accident can turn into a tragedy in a blink of an eye. But sometimes she feels like she died with him that night.
“I can’t imagine a nicer boy,” her mother says. She’s perched on the kitchen chair, sipping her coffee with an absent-minded indifference. Behind her back, he’s frowning. His death didn’t fix their relationship. She sometimes wonders if her mother believes he’s responsible for getting himself killed. “Works in a bank. Recently divorced. His mother and I are in the same book club. He’d be perfect for you.”
Oh, the shark has pretty teeth, dear, he hums to himself, his long face crumpled in a frown.
“Mom. It’s too early. I’m not looking for anyone right now.”
Her mother’s bright lipstick is settled into the creases of her lips.
“I’m just saying. It’s a tragedy, but it’s been a year. He’s gone, darling. He’s not coming back.”
My grief, my rules, she wants to say. Her smile is vague and fails to reassure her mother.
“I hate it when I have to agree with your mother,” he says, looking at her with new determination. She’s always loved his stubborn mouth, but right now, she wishes she could slap him.
“So I should go for the banker guy? Is that what you’re saying? It’s so nice to have your blessing!”
She’s scrubbing off the lipstick stains from the rim of the mug with unnecessary force. The porcelain is old and stained, and she lets it slip out of her hands, hoping it would shatter and break his silence.
“You don’t need my blessing,” says the ghost of his voice.
She turns to look at him, indignant, on the verge of tears.
“I don’t know how to do it.” Her words are sharp, colored by fear. “I don’t know how to be without you. I miss you. I miss us. What’s the point of anything if you’re not there to share it with me?”
There’s so much sadness in his eyes she can’t bear to look at him.
“I’ll always be a shadow in your purest delights and all your scars. You’ll never be free of me, even if you want it; even if you go for that banker guy,” he says, and she chokes on a sob and presses her palm to her quivering lips. “I have no other home now. Just you.”
Hugging him feels like hugging a cloud, and even if her heart trembles with fear and resignation, underneath it all there’s a sliver of hope. He shares her pillow that night, holding her hand until she falls asleep, and even though she can’t feel his touch, she knows he’s there.
When she opens her eyes in the morning, his side of the bed is empty and undisturbed. She runs her fingers over the cold sheets before she gets up and shuffles into the bathroom, yawning and rubbing the sleep out of her eyes. She’s all alone in the silent apartment and she takes a moment to taste this new state of being unalarmed, unafraid, of being at peace. There’s a faint trace of red on her temple and she touches it lightly. It’s there to remind her that a love larger than life leaves permanent scars, but you love them, too, since they make you who you are. It’s there to remind her he’ll aways be with her.
Wink’s swinging on the gate, barefoot, all knees and elbows, her thin face grinning as her dad comes along the lane. London still had lanes then and old clapboard houses with wooden verandas. Nan sits, shaded and grim-faced. She’s not harsh, just keeps her lips pulled tight to hold in her dentures.
‘What I’d give for an apple,’ she says, remembering back in the day when the old Queen was equally grim-faced. She rests her needles, watches Wink, skinny as a boy, long bare legs hanging from her summer frock, washed pale from Sunlight soap and line drying. No beauty, poor little Wink. Like a li’tle monkey face, Nan thinks.
Ethel and Jess are rattling crockery, cutting bread and butter in the half dark of the lean-to-kitchen. There’s a smell of tomato plants and the buzz of bees round the honeysuckle and the mint taking over the place – the child’s upside down on the gate now, flashing her long brown thighs.
‘Oi, Wink,’ Nan shouts, ‘stop flashing your knicks!’ Wink turns her head, still upside down, sticks out her tongue. ‘Cheeky beggar,’ Nan mutters.
Wink tilts her body, delighting in the swing of her arms ...the world is upside down! The world’s right! It’s up! It’s down!
The late afternoon sun scorches the white paint of the veranda, polishes the shiny dish of blue sky. The worlds at her feet! She stretches out, somersaults off the gate and lands, perfectly poised, in front of her dad. He puts down his toolbox.
‘Watcha,’ he says, squinting into the sunlight. ‘Is tea ready poppet?’
‘Dad,’ she says, ‘Look at me!’ and cartwheels towards him. He catches her feet, hoists her up his body.
‘What’s for tea Nan?’ Dad says, looking up at the veranda and sliding Wink down onto the dusty ground, where she does a handstand and casually drops into a bridge shape, flicking her long legs, coming back to standing. She’s like golden brown rubber.
In a few years she’ll dance all night with a string of men on leave. She’ll whirl in her artificial silk, round and round to the sounds of the big bands, the curls sugar-stiff in her hair and even spend a delirious week holding hands in a Lyons tea room, ignoring the sirens, making plans, that all come to nothing when he goes back to his regiment. And his mate lets slip there’s wife at home... and kiddies. She never catches another one, can’t say why. She’ll stay, looking after mum and dad. Nan’ll be gone by then, lungs like wet woollies on the line.
