Nobody goes into a pawnshop of their own volition. Massage parlors, check cashing stores, and pawnshops are bastard stepchildren of urban sprawl. Each was a necessary evil, providing unique services against the grain of suburban enlightenment. Seeking them out was akin to lighting a small piece of your soul on fire and inhaling the rancor smell of desperation and futility.
These indoor flea markets permit voyeurs the schadenfreude of seeing someone’s unraveled life. Pawnshops all smell and feel the same. Mothballs tinged with crinkled, grease-stained bills and cut-rate ephemera. The red-eyed guilt of locking eyes with someone who was shopping out of necessity. This was not the trendy thrift store shopping rhapsodized in pop music. On the train line between Despair and Homelessness, this was one of the last stops.
I didn’t enter willingly. Sometimes life dictates your actions in advance.
On my first visit, I brought all the power tools I owned. A circular saw, saber saw, and a cordless drill. Once, they were the tools of my livelihood. I had no formal training, but I could talk a good game on any construction site and frame with the best of them. My white privilege meant the foreman was happy to have another English-speaking guy on the job to police things. They never bothered doing a background check on me. They should have been more concerned with policing me. Given the opportunity today, I’d steal every bit of copper piping I could.
The bottle had a voracious grip on me. It was an expensive habit to feed, and power tools for jobs that no longer existed were useless to me. Perhaps the dead-eyed crypt keeper behind the glass would pay enough to tie me over for a bit. It was an odd twist of fate selling the very thing that put food in your mouth. The irony was rich; unfortunately, you couldn’t rob irony.
The overextended markets and subsequent boom in housing ended like all other manias, with a flaccid whimper. Construction companies were underwater. Bloated with inventory that frequently succumbed to unexplained, freak fires. Shady developers could pull that off in California. Take out whole developments. Out there it was assumed to be an act of God. The result of climate change ignored by politicians whistling past the graveyard at 80 mph in Mercedes-Benzes with V-8 engines belching in wicked laughter.
The same luck didn’t apply on the East Coast. A single fire was possible. Multiple fires were suspicious. Connecticut had more than its share of trial lawyers frothing at the possibility of a headline-grabbing fraud case. Anything to cover the Ivy League tuitions for their junior masters and mistresses of the universe in training.
On my second visit, I brought the shotgun my father gave me on my 17th birthday.
A rite of passage.
My foray into manhood.
As I ran my fingers along the polished chestnut stock and the length of the slender barrels, I was reminded of his only outward sign of respect, acknowledgment, or affection. A Churchill 28 gauge, side by side shotgun that easily cost him a month’s wages. It was a grossly negligent expenditure that the Chief had not run past my mother.
I hustled it from my truck to the store. I didn’t need to catch the wandering eye of a local cop just itching to grind his boot down against my throat any further. My probation terms expressly prohibited access to any weapons. My licensed pistols had already been confiscated. Overzealous probation officers with spit-filled jowls salivated at the thought of tripping me up and sending the revolving door back to prison spinning.
I wasn’t gonna make it easy for them.
The shotgun had remained well-hidden in my house. It had been an extension of my father for over thirty years. A proxy for his existence. Yet here I stood, rooted to the ground haggling with a scraggly-bearded hump of flesh lacking the ability to conceptualize tradition. His idea of honor was being loyal to his Fortnite clan and buying some lascivious skin for his female avatar to indulge his masturbatory fantasies.
I was unloading a rite of passage into the Hot Pockets-stained hands of this vulture. He couldn’t comprehend the Norman Rockwellian visions I had of teaching my son to shoot. We would celebrate his first shot pheasant over a beer and whatever machismo rites of virility we could uphold. The bubbling, burgeoning of toxic masculinity at its finest, neutered by the long arm of the law. I was letting go of the gossamer-thin tethers that bound the generations of my family.
The Churchill, with its gorgeous Spanish inlaid detailing, was worth well over two grand. I couldn’t dare set foot 1000 yards near a gun show where I could easily get fifteen hundred or more. I was begging for $400.
My son’s birthright.
Not enough money to put a dent in rent, car payment, or doctors’ bills. It would cover my food and a selfish treat to numb the pain.
The ghoul hemmed and hawed to avoid $400 like I was asking him to donate a kidney. I brightened at the thought of both chambers being loaded. His last vision would be of me seductively fingering the trigger and my shit-eating grin just before his grey matter was scattered over the original Imperial Japanese battle flag he proudly displayed behind the counter.
I could turn the second barrel on me. We could be two headless horsemen in a steeplechase to Hell.
The grease-covered bills were pocketed as I sought the nearest decent liquor store. It wasn’t going to be a plastic bottle of bourbon night. I would imbibe the finest brown nectar that Kentucky’s oak-smoked barrels produced. Nothing but top-shelf booze for me. Maybe even splurge on a steak. Guns were ubiquitous; I could get one any time I wanted.
If I needed.
Maybe I’d call my kid.
I’ll be damned if I even had his number.
