Working as the night cleaner in the last remaining department store in town may not be everyone’s idea of a dream job but Eve liked it. It allowed her time away from her nagging parents and the peace and quiet was quickly becoming addictive. At first it was spooky; quietly moving around the large spaces, vacuuming, polishing, straightening and buffing, but after a week or so, she began to enjoy it. Caitlyn, her cleaning buddy, had recently given up working on Tuesdays, leaving Eve the run of the shop and the once tempting thought of trying on clothes and wearing the taster make up turned into a weekly fashion parade for her. Wearing clothes was one thing, but her application of makeup left a lot to be desired, she was improving but she still resembled one of the shops’ mannequins.
It was while she was heavily made up and standing near a display doll, dressed in that week’s new clothes that she heard men walking up the stairs.
“Jewellery and leather” one said as if requesting bread and milk from Tesco around the corner.
“I know, I know!” the other replied.
Eve froze. What should she do? She was going to witness a robbery but making her presence known could mean trouble for her. She flung her arm around the nearest mannequin and stood stock still while the men went shopping, each filling a bag with watches, handbags, shoes and jewels, all under the frightened eye of the night cleaner.
“Let’s go!” the first one called, heading to the stairs.
But the second hesitated and stared at Eve, squinting, mouth open.
“Come on!” came the order and the man hurried away, leaving Eve to breathe easier.
“The mannequin”, he began, “She winked at me.”
“What was I supposed to do?” The middle-aged woman sobbed to the exhausted officer. The gun had still been in her hands when the police arrived in her blood-soaked living room. The corpse of man lay not yet cold on her floor. The neighbours had heard the shots and called for help. Nobody had tried to remove the weapon from her, though she quickly handed it over. They all knew she wouldn’t fire on them anyway. She was smarter than that. “He broke into my home. I thought he was going to attack me. I panicked.”
“You panicked five times?” The officer grumbled, indicating to the bullet riddled body.
“He took a while to go down.” The woman admitted. “I had to be sure I was safe.”
“That’s all very well, mam.” The officer huffed. “But according to our evidence, this is the third time you’ve ‘panicked’ in the last month.”
“I seem to be a magnet for danger.” The woman nodded.
“One was a dog walker who came nowhere near your house.”
“He could have easily set that dog on me.” The woman scowled.
“The chihuahua?” The officer raised his eyebrow.
“Yes. Vicious little things they are.”
“The one that was still on the leash when you shot him? It seems you shot from him the side too, likely taking him completely unaware.”
The woman sighed and her gaze dropped to the ground.
“You’re not buying any of this, are you?” She muttered.
“Not really, mam.”
“Fine.” She shrugged before stretching out her arms for the inevitable cuffs. “It was fun while it lasted.
The ageing bikers were gathered around the old moss-covered wooden table in the Beer Garden of ‘The Joiners’. Pints in hand, sun on backs, adored bikes safe in the car park – life felt good!
They met up most weekends in the Summer for a run along the country lanes, enjoying the throb of the engine, the roar of the exhaust, the camaraderie and the adrenaline rush of the body moving as one with the machine. Of course, it always finishes with a well-deserved pint, possibly pie and chips and a hearty chinwag before returning to their respective abodes and humdrum lives.
The talk was always of bikes; current ones, past ones so missed, and, of course, the ones they desired the most. They spoke passionately and knowledgeably, as if these mechanical beauties were their latest lover.
The woman watched from the other side of the garden. Slowly and deliberately, she stretched out her long shapely legs, ruffled her long wavy locks, and licked her rosebud lips. This scenario was right up her street, and she felt like having a little excitement!
“She winked at me!” whispered Marvin.
“Don’t be daft man, she winked at me” replied Olly.
“Nah! It’s me she fancies!” rumbled Brian.
“Come off it! Who’d look twice at you, let alone wink! The wink was at me, I’m going over!” declared Denis
“No…. I am!”
As the volume increased, and fists started clenching, faces reddened and testosterone soared, the woman rose, smiled wryly to herself and strode quickly to her own trusty Harley Davidson. Securing her precious bottle of “Pandemonium” safely in the saddlebag and fastening her helmet- War sighed with satisfaction- she absolutely loved her job.
It was our third date so I thought we were ready for the roller rink where we could skate side by side and hold hands. It was the smartest decision I ever made. After a wobbly start and one fall on her fanny, Debbie never let go.
Afterwards, we got in line for the photobooth while we waited for Debbie’s mother to pick us up. Inside the darkened booth she ran her hands over her hair and straightened her collar. Debbie looked so cute as she primped herself in the glowing light that I couldn’t stop myself from leaning over and kissing her on the cheek. That’s when the first flash went off. The next three flashes caught us with big, blushing smiles on our faces.
Outside the booth we looked at the four pictures and laughed. Debbie suggested I tear the photo strip in two so we each had two pictures as a souvenir. When we looked at the two torn pieces we realized there was only one picture of the kiss. Boy, did I want that picture. Debbie said she wanted it too. I shoved my hand in my pocket and pulled out two more coins. When I tell the story to our kids I like to say, “She winked at me.” Debbie says I winked at her.
I married Debbie forty-seven years ago. We used the old picture of us kissing as the cover of our wedding invitation. Yesterday, at her service, our kids put together a slideshow of images. All eight black and white photos from the booth were mixed with a lifetime of birthday, vacation and holiday pictures. I smile when I remember the date at the rolling rink and the darkened little room that saw we were in love even before we did.
Ethel sat in the kitchen, crying. Nero had not come for his breakfast. The house seemed empty despite her niece sitting at the table. Ethel imagined dreadful scenarios, the common denominator, Nero dead. Emma said, “Aunt Ethel, when did you last see Nero?”
“Yesterday when I gave him his breakfast. He was sitting like an emperor on the top step, gazing at the other cats. But the moment he hears me putting his saucer of food down, he comes through the cat flap like a shot. The same in the evenings.”
Emma said, “Does he stay after his evening meal?”
“Oh, no, once he has eaten, he is off again.”
“So he spends his time outside?”
Ethel shook her head. “He comes in most nights.”
“But not last night. Shall I phone the vets for you? We can see if anyone has found a cat. Is he microchipped?”
The old lady nodded while wringing her hands.
Emma pulled her phone from her pocket and checked with all the vets. The last call yielded a result.
“Yes, somebody picked up a black cat lying near a skip. A car hit him. Are you the owner?”
Emma walked out of the kitchen, then explained Nero belonged to her elderly aunt. “Is he badly injured?”
“No, he is a lucky black cat but has a broken leg.”
Emma blanched. “Will it be expensive to treat him?”
The veterinary nurse said, “As his owner is elderly, we will treat him at pensioners rates. Do you want us to do that?”
Emma told Ethel what had happened.
The old lady sobbed and said, “Whatever the cost, please make him better.”
From then on, following his evening meal, Ethel locked the cat flap. He had to stay home at night.
Crown Court Number 2, the final day of his trial. I stared at the judge, fixed my gaze on his robe, his wig, his pen tapping against the papers stacked on the bench. A mousy woman in a baggy cardigan stood, read the verdict and sat down, eyes never leaving the paper in her hand. She scrunched it up and dropped it. Sentencing at a later date.
‘Mum? I don’t.. Mum! This ain’t right. Mum?’
My heels clicked on the polished wood floor as the voice faded away, pulled down the old steps to the cells. I didn’t look round, didn’t respond. I remained focused, dry-eyed and determined. No-one would see me break.
A mother’s love. Boundless, unconditional, eternal. At least that’s what I’d always believed.
Nothing could break that bond. As soon as I saw him my heart filled and I knew I would fight to the death for this child, as I would for any of my children. But he would test me to my limit and then push me beyond it. My only son and youngest.
He began to test me as soon as he could walk, running out of my reach, climbing above my head, filling my mouth with my heart every day.
‘Get down from there, you’ll fall.’
‘Not me Mum, I’m a gibbon. I can climb and swing. Watch me, Mum!’
So I watched and he fell, as I knew he would. The first trip to A and E, first of many. I worried that Social Services would be called when we made our fourth trip with another broken bone. He laughed and joked with the young doctor and charmed all the nurses. My beautiful, fearless boy.
His father left us when he was ten, a difficult age to be abandoned. He developed an attitude, one I’d seen in his father. Answering back, sucking his teeth.
‘You can’t tell me what to do.’, ‘I don’t have to if I don’t want to.’, and the one that cut me to the quick, ‘Dad would let me.’
You know that saying ‘Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.’?
That’s crap. Those words stung, they made me cry into my pillow at night.
Then came the change of school, big boys to hang out with. He loved to be their clown, to make them laugh. They were too old for him, too mature. I warned him, they were trouble. He laughed.
‘Chill out, Mum. They’re my mates. It’s all cool, no problems. You’ll like them too, see. Just need to get to know them a bit.’
‘I’ll try darling but they are too old for you, they’ll get bored. Fetch them over for tea one night, ask their mothers first, mind.’
They didn’t come and I never got to know them, not even their names. What could go wrong? Of course it was obvious what would go wrong and the first time I was called to the school he trailed behind me, scuffing his shoes, head down. Smoking in the toilets. Three day suspension. I grounded him, banned the older boys from our home, kept his pocket money back.
‘Listen to me, I know what I’m talking about. Get some friends your own age.’
‘You don’t understand, Mum. It’s all cool, all fine.’ His father’s voice, his father’s words.
The last time I was called to the school he strode ahead of me, hands in pockets, swaggering across the car park. Stealing laptops. Expulsion. He didn’t come home that night. The latest of many nights I lay awake, fretting.
Three other schools suspended and expelled him. Nowhere else to go. A referral unit for troubled teens sent him home after four days. Pinning a support worker against a filing cabinet when asked not to smoke in the classroom. This child of mine, this troubled teen, I no longer knew him. His sisters told me to kick him out, change the locks, call the police. How does a mother do that? I loved him, I knew he loved me and I prayed that I could save him. A mother’s love would save him.