Now, as Wink cartwheels up the lane, Nan leans forward, waves her knitting needle. ‘I dunno,’ she says. ‘Stop showing all you got, Wink. It’s not lady-like. Go wash your mucky ‘ands. Oh, and tell your mum I fancy a nice bit of tongue.’
As well as having elephant-like ankles, my ex-wife had a memory like one. I nudged things in the kitchen — an inch to the left one day, then two to the right the next — just to gauge her reaction. Then, once Alison cracked, I’d get my real payback.
I’d gone to such efforts to please her when I was alive, following the instructions on her cleaning spreadsheet and settling for the title of fourth-most-important man in her life (behind her sixty-year-old lover and her two poodles). Most of my headaches had come from Alison’s daily allegations or those yapping dogs, so it was a surprise to me when I met my maker at just fifty. I’d been in good health, then suddenly, bang, a brain aneurysm.
Back in the kitchen, Alison fed Benjamin and Gerrald their one scoop of biscuits each. Another act of my rebellion was to switch their food so the portly one kept piling on the pounds, while his brother ate the high-fibre pellets. Alison must’ve thought that Gerry was also sneaking doughnuts on the way to work. After the dogs finished, she disinfected and stacked their bowls in the designated place, then wrote a to-do list for him. As she had the week off from her job as an events planner, she left for her morning power walk instead of the office. I suspected she just walked to the bakery and back. I wished I could follow her, but I’d been tasked to stay behind to complete my mission.
It’s true I never loved the dogs, but I was mortified when they were poisoned. I’m no murderer. The silly pair got into a packet of my slug pellets that must’ve looked like their kibble. Her pets eventually recovered, but Alison blamed me and wouldn’t let sleeping dogs lie. Now, I needed to make her sorry, or I’d end up stuck with her for eternity, just as the new one was.
The new one was Brian, a Brigadier in the British Army, with ruddy cheeks and a public-school voice. Alison always hated my ponytail, so I’m not surprised she went for a short-back-and-sides type. Even though they had married, they didn’t see each other much. I think they actually preferred synchronising schedules to living together in domestic bliss. When I started my haunting a couple of years ago, I wondered where Brian would fit into the pecking order, but he soon had the dogs well drilled.
They were the perfect fit. Alison valued cleanliness and order, and Brian liked classical music and tin soldiers. I’m not kidding, he was even more serious about his battlefield arrangements than Alison was with her coordinated cushion displays. Brian had his miniature field guns and artillery and Alison had her Dustbuster.
While I waited for Alison to return, I twiddled my thumbs in the kitchen and thought back to the moment after my death — my transformation from patsy to poltergeist. When I woke up, I was standing in a white room, and it wasn’t Saint Peter I heard, but a computerised voice.
“Appearance, communication, or movement?” it asked, in a soft American accent.
All I could see was blinding white. “What? Where am I?”
“Nowhere. You do not exist in a physical form. Now you must choose the method for your haunting of Alison Ba—.”
I recognised the voice. “Stephen Hawking?”
“The Intel ACAT system has been selected as the most appropriate voice to represent your creator,” it replied. I suppose I did always admire the man. His wife supposedly bullied him too.
“Homicide victim eight-one-nine, you must now choose appearance, communication or movement.”
The voice sighed. “You were murdered, and have therefore been retained to haunt your killer until atonement is achieved.”
I knew things had been going badly between us, but murder?
“Your wife added concentrated slug poison into your food, drinks, and cosmetic products. You had a stroke.”
Talk about a toxic relationship. “She really must have thought I wanted the dogs dead . . .”
“You must now return to the scene of the crime, to haunt her conscience.
“Won’t she be going to prison?” I asked.
Another robot sigh escaped. “A brain tumour was discovered during your autopsy, and what with your advancing age, the police didn’t—”
“Alright, Stephen, don’t rub it in!”
After careful consideration, I chose the power of movement. I certainly had nothing to say to Alison, and I’d always maintained that spirit mediums were a hoax. What The Great Stephen didn’t tell me, was that I couldn’t leave the house until Alison was sorry for her crimes.
I planned to exact the perfect revenge, taking my time to send her over the edge, but after a prolonged campaign of gaslighting, I needed to turn up the heat. Today was the day I would end it.
During the Brigadier’s leave, I’d been hard at work shifting things around, making ever more obvious movements of Alison’s things, and playing fast and loose with The Brian’s belongings. Every time he went to the toilet, I made sure to lift the seat up and splash a small puddle on the floor. I left lights on all over the house, ironed the creases out of his slacks, took in the waists on Alison’s trousers, and shortened the dogs’ leads by one inch per day. The tension had increased, and over the course of one week, they went from cuddles on the sofa, to sleeping in separate beds. While Alison watched evening reruns of Midsomer Murders, he sat with his spectacles perched on his nose studying maps of various historical battles on the table.