How did things ever get so out of hand? One minute I’m a happily married man with three children, the next I’m reviled as a cold-blooded murderer shunned by those dearest to him. Those I tried to protect.
My wife, Clare, barely speaks to me, nor does my eldest daughter, Rachel, around whom this terrible thing evolved. My teenage son Jamie looks at me with indifference, which now I come to think about it, isn’t any different to before… the murder. Only my youngest daughter Katie, refuses to shun me; I’m still her hero. Too young to understand, I guess.
I’d come home from work a little later than usual that night and was exhausted. All I wanted was to have dinner and crash in front of the television.
Instead I was greeted with the type of news that all fathers with daughters must dread – Rachel was being stalked. Through a torrent of tears, she had explained that she had glimpsed him several times over the last few days but had not wanted to say anything in case we thought she was being paranoid. However, that evening’s sighting had frightened her beyond her doubts, shaken her to her very core, and she had blurted it all out to me and Clare. She had been alone in her bedroom getting ready to go on a date with her new boyfriend, Greg, when she had heard a car pull up. Assuming it was him, she had nonchalantly pulled back her curtains to see if he was waiting outside, but instead had come face to face with the stalker.
Terrified, she had screamed and rushed to find her mother and by the time they both got to her bedroom, he had long gone. Despite her mother’s reassurances, Rachel had not wanted to be left alone and had stayed in the lounge until she heard me come home. She was so upset; she had even cancelled her date with Greg. Every cloud has a silver lining, I guess. I’m not a fan. She can do better.
She had seen her stalker three times before and all of them had been of an evening or at night. Each time he had just been skulking in the shadows, watching her like the coward he is…was.
Her description of him was vague. Big, dark, hairy and mean looking. Not a lot to go on. I flippantly made a comparison to Greg. That hadn’t gone down well.
My wife said she hadn’t seen him nor had my son, who suggested it was just a figment of Rachel’s imagination or one of Greg’s weirdo friends. The same thought had crossed my mind.
In an effort to win my daughter back I promised to make sure the house was secure and that he wasn’t still in the vicinity. I told her that because he was hanging around longer and longer, he was clearly becoming more emboldened and this over confidence would be his undoing. Rachel seemed happy at this thought and after hugging me, she nervously followed me to her bedroom window.
The stalker wasn’t there. Nor was he anywhere else for that matter. I conducted a thorough search, but I never saw him either that day or indeed over the next week, but I did see him the following Tuesday. Everyone except me was out at the cinema. It was football night and I’d been looking forward to the big match, instead I’d fallen asleep in my favourite armchair with the light off and the TV on.
I don’t know what woke me other than an overwhelming sense of being watched. I had got up, perturbed by my own sense of unease and had flicked the light on and there he was, bold as brass over by the window. I had screamed more out of surprise than fright, at least that’s what I like to think, and had scrambled around desperately searching for a weapon. By the time that I had armed myself and turned to confront him, he was long gone. Brave in the shadows not so much in the light apparently. Coward.
I was still shaking when everyone came home. Clare was worried, Jamie was uninterested, but Rachel seemed relieved that I had finally seen him. Katie was asleep in her mum’s arms. Probably for the best. Clare asked me to describe him, but in my panic, I had only caught a fleeting glimpse, but I had seen enough to know that Rachel was right - he was big and mean looking. I wasn’t looking forward to tackling him, but it was clear to me that I would have to at some point. Nobody slept well that night, because although nobody said it, we all knew that if he could get in and out so easily, he could reappear anytime, anywhere.
There were several more sightings over the coming days, even Jamie mentioned in passing that he thought he had seen him, but he didn’t seem bothered. The bravado of youth.
I saw him twice more before the night of - the murder – I still think that’s harsh, and gave chase both times, but he was able to outrun me on each occasion. He seemed to know all the exits and hiding places and had clearly been casing the joint. That and maybe I didn’t chase as fast as I could. But a pattern had begun to emerge and over the next couple of days I formulated a plan. I felt I could now predict when he was next likely to appear. So, on that fateful night, with the family safely asleep, I lay in wait in the dark lounge, armed and ready. This time I would have the element of surprise.
I wasn’t disappointed. Within a few minutes he appeared. At first, I thought it was my eyes playing tricks on me, perhaps only a shadow. I was only going to get one crack at this, and I had to get it right. He was mean, cunning and fast. Grasping my weapon tightly, I switched on the light, leapt towards him screaming like a banshee and swung my weapon. He was clearly taken by surprise and never saw me coming and I doubt he felt a thing. Judging by the amount of blood on the wall, the first blow probably killed him, but I hit him another two times just to be sure. Blood rage the Vikings called it. Berserker.
My family came running at the commotion and looked firstly at me with my look of triumph and then at the blood stain on the wall. Slowly their gaze dropped to the mangled and lifeless body on the floor. That’s when the recriminations started.
Why did I have to kill it, it was only a helpless spider? Why didn’t I just capture it and put it in the garden? I was speechless with disbelief. No amount of pleading on my part over the next few days reconciled me to my family. To them I was a cold-blooded murderer. A killer of harmless animals.