I first saw him take drugs two days after his nineteenth birthday. He rolled a joint sitting at the kitchen table and brushed away my concerns.
‘Everybody does it, Mum, it’s no biggie. You need to learn to chill. Have a pull on this.’
‘Get out of my house with that filth!’
‘Dad smokes weed, what’s the problem?
I slapped the joint out of his hand, the chair clattered to the floor, the door slammed and he was gone. Three weeks this time. Three weeks in which I roamed the streets, visited all his friends and found out that they hadn’t seen him for months. He was hanging out with a new gang now.
A gang. My worst fear. My son, my shining boy was in a gang. Worse than that he was running drugs for them, stealing for them, probably dealing for them. I phoned the police, reported him missing. I didn’t mention the gang. On reflection that was a mistake. If I could have got him away from them then, who knows? The police found him in a squat with a stash of drugs ready to deal.
They locked him up and I made my first visit to my son in custody. It was not to be the last.
‘I’m sorry, Mum. Really sorry. Get me out of here, I don’t like it here.’
He cried, begged, and promised to be good. I believed him but the police didn’t. A day in court, a fine and community service. Which he didn’t do and I paid the fine.
Wednesday night, seven o’clock. Knocking on the door, pushing past me, sweaty and out of
‘Hi Mum! Ran all the way across the park, thought it might rain. Grab a shower, yeah?’
‘Towels in the airing cupboard.’
Door slammed, water roaring. Running across the park. But that was cold sweat.
He came out of the bathroom in a puff of steam.
‘Can’t stop, Mum, I’ve got a date. See you tomorrow, yeah?’
He was gone, towels on the floor, shower dripping. I opened the window.
That was the night there was pounding on the door, three officers I didn’t know.
‘Where’s your son, love? We need to speak to him about a serious assault.’
I shook my head.
‘He doesn’t live here anymore. I don’t know where he is, I never know.’
They searched, rummaged through all my possessions. In the airing cupboard, under some towels, they found a knife. Long blade, black handle, not one of mine. There was blood on it. I was put in a police car, driven away and questioned. I saw neighbours turn their backs when I returned.
That night a young man lost his life. Stabbed in the park. A drug deal gone wrong. I cried. For that young man and for the young man I now knew was lost to me. My heart split and I knew I could not save him. A mother’s love was not enough.
I visited him on remand, sitting at a scuffed table, drinking lukewarm weak coffee from a
polystyrene cup. He leaned back on his chair, eyes never meeting mine, sucked his teeth and grinned.
‘Nothing on me, Mum. Home free. I’ll be rocking up for tea before you know it. Pigs can’t pin this one on me.’
I slammed the cup down, slopped coffee across the filthy surface. He sat up, stared at me and I saw another man look back at me. Not my son, not the boy I knew. A hard man, a lost man.
‘If you did this, if it was you then you deserve what you’ll get. That boy didn’t deserve to die. He was a son, a brother just like you. And someone, maybe you, took his life. You have broken my heart for the last time. I can’t come here again.’
I stood, turned and walked away.
‘Mum? You’ll be in court, yeah?’
I stopped, nodded and waited for the officer to open the door. I didn’t look back.
I sat through his trial. I couldn’t look at him when he gave evidence, or as he sat in the dock, or when he called to me when they took him back to the cells at the end of each day. I wanted to but I was afraid he would see the emptiness in my eyes and know that my unconditional love was not enough. When he stood for the verdict I turned to face him. He looked lost, a frightened child in an adult world. But he was a man now, twenty-two and having to face up to the consequences of his own actions. There was nothing I could do. Guilty on all counts. My son the murderer.
‘Mum? I don’t.. Mum! This ain’t right. Mum?’
“What do you think it’s like?” Barry asked.
“Hm?” Josephine looked at him.
“What do you think it’s like?” he asked again. “Being down there in the dark?”
“Who cares?” Josephine snapped and strode confidently through the midnight forest.
“Just wondered,” Barry was only ten and still curious about death.
“Stop wondering, it’ll mess up your brain.” Josephine was fourteen and numb to it all.
They continued in silence, only the crunch of their feet on ground cover and the occasional snap of a twig breaking the night.
They came to the graveyard and stood on the edge, surveying their worksite.
“He wants a younger heart this time,” Josephine said, “ the mature hearts don’t work.”
As if in response, Barry’s own heart, transplanted out of a thirty-five-year-old accountant, hiccupped and stuttered before thrumming back to its normal cadence. He was well aware that he could fall over dead at any moment.
“I like being alive,” he said as he followed Josephine through the headstones.
“Why is that?” Josephine laughed. “What kind of a life are you living?”
“I dunno,” Barry sighed. “I like the night and the wind. I like the stars. I like the smell of fresh dirt.”
“Oh Barry,” Josephine muttered, “you’re so naive.”
They stopped at a small gravemarker. Josephine wiped one stitched hand across the stone, smearing mud away to reveal the death age.
“1882- 1887,” she read. “Five year old heart. Doesn’t say what they died of.”
“I wish he would build us another brother,” Barry said as the two children dug up the small coffin.
“Stop it, Barry,” Josephine said.
“I miss having a brother,” he insisted as they pried the lid away to reveal the small body.
Josephine’s strong arms scooped the tiny corpse into a hug and climbed out of the hole. “Well I’m tired of losing siblings,” she snapped.
The children left the grave disturbed and trod back the way they had come. Barry stared at the delicate leg that dangled from Josephine’s arm. The skin was frosty and dull, but clear and smooth. He looked down at his own leg and frowned at the thick scars where the foot and thigh had been sewn with crude skill. One knee was too small for his calf. It made him limp.
“Do you think Father would get me a new knee?” Barry broke the silence again.
“He’s busy,” Josephine sniffed.
Barry was silent for a moment. “I’ve never had a mother. I wonder if she’ll play with us and sing us songs. I’ve seen other mothers do that, you know— sing songs. I could help her do the laundry and bake bread. Are you excited to have a mother?”
“Oh shut up!” Josephine turned on him. “Stop, okay? It makes everything harder.” She turned and walked fast away from him.
She made it to the house before him and slipped through the gate. Josephine had a dancer’s legs. Barry, however, had the legs of a miner and as he hobbled through his large thigh seam caught on an exposed bit of iron, tearing it open in a swooping arc from the inside almost down to his knee.
“Damn,” he cursed and stopped to untangle himself.
He limped the rest of the way to the cellar door and pulled it closed behind him, throwing the bolt before hurrying to the workroom.
Father was standing over a table with his gloves on and his spectacles perched on his nose inspecting the body they had just brought in.
“Good work, children,” he said and went back to their mother, who was lying on another table.
Barry joined him and climbed onto a stool so that he could see. She was very beautiful.
“What do you think, son?” Father asked.
“I like her hair,” he said. “And her hands. They’re so graceful.”
“I hope she’ll be able to play the piano,” Father smiled and gave him a wink.
Josephine made a disgusted sound and crossed her thick arms across her chest.
“You may go, Josephine,” Father scolded.
She stormed away and Father smiled at Barry again before going back to work. Barry put his chin in his hands and watched Father tinker with the organs inside her chest cavity.
“I think she’s about ready for that heart,” he said after some time. “But first, she’s missing an eye. Want to help me pick one for her?”
“This one is blue,” Father said, pulling one eyelid up, “it’s the original.”
“It’s pretty,” Barry said.
“Go choose something,” Father shooed him toward the shelves of body parts.
Barry limped away, grabbed a jar of eyeballs floating in a syrupy liquid, and limped back.
“Goodness, Son!” Father uttered. “What happened to your leg?”
Embarrassed, Barry said, “It got caught coming through the fence.”
“Well,” Father came around the table and crouched down to look at it, “we’ll have to fix that won’t we.” He stood up and ruffled Barry’s mop of hair then leaned over the jar.
Together they picked out a lovely grayish-green eye with a star pattern slicing through the iris.
“Perfect,” Father whispered when the eye was secure. “Absolutely perfect.”
“Father?” Barry asked.
“Yes?” He was bent over the child they had brought in, pressing his fingers into the hard cartilage of the breast bone.
“Do you think she’ll like me? Well, us? Do you think Mother will like us?”
Father turned around and peered over his glasses, “Oh son,” he said, “she will not only like you, she will love you. She will be the sun in our dark world.”
Father put down the bone saw in his hand and took Barry in his arms, hugging him close and kissing his head.
“Want to help me get her heart in?” he asked.
Barry nodded and wished his tear ducts were not clogged so that he could wipe tears away.
“That’s my boy.”
Father and son turned to the small cadaver and began to harvest a heart for Mother.
“Oh get lost you stupid bitch” he screamed at me on that awful day.
So that’s exactly what I did. I turned my back on him and my mother and left.
Now I am officially homeless, a tramp. A seller of the big issue.
I’m lucky really, I’ve got a good spot near the entrance to Tesco’s with a proper
wooden seat and everything. I can just about keep dry under the awning if it’s raining
softly. Of course the Tesco’s manager tries to get rid of me every day but as I am on the
public street there’s not much he can do, except shout and I’m used to that .
I have two sets of friends. My Tesco’s friends and my camp friends. Tesco’s friends are
mostly older women, who bring me hot coffee and buns. It’s usually men who throw
money at me and won’t look me in the eyes. But I need the money so I just say “God
bless you sir” when they do. It’s a saying I learnt from Sarah, she’s a camp friend and
an old hand. She says she has been on the road for 25 years. I shuddered when she
told me that. In 25 years time I want to have a house and two grown up kids and a job,
maybe as a P. A.to a fashion designer or running a beauty salon, I can’t decide which.
I imagine there will be a husband somewhere in the background but he seems to be
fairly indistinct and foggy.