Moving The Brigadier’s tin soldiers around was the most fun I’d had in years. I’d quite forgotten that I was supposed to be concentrating on Alison. He was so careful where he placed the miniature guns, horses and flags, attaining military precision with the use of a magnifying glass.
Alison returned and I put my battle plan into action. I really stuck it to Brian’s troops, switching armaments, toppling soldiers left and right, and even removing all of the brigadiers from the scene.
“Alison, darling,” he said, “have the dogs been in here?”
She paused her cleaning of the microscopic honey droplets I’d left on the floor to attract ants. “Don’t be silly. Gerald’s with me, and Benjamin’s in the garden. Look.”
“Hmm. It must have been them nosing around where they don’t belong.”
Alison pointed a finger. “And I suppose it was them who left the toilet seat up again.”
The Brigadier didn’t like that accusation. He was used to giving orders, not receiving them. “Nonsense. I always leave the lavvy as I find it. And please don’t touch my pieces.”
Alison mumbled that his piece wasn’t in any danger of being touched and went back to her cleaning. The Brigadier left to inspect the latrines and rid himself of the charge of leaving the seat up. While he was gone, I quickly rearranged the battle of Waterloo to make it look as though the French had won and Napoleon was buggering The Duke of Wellington.
When he returned, his face went redder than the British uniforms. “This is not a game, woman!”
Alison marched into the conservatory. “What is it now, Brian? Honestly, you and your bloody toy soldiers.”
The Brigadier picked up the nearest piece to hand — a lead field gun about the size of a King Edward potato. “Stay out of here!” he commanded, launching his projectile.
He didn’t mean to hit her, of that I’m sure. But, it clonked Alison right on the head. She stumbled backwards, crashing into the kitchen like a concussed rhinoceros, knocking over the dogs’ food in the process. Kibble everywhere. I watched in amazement as she struggled for footing, and slipped on the wet floor. Her head slammed on the edge of the freshly-wiped kitchen counter and she went down. Alison held her temple, groaning, and rolled under the table, leaving a slimy trail of blood on the lino. She stared up at the underside of the table and probably wondered why someone had stencilled the logo for Slug Away onto the wood. Even if they found a brain tumour when they performed her autopsy, it wouldn’t explain the hole in her head caused by the fall.
The Brigadier was beside himself. He even left The Duke of Wellington to the mercy of Bonaparte and rushed in to administer CPR. The dogs barked and ran around in circles, before hoovering up the biscuits on the bloody floor.
Alison was dead in minutes. If that wasn’t justice then I didn’t know what was. I couldn’t have hoped for a better result. I even did a little jig on top of her body.
The Brigadier phoned the police and turned himself in. It wasn’t as if the dogs could exonerate him. Brian wouldn’t be able to play with his tin soldiers in prison, but at least he’d be used to the strict routine.
With my mission complete, I left the house and felt myself floating up to the white emptiness of Stephen Hawking’s voice machine. Mission accomplished.
“Haunting unsuccessful,” said the voice.
I couldn’t believe it. “What do you mean? She got exactly what she deserved.”
Stephen sighed. “She did not atone for her crime.”
I shrugged my shoulders. “I’m happy with the outcome.”
There was a long pause like he was calculating something. “Manslaughter victim three-four-nine will now haunt the agent of her misjustice.”
“Hold on a minute,” I said.
“And she has elected to appear, through selected visions, until justice is served.”
It couldn’t be. I felt a headache coming on and screwed my eyes shut. My temple pounded, and not because of the bright white surroundings. Please no. When I opened my eyes, I saw a plump, perfectly turned-out events planner, wearing a pressed suit and a name badge that said Alison Baker. She had a dustbuster in one hand and a miniature metal cannon in the other. As she looked up, she raised her eyebrows as if to say ‘hello, you.’
Barbara touches the soil in the Swiss Cheese plant (Latin name: Monstera Deliciosa,) to check if it needs watering. It’s damp.
Through her kitchen window, Barbara watches the warm yellow sunlight turn the verdant South Downs to mustard. She looks around her small garden making mental notes on small jobs to do. Water the alpine rockery, fill the gaps where plants have perished. Deadhead the roses. Tidy the summer house.
A delicious smell of simmering beef fills the air as Barbara opens the oven door, lifts the lid of the casserole and stirs the stew. She checks the timer; another few minutes and the dinner will be ready even though it’s barely breakfast time. The hotpot is for Arthur, a neighbour who, since his wife died, is unable to cook for himself. She’ll pop it by on her way out.
The telephone rings as Barbara hangs the oven gloves back on their hook by the pantry. It only rings four times before she answers.
‘Hello Edith. How are you today?’ Barbara replies.
‘What’s that you say?’ Edith says.