Owen hung around outside waiting for Willow to appear. He kicked the dead leaves and said a prayer that she would be the next person to leave the library. For a brief moment, he contemplated rolling a cigarette, then decided against it. Willow hated to see him smoking.
The afternoon was reaching evening, with the last of the daylight ebbing away. Owen hated the autumn and winter months. He’d feel the sadness seeping in, the Black Blanket, he called it.
Willow was holding the door for the girl behind her, smiling, giggling. She skipped down the steps, her grey military coat buttoned up to the neck, her bag swinging like a pendulum.
- Were you waiting for me?
- Yes. I don’t like you walking home alone.
- How thoughtful of you.
- I am thoughtful, aren’t I? My halo needs polishing.
Willow ruffled Owen’s hair and stuck her tongue out at him. He smiled back.
He sometimes tried to pinpoint the moment when he fell in love with her. The exact day he knew. He remembered the outfit she wore, black jeans and a red jumper, but the precise moment was not clear.
They’d been early for their lecture and bought some lunch to eat together in the park. Owen recalled how Willow had dropped her sandwich on the grass. She laughed and threw it to the birds. He’d offered her his sandwich instead, which Willow halved and gave Owen his share.
Was it then? Or perhaps when Willow asked if birds would eat the chicken from her sandwich, and were they cannibals for doing so? Owen didn’t tell her she had mayonnaise on her bottom lip. Owen decided this was the moment he lost his heart to Willow Clements.
- Seagulls eat fish.
- You’re right, they do. Vultures eat carcasses. Silly me.
More birds congregated around them near their bench. The sparrows were Willow’s favourite. She warned Owen never to trust robins. Vicious little sods, she said. Bullies. Definitely not as sweet as they’re portrayed.
Owen leaned in with his napkin and wiped the mayonnaise from Willow’s mouth. There was a tiny window of opportunity when they looked into each other’s eyes. Willow giggled.
- I’m such a messy minx. That’s what my mum used to call me.
The day with the birds was a year ago.
Owen wanted to take her hand as they walked home to her flat. He wanted to hold it so tightly that she’d never be able to let it go.
- Have you finished your essay on Coleridge?
- Yes. It was due today. Oh, Willow…
- What? I just wanted to ask.
She’d ask him questions all the time, about history and music and art. She asked his opinion on films and books they’d both read.
Owen walked on the outside, next to the kerb, a habit quickly formed from their first walk together. He found it more natural for him to be nearer the traffic than her. Willow never noticed and Owen never mentioned it.
- I’m supposed to be going out tonight. You know my friend, Laila, who studies Spanish, well, her boyfriend’s mate is having a house party. I’m being set up with the mate. I hate set ups - and blind dates. Laila thinks I need a boyfriend. The trouble is, every guy I meet disappoints me.
Owen bent down to tie his lace and touched Willow’s leg as if to ask her to stop and wait. He looked up at her and, for a second, he imagined them in years to come, a diamond solitaire ring in his pocket, then Willow’s shock turning to squeals of joy, as they hugged and kissed on the pavement. Yes, yes, yes. I will marry you, Owen Cheever.
Willow pulled Owen up by his coat sleeve and looked at him.
- Do you think I should go to the party?
- Why are you asking me?
- I don’t know.
- Do you want to go?
- Yes. And no.
They carried on walking until they reached the park gates and Willow stopped again. The sky had closed over. The purple flecks of evening were lost to blackness.
- I don’t like walking through the park when it’s dark.
- But we’re together.
- Will we ever be?
Owen followed as Willow took the route around the park. The amber glow of the street lights made Willow less nervous.
There was nothing Owen could say that wouldn’t mean risking it all, and he wasn’t ready for that. He knew what he desperately wanted to say, he’d rehearsed the speech in front of his mirror countless times.
- Willow, I need to ask you something.
- Do you like me?
- You know I do. You get my crazy jokes, and I tell you everything… We’re friends--
- Friendship is a sheltering tree… It’s just that…
Willow’s phone rang. What he would have said was left hanging as he waited for Willow to end her call. The call didn’t end, though. It went on and on until Willow asked Owen if he wanted to walk on ahead. He didn’t. He wanted to wait. He stood by a red car and thought about the words that he heard and what they probably meant.
Listen, I don’t see the point. I won’t like him… Because I know, that’s why. Because I already like someone… No, you know all this. I told you. I don’t know… I hope so… I want to. I will… I need to go now. I’m with someone… He’s waiting…
Willow turned her back to Owen and then carried on talking.
What, now…? No, I’m not.
Owen felt crushed by three words, ‘No, I’m not’.
- I’m so sorry, Owen. Laila’s really working on me to go out with the guy at his party. It’ll never happen.
- What you said, was it true? I wasn’t eavesdropping, it’s just I couldn’t help but hear. Do you like someone already? You never told me.
Willow pulled some gloves out of her pocket and put them on, complaining about the sudden drop in temperature.
