Dying didn’t really feel like anything. It was a bit like they say, like falling asleep, drifting away… Away from my body and pain and anything that bound me to this physical plane… Floating, only the scattered musings of my consciousness tethering together something that was not me, but still… me.
Through the incorporeal I wandered, my identity strewn about like plastic bags across an endless car park, until one thought pulled everything sharply into place.
It was you.
As though the universe had heard me, I felt myself being dragged back into the material world. Well… alongside it, not into it. Never into it. It’s like watching from the other side of a veil – almost there but not quite, seeing but unseen.
The first thing I saw was marble, the kind they use to make tombstones, and at once I knew that I had been consecrated, tied once more to the earth. At least the turnout for my funeral was pretty good – nearly the whole coven was there. An Elder was speaking, calling me brave, a hero. But I didn’t want to look at her, or any of them; I couldn’t listen to the lies.
I saw you, there, right at the front. You were bundled in your little coat, arms wrapped around yourself and shivering in the cold. And I remember your face – not crying, you never cry, but… haunted. That was when my heart broke – I had failed you.
Good mothers don’t leave their children. Good mothers aren’t reckless, thoughtless… selfish. I wasn’t a good mother. But I was lucky. With my consecration, I was given another chance. I couldn’t give you my words or my protection or my embrace, but I can give you my magic. I will make you strong. I’ll make it up to you.
You wouldn’t know this, but I never left your side. Not once. From the moment I saw you shivering in your coat, I was there, watching over you. Spirits on the Other Side… we can wander, see the world if we want to, but I never did. I was there for you.
I watched you grow up – your first day of high school, your first kiss, your first magic lesson. I was a spectre who loved you always. I revelled the day you were first told of ancestral magic; I wanted you to know that I was still there, ever willing to lend you my help. I’m sorry I left you, but I’m not really gone – we’re still connected! I feel it every time you channel my magic, every time you use my power.
I remember in middle school when that boy kept taking your lunch. I could see you were angry, humiliated, but even then, you never cried. Remember when you confronted the boy? You walked right up to him behind the school building – you were always so strong. When you fought, and your skin seemed to burn so hot it began to scar his hands… that was me! My magic! I will always protect you.
I won’t lie to you – it’s lonely on the Other Side. The other ancestral spirits have shunned me, so I’m on my own. In death just as in life, I suppose. To be a spirit is only a half-existence; it’s an endless purgatory. The living do not spare it a second thought as they scatter petals and rosewater over our bodies to trap us forever behind the curtain, on the other side of the one-way mirror. They only want our power, our magic. It’s cruel. But it’s all okay because I have you. For you, I’d happily condemn myself.
Oh daughter… You’re not strong enough to do this on your own. You can’t do it. You shouldn’t have to.
I’m sorry. I should have been there for you… But I hope you can see, I still am! I’m doing all I can to make it up to you. Every time you channel me, when you call upon my power, I am holding you close in the only way I still can.
So even now, even as you need more power than I have in me to give, even as I feel the pain of being torn to nothing from within, I will stand behind you. Where all the other ancestral spirits have forsaken you, abandoned you, I will never. I will never leave you again.
But you are asking more of me than I can provide this time; it’s too much. The delicate tether that holds my spirit to this earth is breaking.
The last thing I see is blood, the kind that’s red, thick, stains everything it touches. The whole coven is here. The Elder is the last to die, choking on her garbled words. They didn’t matter.
I see you, there, right in the middle. You’re splattered red, shaking from exhaustion and on the edge of collapse. This is the first time you’ve cried, but they are tears of triumph. You’ve finally won, but your victory is also mine. We reached your goal; we got your revenge against the ones who made me leave you. I helped you find your peace.
The last thing I see is you, my beloved daughter, before I fade into welcome oblivion.
I’m proud of you. I’m happy.
I am a good mother.
(c) Michelle Hendriks
Her addiction to the flesh, probably not exempt from necrophilic significations, led her, after his passing, to keep his body in the confines of a Baroque coffin, which she conveniently situated in the middle of the living room.
Over the years, she joyfully witnessed, day in and day out, that his mortal remains maintained their integrity, in spite of the warmest summers on record, on account of climate change. She was happy to verify that his flesh had remained intact, until one cold, rainy day at around midnight, when something strange happened.
Someone knocked on the door, notwithstanding the fact that the stiff and she were the only ones left in Paris, after catastrophe had struck.
When she opened the door, incredibly so, he, of all people, proceeded to phase back in, appearing beautifully whole, underneath the threshold, grinning at her with that characteristic smile of his. This compelled her, of course, to take a quick glance back at the coffin in the living room in order to verify that she was not having visions. Indeed, the other’s inert body was still lying in his casket as it had been for all those years, ever since he had phased out, way back in the days. This was an incredible set of circumstances, she thought.
Needless to say, she was nevertheless happy to see him looking this good, all over again. His being alive and kicking, instead of simply existing in the form of dead meat, meant returning to bliss and veritable, concrete, good old-fashion sex.
On the other hand, the cadaver, lying there motionless, brought up otherwise, melancholic memories of the exotic delights and rarity of necrophilic, intimate relations, which, all of a sudden, made her realize that making love to his counterpart meant being unfaithful to the, so-called, defunct. I hope he doesn’t mind, she told herself. This ethical chimera evidently posed a dilemma that she would have to resolve right away.
While all these vertiginous thoughts were dizzily gyrating in her mind, the latest “version” proceeded to step inside the house, and moving her out of the way gently with his left hand, he went directly to check on his alterity, lying in the casket. After gazing at him for a brief moment and affectionately punching him in the chin--chucks! --he bent his head down and kissed his lips, which previously had been done rather badly by her in red lipstick.
Here, astonishingly so, the defuncts inert hand rose, and grabbing the other by the back of the neck, pushed him downward, forcing him to keep his lips locked onto his. Soon, she saw, to her amazement, and later, to her sheer horror, that it was not only the lips that were engaging passionately, but the whole of their faces, as well. Soon thereafter, their heads, and progressively their entire bodies slowly began to fuse until they became one. At that point, the resultant contaminated dissemination emerged walking toward her smiling and calmly asked what was for dinner… “Fish,” she managed to say and he proceeded to kiss her warmly on both cheeks.
(c) Rodrigo Palacios
The last man on Earth leaned on his shovel, then wiped the sweat from his face.
He was almost finished.
He had been digging for hours. He started around noon, when the sun was high overhead, when his shadow was nothing more than a puddle of darkness under his feet. Now his shadow had transformed into an alien figure with elongated limbs and an elliptical head, as if his soul had drained out through his shoes and smeared like ink across the desiccated landscape.
With a sigh, he tossed the shovel aside and picked up a whitewashed slat torn from a picket fence. He drove the sharp end into the ground in front of the newly-filled mound of earth, then used the flat side of the shovel to pound the board into the dirt. Then he stepped back to read what he had written on it.
Rest in Peace
1980 - 2042
Believer, he thought, mouthing the word at the bottom of the grave marker. If there was one word that best described Sarah, that was it. She believed that everything happened for a reason, that there had to be some grand plan to explain all the death and suffering that had befallen them. Humankind had been wiped out at an extraordinary rate by something nobody could explain, and yet her belief never wavered.
It wasn’t a belief in God, per se. It was just a belief in positive outcomes, a belief that – on a long enough timeline – everything would turn out for the best.
Unfortunately, her timeline ran out.
The man had found her in bed, eyes open, lips blue, hands cold. He knew she was gone. Still, he laid down next to her, wrapped his arm around her waist, nestled his head against her neck, and held her. He fell asleep like that, dreaming of the first time they met.
It wasn’t your typical romantic meet-cute. They weren’t high school sweethearts. He had been looting an abandoned grocery warehouse, gorging himself on canned peaches, his chin and chest sticky with sweet, sugary syrup. Sarah snuck up behind him and held a knife to his jugular, ready to cut his throat. He grabbed her wrist and flipped her over his shoulder, intending to strangle her. But there was something about the way she looked up at him, the utter fearlessness in her eyes, that made him stop.
Up until then, he wasn’t even sure why he had kept going, why he had bothered staying alive. But once he met Sarah, he knew the reason. He understood. He believed.
The memory faded as he drifted awake. He carried her body outside, grabbed a shovel from the barn, and began to dig.
Now, as he watched the sun setting between the trees, he realized what he had to do next.
He picked up the shovel.
It was getting late. It would be dark soon. He had to hurry.
He had one more grave to dig.
(c) Warren Benedetto
This is my first job interview. Turning up at the newsagents one afternoon and being offered a job as a papergirl, before I could even get out of my school uniform, hardly counts. I loved that job, until the majority of my customers converted to gravel driveways, and Mr Johnson complained that the imprint of my shoe was on the front page of his newspaper.
‘Eleanor, are you ready yet?’ Mum shouts, worried that I will be late.
‘Mum, I’m just finishing painting my toenails,’ I shout back.
‘Leave them, Eleanor, nobody is going to see them,’ Mum says, having polished the shoes that I am going to be wearing.
So, finally I make it out of my house. I just hope that my heels can keep up with me. I’ve not bothered with tights because I will only end up laddering them. I’ve made my mind up not to accept a drink at the interview, as I will only spill it. And probably somewhere that makes it look like I have had a completely different kind of accident.
I try to remember Mum’s advice to avoid drain covers in case my heels get stuck. I saw that happened to a young woman once. Although, she was more concerned about losing her designer shoes than walking home in bare feet.
Twice, I nearly walk into a lamp post. Once, I nearly walk into a person. Three times, I end up apologising. My head is all over the place thinking about possible answers to the questions I might be asked.
Arriving early, I sit on a bench outside the iconic building. It used to be a club for men only. Apparently, the stone faces on the building are those of the men who built it. Trying not to look at them, and to help me relax before the interview, I take off my heels and close my eyes for just a minute. By the time I have opened them again, my shoes have gone. Silly me for allowing it to happen. It’s too late to cancel the interview, though, I’ll just have to go through with it.
‘Can I help you, Miss?’ asks the lady behind the bar, not seeming surprised by my lack of footwear, as if people pass by her bar that way all the time.