‘Turn your hearing aid up dear!’ Barbara shouts.
‘Oh that! Right.’ Edith twiddles the knob on the hearing aid. ‘Now I can hear you. Do you know I hardly slept a wink last night.’
‘Oh dear, poor you,’ says Barbara. ‘Maybe we should put off our trip to the Rockery.’
‘Oh no dear! I wouldn’t miss it for the world!’ Edith exclaims, ‘Highlight of my social calendar this week!’
‘Shall we meet at the entrance at eleven?’ Barbara asks.
‘Inside or outside?’
‘Outside,’ Barbara replies, ‘don’t forget your OAP card, it’s 50% discount on Thursdays.’
‘Fine. See you there.’
Barbara hears a faint ‘Bye,’ from Edith as she replaces the receiver. When will Edith learn to switch that blasted hearing aid on in the mornings. She hopes Edith’s good on her feet today; Preston Rockery Garden is a hilly challenge for less agile pensioners than herself.
At ten thirty-five Barbara waits at the York Hill bus stop for the 5A. After dropping Arthur’s dinner pot off she’s running slightly late. Arthur kept her chatting, lonely old soul.
‘Excuse me, would you like to sit down?’ A young man asks Barbara.
‘No, I’m fine thanks,’ Barbara replies, and realises that it must be the walking stick she’s carrying that makes her appear infirm. She’d grabbed it from the umbrella stand on her way out, an unwanted gift from her daughter on her eightieth birthday, the cheek of it. Edith would need it; of that she was certain.
Two lanes of choked traffic inch along. Turquoise and white taxis sniffing the tails of double decker buses. Barbara sits downstairs on the bus, near the front. She reads the list she’d made yesterday after her patrol of the garden. Phlox Subulata ‘Maischnee’ - evergreen perennial with dark-green leaves and salverform small white flowers. Phlox Subuluta Bavaria - round white petals encircling shocking purple eyes. Oleraia Macrodonta or New Zealand Holly, not only presents quaint daisy-like flowers, but makes an excellent cat deterrent due to its prickly leaves. Barbara sniggers.
Hydraulic brakes burp the bus to a halt and Barbara alights. As the bus pulls off, she sees Edith standing outside the entrance to Preston Rockery Garden and quickens her pace.
‘Sorry Edith. You know how I hate to be late, but the traffic was terrible.’ Barbara touches Edith on shoulder.
‘Not to worry dear,’ Edith replies. ‘Lovely day for it.’
‘Yes, look at the view from here. Aren’t the gardens splendid?’ Barbara gazes up at the Rockery carved into the steep railway embankment that rises up from the main Brighton to Lewes road. The scene is flanked either side by the huge Rhubarb-like leaves of Gunnera Mannicata (or dinosaur food) at the forefront. Purple and varying shades of green bushes and trees lead the eye up to a Japanese wooden bridge in the centre.
Edith and Barbara walk up a path lined with Feather Top or Pennisetum Villosum grass sprouting with fresh spring growth, their fronds arching out to visitors. The Daffodils Narcissus pseudonarcissus are past their best, their yellow petals are now a crusty brown.
‘Oh Edith, careful!’ Barbara took Edith’s elbow to prevent her from slipping. ‘I almost forgot, here take my walking stick!’
‘Thank you, Barbara,’ Edith steadies herself and accepts the cane.
‘Mind these steps now,’ Barbara says, ‘You go first.’
Edith uses the walking stick to navigate the six steps leading up past a moss-covered building.
‘That’s the toilet over there,’ Barbara says. ‘When I was a child, my grandfather used to tell me Santa Claus lived in that building.’
‘Ah bless,’ Edith says as she pauses to catch her breath.
‘Look!’ Barbara says, ‘Over there, Yucca Gloriosa Variegata!’
‘Delightful,’ Edith replies, taking tentative steps forward.
‘The waterfall is just around the corner,’ Barbara says. ‘There’s a bench nestled in the trees just at the foot of the steps.’
‘Good idea. I’ll sit and wait for you there.’ Edith says.
Barbara sniffs the damp air surrounding the waterfall. The climb is tricky, slightly mossy underfoot, thank goodness Edith sat down. She hears the water cascading down the rocks towards the pool.
Green wire fences, like interlocked upside-down letter U’s protect the visitor from a good thirty foot drop down to the pool below. Her eyesight not being what it was, from this distance Barbara cannot see exactly which plants are growing in the rock garden below. Still, she continues on her way, squeezing past a gardener who is pruning trees.
Before descending, Barbara leans on a large rock built into the side of the wall.
‘Are you ok love?’ The man asks, secateurs in hand.
‘Yes, fine thanks,’ Barbara replies.
‘Well, if you’re sure,’ he turns back to his task.