- I do like someone, yes. It’s more than like. Laila knows, but she says it’ll never come to anything, and it’s not - love - if the other person doesn't even know how I feel about them.
- So you haven’t told the someone you love them.
Willow laughed and stopped suddenly.
- God, no. You see, it’s kind of perfect as it is. I don’t know if he feels the same so I don’t want to risk losing him.
Owen looked at Willow. She was still and beautiful.
- What was the last thing Laila asked you on the phone?
- Just tell me. What was it?
- It’s not important. Why do you want to know?
Owen was aware of the need to pull back, to change the direction of their conversation. They walked on. The moon was bright, unobscured by cloud. They approached the road where Willow lived. Owen looked up at the sky.
- They’re there, we just can’t always see them.
- What are?
- The stars.
Willow, stood in front of her house and gave Owen a hug, as she always did when they parted company.
- Enjoy the party.
Owen had only gone a few yards when he heard Willow call out his name. She ran up the road and stood directly in front of Owen.
She smiled and took a deep breath before speaking.
She quickly wraps herself in a large towel as she gets out of the bath, she doesn’t want to accidentally catch sight of her body in the mirror. Sighing as she reaches for her ”La Mer” body cream, it’s as expensive as caviar but it does promise “sumptuous comfort and renewal,” she slathers her décolletage. She wonders idly if the “blue algae” will produce the miracle she is hoping for. As she waits for the lotion to be absorbed, she spots a new wrinkle flowing like a rivulet towards her pale pink areole. “It’s as if The Mississippi Delta is carving itself on my chest,'' she muses as she traces a finger over the cross-hatched lines etched across her bosom.
One day, a walleye swims up from between the shadowy valley of her breasts. The size of it gives her quite a shock, but she likes its shimmering scales and so she hangs it around her neck. It works as a statement piece even if it is a bit avant-garde for everyday wear. Her acquaintances either love it or simply don’t comment. Lorna was never one to go fishing for compliments.
The following week a shoal of longear sunfish show up cavorting in a blue-veined oxbow lake just below her left nipple. She plucks two and hangs them from her doughy earlobes. They sparkle green and orange when she shakes her head as she reads all the dire side-effects on the labels of her newly prescribed medication.
She finds it ironic that with all these rivers coursing over her body other parts are dry as bone. She tries to tilt a particularly aggressive purple stream on her thigh towards her bush by raising her legs but she overshoots. It gets lost in the dingily crease beneath the undulating mountain of her stomach.
“I won’t see that again”, she thinks, “My time to move mountains is long gone”.
At first, she was bothered by the smell that enrobed her and she would spray herself with copious amounts of ‘Tresor’, the scent her husband would bring back for her when he travelled overseas. He left her five years ago, so now she buys the perfume for herself. She can’t remember who said that ‘men are nothing if not predictable’--probably every woman ever. And he was never one to swim against the tide in any regard; he now lives with his secretary. In her head she hears her son, Ben, say, “Personal assistant, Mom. We’re not in the eighties”.
When she stands, grass shrimp that have left the thinning vegetation of her pubic hair to look for thicker shelter are tickling her downy thighs. She pinches them between her thumb and finger and uses them to clip back her newly dyed hair. They complement her bold choice of periwinkle blue. As she hoists her sagging tits into the cage of her underwired bra she spots a rush of paddlefish. She’s no longer surprised; she knows this type of fish prefers the faster flow of her aging. She yanks them from the backwater of her boobs and hooks them on her bracelet. It was once full of charms but now only her mourning charm is left. She tries to catch some crappies for variety, but they are swift and disappear into a sinkhole that has suddenly appeared where her belly button used to be.
Lately, she hardly notices the smell--maybe a faint fishy odor when she pees. But she has stopped leaving the house completely because when she steps outside, she is blanketed in a tide of black flies. It’s not the flies that bother her---they act like a curtain that shields her from prying eyes--but she can’t bear the noise. The buzzing gives her vertigo.
In the second month of her hermit-crab existence, she observes the callouses on her feet glittering iridescently. As she swishes them back and forth, they remind her of the book, “The Rainbow Fish”, which she used to read to Ben when he was little. Before her eyes, her feet melt together and her bunions morph into fins. Pulling herself along the floor to the full-length mirror in her bedroom, she notes the bat-wings under her arms have become gills. They flutter like her thoughts.
Panicked now, she flaps her way to the bathroom and manages to turn on the bath taps just before her arms are absorbed into her body. The mourning charm drops onto the marble floor with a hollow tinkle and the paddlefish jump into the cool waterfall gushing from the faucets. Hefting herself into the tub, sweet relief floods her. Her crêpey eyelids recede. She has a moment of mirth realizing that she can now give the whole world the ‘fish-eye’, although if she believed Ben, she’s already been guilty of doing that for years.