When Tesco’s shut I walk the two miles to the camp which is now my home. There are
about 6 of us homeless people. Four of have tents and two make do with newspaper
and plastic sheeting. That’s how I was, until Sarah arrived and invited me to share her
tent, its a squash but we keep each other warm. Someone always builds a fire and we
all sit round with whatever food or drink we have. I don’t touch the alcohol, as in my nine
months of ‘getting lost,’ I have seen the desperation it can cause. Same with drugs too.
It’s ironic really that Mums boyfriend refused to believe me when I told him that when
the party was raided I was neither stoned or drunk. That’s when we had the argument
but really it was just the last straw. I had resented his authority from the start, especially
as Mum just seemed to hand it over to him from day one.
Anyway I had a new life now, albeit a pretty rough one. I sat warming my hands by the
fire and Sarah came and sat beside me. “What’s up love” she said
“Nothing, just day dreaming” “Are you thinking about your Mum”? “No” I lied. We had
had this conversation before. Sarah was always trying to get me to ring Mum, saying
how worried she must be but I couldn’t forgive her for not taking my side and for all I
knew, she was pleased to be alone with what’s his face and not missing me. That night
I did feel sad but what could I do.?
I was at my usual place outside Tesco’s the following morning when the manager came
out for his daily rant. “We don’t want your sort here, our customer don’t need to see the
likes of you, you lazy slag, why don’t you go and get a job.”I was deaf to it and just
turned inwards until he went back to the shop again. Except today for some reason I
felt like crying. It started to rain about midday and as the wind was blowing into me I got
soaked. My usual old ladies obviously stayed at home, so by the time evening came I
was shivering, miserable and very hungry.
As I approached the camp, the thought of the warm fire spurred me to a quicker pace
and I made the last few metres very quickly. The fire was blazing and
everyone was chatting animatedly. Sarah had her back to me and a figure was sitting in
my usual seat. I felt annoyed and rushed up intending to oust the person from my place
double quick. As I approached the figure the words died on my lips and my heart gave a
great lurch. “Mum, is that you Mum?” I stumbled forward and was clasped in her arms.
“Oh thank God I’ve found you at last Tasha, Oh love I been looking for you since the day
you left, are you alright, why didn’t you phone, what have you been doing ?” The
questions tumbled out of her not waiting for an answer, I couldn’t speak anyway. I just
cried and cried. She made me sit down between her and Sarah and fed me hot coffee
and sausage rolls. I felt a little calmer then and she told me she had asked the boyfriend
to leave a week after me, when he had seemed to be positively triumphant about me
going , ‘like he had been planning it all along’, she said.
“How did you find me Mum” I asked at last. Mum turned to Sarah “ It was this lady who
rang me today and of course I drove straight here “. I looked at Sarah not knowing
whether to be angry or grateful.
The upshot is that I am back home with Mum now and tomorrow I start a new job with
the local council. It’s not the most exciting job ever but my secret plan is to get myself
into a position where I can really help all those big issues, homeless people, like Sarah.
Mum did offer her a home with us but she refused. I think she was scared to be indoors,
maybe feeling shut in by a house. I try to visit her once a week and so far I have been
able to keep track of her but I do worry she will “get lost” permanently.
After once again checking that he was alone, Paul Cooper shuffled tentatively towards the cliff edge, his eyes firmly fixed on the distant horizon. The sea was calm, and the sun glimmered off its glassy surface whilst seagulls bobbed about on the small waves caused by a pair of jet skis ploughing backwards and forwards in a seemingly endless race. He watched them speed off, their riders no doubt shouting and laughing, enjoying their adventure, blissfully unaware of his intentions. It dawned on him that in fact they wouldn’t even have noticed him, a distant speck perched on the edge of the cliff. Insignificant is how he would have looked from that distance. That had pretty much been the watchword of Paul’s life. Insignificant. When people tell you that enough times, you start to believe it’s true.
Paul closed his eyes and deeply inhaled, the faint smell of seaweed, the taste of salt on the air and the raucous noise of the seagulls all combining to bring distant memories of long-ago family holidays clamouring to the surface. Happy memories from a different time. A different life. Now was not the time. He couldn’t falter. He wasn’t strong enough. A shiver ran down his spine when he heard the waves breaking on the sharp rocks below, calling him. Taunting him. He opened his eyes and momentarily began to sway as his body fought for its balance, its equilibrium in such a dangerous situation.
He was close now, both to the cliff’s end and his own and his breathing grew ragged with fear. His heart was pounding, and his hands felt clammy, yet he forced his feet a few inches closer to the edge, almost to the point of no return. Delaying the inevitable, he briefly recalled the events that had led him to this defining moment in his life. The accident, losing his job and with it his self-esteem, before finally losing his family. None of it had been his fault. Circumstances had conspired against him. Deep down he knew that wasn’t entirely true but none of that mattered now. He had nothing else to lose. Nobody was going to miss him, not even Clare.
A solitary tear ran ponderously down his cheek and he quickly wiped it away with the back of his hand. You promised yourself you wouldn’t do this. You said you’d just come here and jump with none of this self-indulgent reminiscing. Something else you’ve failed in. It was a lengthy list, his catalogue of failures.
The tears began to run freely now, but he no longer cared. Swallowing hard, he stepped to the very edge, teetering on the point of oblivion. He had sworn that to avoid losing his nerve, he would just step over without ever looking down, but the temptation was just too much. Curiosity had killed better men than him. He slowly lowered his head until he was looking directly down at the rocks below as the waves beckoned to him.
His legs began to violently tremble, and he knew that he was just seconds away from tumbling over the edge, but still he could not tear his eyes away from the scene below. Summoning his last remnants of courage he swallowed hard and prepared to take a step forward. He knew it would be his last and he welcomed it. Or did he? Even now at 2 minutes past the eleventh hour, self-doubts began to emerge from the shadows and dark recesses of his mind, portions of himself he had long ago surrendered to the soul-destroying illness that is depression. No, it was cowardice. This he must do; he must see it through. One step, a few seconds of weightlessness and then eternal peace.
“It’s some view isn’t it?” said the voice. It sounded like a youth, a teenaged-boy.
He hadn’t heard anyone approach him and the last time he had looked, there had been no one else in sight, so the shock of hearing a voice so close startled him. Paul’s legs finally buckled, and he closed his eyes ready to embrace his death as he felt himself lurch forward, but instead of experiencing freefall, he felt his body being tugged back.
When he opened his eyes again, he was a couple of metres from the cliff edge.
“Are you all right?” asked the voice.
He turned to face whoever had pulled him back, a mess of emotions threatening to engulf him. Was he angry? Sad? Relieved? He couldn’t tell. Not yet. Instead of berating whomever had thwarted his plan, he did the right thing, the expected thing and thanked his saviour, even if he planned for the respite to be momentary. He’d reassure this do-gooder, wait for them to leave, buoyed by the feeling they’d done their good deed for the day and then he’d finish what he came here for, what he should already have done.
“Yeah, I’m fine...thanks.”
Smiling at him was a small, wiry looking young lad of about 16 and Paul found himself wondering how someone so small could have pulled him back so effortlessly. Weight loss and loss of appetite were two things depression had not robbed him of, and he’d actually put weight on, something else Clare had been quick to hurl in his face.
The lad was still holding his arm.
“You can let go now, son I’m okay, thanks.”
The young lad’s smile broadened, and he let go.
An awkward silence descended between them and Paul found himself wishing that the lad would just leave as quickly as he had appeared, but there was no sign of that just yet.
“What are you doing here anyway...?”
“Danny. My name’s Danny,” the lad said beaming even more, “I come here every year. It’s one of my favourite places. My family used to holiday here when I was younger, and we’d stay over there.” He pointed to some caravans nestling on a cliff top opposite and as he did so, the smile faded from his youthful face. “So what are you doing here?”
It was the question Paul had been dreading. “Oh, I just like to come here and think,” he lied.
Danny looked straight into his eyes and Paul felt as if his very soul was being scrutinised. He could tell that Danny didn’t believe him.
“I’d do your thinking a little farther from the edge if I were you, because next time I might not be here to catch you.” The infectious smile was back, and Paul found himself smiling back.
“I’ll do that. So I take it you’re here on holiday now?” asked Paul. He knew he should be doing everything in his power to encourage the boy to leave, but for some reason Danny intrigued him.
“No, I haven’t been here on holiday since just after I took my GCSE’s 2 years ago.”
That surprised Paul. He thought that Danny was maybe 16, but if he took his exams a couple of years ago that made him closer to 18. He certainly didn’t look it. He suddenly noticed the look on Danny’s face as he stared at something over Paul’s shoulder and turned to follow the lad’s gaze. About a hundred metres farther along the cliff a middle-aged couple stood looking out to sea. Even from that distance Paul could see that the woman was sobbing whilst the man tried to comfort her.
The woman freed herself from her husband’s embrace and bent down to place a bunch of flowers on the cliff edge. As his wife stood up again, the man noticed Paul watching them and said something to his wife who briefly glanced his way. The man continued staring and Paul suddenly realised how odd he and Danny must look, precariously close to the edge. “I think we ought to...” Paul started to say, but his words trailed off when he realised Danny had gone. Fearing that he had slipped over the edge, Paul turned towards the couple to call for help, but they too were now walking off into the distance. Standing over the flowers, watching them go was Danny. Paul hurried towards him but tripped and fell over. When he looked back towards Danny, he had disappeared again. He limped over to the flowers and fighting down an overpowering feeling of intrusion, knelt down gingerly to read the card attached to the flowers.
‘To our darling Danny. Your exam results were never that important. We miss you so much. Love Mum and Dad xxx.’