Barbara clutches the side rail on her way down, treading carefully from one step to another. Suddenly, she catches sight of it - Phlox Subulata ‘Maischnee.’ Not quite in flower yet, but almost. No visitor in sight, or gardener for that matter; Barbara makes a grab for it and tugs a few stems gently to ensure a good root capture before shoving the lot inside her left pocket. She looks around before stepping across the crazy paving towards the rock pool. The steppingstones are large enough to tread on with both feet and since the weather is dry, they are not slippery today. Barbara steps boldly on to the first flat rock and pauses to look down at the fish below. Staring at the water makes her feel dizzy; she steadies herself.
‘Excuse me,’ the gardener appears from nowhere to offer his hand to Barbara and leads her back to edge of the pool. ‘Let me help.’
Back on terra firma, Barbara says, ‘Thank you, but I’m fine you know.’
‘Yes, I’m sure you are.’ The gardener replies.
Barbara switches her handbag from her right shoulder to her left, ‘Beautiful garden,’ she says.
The gardener eyes the Phlox Subulata ‘Maischnee,’ forming an ‘S’ shaped green trail over her beige raincoat. Their eyes meet. Barbara feels sheepish.
‘Well, I must be on my way. I left my friend Edith on the bench over there,’ Barbara points in the direction of a large Maple tree – Acer Rubum.
‘Wait,’ the gardener touches her arm.
Barbara tries to pull away.
‘You’re not supposed to take cuttings. It’s stealing.’ The gardener says. ‘Look, I won’t report you. I only do this as a hobby, I’m a pensioner.’
Barbara smiles, ‘Thank you. I’m sorry.’ She notices his kind blue eyes and suntanned skin.
‘Anyway, that Phlox is pretty common. Quite frankly, not worth the effort. If you fancy something special, try Phlox Subuluta Bavaria,’ the gardener says. ‘Look, it’ll be flowering in a couple of weeks. It has quite ordinary white petals, but stunning purple eyes.’
‘Phlox Subuluta Bavaria!’ Barbara gasps. ‘Where?’
‘That would be telling!’ The gardener replies. ‘Come back in three weeks and I’ll prepare you a cutting. I’m here every Thursday about this time.’
‘Thank you!’ Barbara clasps her hands together, smiling.
‘But you must promise not to steal cuttings from here again!’ The gardener winks at her.
‘I promise,’ Barbara nods her head in agreement.
‘See you then,’ the gardener turns away.
‘Bye,’ Barbara shouts at his back, before quickly teasing a clump of Phlox Subuluta Bavaria off the rockery wall to her left. Thought I didn’t see it, Barbara stares at the plant and smirks; I’ll start you off in a pot. But first, let’s rescue Edith.
We smoked cigarettes all through the night, and when we ran out, we pulled off the two-lane highway to purchase more. We went through towns with names such as: Bixby, Allegra, and Church Falls; small towns with faded clapboard homes and churches, lots of churches, and trees that stood tall with brilliant colors like fireworks that had burst and froze in time. We sang along to the music on the radio, George and me, until our throats went raw, or the static kicked in, whichever came first, and I thought no one names their children George anymore, or Scott or Harold or Gary.
We stopped at a roadside diner and ordered coffee. George took his black, “Like my soul,” he liked to joke, and the line never failed to make me smile.
I missed the days of being able to smoke in diners. They took that away too. No more Harry’s and Linda’s and Betty’s or smoking inside diners. What did we do to deserve that?
On the television behind the counter, the President was speaking at yet another fucking press conference because—God knows—we need yet another fucking press conference, and he’s going on and on and on about something, but the sound was off, so it didn’t matter either way.
The server with the sad eyes brought our coffees and before she walked away, her eyes lingered on me for what seemed like a second or two longer than was necessary, and I suddenly felt uneasy. Was she passing a message to me? Was this a cry for help? Don’t be ridiculous, I thought to myself. You always had a habit of reading too much into things, the product of an overactive mind.
“Earth to Debra,” George said, and I can’t help but think, there’s another name long gone. It made me feel old. But I’m not old. Twenty-eight wasn’t old, right? Depends on who you
George looked at me. He was handsome and kind, the sort of boyfriend I hadn’t deserved. We smoked in the parking lot, leaning against the car. The night air felt cool against my skin. I watched the ghostly-white light of the moon sliver its way down through the treetops on the wooded lot behind the diner.
“You ready?” George said, flicking his cigarette away. I watched him climb back behind the wheel as I took my last drag, and slowly exhaled the smoke.
We drove the next eighteen miles in silence. I thought about the world I’d left behind, my baby, Erin—no one named their children Erin anymore, except me—and I knew she was in good hands with the family I’d left her with. I’d observed them for weeks, this nice, wholesome family, who lived in a one-story ranch with a dog named Bandit. How surprised they must have seemed when they discovered baby Erin on their doorstep with a note pinned to her blanket.