‘Yes,’ I say, ‘I’m here for the job interview.’ She smiles her approval of me, before pointing towards the area where I should wait.
A man in a pinstripe suit collects me.
‘You must be Miss Adams,’ he says, making eye contact with me.
‘Yes, sir,’ I reply.
‘You are very polite, Miss,’ he says, before introducing himself as Mark, the proprietor of the establishment. He doesn’t make anything of me having absolutely nothing on my feet. It is as if all his young women are interviewed that way.
‘Come this way,’ he says, before reassuring me that the other man interviewing me will be a bouncer, so is meant to look scary. I smile at his joke, which pleases him.
I feel the nerves coming on as I enter the darkened room where the interview is to take place. I wonder if they are saving on lighting costs, until I see the pool table. It has its own light. There is an odd-looking stain on the carpet, which I avoid, and another one on the baize where the 8-ball is normally placed.
‘So, tell me about yourself, Miss Adams,’ Mark says,’ with a warm-up question that suggests he senses my nervousness. If he was taking my pulse right now, his watch would be working overtime.
‘Well, there’s not much to tell, really,’ I say. ‘I’ve just finished my A-levels, and I need money to fund my degree course.’
‘No, sell yourself,’ Mark prompts.
‘Okay,’ I say, ‘I possess the most important skill of all – common sense.’
‘That’s not a skill,’ the burly bouncer says.
‘It’s not as common as you might think,’ I say. Mark laughs.
‘Miss Adams, what would you do if a male customer asked you for something extra?’ Marks asks.
‘Give it to him,’ I reply.
‘I think that Miss Adams is going to need my protection,’ the burly bouncer warns.
‘Don’t worry, Miss Adams,’ Marks says. ‘We can’t always find the right words.’
‘I’ll be careful with words in the future,’ I say, not really understanding innuendo.
‘Miss Adams, do you paint your own toenails?’ Mark asks. It seems an odd question for a man to be asking, until I look down at my feet.
‘Yes,’ I smile, touching the little toe that I missed to paint this morning.
‘Don’t’ look so worried,’ Mark smiles. ‘It is time to talk protection.’
‘It will be my pleasure,’ the bouncer remarks.
‘Not that kind of protection,’ Mark corrects him. We need to find the young lady an apron to protect her dress, and then, wet wipes for her feet.’ Surely, he means wet wipes for my hands, I think.
‘Miss Adams, do you have any questions?’ Mark checks.
‘Just one,’ I say. ‘Why haven’t you asked me why I’m barefooted? Most people would think it unprofessional for their staff to be that way.’
‘Not another one,’ the burly bouncer says.
‘Miss Adams,’ Marks says, ‘it seems that you have failed to read the small print in our advert. It is actually a barefoot barmaid and waitress that I am looking for.’
‘I’ll still take the job,’ I say, excited to have one. Mark can’t shake my hand fast enough.
As I pass the barmaid, who it seems really wanted me to get the job, she returns my shoes to me and wishes me good luck, Two men holding pool cues say that they will see me later. Outside, I notice a small sign saying: ‘Barefoot Restaurant and Pool Bar’.
The next day, I thank the paper girl for ripping Dad’s newspaper, and losing the part of the advert that would have prevented me from ever attending the interview.
(c) Philip Jones
“I SAID: ANSWER ME.”
He was met with a stony silence as all five of them refused to make a sound, heads bowed toward the floor. This was unacceptable. HE was in charge. HE made the rules. HE deserved their respect. After all, it was HIM who saved them.
“You think ignoring me is the way to go?” He slammed his fist on the table. “Really?? I make this lovely dinner for us and you’re just going to sit there and pretend like I don’t exist?”
No sound, no movement, no acknowledgement that he’d even been speaking.
“Fine. If you want to ignore me, go ahead. I’m leaving. I’ve somewhere better to be.” He stormed toward the door, snatching up his coat on the way, then slammed it furiously behind him. The walls shook, and the tiny frame holding the number 36 fell off the wall next to the door.
Outside, snow was starting to fall again. It had been bitterly cold for the last two weeks and was getting colder. He dragged his coat on and fastened it against the wind. He was furious. After all he’d done for them, everything he’d sacrificed for them, and they showed no appreciation at all. Infuriated wasn’t the word.
He walked away from the building muttering to himself, oblivious to the stares from passers-by, unconcerned with the direction he was going. He just needed to think, to calm down, to figure out what he was going to do. He’d saved them, brought them into his home, gave them clothes, kept them safe, and now they refused to talk to him. Maybe they were bored of him?
His strides shortened and slowed as he felt a sense of realisation. It had just been him and them for so long, they were sure to want company other than his. He stopped so abruptly that a woman walking behind him had to swerve to avoid him.
“THEY NEED A NEW FRIEND!!” He exclaimed aloud.
The woman turned her head slightly, frowned, and softly replied: “Everyone needs friends, honey.” Then turned the corner and was gone. He stared after her, amazed. People usually avoided him; partly to do with his appearance, partly due to the smell. It just wouldn’t wash off. But the lady hadn’t seemed bothered, didn’t wrinkle her face when she passed him, didn’t take a wide berth around him. She actually spoke to him!
He smiled, a rare sight these days, then whispered “everyone needs friends, honey.” His smile widened and he turned the same corner and began following her.
The snow was getting heavier, and he couldn’t feel his fingers, but for an hour he followed her. She went inside a couple of shops, stopped to take a phone call, and bought coffee from a stand in the park. He decided to get a coffee to warm himself up. A legitimate reason for getting closer to her.
The man at the stand, whose name tag read “Dave”, looked him up and down, and did the same nose wiggle everyone else did when he got close. He could feel the anger rising but was aware that the woman was close and he didn’t want to scare her away. He decided to play it cool.
“Just a coffee. Please.” He slapped a note down on the counter and waited.
The lady was still by the stand, looking at her phone. He took in every detail: she was bundled up warm, in a thick black coat, with a red hat and gloves. A matching set. She looked organised, he liked that. Brown hair peeked out from under the hat, and when she looked at him, he could see her eyes were brown too.
Wait! She was looking at him. He started to panic, until Dave placed a cup in front of him. Ah… yes. He had an excuse to be here, no need to panic. He attempted a smile at Dave, took a deep breath and walked over to where she was standing, still playing with the sugar.
Now what? He hadn’t planned on talking to her. Or even being this close to her. Especially in such a public place. This was stupid of him; he was breaking one of his own rules.
“Sugar?” She smiled and slid the container over to him. Then adjusted her hat, picked up her coffee, and walked away.
He exhaled. He hadn’t realised he was holding his breath and felt a bit lightheaded. Dumping two packets of sugar into his coffee, he scanned the park for her. There she was, over by the gate. ‘I’ll have to be more careful’, he thought, ‘she’ll get suspicious if she keeps spotting me’. Sipping his coffee, he watched her walk out of the gate and turn left, before following again.
Another hour passed, he was now oblivious to the cold, and being much more careful not to get spotted. This woman could walk! She took another three phone calls but didn’t stop anywhere else. She seemed to be going somewhere now. He followed as she headed away from the more populated areas, down dingy looking streets, and into what he assumed was once an industrial estate, now derelict and unused.
Rather than wonder why she was in this abandoned place, he felt excited. They were the only two around, and she still hadn’t realised he was there. She stopped and looked at her phone. He got closer. That familiar feeling was creeping up his body: like soft pins and needles, every hair stood on end, and his heart rate quickened. Then the rush of adrenaline mixed with euphoria as he grabbed her and covered her mouth. She struggled, but he was strong. His hand slipped from her mouth, and she screamed “NOW!” before he grabbed her neck and pressed his palm over her face once more.
As her struggling grew weaker, he felt an unfamiliar feeling; like he was being yanked backwards. Then he was laying on his back, staring at the barrel of a gun. The woman came into view, rubbing her neck and breathing heavily.
“He fits the description perfectly, even down to the smell. Check him for ID. An address. Anything. We have to find her.” She turned to someone out of his eyeline. “Get him cuffed and down to the station ASAP.”
A man answered her, and he was dragged to his feet, hands held behind his back, and cuffs placed around his wrists. He wasn’t sure what was happening; one minute he’d got her, about to make a new friend, and the next surrounded by police and being searched.
“Driving licence.” The same man that had answered her said. “Expired, but says his name is Daniel Hansen. Address is in the neighbourhood where you called it in.”
Wait. What?? She KNEW he was following her the whole time? She led him here, to the police. He couldn’t help it, he screamed at her: “You BITCH!! You’re supposed to be my friend, you’re supposed to be their friend, you wait until I get my hands on you. They’re going to be so upset, you’ve ruined everything.” The man, dragging him backwards, shouted at someone to open the van before roughly shoving him inside and slamming the door.
The woman was giving orders, telling people to go to his address, telling them to go INSIDE his house, and he had no way of warning his friends. The vehicle started moving. Resigned to the fact it was all over, Daniel started repeatedly smashing his head against the side of the van.
Fifteen minutes later...
Two vans screeched to a halt outside the apartment building, half a dozen armed officers exiting the vehicles before they’d even fully stopped. They raced up the stairs calling to each other.
“36. Should be second floor.”
Moving as a unit, the officers swarmed into the apartment, guns pointing the way. The smell was overwhelming. As four of the men went to clear the apartment, the other two approached the table.
“Jesus Christ… How long have they been here?”
“Those four? A while. This one, not as long.” The man bent down for a closer look at Daniels newest friend then recoiled as she gasped. “GET AN AMBULANCE HERE NOW!!! THIS ONE IS STILL ALIVE. NOW!!!”
The second man grabbed his radio and started talking, as the first reassured the girl that everything was going to be ok. He looked up as someone shouted from the other room.
“We’ve got an explosive device in the kitchen; bomb squad are on their…”
Pedestrians scattered as shards of glass and debris flew off of the building with the first explosion, then screamed and ran when the next arrived, flames engulfing the second-floor apartment in a matter of seconds.
Sighing, Nathan disconnected the CCTV feed and closed his laptop. That was a shame, Daniel had done really well. Five new friends before being caught. Ah well, there was always next time.