Paul felt a lump rise in his throat and looked about for Danny, but he knew he wouldn’t find him. He stood up and glanced at the cliff edge again, a shudder travelling the length of his spine. Then he returned to his car. As he drove home, he vowed that if he ever felt down again, he’d just think of Danny, the young lad who had tragically taken his own life, but who had given him another chance.
“We’ve cleared the upstairs completely, Madam, we’ll be back tomorrow to empty the parlour and the kitchen.” The man climbed into the cab. “Oh, and by the way, can you leave the key out for the parlour? It’s locked”.
“Ah, and yes”, the man continued, “We found this in your Mother’s bedroom it was wedged between the mattress and the headboard, and we thought you might like to keep it.” The man handed a slim paperback book to Mary. She turned it over in her hands. The cover was a dark blue with gold lettering that sparkled in the sunlight, it read ‘Gratam Spiritus Mund’. Mary shrugged. She didn’t recall her Mother ever possessing a book that looked like this. Puzzled, she thanked the man and slipped it into her coat pocket. Mary watched as the grey van grunted and wheezed its way down the lane.
Locked? She thought, the parlour has never been locked, he must be mistaken.
Mary let herself in. She wanted just one last look at the house where she grew up before it was sold.
Feeling a mixture of sadness and apprehension, Mary went upstairs to her old bedroom. It was empty. On the wall she spotted the corner of her old Take That poster, stubbornly stuck to the wall by a grubby piece of Sellotape. The removal men must have carelessly torn it down leaving this tiny remnant.
She went into her mum’s bedroom. It looked abandoned. A faded picture of a strikingly pale faced woman hung on the far wall. “They must have missed that,” Mary spoke out loud, her voice echoed eerily around the barren room. She gently scratched her cheek. “Come to think of it, I don’t remember seeing that picture before. Hmm, that’s weird, she must have got it after I left home. I can’t imagine Mum buying something like that”.
She looked around the bathroom door. The blue bath was tired and worn.
She went downstairs.
Mary headed to the parlour. She turned the handle. It felt unnaturally warm but twisted easily.
She went inside.
She was startled by a ghostly roar.
‘GET OUT. THIS IS MY ROOM!’
Then, to Mary’s amazement, a ring of fire suddenly burst out and circled around the ceiling. Mary seized solid in fear, her eyes widened, simultaneously her insides trembled. She tried desperately to remain calm.
The fire went out.
Then the room started to shake, like it was being hit by an earthquake. Mary remained still. She whispered to herself, “stay chilled, this isn’t happening.”
The room stopped shaking.
Then the floor started to ripple like waves on the sea. Mary continued to outwardly stay composed, inwardly her stomach churned.
The floor stilled.
‘ARE YOU NOT AFRAID, YOUNG LADY?’ screamed the ghostly roar.
Suppressing the tremor that was circulating around her insides, Mary continued to stand firm with her arms folded. She shook her head.
‘What do you want?’ she said sternly.
The room fell silent.
Mary heard a little sob.
The room felt sad.
The ghostly roar now spoke softly. ‘I shouldn’t be here, I got trapped. It was when I was with the spirit carrier that came for your Mother. I dropped a book; it was your Mother’s pedagogies and I can’t get out until I find it, but it’s not here and I want to be free. I want to go back to the spirit world, where all the spirits live.
Mary thought hard. “Is this the book?” She pulled out the blue and gold paperback that the removal driver had handed to her earlier. The ghostly roar sang out, “YES, that’s it”. Instantly, the book slipped from her grasp, and floated upwards like a leaf caught in the wind. Then in a blink of the eye, it dissipated.
“Can you leave now?” Mary asked.
There was a long silence. Mary could just sense a twist of movement darting vigorously around the parlour.
“No,” whimpered the ghostly roar, “I’m still stuck inside this room.”
Suddenly it came to her. When she lived here and she wanted to release a butterfly or a bee that had got in through a window, she would open the patio doors and usher them out.
Mary went over to the patio door.
‘It’s locked,’ wailed the ghostly roar. Mary felt the room gently sway in frustration.
On tiptoes, Mary felt above the pelmet. She found the spare key.
Mary unlocked the patio door and slid it open.
She felt a gentle blast of wind brush past her shoulders.
The room went silent. No fire. No shaking. No waves.
Mary poked her head through the patio door and inhaled the fresh air. She heard a faint whisper.
‘Thank you,’ said the whisper.
Here we are in our tropical kit; shirts and shorts and gumboots. It is 90 degrees and every afternoon we have a thunderstorm and torrents of rain followed by steam. We are never dry. We live in a swamp in a country where alcohol and comfort are prohibited by God.
If I knew where we were, I couldn’t tell you. The enemy might intercept our mail and die laughing at our incompetence. I am certain that we are not where we should be. We have all the equipment for a day at the beach. A dry match to light a cigarette is our currency. I sleep in a wet hammock in wet clothes with wet boots to look forward to in the morning. I swear I am developing fish scales and will soon be joining the local crocodiles gulping mud.
Don’t be alarmed, this is only the talk of a man with mosquito lotion on his hands and face with anti-louse powder in the seams of his clothes who drinks highly medicated morning tea from a tin mug with shaving soap around the rim and boots for bedtime slippers.
It is very green wherever we are. Lots of wild flowers and gum trees with their barks hanging down like tattered lingerie. There is constant insect noise, but above it all I swear I heard a lark yesterday as though we were at Doncaster racecourse on the day I won a tenner on Chulmleigh. We got lost that night as well and woke on a bed of mailsacks in Doncaster Station with no recollection of how we got there.
Every known kind of delay and disappointment has attended us and I despair most days with a general loathing of mankind and the misery it inflicts on itself. I should be awarded the Spartan Star for Needless Discomfort in the face of Overwhelming Rage.
I have an acquaintance with a local river boatman, like Budgie the Barge who sold us coal from the powerplant. He smuggles Algerian brandy, so I deserve the next few days of pain and hangover.
A few weeks ago, we were in Carthage and Churchill turned up to address his Army in the Roman Amphitheatre. He’d forgotten his teeth, but he did all the tricks; hat, cigar, V sign and I remember that day we watched Chamberlain on Pathe news smiling peace with honour and we kidded ourselves there was a chance. Three years on, without a hope in hades I am lost in a muddy wadi somewhere south of hell.
My dear, you will never read this. I have no intention of posting it. It will be papier-Mache in my chest pocket by the time I reach England. I shall send you the usual postcard with love and kisses saying how much I miss you and how sorry I was so bloody far away and could not shelter and protect you in our own home when the bombs rained down and I lost you.
My two magic words. The cure to all life’s ills.
“Justin’s doing well, isn’t he?” Ma tells me one morning. “You seen his grades? He’s on track to make it to university.”
“He’s not your son, Ma,” I say, pushing sodden corn flakes around my bowl.
“John and Lucinda must be so proud.” Something crosses her face, but I can’t tell what it is.
“Race ya,” I shout at Justin in the street that evening. The sky is turning amber, but the air is still warm. I start to jog along the pavement.
“Give over, Rob,” says Justin, maintaining his slow walk.
“C’mon. Don’t be lazy.”
He needs a bit of coaxing, but he always relents. He’s skinnier than me but shorter too and not the sporty type. I run beside him at first, watching his round face redden beneath his bouncing black fringe. One lap of the estate is enough. I pass him on the final straight. The animal thrill of it, seeing him slowly recover.
Two years later, I track him down in the crowded school refectory. I have to hear the worst.
“One B and two Cs,” he tells me. “Where should I go, Rob? Oxford Brookes or Leeds Met?”
“Wherever’s further from here,” I say.
“Ah, don’t be like that. How have you done, anyway?”
“Not bad.” But I’ve said it too fast. I stuff the slip of paper into my pocket. “Race ya,” I say as we’re mounting our bikes in the thin summer drizzle. He must have known it was coming.
It’s five miles to our estate, and his face is pink by the time we’ve passed the playing fields. The rain has matted his hair to his scalp. Neither of us are in helmets. Why would we be? We can cycle well enough. I play my usual trick, hanging behind, making him think he has a chance. Soon we’re on the final leg, a straight run all the way home, and the traffic lights are green. Perfect. I surge past him, stealing a look behind. He’s going for it this time, pumping his little legs, puffing his cheeks. He really wants to beat me, just once. But the lights are changing. My tyres squall as I hit the breaks. Fuck. We’re going to draw. But he’s not stopping, is he? He hasn’t seen, or maybe he doesn’t care. He flashes past me, straight across the junction.
In comes the car — God knows what it’s doing. Forty? Fifty? He somersaults in the air, his legs separating from the bike, his arms spread wide. He lands on the far side of the road. Cars stop at strange angles. A crowd gathers. My view is blocked, but my body doesn’t want to move. I can tell it’s bad; people are turning away, covering their eyes, shaking their heads. Not just bad. The worst.
Some of them will probably be at his funeral. They’ll hear all the speeches. Such a talented boy. So good-natured too. He’ll go down in village folklore. Remembered forever. And me? What about me? What will I ever be?
If he died here, nobody would find his corpse. The thought soothes him. Lichen-covered slabs surround him; their once-crisp inscriptions weathered away like the memories of those buried beneath. He breathes in the familiar smell of damp moss and rotten leaves, the calm embracing him like a shroud. Behind thorny thickets, pricking anyone daring to intrude, is his hiding spot, far away from the living. The crumbling and overgrown crypt keeps him out of sight, hiding him from prying eyes. He is glad he hasn’t encountered a single person crying over a cadaver in the ground this morning. Such a violent display of emotion is alien to him.
The rain-soaked soil squelches under his boots on his way to the fallen obelisk in the center of his sacred place. Once, it must have been a centerpiece, the pride of a mason; it had toppled and broken into two big chunks. This is where he sits, listens, and waits day after day after day. He brushes off the wet leaves that had fallen on the jagged blocks during last night's storm. He sits on the cold, hard surface, his backpack between his legs. He takes out his weighty thermos, and with a low metallic clonk, puts it next to him. The crypt is behind him; watching him, hiding him, protecting him.