“What are you thinking about?” George asked, and I wanted to tell him, what do you think I’m thinking about? But I don’t. I glanced at him with a half-smile and said, “Nothing.”
We drove another six miles in silence.
“We’re running low on cash,” he said.
“Ok.” We’re always running low on cash.
We pulled into the parking lot of a convenience store two miles from the highway. We were the only vehicle except for an old Honda, that I’d imagined belonged to the older clerk I saw through the storefront glass.
George kept the engine running. He placed a hand on my knee. “It’s all going to be fine,” he said, and I watched him get out and touch the spot beneath his coat where he kept his gun.
It’s all going to be fine, I thought, his words, not mine. We’ve done this a million times, also his words.
There was that familiar rush feeling that surged through me as he passed into the store, and I can’t help but hold my breath and close my eyes.
So, I’m sat here, looking back at my life. Do I have regrets? No, I’d do it over again. Look, I was good at my job and that’s the bottom line. Some people told me I was very good. But it weren’t easy. If it were easy, more would have tried - cause the pay was real good. But the burden and the stress? Well, they’d take a toll on you. I’ve come— hold on one moment.
‘Hey, Marty, tell the chef that was one of the best steaks I ever had.’
Where was I? Oh yeah, I’ve come a long way. I was raised poor. A deprived kid from an in-and-out-of-work family in the baddest part of the Bronx. My father was this big guy who worked his heart out at the docks until they laid him off – automation they said. Might as well’ve killed him. My mom seemed to spend most of her life on her knees – scrubbing floors for the well-heeled of Manhattan – when she wasn’t praying. It was a hard life but we always paid our debts.
They still held the faith and took us to church regular as clockwork. My sister and me tried not to mess around while Father Keegan did his stuff. He could lay it down like a politician before polling day. “Be good Catholics or the hell-fires will take you.” Never thought I’d believe all that stuff.
Went to a school in Queens and tried to make something of myself. I was a big son-of-a-gun and the teachers assumed I was this dumb palooka from the wrong side of the tracks who’d amount to nutting. But I learned more than they figured – until I got suspended for telling the math teacher where he could shove his equations.
I left and drifted around doing odd jobs for Mr Chen, who owned a pawn shop. When I was old enough, I joined the army. They taught me a lot more than just the soldiering. I learned about reconnoitring, planning, discipline and organising. But I got booted out of there too when I told a Lieutenant General where he could stick his baton. I guess the discipline part never stuck.
And then came my lucky break. We all get one, don’t we? Everyone deserves a break in their life and I got mine. Wait a minute.
‘You want a drink, Luca?’
‘Yeah, why not. Gimmee a nice cool beer, Marty.
‘Hey, and in one of them tall glasses – that’s been shoved in ice first.’
‘Sure, Luca, I’ll get your favourite.’
OK, so where was I. Yeah, my lucky break. A nephew, Jamie, told me he had his new car stolen right in front of him by this gang of punks. They told him if he went to the cops, they’d torch his house. Can you believe it? I had to help, so I went to see these guys. They weren’t very welcoming but then I got to parley with their leader alone. He thought he was Mr Cool with his shades and homburg hat. In the end, he got what I was about. The next day, my nephew got his car back - and I had me a homburg.
Word got around. Next thing I know I’m getting more jobs – only this time they were paying for my trouble. So I put my skills to use. Each task was like a project. It needed researching, planning, organising, and execution. My clients were demanding son-of-a-bitches. I only took one at a time. Their needs would often be unique with their own peculiar set of challenges and sometimes I’d have to find different methods. There was no room for mistakes. I had a reputation to uphold.
Let me tell you about my first assignment. It was up in Manhattan. This guy had run up a load of gambling debts and started to welch on the repayments. Some people, huh? So, yours truly was given the job. By then I had me a car. I drove to his address and parked right outside. I knocked on the door of this big house and a guy in a silk dressing gown answers. I take off my hat. I’m real polite.
“Hey, John Lowe, I’ve come to collect on the debt.”
He looks at me like I’m something the cat dragged in.
“What debt? I don’t owe you guys nuttin.”
I waved the betting tab at him. “Says here you owe a whole load, John. Twelve thousand buck’s load.”
“Get out of here, scram, I ain’t paying you diddly-squat.”
You can see my politeness wasn’t reciprocated – so I had to take things in hand. I ushered him inside, into his big living room with the fish tank wall and Jackson Pollock paintings. We carried on the discussion and I left the place an hour later with everything settled.
After a few years, I’d built a business and enhanced my reputation. I was travelling all over the show and the money was rolling in. Hey, I even got my parents out of their slum and bought them a place in Long Beach. Just a minute.
‘One for the road, big man?’
‘No thanks, Marty. I guess I’ll sit on this one.’
‘You take care, Luca.’