“Wait until Ben sees the magnificence of me”, she thinks, “I’m as large as a Volkswagen, like one of those legendary giant catfish, who skulk around the bottom of a dam”. No sooner has she had this thought than it swims away down the plughole. She summons up a newfound energy and follows it; she emerges some time later in the Mississippi. Gliding through the water, she has the glorious revelation that she doesn’t have to settle for treading water anymore.
Looking up, she notices a dark shadow of a boat and a hook dangling dangerously above her head. She flexes her sleek body and with a quick flick of her tail she heads out to open water. She realizes she no longer needs to try and attract a fisherman’s pole. The indignities of being hooked and then being thrown back again, being deemed not good enough for a trophy, are well and truly over for her now.
The hand-delivered, brown manila envelope contained a written demand for an extortionate sum and rather gruesomely a sealed plastic bag containing a severed human ear. It was addressed to my wife and gave the location and time that a briefcase of cash should be left unless she preferred the further delivery of more body parts of her son.
This distressing news was tempered by the fact that said son was with us at the time we were reading the letter over breakfast. Having not been unaccountably missing or having the symmetry of his head ruined the letter did mildly distract us from the 21st birthday breakfast that Jean had just cooked.
Jean rather stoically suggested that with nothing to lose we should contravene the instructions in the letter to refrain from informing the police. Her only stipulation being to wait until we had finished the rather splendid full-English chilling in front of us.
In his statement to the constable later that morning, sat at the table containing the detritus of breakfast and wrapping paper from his presents, (the main one however was parked on the drive), we were astonished to learn that Gavin had previously received letters threatening kidnap at his University digs. He told the police officer that he’d decided they were just pranking and that since his step-fathers lottery win and subsequent publicity, he had probably been expressing himself rather too loudly. He resolved to focus more on his studies when he returned, since a degree was important to him; “despite being made for life” he quipped, winking at the policewoman.
Later Gavin explained that as an apparent bluff he had delivered a briefcase to a given location, containing only a note suggesting that they contact his step-father, he was the rich one, and he gave them my address. He even invited them to forfeit their anonymity by meeting him at his digs over the weekend. They were not to know he had other plans, were they?
In the meantime, we had been expecting the arrival of Gavin’s girlfriend Phoebe whom he’d spoken so fondly of. He had previously met her parents at a pheasant shoot and later he’d admired her dressage skills out on the mezzanine. We were somewhat disappointed therefore to learn that things had “cooled off” between them recently.
Still we jauntily exclaimed almost in unison to try and keep his spirits up, Stuart will be along for drinks later? He’d known Stuart since lower school and they’d been joined at the hip by middle-school. Stuart didn’t get into University on account of his rare attendance at upper-school, but he’d visited Gavin a number of times, hadn’t he?
Gavin agreed that he had and it seemed he’d got along with Phoebe rather too well, but still no hard feelings. Phoebe remained at her digs and he’d rather generously offered Stuart his room for the weekend. It’s amazing how good friends can just live in the moment like nothing ever happened.
When she turned eighty, Wilhelmina knew that something important had happened. People began treating her differently. Apparently, they had decided that she was feeble in mind and body, but they had also decided that she was endearing and cute. Wilhelmina herself believed that she was strong in mind and body and that never in her life had she been endearing and cute. Maybe when she was one or two, but she couldn't remember back that far.
Her friends started to treat her differently after that momentous birthday. Francine, a friend who was only five years younger, called Wilhelmina the day after her party and was rather blunt.
"You'll have to begin taking it easy, my dear. Would you like me to start being your driver?"
"Francine, I'm perfectly capable of driving. I don't need a chauffeur."
"But, you know, once a person turns eighty, all sorts of things could happen."
"Oh, I don't know, a stroke, a heart attack, an aneurysm. You could be a danger to other drivers. And to pedestrians. You never know."
"I'm in good health, Francine."
"Yes, well you never know. Then there's the brain to consider."
"There's nothing wrong with my brain."
"So you say, but you never know."
"I'll match my brain with yours any day."
"There's no need to be insulting."
"I'm not being insulting. Just truthful."
"I'm only trying to help. If that's the way you feel, well goodbye."
And before Wilhelmina had a chance to say anything more, Francine had terminated their phone call.
Her next helpful friend turned out to be Verna, who was only seventy.
"Well, Wilhelmina, are you ready to go to an assisted-living facility?"
"No. Why should I do that?"
"You could fall in your house. Remember that you live all by yourself."
"Well, not quite by myself. There's MacIntosh, my West Highland Terrier."
Verna laughed. "Now, do be serious, Willie."
"It's Wilhelmina. You know I like my full name. No nicknames, please."
"Oh, sorry. It's just that your full name is so long."
Wilhelmina snorted. "If I had my druthers, I'd have at least four names, like a queen. Maybe Wilhelmina Elizabeth Carolina Anastasia. Then I might get some respect."
"You're not being serious, are you?"
"Oh, I'll leave that for you to figure out."
"Well, you take care now, and let me know if you need anything. And if your brain starts to deteriorate, you know, if you forget certain things, make a list of what you've forgotten, and I'll help you."
"How can I make a list of things I've forgotten? That doesn't make sense."