He produces a small, gray device from the pack. With the flick of a switch, its display lights up with a faint red glow. The needle stabs towards the far end of the meter, and once the surge of electricity disperses, it sinks back listlessly. The red light is the only indication that the device is not dead. It is capable of detecting faint electromagnetic fields, like the one from his neighbor's television, never ceasing its plastic drone through the thin sheets of suffocating drywall. Here, in a place that has never known electricity, the needle stubbornly refuses to move, day after day after day. But he is patient.
A second box appears in his hands, black and dull plastic covered with knobs and buttons, a chrome antenna protruding. The lettering on the plastic wore off long ago. A pair of well-worn headphones strangles the device. Their once bright, yellow foam is brittle and has taken on the color of dried pus, but they still work after all these years. He slowly unravels their cord and puts them on.
He extends the antenna and turns one the knobs until he feels the familiar click. With closed eyes he drifts into communion with the device in his hands. The white noise of quickly changing frequencies fills his ears.
Startled, he jolts from his bench and spins around. The cable snags on his jacket and pulls the headphones from his ears, throwing them onto the wet ground. Ahead of him stands a young woman; she would not be a day over 25, not much younger than himself. She wears a puffy green jacket, black leggings, a matching beanie, and pale skin. She audibly chews a piece of gum. A melange of stale, cold cigarette smoke and mint invades his nose. She gives him a cheeky smile, a fresh scratch on her chin. How had she found him?
His heart is racing. He bends down to pick up the headphones. A large piece of foam had broken off. The woman pays no attention to him and instead peers at the motionless needle on the bench.
"Hey, I've seen one of these," she says, stepping closer towards the device. "That's one of these ghost detector thingies, right?"
That thingie was a finely calibrated EMF meter, but what did she know?
"You’re hunting for ghosts, aren't you?" A glimmer of excitement in her eyes.
He hates it when amateurs call them ghosts; they are spirits.
He grabs the meter and slips it into his pocket to save it from her prying eyes.
"In a cemetery?" she stifles a laugh. "Of all the places, you are looking for ghosts in a graveyard? It's a cool place and all, but come on!"
Is she making fun of him? She’s the one that has no idea about these things. He can feel his face getting hot. Her eyes wide open, she looks around his sanctuary like a child at a carnival.
"Man, I wish the others were here! This is going to be such an awesome hangout spot!"
The knot in his stomach tightens.
She moves her bony hands from her mouth back to one of the large marble chunks. For a split-second, he sees a piece of the woman’s face stuck to the back of his bench; the chewing gum is the same spent color as her skin. She pulls a packet from her jacket. She rips off the crinkling cellophane and lets it fall to the ground. She sticks a cigarette between her pale, thin lips, and gives him an expectant look. After he stands unmoving for an uncomfortable amount of time, she rolls her eyes and pats her pockets. She produces a plastic lighter and flicks it repeatedly. Each failed attempt is followed by a mumbled swear until she finally lights her cigarette. She takes a deep drag and closes her eyes.
"You gotta go to places with tormented souls," smoke trails her as she further desecrates his space. "The ones that still have unfinished business in this world and want revenge or something."
It’s clear to him, she has no idea what she’s talking about. He stifles a cough as the smoke reaches him. He longs for the calming smell of decay.
She leans against one of the moss-covered slabs, looking up into the bone-gray sky as she exhales another cancerous cloud. "Got a lot of free time on my hands, so I watch tons of ghost hunting shows. I mean, they're probably fake, but I did some research.”
He doubts she even knows what that word means.
"Found all kinds of videos and photos on the web. Really creepy stuff you just can't explain, you know?" He barely hears her as the blood rushes through his ears.
"But yeah, this place?" she looks back at the crypt. "People don't die here; it's just where we bury them. You have to go to, like, an abandoned asylum or the scene of an unsolved murder. Places with —" she says, swirling her cigarette around in the air as if summoning a spell, "Energy, you know?"
He can feel a headache coming on; every word of hers becoming a painful stab.
She points at his hand. "Hey, is that ghost radio?"
At first, he doesn’t understand. Then he realizes, she means the spirit box. He had been clutching it ever since she barged in,the headphones still hissing with static.
"Let me see it," she takes a step towards him, one hand reaching for his prized possession. He steps back and hastily stuffs the spirit box into his backpack. He grabs his thermos, metal ringing out as it scrapes against the marble. Now she is paying attention to him.
"I, uh – I have to get back to my friends," She drops her half-smoked cigarette, the wet soil suffocating it with a sizzle. "They are probably looking for me," is the last thing he remembers her saying.
No one mourns. An old man makes gravestone rubbings but doesn’t notice him. His refuge is just as he had left it yesterday. At once the pressure sloughs off of him. He picks up the wet cigarette and the cellophane, wrinkling his nose as he puts them in a small trash bag. Yesterday his mind had not been in the right spot to clean up, he feels guilty for not taking better care of his space. He wipes his hands on his coat and walks over to the broken obelisk. A few more leaves have died and fallen. He gently wipes them off.
He sits down and pulls the thermos from his backpack, his brows furrowed as he feels the dented surface. Then he retrieves the EMF meter and flicks it on. A smile appears on his lips as its needle jitters back and forth in the blood-red glow. He quickly pulls out the spirit box, puts on the headphones, and begins to listen. He takes a deep breath and catches a whiff of stale, cold cigarette smoke. Turns out she had been right about something after all.
He was getting used to the smell. On himself, that is; he’d always loved it on Michael. That moment when he slid into bed, smelling sudsy clean, always with the same caution and with a greedy look on his face; as if he was sneaking up on you, but for something you’d both enjoy. It wasn’t the promise of sex. Sometimes it was, but not often. No, it was his absurd and loveable lust for beds. He’d get in, stretch, in what he thought was a supple, feline way, but wasn’t –hard to be feline when you’re rocking a 6”2, 15 stone structure. Then, he would screech like an excited little girl who’s just been told that the pretty pony with a pink bow was indeed hers to keep; high pitched and ‘yeep’ sounding.
That meant that Michael was in bed and when he was in bed, boy was he happy to be there. He would even, on colder evenings, get right back out just so he could slide back in, sometimes adding a ‘Whoever invented the bed is a geeeeeeniuuuuus!’ to his routine. To this day, he still didn’t know who had invented the bed. He, however, did know that when Michael left it, the sheets would have soaked up his smell. So, who gave a shit about the inventor of the bed, when you were married to the alchemist who, without even trying, with a little soap, a little sebum and lingering notes of his woody aftershave, had created the smell of home?
But now soap was just soap again. And when he used it every day, his skin was dry and taught. Michael’s was always soft. The alchemist.
For years, he battled the very basic tastes that his Massachusetts-born husband had dragged all the way to San Francisco like an unfashionable boulder. In a city where any sentient being thrived on choices and luxury, Michael was a ‘black coffee, soap and single sheet kinda guy’. How tedious to hear him complain, over and over again about the abundance of choice for coffee in Starbucks. ‘What even is a dry latte?’. How predictable to see him dart straight to reception, in every hotel they visited and ask for a single sheet and a cover, ‘none of those Egyptian thread-something “doovays”’; he could lip-sync Michael’s spiel down to the inflections. From above, as he fought hard to keep his 600-thread count cotton duvet covers and duvet, Michael’s side of the bed must have looked like the raw side of some puff pastry dish. Worst of all was his almost epidermal hatred of shower gels which ‘didn’t lather properly, didn’t rinse out and…what the hell was neroli or cardamom?’
He started travelling with an emergency bar of Dove in the side pocket of his backpack, just in case. The cheap smell of it pervaded Michael’s documents, neck cushion, gym clothes…even the food he schlepped around in that bag became infused with a ‘combination of white flowers, rose, lily of the valley and Tunisian sandalwood’.
And yet here he was now, cradling a Dove against his chest. How could this common household staple have become his most prised possession? He wasn’t one for crying in the shower, too cliché, yet being lost in a stream of water made it less conspicuous to cry or pee. He was down to his last Michael bar. The other ones were brand new. Anonymous. This one had lathered his husband’s body, but it was getting thinner; already the carved bird and letters had faded, from Dove to ov, to nothing. Now it was flatter in his palm and against his heart. Now he just struggled into bathtubs; each of them white, nondescript units with varying hues of mouldy grey, hugged a bar of soap and wept, like the sad widower he’d become.
Married at 35. Widowed at 35.
They’d married in Massachusetts. ‘The first ever state to legalize gay marriage!’ Michael would boom, his big Bostonian heart bursting with pride, ‘And we live in San Francisco!’ Voted in May, married in July. ‘Why wait?’ Michael would say, staring him straight in the eye. No blinking.
He proposed on May the 17th, as soon as legalization was announced.
‘Marry me.’ No question mark. ‘I don’t have a ring, but who needs props?’
‘Michael’ was all he’d managed to say, tears flooding his throat like a neglected grandmother being promised another visit before next Christmas. ‘Yes’
‘But we’re doing this right. We’re going to drive through the ten, twelve states it takes us to get from Massachusetts to California and make it our honeymoon. 30 days of driving and shitty motels, like two red-blooded gay Americans.’
He did his best to conceal his apprehensions and rain on Michael’s parade. Who could say no to him when he steam-rolled you with his enthusiasm? Something about Michael made the years of bullying he’d suffered growing up in small-town Missouri seem trite.
So, they flew to Boston, got married there in quasi-monastic anonymity. To his surprise, only a handful of anti-gay-marriage picketers had set up camp in front of the town hall; their inbred looks and poor spelling making it obvious why they could afford to protest at 3 pm on a Thursday.