I met this gal when I was working in Boston. She was a waitress. I’m a big tipper and it went from there. I told her I was a successful businessman. Angela was her name. She liked the fancy cars and exotic holidays. But in my job, the hours were a bitch. I’d disappear for days or nights – and didn’t get to call her. And when I returned it was a different ball game. After that, she hooked up with a regular nine-to-five guy and good luck to them.
My last job was where it all went wrong. I’d planned it as well as ever. It should’ve been another routine visit and I wasn’t expecting trouble. This one was in Virginia. I got there in the late afternoon after a long drive. Entry was no problem. I got the biggest bunch of skeleton keys. So I gets in the house. There’s no one at home, so I sit down, turn on the radio and wait. I take off my hat. You’ve got to show respect. An hour later I hear a key in the lock. She comes through to the living room where I’m in the chair, waiting for her. She drops her bag and falls to her knees. She knows what’s coming. I turn up the music. Rita Gonzales had skimmed the cash while working at the tables in Reno. Got off on a technicality, but the bosses wanted justice. That’s where I come in. So I stands up and puts my gun to her head. She looks up at me. There’s resignation written large on her tired face. Get it over with. It’s better when they don’t know it’s coming. I make sure they don’t feel a thing. They might be out walking their mutt or sucking on a Lucky Strike in their backyard, next there’s nutting. A tidy end. I got my reputation to think of. But this kneeling dame, this resignation with no desperation, it threw me. She reminded me of my own mother. I couldn’t do it no more. I dropped the damn gun and walked out.
The cops came for me the next morning. I confessed everything.
Look, I’d better finish my drink, there’s someone at my cell door. It’s Warden Kaminski and he’s coming in.
‘Hey, Luca, how you doing?’
‘Doing just fine, Warden.’
‘Guess it’s time then?’
‘Yup, it’s time’
‘Can I wear my homburg?’
‘Sure you can.’
I put on the hat and held out my hands. The warden wrapped the cuffs around them.
‘How was the meal?’
‘The best, Warden, one of the best.’
‘Good, I have to shackle your feet.’
I shuffled out of the cell and he was waiting patiently. The man in bible black. Father Keegan had baptised me, and now he made the sign of the cross as I came in line. Warden Kaminski looked around at me.
‘OK, Luca, let’s do the walk.’
We did the walk. I hobbled past the emptied cells to the chamber.
‘Ain’t got no last words for you, Father.’
‘God save you from the hell-fires then, Luca, my son.’
I got on the gurney as quiet as a mouse. They took my hat, strapped me down and put the cannula tubes in me. I knew the others could see through the two-way glass – the sons, the daughters and widows of my fifty-one hits. That’s the least they deserved. I looked at Kaminski one last time.
‘Get it done, Warden.’
Hey look, I’m thirty years old. I’ve lived a life. I’ve loved life – but I took life. No regrets, eh?
Say a prayer to the man in black for me.
Any one of us could be taken at any time. Death is always so close.
We live in a white cube filled with more cubes of varying sizes, a perfect green square at the front, a wonky green rectangle out the back. There’s the kitchen cube, the dining cube, the bathroom cube…you get the picture. I probably shouldn’t become an estate agent any time soon.
I fry up some skinless boneless chicken and a pack of stir fry veg, adding the Blue Dragon sachet of black bean sauce at the end. I squeeze every last drop out of the plastic pouch and discard it in the bin. I’m doing really well this evening, holding it all together, repeating a familiar pattern, holding on for dear life. He’ll be so pleased with me today.
He doesn’t need to know that the police knocked on the door earlier today. Or that I hid, crouched in a ball in the hall cube where they couldn’t see me as they peered through the leaded lights. They still make me feel like I’m behind bars; they block out half my vision. I can’t ever see the whole picture when I look outside.
A baby cries. My heart leaps. A second baby cries. A third little one squeals with delight. Oh children, mummy’s coming, I think. I grab the stir fry from the gas, heart beating faster. Mummy’s coming. Where is mummy? Where is she?
I find her just in time to move into the lounge cube where the three children make their own distinct noises. Sounds I should treasure and savour. I glance up and see the autumn rain falling through my broken vision. We’ll have to change those windows. I can’t stand them.
“Mummy, look, a truck goes ‘brum’…mummy?” the one aged two says to me, pleading for my response. I find one, “Yes, sweetie, that’s right, it goes ‘brum’,” I choke. Then I reach for twin baby one, the one crying the loudest, as that seems like the right thing to do. I’m always looking for the right thing to do. I’ve read all the books on doing the right thing. Not that I ever do the right thing. Twin baby one continues to cry as I soothe and shush and rock. See, I’m clearly not doing the right thing, again.
The rain hammers hard now. It’s plainly in competition with the children as to who can make the most noise. I walk to the dining cube, hoping that the movement will soothe twin baby one. It doesn’t and the rain is even louder here.