(c) Emily Dixon
Josiah Trimble was a man full of hate. He hated cats for a start because they made his asthma worse, but he especially hated the ginger cat that belonged to his Aunt Emily. He hated the name she gave it, ‘Tinky Boo,’ and the way she fussed over it saying things like "Who's Mummy's Boofal?" God it was sickening. He hated the way it looked at him. He could feel its eyes penetrating his skull searching the deep recesses of his mind. It was staring at him now and he wondered if the cat could sense the feelings he had for it.
Josiah hated many things, his name for a start. "Josiah Trimble." Just saying it made his stomach churn. He hated his parents, even though they were both dead, for giving him such an awful name and the way they had shortened it to 'Josie.' That made it sound like a girl’s name and all through his childhood he had been taunted about his girlish name.
He hated being short of money and having to ask his Aunt Emily for funds in order to keep his failing business going. He even hated her for having a fortune whilst he had to struggle to make ends meet but most of all he hated that cat.
“I don't think I should help you this time," he heard Aunt Emily say, "It's not the first time you've had problems is it dear?" He was devastated but he knew better than to argue.
She was a bitch. He wanted to stand up and shout at her ‘All I want is a few thousand you tight fisted, vicious, nasty old woman.’ He wanted to but he didn't. He didn't understand why she wouldn't help, after all he was her only living relative and he knew that when she died he would inherit everything. It wouldn't hurt her to part with a few thousand now, she wouldn't miss it. She had more than four million pounds in the bank.
"If I give you more money, I won't be helping you, I'll just be holding you up," she droned on, "you have to learn to stand on your own two feet." He smiled and nodded understandingly but he didn't understand. He would never understand why someone, with so much, would not help their own family. God how he hated her! How he wished she were dead. Even though she was in her late eighties she was very healthy. ‘She would probably live to be over a hundred just to spite me,’ he thought.
As he smiled at her he thought how easy it would be to kill her. It would be simple. Just hold a cushion over her face until she stopped breathing. He was sure it would be put down to natural causes and never considered the possibility of a post-mortem on someone her age. The more he thought about it the more he liked the idea.
What about an alibi? Nobody knew he was here. Everyone who worked for him thought he was in his private office over eighty miles away. He could never let them even think that he had to ask his Aunt for money. He could kill her, be on his way in ten minutes and an hour and a half later be back in his office. No one would ever know that he had even left.
He made up his mind. He stood up and walked to the settee. He waited until she had put her teacup down and then he picked up a cushion, moved over to her chair and pressed it against her face. There were a few stifled sounds and a bit of a struggle, then she was still. He took his cup to the kitchen where he washed and dried it then put it carefully away. He went to the parts of the house that he had been to that day, to wipe away any traces of his having been there. Finally, he went back into the lounge for a last look round.
The cat! Where was that bloody cat? He had thought about taking it and throwing it off a tall building or dropping it into the river with a brick tied around its neck, but everyone would expect the cat to be here with the old lady. 'It probably jumped out of the fanlight window as he suffocated Aunt Emily,’ he thought. ‘It would come back when he had gone.’
After closing the front door, he climbed into his car and drove off. It was hot, the air conditioning in his car had broken down and he was glad that he had the foresight to leave the car windows open. He drove carefully, letting the breeze that came through the windows circulate, and cool his sweating body. Merging into the traffic on the motorway he thought ‘Not long now’.
He moved out into the middle lane to overtake a slow-moving lorry then pulled into the fast lane to overtake some equally slow-moving cars. His, was a powerful Mercedes saloon and it surged forward at the slightest pressure on the accelerator and was soon moving at over eighty miles an hour.
Humming happily to himself he sped towards his office and his alibi confident he would soon have no money worries at all. A movement attracted his attention and glancing in the rear-view mirror, was shocked to see the cat standing on the back of his seat. He waved an arm to knock it away. The car swerved dangerously. He turned in his seat to see where the cat was and as he did so, increased the pressure on the accelerator pedal. The car leapt forward and the needle moved towards and then past, the hundred mile an hour mark.
The cat suddenly leapt onto the front passenger seat and unable to control his hatred Josiah Trimble made a grab for it. It was the wrong thing to do. The car swerved and the tyres screeched in protest. His hand clamped over the cats body but it squirmed free and spat and sprang towards his head. Sharp claws lashed the cheeks of his face drawing thin red lines as they were dragged downwards. He took both hands off the wheel in order to remove the cat from his face.
The powerful Mercedes swerved and hit the central reservation at over a hundred miles an hour then it bounced off and into the side of a huge articulated lorry. It careered back to the central reservation hit the kerb and somersaulted over the barrier into the path of a huge continental lorry.
As the car was catapulted into the air, Josiah Trimble held tightly onto the steering wheel, but it was too late. He saw the huge lorry bearing down on him and screamed out,
"I hate that bloody cat!" Then the lorry ploughed into his car crushing it into a mangled wreck killing him instantly.
The police and fireman began to sort through the debris of a thirty-vehicle pile-up that amazingly claimed only one life, when they noticed a ginger cat at the side of the road watching them. One of the firemen picked him up.
"What's your name then?" He walked towards the fire engine. "We'd better get you off the motorway," he added. Feeling the collar and the disc, the fireman looked for a name and smiled.
“Well, hello, Tinky Boo,” he said. The cat purred contentedly.
(c) Brian Skinner
Once upon a time, an elephant found herself in a tight spot. Now, we all know how huge elephants can be, and this indeed, was the whole crux of this particular elephant’s problem. You see, the spot was small, and she, being as we have established, big, indeed, very big in fact, became too tightly wedged in her little spot that there were only two options open to her: She had to stop being an elephant with immediate effect. Or, she ought to shrink in size, which when you are an elephant, amounts to the same thing, because, as we have been saying from the very first, elephants, by virtue of being elephants, are rather on the big side of life’s hurly burly.
“Oh dear! Oh dear! Oh dear!” wheezed the elephant through her tightly-squeezed trunk. “I’m in quite a pickle!” squealed the elephant, whose name was Turquoise.
Turquoise tried as hard as she could to prise herself out of the spot. But her bulk of a body didn’t budge even an inch. Then she began to twist and turn every which way but that did not work either. The more intensely she squirmed, the deeper she got wedged in. She twisted and turned, huffed and puffed, muttered and grumbled, squealed and moaned but none of it worked, not in the slightest bit.
She tried pushing herself out. She held her breath and then let it out in a long, loud trumpet and once, that nearly worked. She almost got thrust out but then because of inertia or some other reason only the Einsteinists or one of their cousins can explain more definitely for us, she got thrust back in more tightly. Then, Turquoise slumped back for a breather. She was that tired and that frustrated.
But unfortunately, as so often happens in cases like this, she stayed slumped back for too long. The inertia or whatever Greek-sounding phenomenon it was kept her sucked down in the mud. It wasn’t mud at first, just a bit of a blackness of a hole but somehow, when a body falls into a black hole, it doesn’t stay body for very long but sort of melts or something. That’s a thing the Pasteurists and the Jennerists would know all about, we think.
As for Turquoise, after a while, the tight spot she was stuck in began to widen because of her immense weight, and even more unfortunately, tiredness began to give way to a sense of comfort. Lying back in a tight spot at a certain angle did after a while seem to be extravagantly comfortable, she realised, if one were careful not to struggle or wince or even breathe too desperately. In addition, it was a good position for dreaming about how things could have been and ought to be if only one weren’t so stuck in a hole.
After a good while of this laying back and dreaming while being stuck in a black hole, Turquoise found that she had sunk deeper into the black hole. Something to do with the weight of her body, of which there was much, on account of gravity, which as the Einsteinists would add, is that nice, helpful thing that holds us all together on our little planet.
Now, elephants, the National Geographic people would have us know, if they manage to live a life that is nicely satisfied by needs met like family and companionship and enough sugarcane and a reasonable amount of exercise, can live up to be a hundred and ten years old or some such span. So when Turquoise found that she was comfortably stuck in her tight spot and with no plausible way out, she sighed loud and long and then settled down for a bit of a nap, which seemed as good a thing to do as any, considering the circumstances.
“YAAAAAAWNNNNN!” Turquoise opened and closed her mouth, as she slipped into sleep.
What a shock it was for Turquoise when she finally opened her eyes – eighteen years later! When she looked around her, nothing looked quite the same. She vaguely recognised her surroundings but she seemed to have lost her home! Everywhere around her there was tall, unruly grass and the bushes had grown ever so high above her tight spot and there was very little light to see by.
“Oh dear! Oh dear! Oh dear!” quivered Turquoise. “Whatever shall I do now?” she asked anxiously and realised she had said the words but had heard no voice. She tried speaking again, and again, she heard the words in her head but not in her ears. “Goodness is this what a long sleep can do to an elephant?” she asked voicelessly, aghast.
It was darker in her black hole than she remembered. Or thought she remembered. She couldn’t tell. Suddenly, it seemed as if she had trouble remembering anything. Weren’t elephants supposed to have a long memory? Where had hers gone? She looked up. The hole had become covered with criss-crossing vines, leaves, twigs and branches. Through the mish-mesh of all manner of covering things that neglect of eighteen years had brought together in a tight embrace, she saw patches of sunlight. She reached her trunk up and tried to push away the covering things but they were taut across the hole and seemed to be held fast to the ground. Eighteen years of roots was not going to be easily pulled out of their holding place. And eighteen years of inactivity had weakened Turquoise’s muscles. Was she tired after all that huffing and puffing! Eighteen years ago, she had been stuck in the hole; now, she was trapped in it.
She calmed down by and by. She wondered what had become of her family. They had all been walking together when she had fallen into the hole. Hadn’t they seen her falling? Why hadn’t they helped? She strained to hear. No elephant sounds above her! “They moved on,” she suddenly realised. “They moved on,” she said to herself, without voice.
Turquoise became very, very sad. Her family had been everything to her. They were all she had known. But one day, she had fallen into a hole and they had carried on walking, going their way, without her.