He let Michael’s unbridled bliss wash over him. So, what if they encountered a few bigots along the way, or had to sleep in double beds instead of king-size; they’d just huddle up closer. He started to ignore the sensation of free-fall that had always reared its nasty face each time a glance in Michael’s direction caused a wave of warmth to tsunami up inside him.
But not for long.
In a motel just outside Poughkeepsie, Michael ran out of soap. The motel didn’t sell toiletries, but there was K-Mart across the road, the mousy receptionist announced with pride. Michael just ‘nipped’ across the street; ever since he started watching ‘Nigella Bites’, he ‘nipped’ a lot.
But he never nipped back.
An hour later, fuelled by his free-falling feeling, he left the room and found the mousy receptionist at the door. She hadn’t knocked, but just stood there, her face contorted under the weight of responsibility, her fingers twisted into uncomfortable-looking yoga postures.
‘Your friend…had an accident. Please follow me.’ Her tone was robotic yet chocked, her beckoning hand-gesture, synchronised with the word ‘follow’, was the clunky motion of a game show assistant.
He knew Michael was dead. Straight away. He’d been too happy. There was too much love. He’d let his guard down. He’d discarded the free-falling warning. Of course, it couldn’t last.
He identified the body, which had been moved to the motel parking lot and walked back to his room. He didn’t want to be with any of them, Michael wasn’t there anymore; he’d seen it in his face.
Not so fast.
A policewoman knocked on their door, escorted by the receptionist.
It was a hit and run. No witnesses, but they’d investigate. It was a busy road to cross on. Was he drunk?
What was his relation to the victim?
‘He was my husband’, he said, a sense of pride flowing out of him like rainbow-coloured gas. Could they see it?
‘He’s my husband.’
She must have read the yearning for battle on his face.
‘I’m so sorry for your loss.’
He was on the road again after only 2 days –Pennsylvania crematoriums worked fast- with the little metal urn that housed the love of his life. Such a big man, such a big heart, in such a tiny space.
He continued their honeymoon alone, with his metallic companion safely buckled on the passenger seat. That’s what Michael would have wanted.
Driving gave him purpose, but, come night-time; no slope on the right side of the bed, no light truffle-hound snore and no 15-stone mass of warmth to diffuse the scent he craved so much.
The soap had eroded to the size of a mango pit. With every shower, Michael was fading a little as well, thinning. After only 10, 15 days. His voice was the first to go. That weirdly comforting voice, who had talked him out of so many rash decisions and had known just when to cushion a crisis. He tried to conjure him as often as he could, but couldn’t hear him when he wanted, only in bursts. What kind of husband did that make him?
He tried not to blame himself, just as he had tried not to lash out at the mousy receptionist; ‘Your husband is dead’ is not the same as ‘Your friend had an accident’. He swelled up with anger at the thought of it.
He should have stopped Michael when he found a used bar of Dove wrapped in cling-film, in his own toiletry bag. He’d checked just in case, and there it was. He could have run after him. Then maybe he wouldn’t have crossed the road.
But somehow, he knew that someday, he’d need that soap more than Michael had.
Years ago, in the Sri Lankan ashram, the black toothed soothsayer pressed her bony fingers on my thumb pad and said, ‘You were a witch in a past life.’ Bingo. It explained everything. You only have to look at my garden to see how I weave my magic. Aromatic scents waft from herb beds shaded by elegant trees. Fat glossy green leaves shroud the conservatory. Blousy blooms and exotic shrubs blend with Impressionist pastels. Imagine how I felt when Dave asked me to dig it up.
I pride myself in practicing my guru’s teachings. I spread love by shopping for the elderly and infirm. When there is illness or a new baby, I deliver nutritious vegetarian casseroles to each deserving family. I bake cakes for street parties. The kids steer clear preferring acid coloured shop bought fare but their mothers praise my contribution to our community. It’s only what I learned on retreat in Sri Lanka, I say, lowering my lids in humility.
Then Dave moved in next door. Just watching him walk down the road had me reaching for my prayer beads. The swaggering gait. The hipster beard. The skull tattoos. Ashtanga chanting helped. A clear mind is a kind mind, I heard my yogi intone, as I sat in the lotus position banging my fists on my prayer mat.
Only when he’s out, tranquillity is restored. No flashy cars preventing me parking outside my own home. No rap or grunge or garage or whatever sub cultural ear carnage he’s playing with his drug crazed mates till all hours. Just bird song, wind chimes and the soporific buzz of bees.
I knew he’d had problems. The rat man, a ghost faced Pole, was always knocking on his door. Being the sort of neighbour who prefers sowing the seeds of harmony, I allowed them into my garden to ‘check the rat paths.’ Dave told me how ‘ethical’ and ‘respectful’ the company was while ‘state of the art’ equipment was thrust down drains and black boots flattened my Hibiscus and snapped my tender Oleander stems.
‘Please be careful,’ I entreated, pressing my palms together. ‘I brought those seeds back from Sri Lanka. Took years to establish.’ Dave shrugged and strode across my lawn to where the rat man was emerging from the leafy border like Dr Livingstone from the jungle.
‘That where rat get in,’ he boomed, pointing towards Dave’s ugly kitchen extension marking my garden boundary. ‘Need dig up flower bed. Put in deep defensive mesh. Rat no like.’
‘That ok with you?’ Dave said in a manner which implied it was a done deal.
I was explaining how the garden was my long established sanctuary, when Dave butted in
‘Look, I got rats scuttling in the walls, under the floorboards, in the attic. Squeakings doing my head in man. It’s not like them plants won’t grow again’.
Silently, I repeated my calming mantra but it didn’t help. My third eye snapped open. The roaring in my brain engulfed me like fire. I let out a banshee wail I hadn’t heard since mother looked like she might survive my magic. ‘Dig up half my precious garden for you. No way, you flabby moron.’
Dave grinned, his wet red lips resembling an open sore. ‘I wondered if the drippy hippy act was the real thing,’ he said triumphant. ‘Turns out, you’re just like everyone else.’
My guru always said there would be a time when our true self would be revealed. It felt like Dave had ripped off my kaftan and seen me naked. I stepped back from him, clutching the beads at my neck. I counted breaths in. Nine Ten. And out. Nine Ten. ‘Ok, Dave,’ returning my voice to petal soft tones, ‘To avoid unpleasantness, I’ll think about it.’
Gardening and cookery go hand in hand. Sweet aromatic scents pervading the kitchen take me back to Sri Lanka. In the dirt floor kitchen, I learned to dry seeds, leaves and spices. Some were nutritious. Some used for alchemy. Others, like the yellow oleander, were downright dangerous. I noted their uses in my notebook.
At the time, suicides plagued the island. Legions of parent-hating young people like me were literally dying to get their own back. One girl, livid because her mother forbad television during Ramadan, popped a toxic yellow oleander seed in her mouth in front of her and died in her arms. Throughout the island, the yellow oleander became known as ‘the suicide shrub.’
Practicing my asanas beneath the Banyan tree in the cool of the Sri Lankan evening, I marvelled at the yin and yang of my life. Having come all this way to escape my toxic mother, I’d discovered a similar plant could make the separation permanent.
When I inherited the home my opiated mother neglected so badly, I set about recreating the Ashram gardens. Now Dave wanted me to destroy it. Tracing my finger across the shelves lined with carefully labelled herbs and spice jars, I found what I wanted.
I stood on Dave’s doorstep for a long while. Obviously, he couldn’t hear the bell over the looping bass thud. He finally opened the door looking bleary and surprised to see me. I proffered my casserole dish. I saw his nose twitch as he breathed in the spicy aroma. I knew he loved curry. The Pride of India delivery guy had been there often enough. ‘Peace offering,’ I said, my voice sweet as sugar cane. ‘I’ve made far too much for myself and hoped you could help me out.’
‘And Dave,’ I continued, ‘It’s ok to let the rat man into my garden. But if you can hold off for a few days, my oleander is just coming into flower and I want to collect more seeds.’
‘Sure thing,’ he said, taking the casserole dish from me. ‘I’ll give you a bell.’
That black night, I stood in the middle of my garden and listened. The mournful cry of the tawny owl. A rat squeak but from next door, magical silence.
“Hello? Is someone there?”
“Lovely weather we’re having isn’t it."
"Uh yeah. I'm sorry but who is this?"
"I love it. Even now, this late into the evening and it's still warm! Reminds me of holidays in Spain. It wasn't that long ago that we couldn't sit outside past five and now - ”
“Who is this?”
“Don’t you recognise my voice?”
“You should. It’s Analisa."
"Uh I don't know -"
"From the party? Last weekend?”
“Analisa … I, but I didn’t go to any parties last weekend.”
“Oh well we both know that’s a lie.”
“Whatever. Why are you calling me?”
“To talk. I think you want to hear what I have to say.”
“There you’re wrong. I’m hanging up the phone. Don’t call me again-.”
“- Wait! If you hang up … you’ll never know what it is that I know.”
“You’re being ridiculously cryptic.”
“I was there, Daniel. Friday night. The Bluebell Inn. You were with two of your mates, Jamie and Liam if I remember correctly. They seemed nice. Shame you didn’t leave with them at closing time and just go home. Maybe then none of this would have happened. Maybe then … maybe then I wouldn’t have to … be feeling like this, feeling …”
“Hey, are you crying? Are you alright?”
“Don’t you dare.”
“What’s wrong? You … listen, you’re right OK. My name is Daniel and I was at the Bluebell Inn on Friday night with my friends but we left together. They can vouch for me on that one. We all got a kebab from one of those wretched places down Friar’s Street and got taxis home. Analisa? What are you so upset about? What happened? Do you need help?”
“Wow. That is some manipulative psychological bullshit you’re pulling right now. Are you hurt? Do you need help? Unbelievable. You must be a real psycho.”
“Look. I don't know what's going on here but if someone has been hurt then you should call the police.”