"Huh? Well, bye for now."
Her friends' reactions to her eightieth birthday sent Wilhelmina into a depression. Well, not quite a depression. She definitely did not want to call it that. Instead, she called it an "off" mood. Yes, that was better. But she had to do something. Wilhelmina decided that she had to lead a campaign to show the world that being eighty did not mean the end of life.
But how was she going to do that? How was she going to begin a movement--yes, it had to be a movement--to give senior citizens the dignity they deserved? She had her radio on, and in the background she could hear a local talk show host, Ray Sunshine. She suspected that was not his real name.
Wilhelmina passed the questions of the call screener, who seemed patronizing. Perhaps she was just getting paranoid. But she had reason to be paranoid.
Suddenly there he was, Ray Sunshine, Ashleyville, Ohio's foremost--and only--afternoon talk show host.
"Wilhelmina, you're on the air. What's on your mind today?"
"Hello, Ray. I have a concern about old people. I turned eighty the other day, and two of my friends are already treating me like an invalid. I'm perfectly healthy in mind and body."
"Maybe we should go on a date, Willie. I'm available."
"It's Wilhelmina. And that's another thing. Sometimes people treat the elderly like children. They think they're cute and endearing. I'm not cute and endearing, and I'm certainly not looking for a date from a younger man. Or even an older man. What I want to do is start a movement, Mr. Sunshine."
"Just call me Ray. Or Raymond, if you prefer. It's not my real name anyway."
"Somehow I didn't think it was."
"All right, Miss Wilhelmina, what sort of movement do you want to start?"
"Just call me Wilhelmina, please. A campaign to give old people some respect. Don't assume we are like children. Don't assume we have lost our minds. Don't assume we all need walkers and canes. Don't assume that we can't live in our own homes. That sort of thing."
"I notice that you use the word old. You also said elderly. I thought we were supposed to say senior citizens or seniors or older."
"Those are all euphemisms, designed to make us feel better, I suppose, about aging. Oh, that reminds me. When I was in England on vacation a few years back, I saw that there were different prices for OAP. I didn't know what that meant until I asked. It meant Old Age Pensioners. That struck me funny. I kind of liked it."
"This is quite interesting, Wilhelmina. Do you have a name for your movement?"
"No. It was just today that I thought of doing something about this situation."
"How about a contest? We could ask our listeners what name to give your campaign."
"Any publicity would help. Sure. That sounds promising."
"All right, folks. Think about a name for Wilhelmina's campaign. An acronym is always a good thing, but it could just be one word, or two words. I'll talk with the station manager about a possible prize for the winner."
And the calls started to come in. Wilhelmina listened to some preposterous, stupid, and/or insulting names, the most memorable being SOAP, the Society of Aged People; CARE, the Community of Aging Retired Eccentrics; and CAT, the Community of Aged Tyrants. In some ways she liked that last one, but she didn't care for cats, so that acronym was out, and she was reasonably sure that she was the one who would choose the winner, even though Ray Sunshine hadn't specifically said so.
Then she heard another suggestion. "Hello, Mr. Ray Sunshine. thank you for taking my call. My name is Francine." Wilhelmina stopped drinking her coffee. Was that her friend, or her former friend, Francine? It sure sounded like her.
"Go ahead Francine. Do you have a suggestion for Wilhelmina's group?'
Francine sounded a bit nervous. "Well, yes. I suggest CASE. It stands for Community Avoiding Stereotypes of the Elderly. How does that sound?"
"Sounds pretty good to me. Well, Wilhelmina, if you're still listening, and I hope you are, call me back and we'll put you right through. We'd like to hear your opinion on these suggestions."
Wilhelmina grabbed her phone. Within moments she was back on the air. "Thank you, Ray, for letting me comment on the suggestions. At the moment I would say that CASE, Community Avoiding Stereotypes of the Elderly, is the best choice. Some of the other choices were funny and some were insulting. This one addresses the real problem, that of stereotyping. I even like the acronym CASE because it sounds rather objective, in a way. Ray, I assume I am the one who is allowed to pick the winner."
"Absolutely. So do you pick CASE, suggested by our listener Francine?"
"Yes. Yes, I do. And I thank her for understanding exactly what our new organization is designed to do."
"Very good. Francine, you're the winner. And I'm pretty sure that you will win what we usually give out on this program: dinner for two at the Avalon Restaurant right here in Ashleyville with its wonderful view of the Avalon golf course. Congratulations, Francine. You will need to call us back to give us your information. And no imposters, please! Glad your name isn't Ann or Mary." Ray Sunshine laughed heartily.
"Well, that's the end of our program for today. Always happy to serve our wonderful community. And remember to always add a Ray of Sunshine to your day! Goodbye, folks!"
Wilhelmina knew that she had lots more to do to erase those pesky stereotypes. She went to her computer and started a file of ideas, ideas about membership and projects and a newsletter and all sorts of things.
Then the phone rang. It was Francine.
"Wilhelmina, I just won dinner for two at the Avalon. Would you go with me? Please."