Elephants may be very big creatures, but when it comes to their hearts, they have the softest of them all among the grand creatures of the animal world. Whether or not the National Geographic people have this noted down somewhere we cannot say, but everyone who has looked into the big, soft eyes of an elephant, and we surely have, haven’t we, knows this for a fact. The heart of an elephant may be big and grand but it is soft indeed, softer than pillow feathers.
So when Turquoise realised that her family had journeyed on without her, her soft heart simply withered. It dried up and drifted like a weightless feather, very slowly, down into the black hole and lay there on the still ground, as silent as the grave. Turquoise sobbed and then she wailed and when all the tears had been squeezed out and not a single one remained in her eyes, she wept without any.
It was an impossible situation.
Turquoise went back to sleep, and this time, she decided in her silent heart not to wake up. What else was there to do? She slowly shut her big, tear-drained eyes.
She dreamt of time in the beginning, when she had walked with her family, and they had cavorted with one another and squirted water at one another and she had felt safe and secure. Even in the gloomy days of trouble and the terrifying days of danger, she had felt safe.
And in her dreams, she saw them walking their own paths, with their own families now, and always, as every one of her dreams ended, it was their backs she saw as they walked farther away from her, their own little families close by their side.
And so, Turquoise went back to sleep.
It happened that many, many years later, the National Geographic people, who were always poking about in odd, dark places, stumbled upon a hole in the ground in a jungle in an odd, dark place, and found the very big bones of an elephant curled up like a baby in a deep, black hole.
Very carefully, they collected the bones and very carefully, they cleaned them and again very carefully, laid them in a museum in a safe, bright city.
Well, that’s how our story must end, we’re afraid. For now, that it. Who knows – perhaps there’s another ending for Turquoise that no one has yet told us about. Perhaps you might find it among her old bones in some happy place! So, hurry off, then, to that safe, bright city – you’ll find her resting in that museum under a sign that reads, ‘The Elephant in the Black Hole’.
(c) Crescentia Morias
“Where are you?” The voice was little more than a hiss, abrupt and violent, equal parts impatience, irritation, and fear.
“Looked outside lately?” Bill realized before he finished that this was not the intelligent way to go. He should have shut his phone off earlier, before sitting down with Joey at the bar and ordering that first beer, before thinking that the music throbbing through the restroom walls would be inaudible over the phone. He should certainly not have answered it. To punctuate his defeat, another patron opened the restroom door, letting in a blast of noise, both musical and not.
“Where the hell are you?” Tonya demanded again, the question now freighted with meanings and implications the first iteration had not contained. “Weather my ass.”
Before Bill could answer, she had guessed the next step in his betrayal.
“You and Joey are together, right?”
“Look, Tonya, I just stopped in for a quick beer. He doesn’t know anything.
But now, like I said, have you looked outside?”
Looking out the plate glass window of the bar as he drank that first beer, Bill had watched the day fade into premature darkness, the rain that had been falling all morning turning without pity or notice to sleet. Even so, he could hear the weakness, the absurdity of his own defense. When her only reply was a weary but still bitter “Asshole,” he was neither surprised nor offended. The sudden knowledge of the frailty of it all, their twenty-year friendship and one night of indiscretion, lodged in his mind like the grit that could never become a pearl. Silence sat awkwardly in the space between them. Bill felt more than heard Tonya take a deep breath, neither exasperated huff nor audible shrug of resignation.
“So why even keep it?” she asked. “What the fuck were you thinking?”
Her questions were silly, Bill realized, a reaction to her own impotence in the face of previous choices, an attempt to absolve herself, to assign responsibility and agency where none existed anymore. He retained enough sense at this hour to refrain from telling her she was being childish. Admittedly, he had called her first to let her know what he had found, but the entire venture had been her idea. She had enlisted his aid, knowing his loyalty to Joey. It was certainly not his fault that Tonya was a woman of simple and straightforward passions. Whatever her emotional complexity, the channels through which it was expressed tended to the direct. He understood that her flirtations over the years were her way, the only way she seemed to know, of expressing her affection for him. And she did like him. He was Joey’s oldest and dearest friend from the college days, someone who stood outside the circle of what Tonya referred to as Joey’s “forgetaboutit and howyadoin” buddies. For his part, Bill had been drawn to her immediately, not least because she was Joey’s wife, unavailable and unattainable. She became his ideal, the sexually alluring wife and mother always beyond his reach. Until the one time she wasn’t.
“Listen, Tonya,” he said, hoping like hell his voice, the only tool he had to deal with someone else’s rage and shame, did not reveal him as condescending and dissembling, “Joey and I came in separate cars. We didn’t even walk in together. I just happened to run into him. He doesn’t know anything, and he won’t.”
Bill thought he could perhaps hear the faintest trace of a sniffle on the other end of the line, but the slightest possibility of vulnerability suddenly shattered.
Why had he even bothered calling her in the first place? The box had been in the bottom of his closet, for how long now? Who was ever going to stumble across it? Certainly not Joey. And when she had insisted he bring it to her, why had he not simply refused, told her that he would throw it out and be done with it? Had she not just asked why he had not done that? And then there was the weather, an unseasonal storm that seemed to be telling him (or was he just imagining it?) that he should hold on to it, the only evidence that he had once touched that which he most desired, however unsatisfactory the fact may have been compared to the dream. He could not fathom why she had insisted he bring it to her right away. But in the damning light of her final judgment he suddenly saw and understood her guilt, resented it, the extravagance of it, the way it demeaned the depth of his care for her. It was a depth in which he could imagine his own shame submerged and forgotten, but only on condition that she acknowledge and accept their shared culpability. The truth of his situation finally struck him, stinging without mercy like the ice falling outside: this entire errand on her behalf was nothing less than her denial and rebuke.
Bill pressed the ‘end call’ button on his phone. He made his way back to the bar where Joey was talking to a waitress in a manner far too removed from nuance to call flirting. Walking out to a full beer newly opened and paid for, he looked out the window in support of his argument. Instead, all he saw was his own reflection on an empty black background.
(c) Bob Carlton
She counted in her head, like reverse hide-and-seek, counting down her last few seconds of freedom.
She kicked her heel into the ground, kicking up dust, grit, and the tuft of dry, twisted dandelion leaves.
“Gillian?” there it was again.
She looked up. Squinted from beneath a fringe that had grown too long over the summer and hung in her eyes. Thin hair somewhere between brown and blonde, curly and straight, shoulder and jaw.
“Gillian!” boots crunched, and there was the thwack of a stick through dead brambles before Teddy rounded the bend and found her against the wall.
“Fuck, Gillian! Been calling you fucking ages,” Teddy was thirteen, and he swore for effect, thought it was grown up.
“What you doing?” he asked when she didn’t reply.
She squinted, looked right past him to where the tilt-a-whirl undulated against a bright blue sky.
“Couldn’t think with that racket,” she nodded in the direction of the fairground.
“What you got to think about?” his tongue and the inner edges of his lips were stained blue.
She looked back down at the dirt, shuffled the toes of her converse into the dust and rubbed a hand over the back of her neck like she’d seen cowboys do in the movies.
He started talking again.
“Rich got one of those massive bears…won one for that girl on the shooting range.”
“Wow…” her sarcasm was missed. A pause, a beat in the air, smothering and hot.
“What girl on the shooting range?” she asked finally.
“He won it on the shooting range,” Teddy pushed his hand into the back pocket of his jeans and pulled out a crumpled box of Lucky Strike cigarettes and a pink plastic lighter.
“What girl?” she tried again.
“Meg…something…our year, the blonde one?” he twisted the end of the cigarette.
“Want me to win you one?” he asked, lighting it and ramming the packet back into his pocket.
“Piss off,” she laughed, looked at the ground, watched a line of ants split in two around a bottle cap.
“Where’re they now…everyone?”
“On the Ferris wheel. Rich wants to spit off the top,” he exhaled smoke into the air between them and Gillian screwed up her face.
“Twat. And you’re a twat for smoking that’n’all,” she snatched the cigarette from between his thumb and forefinger and crushed it into the ground with the toe of her shoe, just like she always did. And he didn’t complain, just like he always didn’t.
“Let’s go find them,” he turned to go, ignoring the way she screwed up her nose and turned her face up to the sky, squinting against the sun.
“Think I’ll stay here for a bit.”
He turned back around and let both of his arms raise slightly and clap against his thighs at the same time. A trait she recognised from his mother.
“Why?” he asked.
She shrugged, let her head fall to look at him again, sunblind this time, only seeing a negative white blinding version of him against black grass. But she couldn’t tell him why, couldn’t tell him that she preferred to be alone, to slip unseen between everybody else, so she pushed herself away from the wall with her elbows, and followed him without another word.
“Her name’s Margaret. Her real name,” he carried on talking as they neared the fairground.
David Bowie was in the air and “Let’s Dance” came louder and quieter, and then louder again, blurring momentarily with the clunking nightmare music of the carousel and the bubbling whooping noise of the slot machines.
“Who’s real name?” she shouted.
“Meg. It’s short for Margaret. Rich told me.”
A bell sounded from somewhere, a gong, the hiss of hydraulics.
“Oh. That’s…oh,” she walked behind him a good two steps. The sun was on her back, her vest top sweaty and her arms were brown and lined halfway up from wearing the same T-shirt all summer long.
They cut the queue for the Ferris wheel. Rich – tall for his age, with sun-bleached blonde hair, and a toothpaste commercial smile was, despite the heat, wearing his trademark denim jacket sewn all over with patches and badges. Gillian picked out her favourites, the ones that always seemed to catch her eye whenever she found herself behind him in the school corridor - the bright blue and red lightning bolt, the acid yellow and red of KISS, and the others: The Beatles, Queen, Genesis…
An oversized brown bear was slumped against his right leg, a bright red bow around its neck, head flopped down, nose touching his belly like a sad, flaccid old drunk. Meg was next to him, blonde hair tied back from her face in a neat ponytail. She had her back to them, gesturing with her hands to the girls around her – all girls in Gillian’s year; Anna, Vanessa, Josephine…easy prey, Gillian thought as they approached, for Rich and his wolfish grin.
Teddy clapped Rich on the back, shook his shoulder and leaned into him, pushing his way into the group.