I move back and place this baby down on the rug and before I pick up twin baby two, I check behind and around the TV. They were filming yesterday. You know those ‘nanny cam’ things, well they’ve set one up, here in my home. I know. They think they’ve tricked me, hidden it well but I knew yesterday what was going on. They’re checking I’m doing it right you see.
Making my way upstairs, my burden is heavy; I’m holding baby one over my shoulder with one arm and baby two is curled in my other arm; she’s grasping at my face with one tiny hand and gripping my thumb with the other like she’ll never let go. I will protect you baby, I promise silently, simultaneously feeling there’s nothing left of me to protect her with. Ahead of me the two-year-old is bouncing up the stairs, excited for bath time, shouting rather than singing, Five little ducks went swimming one day, Over the hill and far away. Mother duck said, Quack quack quack quack, And only four little ducks came back! Behind me, guilt is following closely, stealthily. Something heavy pulls at my heart.
I close the door on the small space and feel the four of us trapped, imprisoned. The sound of pouring water floods the bathroom cube. The grey plastic Venetian blinds slice through my vision like knives. I cannot see clearly. Only slivers of the outside world are visible and torment me. The darkness is falling fast, the rain is growing heavier. The tall bare tree outside scrapes at the window like dark fingers trying to poke their way through the gaps to take me away. Maybe it would be better if I was taken away.
Habitually I swirl the bath water with my hand, trying to even out the temperature from the hot and cold taps, bursting so many bubbles as I do so. Nerves flutter around my chest like trapped moths. I release a sense of panic as I breathe out heavily and lift each child gently into the bath water. Splashes and giggles, coos and babbles mingle in my mind, doing battle with the darker sounds that exist there. Other voices tell me to go away, to remove myself from this, to put an end to my pathetic attempts at getting it right.
Much later, lying in bed, when everything feels still, I stare through the crack in the curtain; a tiny shard of the world is visible out there. The world I inhabit feels fully occupied by breathing. From the monitor on my bedside table there’s a gentle rise and fall of breaths interspersed with jumpy murmurs, probably dreaming about trucks or ducks. Two tiny Moses baskets to the side of me contain snuffly, delicate, tiny breaths; breaths that make me tense with every dissimilarity to the last. My own breathing now feels panicked; jagged and rough with responsibility. His sonorous breathing next to me sounds satisfied.
I was right, he had been pleased with me this evening when he arrived home. He tucked them all in and kissed them all good night and we ate our much-repeated mid-week meal on trays on our knees. He’d had a tough day with clients A and clients B; clients C hadn’t even bothered to turn up for the meeting. That whole other world of his seemed so far removed from me. I could only follow the basics; too much detail made me feel like I was drowning. He asked me tenderly about my day, and I told him, “We didn’t get out today as it never seemed to get light. The rain just poured all day.” The images on the TV screen flashed in his tired eyes, he glanced up at me and he nodded wearily and smiled. “I promise I will get some time this weekend. Let’s do something fun,” he said.
I glance at the clock and I know it’s madness, but I decide to take a walk. A beautiful, night-time walk in the pouring rain. He would stop me if I were to wake him to let him know. So, I leave him a little note, thinking how he used to love my spontaneity. Darling, I haven’t been out all day and the darkness and rain are calling out to me. Just a short walk out. I shan’t be gone too long. Love xxx.
I walk out and I breathe in the rain. Deeply. I inhale the droplets. I want the rain to get inside of me somehow. I tip my head back and open my mouth and eyes as wide as I can. As I stand with my head thrown back in wild abandon, I’m drenched by a passing vehicle and I feel a deep sense of pleasure from this, a freedom to not care. I’m given a sense of release, a purpose. So, soaked through to the skin in my thin nightwear, I begin to spin and I can’t stop spinning, it’s like a dance I once started years ago and I never finished and now that I am free I can continue to dance so I whirl and twirl faster and faster with my arms held high in the air and my hands whipping against the driving rain and I laugh and I laugh and the passing headlights are my time in the spotlight and then I think I can run and I can keep on running into the freedom that awaits and into the lights and away from the darkness.
And I open my eyes to the light. I have woken up to a different cube. Pure bright whiteness and light flood in. New shapes take the form of monitors and wires attached to me. A nurse at the side of the bed looks me in the eye. “We’re glad you’re with us lovely,” she murmurs, “I’ll fetch the doctor”.
As I gradually focus, I see him. He looks even more tired and now his breathing is shallow. He seems to have aged; the lines under his eyes are more engrained than they were, and his eyes are imprinted with pain. He’s gripping my hand so, so tightly, his eyes glued to mine. I see both fear and hope in those eyes; “We thought we’d lost you. We need you”, he says. “We just need you so much. Don’t leave us. Our babies need you. I need you. I’m so sorry. I didn’t know how desperate you were. I am here for you.” And I am able to squeeze his hand back, knowing with each moment I am gripping more and more tightly.
To request your story to be removed from online publication: EMAIL US