Mavis made the most out of Christmas despite being alone. Sipping Camomile tea Mavis smiled as she read the lovely comments of old friends in her Christmas cards from years gone by. Falling asleep on the sofa Mavis dreamed that she was young again and dating handsome men. Since her husband Len tragically died three years ago at Christmas there had been no one in her life.
She could have napped all afternoon, but Mavis remembered she needed a few more snacks for Christmas day. Whilst buttoning up her old duffle coat she spotted Bruce the pigeon on her lawn, named after her hero Bruce Forsyth. Throwing him some leftover bread she chuckled “You need fattening up my Brucie”.
Mavis headed up the street to the nearby Lidl, putting her unwanted pennies into the Salvation Army collection tin. Grabbing her favourite treats such as pork pies, cheeses, pickles, crisps, sprouts and a Christmas cake Mavis overloaded her basket and unfortunately dropped it. Sprouts rolled uncontrollably across the aisle and the cake was crushed. A wailing Mavis was comforted by a young assistant. Generously she replaced everything for Mavis and even let her keep the half empty bag of sprouts for free.
Back at her cottage Mavis listened to Handel’s Messiah as she worked her way through a bottle of Vodka. Being alone meant no one else cared what she did. Opening up an old Edwardian chest of drawers she pulled out a 19th century pocket pistol owned by her husband Len. Stroking the gem she closed her eyes recalling memories of the two of them together. Tears trickled down her cheeks.
Glancing out at the setting sun Mavis spotted Bruce again. “I knew I could count on you to be here for me” she grinned. Aiming the pistol Bruce was hit by her first shot. Placing Bruce on a roasting tray Mavis boasted “that is at least twenty quid I have saved for charity thanks to you Bruce”. Glancing down the hall Mavis spotted a Christmas card lying on the mat in a bright red envelope. Mavis joked to herself “maybe the man of my dreams is coming after all”.
A rather hastily written message was scribbled inside the card which read,
“Merry Christmas Eileen, sorry I haven’t seen you in ages. I have tried ringing you a few times but have never caught you. I happen to be passing by on Boxing Day so will call in. Can’t wait” Love James.
Why was she getting a card for Eileen? Mavis had a restless night tossing and turning. Memories of the tragic Christmas Eve from three years ago flooded back to her. Len’s jokes irritated her insanely, but shooting him was never intentional. She had not expected the pistol to be loaded. By New Year’s Day she was in jail and her family vowed never to see her again. Mavis had expected to see out her last days there, but a year later on Christmas Day the new chief prison officer Max Fudge made a glaring error. He mistook Mavis for the elderly mum of one of the inmates and let her leave. Humiliated Max Fudge never told anyone his error.
Fleeing Mavis remembered a hermit in a nearby village called Eileen. Mavis didn’t want to kill again, but Eileen lived a miserable life anyway she conceded. With the pistol hidden in her Bible case she took out Eileen just in time to watch the Queen's speech. Mavis assumed Eileen’s identity with no one butting an eyelid. A neighbour concluded that Eileen must have finally had a haircut. Wrapping Eileen up tightly in green wrapping paper, Mavis waited until New Year’s Day before standing Eileen up amongst the conifers at a nearby Christmas tree nursery. With Eileen only being 4ft 8 Mavis thought,
“By the time these trees are tall enough for chopping down I will be long dead anyway”.
A ranger saw Mavis pulling a strange green shape along and got into an argument with his assistant saying “I told you not to spike my drink at the New Year’s Party last night”.
All had remained quiet for the two years since. Mavis had kept herself to herself to be just like Eileen. She had missed the company of others, but by creating fake online dating profiles she had some company.
Boxing Day dawned on Mavis quicker than she had hoped. Hearing a car door slam just as she was attempting to eat some porridge, Mavis pondered what to do next. Looking through the peephole she saw this James standing close by. In his mid-thirties with neatly combed back hair and glasses Mavis thought he looked every bit a banker. Opening the door with great gusto straight at him she knocked his glasses right off his face. Sliding down the front of his suit jacket they hit the floor and smashed into many pieces.
“Sorry darling I didn’t know you were so close” Mavis exclaimed, putting on her croakiest voice. “I have got a terrible cold and can barely speak. Do take a seat in my lounge whilst I sort myself out”.
After reassuring James that the nearby petrol station was still open and sold reading glasses Mavis pretended to catch up with him. She told James her year was the same as ever. James then talked at length about his children before he was text by his wife Jenny and had to dash off. Sighing with relief Mavis knew she was safe.
Over Twixmas Mavis watched every soap opera possible to recover and got a few more freebies at the CO-OP because of some unfortunate accidents. For New Year Mavis adopted a tabby cat from the animal rescue. With Eileen still a registered member there she ordered her favourite cat by delivery not having to worry about the costs. On January 3rd another card landed on her mat from James which read,
“It was great to catch up with you Eileen. I hope that your cold is better. I really enjoyed my visit and will pop in again this week with Jenny and my five kids. I am taking a break from my plumbing”.