Gillian stopped on the outskirts and wished again that she was there alone like she’d had it planned like she did every year. She’d walk down the track from the farm, tell her granddad she wouldn’t be late.
She’d jump the fences – the quickest way to Horne Hill - scuffing her knees and the inside of her thighs on drystone walls and splintering stiles. She’d run as fast as she could up the hill, just to see if she could still make it to the top without stopping. And when she got to the gates she’d climb the half-rotten apple tree and drop down on the other side without paying.
She knew the fair, knew the stalls, the rides, the tricks to get another go-round for free, and which vendors sold the biggest sticks of candyfloss for the cheapest price. She’d got it all worked out.
Bumping into Teddy hadn’t been part of that plan.
“You coming on, Gillian?” Teddy called.
She smiled, shook her head, and watched as the mention of her name made Meg and the others turn to look at her. Josephine had dyed a streak of her hair cerise pink, almost the same colour as her sunburned face.
“Think I’ll go and see what else there is,” she tilted her head in the general direction of everything else.
“Don’t be silly, we need one more anyway,” at thirteen Meg already had that way of speaking that made her the voice of authority, of reason.
“There’s six of you, two in each,” Gillian pushed her hands into the back pockets of her jeans. She wasn’t that stupid.
“Rich has his teddy bear,” Meg lowered her voice.
Gillian glanced at Rich who was laughing too loudly and wrestling with Teddy and another boy from the group ahead.
“Alright. Once. But I’m not stopping. Told my granddad I’d not be late.”
Meg regarded her for a moment, arms crossed, a paper cup in one hand. She drew in a breath and smiled, but before anything else could be said the Ferris wheel slowed to a halt, gears jarred and grated, the metal chain on each swinging seat clattered open and Gillian slunk closer to the edge of the queue, following the line of kids, two by two, filing into metal pods painted with chipped ceramic swirls of colour.
“Meg!” Rich had the bear by its neck under one arm, gesturing with the other to the seat next to him as he swung in, faded blue jeans stretched tight and tucked into loose brown boots.
Meg shook her head and smiled that sweet smile, her lips the colour of the candyfloss Gillian was missing out on.
“I’ll take the next one with Gillian.” was all she said, looking away, turning and ignoring the throw of Rich’s hands and the “What the fuck!?” as he shoved the bear into the seat next to him while the man running the wheel tightened the slack metal chain around him, fixing him in place. He shot Gillian a glare and mouthed something she couldn’t make out.
The wheel turned slowly, clunked, stopped again, and they stepped gingerly into the next seat, Meg moving side-ways, hands smoothing down the front of her yellow sundress as Gillian lumbered in behind her, clutched the guard rail, wobbled, and sat down harder than she had meant to.
“He’s not happy.” Gillian nodded to the back of Rich’s head in the seat in front.
“He’ll get over it.” Meg edged closer to let the Ferris wheel man clip them in, her thigh against Gillian’s.
“Think he was trying to impress you with that bear…” she said, more for something to say to break the silence than for anything else.
“Not interested I’m afraid,” Meg laughed.
“Are you not?”
Meg looked surprised, turned to look at Gillian, leaned back a bit to regard her with raised eyebrows.
“You thought I would be?” she asked slowly.
“Dunno. Most girls I know seem to like him.”
“He’s not my type,” she said simply, unblinking, and Gillian felt the creep of embarrassment deep in the pit of her stomach, and time seemed to stretch uneasily between them.
“What is your type, then?” she asked finally, though she wasn’t sure she even wanted to know.
Meg looked down at her hands in her lap, the smallest of smiles twitched at the corner of her mouth.
“Do you like him?” she asked, avoiding the question entirely.
Gillian laughed out loud, a sudden ‘Ha!’ of a laugh that she regretted immediately.
“No!” she paused, felt the jolt of the wheel turning and the drop of her stomach as it rose.
“I’d rather be with the sheep...” she hesitated again, “not in that way. I don’t mean…I mean, my granddad has a farm, I live with my Grandad…a sheep farm.”
Meg looked up from her hands.
“Oh.” she said.
“Why don’t you wear a bikini, like everyone else?” Ted asked, watching as Meg and Josephine came back out of the house wearing candy-striped bikinis and carrying plates of food.
It was the end of summer, the last day before they were scattered across the country, to university, to work, to sheep farming, and, somewhere along the path to adolescence, Ted had grown his hair, lost the last two letters of his name and swapped the Lucky Strikes for joints that made his speech slower than it already was.
“You’re not wearing a bikini,” Gillian said pointedly, stretched out on a deck chair, enjoying the warmth of the sun on her face and the burn of orange-red through her eyelids.
“Fuck off. You know what I mean,” he flicked ash in her direction.
“Anyway, why should I?” she asked, shielding her face with her hand so that she could open one eye to look at him.
He shrugged, grunted, pulled a face, and swore at the wasps that buzzed around his hand and bumped against the neck of his beer bottle.
Summer stretched out behind them, a seemingly endless summer culminating in today; a somewhat melancholic gathering of friends, some old, some new, at Meg’s parent’s house, where people lay on the lawn by the pool, making the most of the bushfire summer friendships that had already begun to fade, and summer romances that had already turned wistful, whilst, from somewhere, Rick Astley’s ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’ played in between the hollow tinny beat of a basketball on hot tarmac.
They were on the porch drinking pear cider out of plastic cups. Meg had baked a lemon cake and the smell of it was in the air, on her clothes, and in her hair, warm and tart and yellow.
She waved a hand over it, batting away lazy flies. She was wearing a sun hat, big and floppy, and it cast tiny sun flecks of trapezoid light all over her face, just down to the very tip of her nose, and she sat on the wooden decking, her back to the garden, her silhouette framed by the pinks of peonies and yellow roses, the reds of poppies and vivid blues and purples of delphiniums.
Josephine smoked a menthol cigarette, inhaling long slow drafts and exhaling ribbons of white smoke that faded into the clouds.
“Gillian doesn’t do bikinis,” she said, late to the conversation, voice strained before releasing the last draw of smoke as she shifted in her seat, leaned forwards so that the sheer fabric of her kimono rippled about her arm and reached for another slice of cake, and Gillian wondered just how Josephine knew what she did or didn’t do.
Meg cast her a sideways glance.
“Gillian can wear what she likes,” a moment of acerbic rarity from Meg which left the conversation immediately abandoned.
Meg’s moods had become a feature of the summer, her frown of deep thought already leaving a permanent line between her eyebrows. She seemed to flutter between groups of people and conversation as easily as she did between her role as the popular girl with the face full of sunshine, queen of quick-witted remarks, to an emotionally detached, vague sort of creature haunted by her own thoughts.
Gillian twisted in her deckchair, but Meg wouldn’t make eye contact. Instead, she studied the rough edge of her flip-flop, where the rubber was beginning to fray.
The afternoon light was hazy and dreamlike, the sun was low and hot and from somewhere the whisper of autumn seemed to hesitate around the edges.
Dishes, napkins, and glasses were collected and taken inside, yet still, nobody mentioned leaving. The day was too precious, there was too much to be said, too many goodbyes to say and too many promises to make.
Meg stood in the kitchen, hands on her hips looking at the piles of dirty dishes.
“I think I’ll leave it,” she said, more to herself than to anyone else. “I can do it tomorrow.”
“I can help?” Gillian offered, but Meg shook her head, she had made the decision.
“I want to enjoy the sunshine,” she stopped. Looked at Gillian. Really looked. “When will I see you again?” she asked, and The Three Degrees started up in Gillian’s head.
“Christmas, I suppose, if you’re coming back?”
Meg nodded slowly. She was going to Oxford to study English, and all of a sudden Oxford seemed a long way away. Christmas seemed a long way away. School would be forgotten, friendships would be left to die a slow, long, painless death and memories would no longer be remembered, but left forgotten, replaced by the people and moments that would suddenly seem like so much more.
“You’ll still be here?” Meg asked though Gillian had no idea why. She had no plans to leave, no wish to leave.
“I’ve got the farm. My grandad’s getting too old - ”
Meg cut her off, caught up with her own train of thought, “It’s funny, thinking of you shearing sheep.”
“Don’t think I’ll be doing much of that,” Gillian laughed, pushed her hands into the pockets of her shorts and made her way back to the open door. “You can visit me in the spring. Help me with the lambing?”
“I’d like that,” she said vaguely, beginning to follow Gillian out of the door.
“Actually,” she stopped half in and out of the kitchen.
“Actually, can—can I talk to you?”
Gillian flicked a glance her way. The pavement was almost too hot to stand barefoot in one place for too long.
She imagined at this bleary point in the afternoon Meg just wanted to talk more about lambing, university, or some obscure book she just read but couldn’t remember the name of.
They stood by the side entrance to the house between the door and the porch where the last few roses of summer were thick and sweet-smelling and turning brown at the edges.
“I want to talk to you. I wanted to talk to you about - ” she stopped, made to restart and stopped again. “I wanted to - ” she gave up. Almost laughed, and then, in a moment of madness, grasped Gillian’s wrist with one hand, the back of her neck with the other, flinched at the muffled squawk of surprise, ignored another protesting syllable, lost her balance so that she inadvertently had Gillian up against a hopefully not-too-hot wall, and kissed her.
But this sudden, attention-grabbing flourish quickly transformed into something deeper, slower, more sensual, something that got better and better, an ardent give-and-take that defied expectation. A thousand kisses condensed into one, a book of a thousand pages fluttering to conjure the beauty of a single word, a thousand sensations distilled into one moment: the sun-warmed wall at her back, Meg’s hands pulling her closer, and a sweetness like biting into an overripe fruit, and that thousand-page book was on fire, everything must be rewritten, reworked, retold because the fire, this fire, consumed it all.
Meg was the one who pulled back first. Blue eyes wide. She took another step back, flexed her fingers and folded her arms tightly across her chest.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered too quickly. “I’m sorry.” Her voice suddenly stronger.
Gillian opened her mouth to speak but found she had nothing to say, her lips felt too hot.