“Oh, you’d like that wouldn’t you.”
“Listen. I am a psychologist. I happen to have experience dealing with victims of abuse. Physical and emotional. So I understand that you’re possibly feeling very angry and you don’t know what to do with that anger so you’re directing it, falsely, towards me. Just some random guy who you saw in the pub. I don’t know what happened after I left but there were other people there. It was busy. Maybe your boyfriend did something?”
“Huh, suddenly you know I have a boyfriend.”
“A guess. I do remember you now, Analisa. You're the girl who asked me for a light outside, right?. Short blonde hair. Sparkly disco top. You were with a group of people, one looked like he was your boyfriend unless you kiss all the boys like that. You were all having a real good time. I wonder. How well do you remember the evening?”
“What is that supposed to mean?”
“How drunk were you?”
“That has nothing to do with it.”
“Ha, so you were drunk. How drunk? Did you fall over? Did you throw up?”
“It doesn’t matter.”
“Did you know where you were when you woke up? Who was next to you?”
“It doesn’t matter how drunk I was!”
“Oh, it does. Especially since you’ve called me up to accuse me of doing something that I didn’t do.”
“You’re lying! You did not get into a taxi and leave. You came back to a party at my house. Other people were there. They’re witnesses that you were there. There’s no denying it.”
“And how drunk were these so-called witnesses? Hmm?”
“I can’t believe you’re actually trying to twist this around.”
“I’m not twisting anything. Maybe if I knew what happened, exactly what you’re accusing me of, then we could … hang on, how did you get my home phone number?”
“Same way I got your address. Dr. Daniel Edward Whittaker.”
“That’s not funny. This is turning into harassment and its borderline threatening. I didn’t do anything to you.”
“You’re a rapist.”
“WHAT?! No I’m not!”
“You can sound as shocked and horrified as you want but I know we’ve got the right person … And you’re going to pay for what you did.”
“I did NOT attack you and who exactly is ‘we’?”
“I didn’t say attacked, I said raped. And it wasn’t me you pervert.”
“Well that proves it wasn’t me doesn’t it! Look, if you or someone you know has been raped then you should go to the police.”
“No point. They wouldn’t be able to do anything. It’s been a couple of days. She’s showered. Cleaned herself up. Evidence is just - what do they call it - circumstantial.”
“I wasn’t even there!”
“She’s thirteen. Did you know that? Maybe you thought she looked older but I doubt it. Thirteen and her whole life is ruined. Eternally warped and tarnished … by you.”
“Oh my god.”
“Didn’t realise she was thirteen, did you?”
“It wasn’t me! For Christ’s sake! What was she even doing there? … Oh, you evil little bitch.”
“Wow. No wonder you’re behaving like this.”
“What are you saying?!”
“What was your sister doing at this party? Shouldn’t she have been asleep, tucked away safe and sound in her bed?”
“Ha! I didn’t tell you she was my sister! You let that slip.”
“It was an educated guess.”
“Well you’re weirdly good at guessing.”
“You said the party was at your house. She’s thirteen. That makes it pretty obvious what must have happened. Some big sister you are. How does it feel? Failing her like that?”
“You’re a monster.”
“Your little, baby sister who you’re supposed to look after. To protect.”
“And you got drunk, brought strangers into your home and one of them fucked her didn’t they! You’ve only yourself to blame. Where the hell were your parents?”
“This isn’t my fault!”
“What are you hoping to achieve by calling me? Are you recording it? Hoping I’ll confess? I didn’t do it and you’re wasting time. All this time that the police could be tracking the real culprit. Call them.”
“No. Being questioned by the police, even for rape would put a mild smear of suspicion on your impeccable character but no real lasting damage to your life. We will have to live with what you did forever … and now, so will you.”
“And what exactly are you going to do? Irritate me to death with late night phone calls?”
“We know people, you know what this village is like.”
“Oh I’m terrified.”
“You should be.”
“And what’s your role in this absurd revenge plot then, huh?”
“Are you still there? Analisa?”
“Well come on then. What’s your role?”
“It's already done.”
“Well then you should be able to tell me. Go on, I’m all ears.”
“Alright. Keeping you on the phone. Distracted. Just...long...enough.”
“What the fu- "
"Is there someone in my fucking house?!"
It was my fifth year at the orphanage. I stood in complete darkness while my eyes were getting used to the starlight. The spot was at the farthest area of the premise with a decayed wall. It was the only remnant of the original building. What if children stayed there forever? Did their souls fall apart as the house decomposed? They became fleshless guardians of this permanent home.
This horrifying thought drew me to the place every December. I dreaded to turn into an eternal orphan and therefore I followed the ritual. A child had to come there on the darkest night, five days before Christmas, and spent an hour with no light. Nuns mentioned that a dream would become a reality this way. I did it three winters in a row. Maybe it wasn’t working, because I stayed less time than required.
A walk from the orphanage to the sacred place was the challenge. Absolute darkness, howling sounds, and menacing silhouettes of trees - inhabitants of a torture kingdom. A heavy snowfall blocking an already difficult view and slowing the pace of tiny feet. I forgot gloves and cold took my hands in its freezing grasp. All monsters from my nightmares crawled behind, ready to devour a skinny body. I made slow progress to my destination - a minuscule figure in light clothes, almost numb from fear. How easy it was to wipe this fragile human being from the records of earth’s memory. And then push it back to an eternal void of nothingness. An unwanted child, an obscure soul - just another brick in the wall of emptiness.
No one knew my story, no one tried to save me from the grievous orphanage. It was gloomy outside; it was pitch-dark inside of me. I cried quiet tears all the way to the sacred place. So frightened, so cold, but believing in the power of the ritual. The new mother would appear and evacuate me from the cave. Or it was an old mother. Perhaps she would change her mind and come back for me. I didn’t have any recollection of her, no memories. But I wanted to believe that she left me by mistake. Or that she lost me and couldn’t find her petite girl.
I stood under the starlight, chilled to the bone. I looked up and repeated one word, “mommy.” Tears turned into iced crystals and pricked my skin. I didn’t feel my hands and my feet wallowed in the snow. I couldn’t follow the time, and one hour was a vague period. I assumed it was right before my emaciated body would turn into a minuscule ice figure. Just moments before I’d die from horror. “Mommy!” I cried, and cold seized my throat.
It was spine-chilling to stand there, but it was even more dreadful to walk back. “Mommy,” I repeated, stumbling with each step. The cold was now in complete control of my inner system. I fell, and the snow burned my naked hands. I had a strong desire to stay on the ground, surrounded by gigantic trees, and never get up again. The frozen earth will blend me into her womb, and I will become a part of this horrible forest. There will be no need to return to the orphanage. I won’t be lonely anymore. The earth will embrace me and lullaby me into sleep, like a loving mother. “Mommy,” I whispered, still attempting to move forward in a weak glimmer of survival instinct.
An adoption happened on my sixth December. The dream blossomed into reality. I was the least probable candidate for getting a forever home, because of my sociophobia. That’s what nuns said. I never heard potential parents whisper “she is so adorable” after looking at me. Nevertheless, a family with a boy and a girl made a choice in my favour.
I learned the reason soon. My adoption was a calculated step. Three children meant easing of taxation for a household with one working parent. They needed me as a bureaucratic requirement to benefit from the government. I became an unwanted commodity.
There was little difference between my life at the orphanage and at home. Two people whom I called “mother” and “father” didn’t have any concern for me. They maintained my primary needs out of fear of being charged with child negligence. As long as I breathed and walked, they were fine. Much like nuns, when they pretended to care during bi-monthly checks.
I regretted that the ritual worked. Life at the orphanage wasn’t too bad, after all. Two children of my current household treated me as a mannequin to practice humiliation and mockery. I couldn’t utter a word in defense. My nightmares never ceased, and I cried every night. I didn’t know a ritual to undo the adoption. Sometimes I thought my mother had finally come for me, but nuns at the orphanage had told her I now had a home. And she abandoned the idea to reclaim me. Heartbroken, but relieved that her girl is now cared for. I never blamed my mysterious mother for what she did. I persuaded myself to believe that it was by accident or by my fault. I wasn’t pretty.
Many times I wished to get back to the horrible forest and to be devoured by the earth. To be pushed into oblivion. I didn’t see the point in my living. But I had no idea where the orphanage was. Everything changed when I saw Florence playing the piano in the park. An orphan meeting a mother from her dreams. December rituals were always about her and no one else.
At first, I heard the piano. The sound announced spring more emphatically than any other activity in the city. The surrounding nature was breathing in unison with the music. It was as liquid as a chocolate filling. It resonated with me, running very deep through doubts, scares, and nightmarish memories. It touched something I could not identify. A very pleasant and pacifying feeling, almost like a magical remedy. If only I could take it with me and listen to it each time tears gathered in my eyes. Or when children bullied me. Or when I felt so lonely that life at the orphanage seemed a blessing.
And then I saw the pianist, Florence. My birthday began to make sense - I was born at that very moment. Dreams and hopes awoke in me. An elusive and fragile sentiment evoked by the music and the performer. She looked like the mother I dreamed of and called for in the forest. Florence was in harmony with melody, the only person capable to invoke its healing impact.
Music wrapped my soul in a delicate cocoon. I couldn’t take away my eyes from Florence’s hands. Handsomely shaped and with long flexible fingers, hands of a mother who caresses her child. They pat the baby's cheeks as gently as a breeze kisses flower petals. As the spring sun touches the skin. No burns, just a whiff of warmth.
Her face wasn’t visible from where I stood, but I knew it. I saw it in my dreams. Music took full control over me. I visualized sound waves running through my veins. It was a state of blissful trance, all troubles and sufferings just vanished. Love and hope won their place. I glanced at my past through this fresh sensation and felt an enormous pity for a miserable child. Abandoned, painfully shy, and unpretty. The old mother disappeared together with the orphanage. They plunged into the dark void, devoured by it forever. Florence’s hands sealed that horrifying emptiness.