This feeling had been growing inside her for years, alongside their friendship, but she had never dared name it. Now, standing in front of Meg, it was too big to bear, an ever-growing ache inside her chest. If Meg smiled, she couldn’t help but smile too. It wasn’t her body she wanted, the way Rich and the other boys did. It was the way she tucked her hair behind her ear, the way she laughed, the way she was quiet until she wanted to say something, and then said it supremely well.
“Meg!” from somewhere back by the porch Josephine was calling for her, and Meg flushed, hesitated, didn’t seem to know what to do with her hands.
“We’d better - ”
Gillian nodded in agreement, all too aware that she had yet to say anything at all.
Time passed slowly, the day-long and slow, like a dream in the sunshine. Conversation passed easily between them, in fits and lulls, between silence and laughter. Ted and Gillian played cards, Josephine slouched against the chest of a boy Gillian couldn’t remember the name of, and Meg cut more slices of cake than were needed. She passed one to Gillian, wrapped up in a pink and green napkin, waited a moment too long whilst Gillian cupped her hand to take it, her palm warm against Meg’s fingers, a red flush beginning to creep from Meg’s chest all the way up her neck.
“Maybe at Christmas, when we are all back, we could meet at Gillian’s. At the farm?” Josephine asked as if she had overheard their earlier conversation.
Meg looked at Gillian, knew what she would see before she saw it, the strain of a smile, a noise of something noncommittal, and Gillian rearranged herself on her deckchair, tugged at the dying tuft of grass nearest her and couldn’t seem to think about anything other than the slowly rotting floorboards and missing tiles above the fireplace back home.
It was Rich who saved her from explanation. Rich who appeared from the basketball court, sweating, his hair down to his shoulders and pushed back from his face, his white T-shirt smudged with dust and grey dots from the rubber of the basketball.
“Hey,” he was talking to Meg but he ruffled Josephine’s hair so that she spilled tobacco into her lap. “Any more of that cider? We’re beat after the game,” he gestured with his thumb to the basketball court.
“In the fridge. In the kitchen,” she started picking at her flip-flop again.
“Yeah? Want to help me? I might get lost,” he slouched over the porch railing and flicked the edge of her sun hat.
“Twat,” Gillian said under her breath, almost without meaning to.
“What’s that, Gillian my friend?”
“Surely even you can make it to the kitchen and back without getting lost,” she looked at him, stared him out until he laughed.
“Dyke,” he hissed.
Ted squinted across at him, eyelids heavy, ready for whatever macho crap Rich was about to pull, “You better fucking watch it, mate.”
“Alright! Just stop it,” Meg got to her feet. “Rich?” she tilted her head in the direction of the kitchen and started to lead the way before he had even had a chance to respond.
They watched them go, Gillian, Ted, Josephine, and the boy Gillian couldn’t remember the name of.
“You’re not often right, but I’ll tell you one thing, you’re right about him,” Ted relaxed back down again and took a swig of his beer, forgetting it was empty. “He is a twat,” he scowled at the bottle.
“Get me a beer, G?” he asked, reaching out, letting the empty bottle swing between his thumb and forefinger.
She looked back at him, silent for a moment. His words were getting slower, more slurred, his eyes were half-closed and he smiled a wavering smile that made her want to slap him.
“Get one for yourself too, looks like you need it.”
Still, she said nothing, merely took the empty bottle and stood up, walking barefoot to the house. The kitchen was hotter than outside. The air was stale and heavy. Flies swarmed around the hulled-out bowl of a watermelon left on the table, and the fridge door was ajar.
She opened it, looked inside. Found nothing but the blinking fluorescent light and a bottle of coke, but as she turned to go back outside the flicker of something caught her eye, and there, through the back window on the far side of the room, on the other side of the glass, were Rich and Meg, thrust together, Meg’s back hard against the wall, her face flushed, her hair caught in his hand, and he was kissing her. Kissing her like it was exactly what it was. The last day of summer.
She stood there for what felt not an eternity, but rather more like a very long Joni Mitchell song. Her breath seemed to come too short and too long, she felt hot and light-headed and all of a sudden full of rage.
Breathless, she rushed to the bathroom, thought she might throw up, but instead, she slapped the wall with her hand so that her palm stung with a satisfactory flare. She screwed her eyes shut tight against tears, and, with both hands, she held onto the rim of the sink, tried to breathe properly before she looked at herself in the mirror above the taps. Her cheeks were red and blotchy, her eyes unfocused, wisps of hair stuck to her wet cheek. She wiped her eyes with the back of her hand, mascara smearing. In her recent life as an emotional wreck, she had gotten rather skilled at remaking herself with a trembling hand. In every trembling smudge of her fingers beneath an eye, the art of self-deception. In every fragmented gleam the art of almost.
She left without a word to anyone. Left her shoes, left Meg with Rich, Josephine with her cigarettes and Ted wanting another beer.
She went home on the bus. The sunlight was flat. The fields were no longer floodlit with sunshine. Rabbits didn’t bound but loped lazily, and the air inside the bus was suffocating, warm and smelled of sweet rotting fruit and too-hot plastic, and somewhere a bluebottle buzzed and butted the same windowpane over,
Gillian’s leg jittered. Her knee hit the table and her grandad’s pint jumped, slogging lager over his side plate.
“Gillian!” he tutted at her whilst she scrambled for a napkin, scattering cutlery. Desert spoon clattering oh so close to the edge of the table. She apologised, and across the table Gladys, her grandad’s new beau, leaned back, eyebrows raised, holding her orange and lemonade like she was afraid to put it down.
“Whatever’s the matter with you?” her grandad’s voice was low.
“Sorry…” she said again, caught herself, touched the very tips of her fingers to her lips briefly.
“I don’t really know,” she cleared her throat. She seemed to be unraveling right here in the Kings Head.
“Family gatherings…social occasions, aren’t really my…” she paused, looked down at the way her fingertips were pressed white against the edge of the table “…thing.”
“Not much is your thing, is it,” Gladys sighed, finally setting her drink down but keeping a loose hold on it just in case.
“What’s that supposed to mean?!”
“Gillian…” her grandad’s warning shot.
Ted was coming back from the bar. She recognised the unsteadiness in his gait out of the corner of her eye.
“Tell her to enjoy herself would you, it’s New Year’s Eve,” her granddad gestured with his pint to Ted as he grasped the back of Gillian’s chair to steady himself before sitting down.
“Gillian? Enjoy herself? Fuckin’ hell, Gillian hasn’t smiled since 1987,” he laughed, wrapped an arm about Gillian’s shoulders and squeezed, pulling her close so that the stubble of his chin scratched her temple and she could smell his sweat through the rancid stench of cigarettes and alcohol.
She pulled away, feigned a smile, glanced once again from her granddad to the table, then up, to the sound of the great oak door of the pub opening, the rabble of voices from outside growing louder suddenly, then quieter.
She watched a group of people move from the doorway to the bar, shedding coats and gloves, faces flushed from the cold. A man laughed and the woman next to him shook her head and turned, and for a moment, only the briefest of moments, Gillian couldn’t place her, then all at once something dropped, heavy, inside her, her chest squeezed tight and it was Meg shrugging her coat from her arms. Meg greeted friends at the bar with flurried kisses, scarf flailing and catching on her arm as she gestured and laughed, and grasped affectionately at the shoulder of a very tall man wearing an appalling shirt.
She felt hot and sick and cold all at once. Everything seemed loud and too quiet, bigger than anything she had ever seen and then tinier than she could bear.
She stood up.
“I just have to…” she began, but her voice was swallowed by everyone else’s and nobody seemed to notice as she stood for a moment, behind her chair, glancing between faces, waiting for somebody to look up.
She left her coat on the chair, and pushed her way between people to the back door, and out.
She stopped. Stood in the shadows, arms limp beside her, the murmur of the pub behind her, and looked up at the sky, endless black, starless, the whisper of the road and the soar of a plane overhead. She could breathe. Despite the cold airtight in her chest, and she was free, if only for a moment.
She started at the sound of her name, flinched, turned. Meg was in the doorway, half in and half out, blonde hair whipped into her face across her mouth.
“I thought it was you!” she stepped out into the cold, arms wrapped around herself, the neck of her pale grey jumper rolled up against her chin.
“Meg…” it was all she could say. She looked older, there were faint lines around her eyes and her mouth that had never been there before.
“I was worried you wouldn’t remember me,” she moved closer.
“Of course I remember,” she spoke through an exhale, her breath blooming white between them.
There was a moment's pause where neither of them seemed to know what to say.
“You’re wearing a dress!” it was an exclamation seemingly unexpected by both of them.
“I do that sometimes,” Gillian looked down at herself, suddenly self-conscious in her old black dress and cardigan. Somewhere at the back, beneath her left shoulderblade was a penny-sized hole she had meant to sew up.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen you in a dress before,” she paused, the flicker of something passed behind her eyes and she cleared her throat again. “You look lovely,” she added.
Gillian paused. A beat in the air too long.
“Thank you…” she looked down at her feet. “Who’re you here with?”
“Oh. Just old friends. Friends from uni…”
“Who? Oh. No. I haven’t seen him in…years,” Meg rushed.
Gillian nodded, pushed her hands into the pockets of her dress, hunched up her shoulders and rocked back on her heels like she was seventeen again.
“Rich was never…he wasn’t…who I wanted to spend the rest of my life with,” she cleared her throat and even in the dark Gillian could see the creep of that telltale blush begin to creep up from her jaw. “He kissed me, you know. I don’t know if I ever told you that. I didn’t…invite him to. And we never…” she huffed out a breath. “I saw Ted, over by the fire. That’s why I thought it must be you when I saw you,” the subject change jarred in Gillian’s head.
“I heard you married him?”
The air smelled of bonfires and burnt wood, smoldering pine needles, and damp earth. Electric. Magic. Fraught with possibility and the faraway dream of someone else.
Gillian nodded slowly, “Ten years next year.”
Meg was quiet, just watching her so intently that Gillian had to look away.
“Are you married, or…?” she asked, looking down at the toes of her shoes again. Black high heels, scuffed, battered and tired with the soles all but worn away. The perfect metaphor for her life, as it happened.
“No! No, not yet, anyway, we’ve only been together for a couple of months.”
“The man with the...” she gestured to her chest. “Shirt?”
“What? Oh. No. Actually, I’m…she’s called Serena.”
“Oh!” a prickling feeling crept up from the base of her scalp and her chest felt tight. Meg folded her arms tighter and frowned down at the gravel.
“Gillian, I - ” she began.
The door bumped open, the glass shook in its frame, and the door handle squealed against the weight of Ted’s hand.
“Meg.” he was squinting at her, his mouth hanging open like an idiot. He didn’t give Meg a chance to reply, “We’re going home,” he could barely hold himself up.
“It’s not midnight yet!” Meg laughed.
“Don’t. It’s fine,” Gillian hushed.
“Home.” Ted was blinking too much; his face was red and sweaty and there were globby white triangles of spittle in the corners of his mouth.
“I’m coming. It’s fine. I’m coming,” she skirted around Meg, who reached out for her.
“You ok?” she squeezed her forearm.
“She’s fine,” Ted rattled the door on its hinges.
“I’m fine,” Gillian whispered, momentarily covering Meg’s hand with her own. “It was nice to see you.”
“You made me look like a right idiot,” he hissed, thick and slow between belches.
She’d driven home, paid the babysitter, and now they stood, opposite one another in the sitting room, the light dim, the curtains drawn with a crack in the middle where the great white full moon shone through.
Even in his drunken state, he was surprised she had replied. He shook his head, as though she should realise herself how stupid she was being, and laughed that slow sick laugh that made her feel as though she was falling.
“What were you doing out there with that bitch anyway, huh? Telling her how shit your husband is? You think she’s interested in you? Well, she’s not. No one is,” he was distracted mid-flow by the mugs on the coffee table.
“Who’ve you been having over?” The sudden change in conversational direction threw her.
“Who. Have. You. Been having over?” he leaned forwards, his breath hot and vile on her face and he gestured with a finger that pointed everywhere but at the mugs.
“The babysitter. I made h - ”
“Yeah right.” He cut her off. “Who’re you shagging now? Not that anyone would have you. You couldn’t get anyone if you tried.”
“Yeah?” she stopped, suddenly knew exactly what to say. “Well, maybe I will start fucking around. Just like you,” she was giddy and made brave by the cider and the thrill of seeing Meg. “Maybe I’ll - ”
It was so quick a hit that for a moment, as she lost her balance and made a grab for the dresser, she didn’t know she had been hit at all, but he was looking at her, holding his hand, breathing heavily, waiting for her to react.
Her nose felt hot, then her lip. She opened her mouth to speak and her skull creaked, her jaw grated, and there was the bloody, hot, metallic taste of blood on the back of her tongue that made her gag.
“Get in the shower,” he said,
And she did. She showered. She let the water beat against the blooming bruise of her nose and mouth, then sat, waiting, on the edge of the bed.
It didn’t take him long. It never did. She could be glad about that, she supposed. He flexed and peacocked, some sort of narcissistic routine to get himself in the mood, and she wondered, whilst he did so, was there any reason for her being here at all?
She’d faked every orgasm with him from the very first time. Convincing herself it must be her, there must be something wrong with her. Sometimes she even lied to herself about it. There must have been once, or twice, maybe? The odd occasions where she had been drunk, perhaps?
And then, of course, she would have to time it right, otherwise, he’d start up again, tell her he could tell she wanted more.
Then he left to go back to the pub with only a grunt goodbye, and whilst the midnight fireworks started up somewhere close by she was left, sitting up against the headboard with her knees pulled into her chest, left in this house, this broken home. And all she heard when she pushed the heels of her hands into her ears and screwed her eyes shut was the beat of her heart. Quickening, quickening. The throbbing muffled thump of it, the blood in her ears, the pulse in her eyes. There was nothing. She had nothing. She had shed blood in every room of this house and now she was dying.
It would be easier to die, she thought. It would be easier to die than to leave.
But then she thought of her son. She thought of the way his hands curled and reached out for her whilst he was feeding, how his milky blue eyes searched for hers.
She was trapped, by her own child, in a life she had no wish to live.
“Help me,” she whispered to the house and screwed her eyes closed tight. “Please,” she whispered, to the beat of her heart. “Please…”
The house had been full of ghosts since Ted had died. Cards from the past dropped through her letterbox daily, people she had all but forgotten sent bouquets of sweet-smelling flowers, and the neighbours bought over a casserole that she’d given to the dog.
Everyone was sorry. Sorry that Ryan had lost his father, at only six years old. Sorry that she had lost her husband, sorry that he had died. Now she had a mantelpiece full of cards from people whose surnames she didn’t know, people who had no idea about her life, or her, or how it had been, and that actually, the fact that he had been knocked down and killed by a Land Rover whilst staggering home from the pub had been one of the best things that had ever happened to her.
And now, she was standing in the kitchen, looking out of the window, the glass fogged up with steam from the kettle boiling on the Aga. She stared at her own reflection, sullied and blurry, hair all over the bloody place, curling about her jaw, slipping out from the French knot that she had attempted at the nape of her neck. Her hair, an unremarkable colour at the best of times, but in this steam bleached reflection it was even limper, even more of a non-color - an insipid pale brown with more than a fleck of grey, and her eyes, staring back at her, like the eyes of another more recognisable ghost, almost too pale to see, almost the same colour as the sky.
It was the end of February. She wouldn’t change this light for the world. Early spring light that breathed a thrilling sense of possibility through the house, this silent house, as sullen and creaking as she was, but beautiful, with its own charm.
Evening, the cool air, everything dull, and tinged with grey, blue and gold, the time of day when everything seemed to slow down to the beat of a heart.
Slowly, slowly, she arranged mugs on a tray, and from behind her the door opened, and she was roused from somewhere between deep thought and daydream, by Ryan, who stopped short of the edge of the doormat too quickly, remembering his muddy boots, and teetered for a moment between doormat and floor.
“Auntie Emily dropped her glass and now she needs a brush and dustpan,” his words were breathless and rushed and fraught with urgency and his cheeks were pink from running from the barn where the wake was being held to the house.
“It sounds like Auntie Emily might need to slow down on the old wine front,” she said more to herself than to Ryan.
“What?” he asked, pausing mid-turn.
It has been said that the past is another country; in Gillian’s case, it is more than that. It is an enemy combatant. Any object, or indeed person, such as Ted’s sister Emily, that could possibly function as a passport into this hostile territory runs the risk of emotional high treason and as such would be verbally hanged.
“Nothing,” she smiled, looking at him. He had her pale blue eyes and her pale brown hair. “I’ll bring it out,” she said gently and watched as he ran back outside, letting the door bang on its hinges and bounce back open.
She took her time walking from house to barn, the brush and dustpan loose in her hand, bumping gently against her thigh.
There was the quiet call of sheep from the fields, the distant squeak and bang of the front gate, the latch blown clean off in an air rifle incident, and the gentle panting of the dog as he paced hurried laps around his run.
Meg, in her white button-up shirt and charcoal linen trousers, stood talking to Gillian’s Aunt Jean, just outside the barn door, wine glass in hand. She smiled as Gillian passed, “You’ve done a beautiful job,” she said, interrupting Jean, who in turn, shifted, smiled, and reached out to squeeze Gillian’s forearm, and gushed, “You’re coping just marvelously,” as Gillian nodded, hummed a murmur of thanks, and gestured with the brush and dustpan.
“I’d better just…”
In the barn, it appeared to be summertime. A picnic was spread across makeshift tables with yellow and white chequered clothes, jugs and bowls of flowers were here, there and everywhere, filled with the scarlet tulips, yellow goldenrod as bright as the sun, and the blue of forget-me-nots as blue as the sky, turning what appeared to be a wake to everyone else, into a celebration of a life saved instead.
She crouched unnoticed by the leg of a table, swept up the glittering shards of glass into the bowl of the dustpan, and made her way back out, to where Meg still stood by the door. Meg, with a frown of concentration as she nodded and listened to whatever it was that Jean was saying. But then, as she caught sight of Gillian she smiled again, unable to help herself. Meg was beautiful in that moment, with the sky behind her the colour of a bruise, her hair almost white blonde in the milky blue light of the first whisper of spring, with the ivy that covered the west side of the barn curling out to touch her shoulder.
Meg was always beautiful, whereas she was standing in a fine mist of rain in her old boots, losing hair grips in the mud. But that one smile was all it took to remind her of why she was still here. Meg. When she thought about it, it had always been Meg.
Back at the house, she sat on the drystone wall with a bottle of beer she had begun sipping an hour ago and forgotten about. Now, she sat looking out at the hills disappearing into a lavender mist where the land met the sky. Meg was behind her. She’d known that she would follow when she left the barn, and if she had had this moment over again if she had somebody to retell this moment to, she would have said that she had smelled her before she saw her. Perhaps that was what had made her turn; a murmur of her perfume in the air, a hint of orange and jasmine and the memory of summertime. Perhaps it was the vibration of her presence, or perhaps, worst of all, it was just meant to be.
“Mind if I join you?” she asked, waiting. Gillian shook her head, raised her bottle of beer.
“Of course not.”
“Your grandad not here?” she asked as she sat down next to her, carefully and elegantly as always, adjusting herself on the wall.
“He’s dead. He died.”
Meg widened her eyes. “Oh, I’m sorry.”
“You’re alright…he’d have been 100 now anyway,” Gillian held the beer bottle by its neck and watched the sunlight turn the dead moss and brick a brilliant emerald green through the glass.
“Oh. I suppose he would have…sorry,” an easy silence stretched between them. “I tried to find you.” She said eventually.
“Did you?” Gillian looked back up at her.
“On the Internet…on Facebook.”
“I’m not on Facebook,” the familiar rise of panic began to bleed out inside her, a feeling she had come all too accustomed to. She drew in a slow breath, letting the feeling begin to fade before continuing; “Too risky when Ted was alive…”
“Oh yes, of course,” Meg nodded frowning down at the half-drunk glass of red wine she held, resting on her thighs. “Was it really that bad?”
Gillian looked at her then looked away, down at her hands in her lap.