A small girl who had spent her life under roaring winds and snowfalls, alone in the forest, naked in front of voracious monsters, was now wrapped in a protective shawl. It was woven with piano sounds, guided by Florence’s hands. She emerged from a magical world, a place where suffering, bullying, and loneliness didn’t exist. A home I dreamed about. What should I do to make Florence take me with her? What ritual should I follow?
The queen of the playroom drew herself up to her full height, all of two foot six, and glared down at her subjects scattered around the floor.
‘This is a disgrace!’ she shouted, flinging out her arms and sounding uncannily like her mother. ‘Get this room tidied up this minute!’
The dolls lay unresponsive on the carpet, long lashes demurely lowered on tinted plastic cheeks. The one-eyed teddy bear lolled against the toy box, his missing eye gleamed in the shadows where it had rolled over by the radiator. Lego blocks and jigsaw pieces, plastic farm animals and crayons, all lay around as if dropped from a height.
The tyrant queen heaved a big sigh. ‘I suppose I’ll just have to do it myself,’ she declared in dramatic tones. Then she stomped around the room picking up her toys and throwing them into the toy box.
Peeping in from the landing her parents tried hard not to laugh out loud at their little girl.
Her father marvelled as she relentlessly cleared the floor. ‘You don’t see that very often.’
‘Is that what I sound like?’ her mother whispered. ‘Maybe I should go and help.’
‘No, no. Leave her to it, she’s doing a great job! What would it take to set her to work in our room, do you think?’ He dodged as his wife gave him a playful punch on the arm then they went downstairs to wait for the little despot to finish her housework.
My wife left me when I became a vegetarian.
Mind you, I don’t think that was the sole reason for her departure. Things had gotten a bit awkward between us since the day I found her in bed with Sally from the corner shop.
I thought to myself. “You don’t see that very often.”
We didn’t talk about it much. In fact, we didn’t talk about it at all. Some things are best left unsaid.
But the vegetarian announcement was obviously her tipping point.
She said, “Would I be wearing open toe sandals and going on protest marches?” She even accused me of voting Labour. I have voted Labour all my life, an act almost unheard of in these Tory doting Shires.
I always felt a bit rebellious when I put my cross next to the Labour candidate. I half expected the door of the polling station to burst open, and two burly men dragging me, kicking and screaming, into an unmarked van.
It never happened though, and the Labour candidate never got elected either.
Of course, we divorced, there were no attempts at reconciliation. We sold everything, including the house, and I came out of it rather well. I even got custody of Margo the cat, who sadly passed onto catty heaven just a few weeks ago. She had a good life, but I sensed a bit of a celebration in mousey land!
So, here I am munching on a snack of Tofu and olives, when a WhatsApp message bounces up. It’s from Samuel, a militant vegan. “GET THE LOCAL PAPER UP ON YOUR SCREEN. QUICK!” It sorts of screamed at me.
With a couple of clicks I’m on the page.
“Tory minister admits affair with local woman, constituency party calls for her resignation.” Right next to the picture of this errant minister is the unmistakable features of my ex darling wife!
It did not seem to matter what the weather was doing, it could be torrential rain, high winds, bright sunshine or freezing temperatures, you would always find him sitting alone on the same bench at midday every Thursday. The town's small council offices were blessed with such a well-cared public garden, how it was never vandalised was nothing short of miraculous, perhaps the skatepark and various badly lit street corners were the preferred choice for graffiti and trouble. Whatever the reason, the garden was always left alone, except for the weekly visitor that sat in silence on the same bench as the world passed by around him.
He had become part of the furniture, as familiar as the dour furnishings and beige corridors that connected the various offices and meeting rooms. Such familiarity had allowed him the power of invisibility and soon people stopped noticing his presence. If the man was sat on the bench, then it must be Thursday.
He would sit, lost in his own thoughts, until something would jolt him from his silence, causing him to let out a sigh before standing and walking away as if it were the most natural thing in the world. Routine was a funny thing. People initially wondered if the bench was a convenient resting place to stop midway through a journey. More than once, the bench had been investigated, sat upon, tried for size, but there was nothing special about that spot, the man must simply like it.
Then one Thursday, he wasn’t there.
“You don’t see that very often” one of the people commented upon seeing a vacant bench. Whispers travelled through the offices like smoke, where was he? He had not missed a Thursday in years. But soon, he was forgotten again. Soon, people returned to their work.
We weren’t allowed to visit until your last day when we crept into the hospital like disguised fugitives and were shown your shrunken form that we hardly recognised. Your heavy-lidded eyes barely flickered as we held your hand and spoke useless words of comfort, willing you to go, to no longer prolong your pain, willing you to stay so that we could take you home.
For weeks we had waited, watching your texts diminish, then the calls from the exhausted nurses reading from notes and emotionless scripts, rehearsed with other patients who had already passed. Then the last one suggested we drop everything.
We stood above you in our layers of PPE and scrubs, like clinical aliens watching you try to breathe your last, performing our eleventh-hour duty, squirming like children desperate to go out and play, to be anywhere but there facing the reality.
One of us must have carried the virus over the threshold, carried it unseen like an innocent drug mule and smeared it on a shared surface. The one who took home the shopping? The one who took their children to the play-park? Took the bins out? It no longer matters.
We wanted to take you home. We could have borne you on the sledge, like a snow queen
one last ski run, one last snowball fight. With anything else it might have been possible. One last goodnight.
We trudged through the snow in silence until he suggested we went to the park. We lay in the soft powdery snow and I imagined you with us, like when we were children, making snow angels and everywhere the ice-crusted fringes of tree tops, the glint of winter sun, the dazzling light. “If you had to go” I spoke aloud, “I hoped you would die this way”.
The woman was crying hard now – proper, full-on “ugly crying”. What had started as a gentle sniffle and a slight dampness at the corner of the eye, had developed into great heart-wrenching sobs; red, swollen eyes, and huge salty tears mixing with snot. The tissue box was empty, the waste bin full.
Theirs had been a relationship lasting ten years, though she had been aware of him for some time before. He had been the man of her dreams; he was exactly what had been needed at the time. Everyone told her what a brilliant mind he had, how kind, how thoughtful, how handsome. Over the years he had matured and was now a true leader- a Detective Superintendent; empathetic but strong, forceful but respected; passionate but fun loving, and very much a handsome “silver fox”.
How she had adored him, had loved basking in the adulation that came with being associated with him. She had been the one to guide him through his career, had protected him from the baser elements of the world he was a part of, had masterminded his success. Yet now, here they were, the end of the relationship. It had to be, she needed to move on, there was so much more to do, to explore, and she was being stifled by him.
“I hoped you would die this way” she whispered. “I’m so sorry to do this to you, but at least it’s a hero’s death and it’s really the only way for me to break away from you fully”.
With one last wipe of the eyes, she put her glasses on and bent forward over the laptop, Detective Superintendent Roberts was dead and her long-standing book series finished. Two more words and then off to the Editor….. “The End” she typed.
Cindy has opted-out of Online Publication
The obscene drunken screaming abruptly stopped. She held her breath. The familiar fear coursing through her body held in hiatus.
Did he fall off the mezzanine balcony?
She had just turned down the corridor that led to the guest bathroom. Hoping to reach that safe haven and lock the door before her husband caught her. The long hours she had spent cowering in that stark, cold white room haunted her and yet, at the same time she longed to be there.
Once in that room she didn’t have to reason with him, to beg or plead. She didn’t have to stare into his feverish eyes, hoping that her expression is one of love. One that will calm the beast.
The chill of the bathroom tiles soothes her bruises like a cold compress. The old and the new.
At least he’s never hit my face.
She still didn’t move.
With the yelling gone, other noises reached out to her. The low hum of the cistern, the distant television burble, the wind moaning through the eaves up above. Her own shallow breath.
Slowly, she retraced her steps round the corner onto the first-floor landing. The balcony railing faced her and, for that moment, it dominated her existence. Pulling her step by step.
She peered over the edge.
Her husband lay on his back, eyes closed and mouth ajar as if asleep. The shattered wine bottle sent merlot streaming across the grey marble flooring. An ever-widening pool of blood circled his head.
He might survive if I call for an ambulance now. Or, I could pretend I was asleep. That I didn’t know until the middle of the night … or the morning, just to be sure.
Mary took one last look.
“I hoped you would die this way.”
The hospice nurse arrived. Mr Cambell met her. “Thank you so much for coming. Jen, my wife, is in the front room. We moved her bed there so she could see the view.”
The nurse soon had Jen washed, and the bedclothes changed. The bed was one of those where a button smoothly changes the position of the patient. Alyson put Jen in a comfortable upright position. “I’m going to check your syringe driver. Then I’ll leave you until this evening.”
“Will you be coming back?” Asked Jen.
Nodding, Alison said, “Yes, I must top up the driver.”
Jen dozed a bit as Pete sat next to the bed, holding her hand. Jen opened her eyes and looked down the hill and out over the forest. She sighed. “I’m sorry to leave you like this. We had so many plans.”
“I know, but let’s not think about that, let's concentrate on now. At least we completed all the alterations and you’ve got the best place for the view you love.”
They talked as they always had. Jen’s words were slower. Spontaneously, she dropped off to sleep. As he sat looking at her, it filled him with sadness, tears coursing, unchecked, down his face. But pleased she was home, not lying all alone in the hospital. He took a shuddering breath, kissed her forehead and whispered. “I hoped you would die this way.”
She opened her eyes and smiled at him one last time. “Thank you, my love. You have always been my rock, but I have to take this journey alone. Please turn the lights out so I can see the stars, one last time.”
She slipped away so peacefully. He marvelled, as in life, so in death, she was quiet and composed.
Issue 10 & 11
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