“Yep,” She looked up and squinted out across the fields, could feel Meg waiting for whatever more there was. “I wanted to die,” She watched a V of ducks flying in the far distance. “I wanted to die, and for it to be over. But more than that. More than…I wanted the pain of dying. I wanted the peace of death. I was angry at him, I was angry with myself. I was tired of living,” she braved looking at Meg. “Sometimes, when he was asleep I’d get up, I’d go into the kitchen, I’d get a knife out of the drawer and I’d run the point from here, to here,” she ran her finger from her wrist to her elbow, “I thought how easy it would be to kill myself, and I’d hold it, point against my stomach, handle against the countertop, and I’d wish for the courage to step forwards. There was nothing of me left to take. He’d taken it all. And what’s worse was I had let him. I was already dead before I realised dying wasn’t an option.”
Silence hung between them.
“Have I shocked you?” she asked, her voice quieter this time.
Meg shook her head ever so slightly. “No,” she said, paused, tapped her index finger twice against the bowl of her wine glass. “Why did you marry him?”
Gillian smiled. Almost laughed.
“Because he asked!” she straightened her back, looked up from her hands across the fields, otherworldly in a lemon-yellow fog. “Didn’t reckon I’d get a better offer. Thought marrying my best friend was better than being alone for the rest of my life.”
“I wish I’d known.”
Gillian shrugged. “Nothing you could have done short of running him over yourself.”
“No, but I could’ve…” she let the sentence tail off.
“Could’ve…?” Gillian prompted.
Meg inhaled slowly, steadying herself.
“Vita and I broke up,” she said, all in one breath.
Gillian raised an eyebrow.
“I thought her name was Serena?”
“Yes. No. I mean, Serena and I never lasted more than a couple of months. Vita…we were together for three years. We had a house,” she paused. “In London.”
Meg just looked at her. Her cheeks and nose were pink from the cold and her mouth trembled ever so slightly in that way that it does before you say something you’ve kept hidden for over three decades.
“I couldn’t stop thinking about you,” there it was, shuttling between them, over and over, and Gillian didn’t seem able to hear anything except the crackling foggy beat of her heart in her ears.
“Sod’s bloody Law I end up buggering something up without even being there,” she said quickly, quietly, tensing.
There was a warmth in the air, unnatural for spring.
“I couldn’t stop wondering about you. Where you were, what you were doing…you know I’ve always liked you…” she stopped abruptly, felt the words form in her mouth, cleared her throat and tried again, “…more than liked you.”
Gillian shot her a sideways glance. Swallowed the last mouthful of warm beer from the bottle and half-coughed, half-laughed.
“That’ll be the wine talking.”
Meg smiled down at her glass.
She didn’t look up, but she knew Gillian was watching her. Those pale blue eyes wary and afraid.
“You hitting on me at my husband’s wake?” Gillian laughed, shifted, tucked her hair behind her ear and then untucked it again.
“Sorry…I shouldn’t have said anything…”
“No! It’s…fine, it’s - ”
“I’ve made you uncomfortable.”
Gillian looked out across the fields, squinting against the low sunshine, the clouds sugar almond pink shot through with gold.
“Think I knew...deep down,” she spoke more to the sky than to Meg.
“But I’d convinced myself it was all in my head.”
She watched the clouds move above them.
“I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have…my timing is…appalling…” Meg sighed and Gillian smiled, tilted her face up towards the sun and sighed.
“What?” Meg asked.
Gillian shook her head.
“What is it?!”
“Nothing!” she puffed out a breath, gestured with a hand-cast haphazardly about her head. Gave up, let out a breath and looked at Meg sitting there next to her on the wall. She could feel herself cracking, like ice in spring.
“I’ve been in love with you since I was thirteen,” she said finally.
Meg pursed her lips and gave the tiniest nod of her head.
“I know,” she said eventually when the wind had stopped blowing the grass flat. She waited, gently tilting the bowl of her wine glass so that the last drop of wine slipped this way, then that, in the bottom. “What do we do now?” she asked.
Gillian narrowed her eyes, took in the world before her, the whisper of the wind, the birds, the incredible distance between her and the sky, then she turned back to Meg. Meg with the sun setting behind her, and for the first time in years she was able to say what she felt, and really mean it.
“We take it slowly,” she said.
(c) Natascha Graham
"A squat grey building of only thirty-four stories."
— Opening sentence of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World
That's what it was, he thought, except it's only thirty stories. Other grey buildings towered on either side. Gerald Thorne sat again on the twentieth floor in front of the computer, but this time was different. The students would sign in soon, and he was afraid. They would find him, trying to look casual in his apartment. But formal too. It wouldn't do to be too casual. He wasn't their friend, he reminded himself. He was their professor. Should he get out his pipe? No, too obvious.
His teaching assistant was the first to pop in to the virtual meeting. Thorne saw his mouth move as he leaned in to the camera to reach his keyboard. "I'm here, Professor," said the lad. He was a good young man, surely. But Thorne had never had any desire to see his bedroom. Something about that Hokusai print on the wall worried him.
Perhaps his button-down shirt worried them. He'd taken the t-shirt off, then put it on again, then put this shirt over it. And his hair. He'd certainly never cared about his hair entering the lecture hall. It was early spring, so his jacket was appropriate. Was it virtually appropriate?
He looked at himself on the screen, his box half the size now that his TA was here. I look old, he thought. Of course I look old, he also thought. Everyone looks old on this thing. There was a quarter of an hour to go. He turned off his camera.
Thorpe swivelled his chair and looked out the window. He missed his wife. She'd always had a plant on the sill, clinging desperately to life. But he'd kept the place tidy. His books on Victorian literature were lined up, spines resting just slightly inside the edge of the shelf. The coffee cup was in the center of the coaster.
She would have scoffed at such order. Her books were read dozens at a time, scattered, and stacked around the place. He invariably had to move some to eat his breakfast, which he'd always made for himself. Then they would leave, every morning, always in a rush. She couldn't find her keys, or he had to go back for a file. He'd get home first, and start cooking dinner. Pasta usually. She liked pasta.
And now it was quiet. So quiet. The voices from his books no longer spoke to him for very long. He still smoked his pipe on the balcony, even though there was no one to stop him smoking in the apartment.
"Do you have your slides, Professor? I can load them up," said the young man. Thorne peered at the screen. Jason, it said under his face. Right, his name is Jason. Slides. Yes, he had slides. He'd had them converted to digital last year, when his department chair had told him he should.
The file was easy to find. His virtual desktop was neat, and he knew where everything was. He uploaded the slide set into the chat box and watched Jason's face as he saw it and began setting it up, his brow furrowed.
Thorne was not normally a fearful man, but he did not like looking stupid. This world in which the younger ones lived; it was their world. He had very little interest in it beyond convenience. He liked that he could order his groceries, and find used books, and they came to his door. He had tried some social media for awhile, but what people posted seemed frenetic and useless.
He watched as other little boxes opened. Bright faces, with bored expressions. Pre-bored, he thought. I haven't even started talking yet. They had their own lives, he knew. Long ago, he cared about that, the lives they had. He still had a dream of enhancing their lives. He was just less interested in the lives he was trying to enhance.
Thorne straightened his shirt, pushed his hands ineffectually through his thinning hair, and turned on the camera. Then he took a sip of coffee, as if he just happened to have appeared during a break. His first slide showed on the screen: "Death in the Victorian Novel".
Now he had to pay attention, make sure his microphone was on. "Can you hear me, everyone?" he asked, scanning the twenty or so boxed faces. At least ten more hadn't bothered to turn on their cameras. A few heads nodded, and Jason gave him the thumbs up. He began his lecture.
By the time he got to post-mortem photography, several other students had turned off their cameras. He could see a couple of faces that looked really interested. "This was not," he said, "as popular as some would have you believe. It was rarely done. But it points to Victorian feelings about death and loss."
As he continued to speak, he glanced at his own video box. He had frozen. "Can you still hear me?" he asked. Jason nodded vigorously. As he continued the lecture, his glance kept drifting to his own frozen self. Even after he paused so Jason could lead the question and answer, his video remained inanimate. I have died, he thought. Or if I did die, right now, it would look no different.
No one had noticed, apparently. Jason was attempting to elicit questions, answers, anything. Signs of life, thought Thorne. And their professor is frozen like Ozti, the Chalcolithic mummy. No one would know if he left. But where would he go? He was supposed to stay home. It hadn't occurred to him to do anything else.
The next class was two days later. He was nervous again, but this was becoming more usual. His slide appeared, but it was Kathy this time who loaded it, according to the little name. "Aesthetics in the Victorian Novel." There were fewer students, only twenty or so.
Slides and slides of pre-Raphaelite paintings, images of Elizabeth Siddal and Jane Morris. "Did you know," he asked them, "that Dante Gabriel Rossetti disinterred his wife to get back the book of poetry he'd buried with her?" They did not know. Nor did they look particularly surprised.
Next class, the following week. "Politics in the Victorian Novel." He had done some searching and had discovered a fact they might enjoy. "And you may already know," he said, "that Sybil, and other characters from Disraeli's book, appear in the first steampunk novel, The Difference Engine." The dozen students in the room nodded, unimpressed. It occurred to him that this modern work was now thirty years old.
"Fantasy in the Victorian Novel." Five students, two on camera. No teaching assistant arrived, so Thorne uploaded his own slides and began the lecture. Not a problem, he thought, like making my own breakfast. "The Time Machine," he said, "has been made into movies and comic books over and over". Both of the faces were looking down. Must be looking at their cell phones, he thought. Did they even watch movies or read comic books?
Two days later. He opened the virtual program ten minutes ahead of time and found his own slides. No one had entered yet as he loaded them onto the screen. "Solitude in the Victorian Novel." Still no one came in. He waited.
At a quarter past the hour, he got up from his chair. He left the volume up, so he could hear if anyone came in. When he became dizzy, his first thought was to pick up the phone. But he decided not to. As he lay down on the floor, he realised he couldn't do anything else. He gazed at the lamp hanging from the ceiling. It looked like a compass from here. He fancied it must be turning, because he knew he wasn't, so he tracked the directions as his breathing slowed. South-south-west, south, south-east, east. . .
(c) Lisa M Lane