Dropping the letter Mavis looked blankly ahead and murmured “Why didn’t I just shoot him the first time”.
'Are you listening?' Steve was on his feet, fists on doughy hips. With puce cheeks puffed out, he looked like an angry baby.
'Oh, go on Steve. Let the girly have another ‘arf,’ Marlene interrupted, 'There's a good boy.' She pronounced boy like bay. I stifled a giggle.
'Look, if we don't leave Bristol now,’ Steve huffed, “we'll be stuck on the M4 for hours,'.
'Just one more. Please,' I wheedled. I grabbed his hand and pulled him back down on ripped red plastic banquette.
Steve jangled the keys of his precious Frog Eyed Sprite in my face and said, ‘Half an hour Princess. Then we’re leaving.’
I nodded with vigour. Marlene clapped her hands, leant across me and planted a sticky red kiss on Steve’s forehead. It looked like a gun shot wound.
‘Stigmata.’ I pointed, laughing till I thought I’d pee myself.
‘Tomatah more like,’ Marlene squawked. Tutting, Steve pulled a neatly ironed handkerchief from his trouser pocket and rubbed at the perfect outline of her lips. A raspberry smear spread across his furrowed brow.
I laughed. Marlene laughed. Steve wasn’t laughing. Marlene jumped up, a flourish of frills, red curls bouncing, and pushed through the dockers hogging the bar
I’d never been in a pub with real sawdust on the floor. When we arrived, it was the colour of clotted cream. Three hours later, scuffed about by workmen’s boots, it had turned into eddies of dirty brown. The Coronation Tap sold only cider and spirits. There was a brass spittoon in the corner by the bar into which staggering blokes would lean and hoik like they were coughing up a lung. Considering the miasma of cigarette smog obscuring the view of the downs from the Tap’s grimy windows, this was entirely possible. Marlene told me the spittoon was for the ‘oysters,’ a glutinous residue found in the bottom of cider barrels.
‘Looks like a big lump of snot,’ she bellowed over the pub hubbub in her hilarious Bristol accent. Marlene added a ‘l’ to any word ending in a vowel. She had good ‘ideals’, banged drinks down on the ‘formical table’ and enthused about the Cardoma’s ‘bananal milkshakes.’ Steve didn’t believe her when she said they used to drown a rat in the fermenting cider, ‘to give it extra flavour.’
‘Why are we with this woman?’ he hissed while Marlene was at the bar. I wanted to say, despite only having met her yesterday, Marlene was my new best friend. I’d found her last night in the bar of the Coach and Horses where that old woman with hair like sticks was chanting, ‘I dagged him with a dagger knife, I did. I dagged him.’ Her mechanical mantra grew to a crescendo before she grabbed a biro from the bar and, with theatrical fervour, re-enacted the dagging. Drinkers fanned away from her before the landlord took her by the elbow and guided her gently out of the door.
Marlene was next to us at the bar when the dagging incident took place. Not that I knew she was called Marlene then, obviously. She told us the old gal’s brain had been eaten by cider and her dagging story was a normal for Saturday night. After a few drinks, Marlene, with her gypsy ringlets and smudged kohl eyes, seemed like someone I could confide in. Steve seemed a bit pissed off having to buy drinks for the three of us but he could afford it. After a couple more rounds, I confessed to Marlene that Steve wasn’t my boyfriend. But, I said whispering behind my hand into her ear, he wanted to be. I told her he’d driven me for a weekend away in Bristol because he thought he could have it away with me. I said riding in his precious Sprite was like being on a roller skate and just as draughty. I think Steve overheard this bit because he’d been even more grumpy afterwards.
He was especially grumpy when we got back to our twin bed B&B, with its yellow nylon sheets and woodchip avocado wallpaper. That’s when I reminded him I wouldn’t risk his valued friendship by sleeping with him. This didn’t mean I wouldn’t, I’d said. Although, obviously, I wouldn’t. I gave him a kiss and cuddle and when his eyes had gone all gloopy, I said I was everso keen to watch the dockers play football on the downs the next morning with Marlene. And go to this pub called the Coronation Tap. Marlene said that’s where everyone went on Sunday Lunch time, I told him, yawning and slithering in between the bobbly sheets. The Tap was the best cider house in Clifton, Marlene said. Then I must have fallen asleep.
In the Coronation Tap, Steve, with his striped blazer and neatly pressed slacks stood out like a chicken wing in a vegetarian buffet. The dockers, granite men with fists like boxing gloves and purple tattoos painted across balloon biceps, all seemed to know Marlene. She was especially chummy with the landlord, Big Al. Al’s belly was the size of a small island and between pulling pints, he wiped his hands on a luxurious beard. I envied Marlene’s confidence and the easy way she joshed with Al and the dockers jostling at the bar like ferries moored up in a rough sea. She didn’t seem to mind when they felt her bosom or slapped her bum. She just giggled, playfully slapped away their wandering hands and told them not to be ‘naughty bays.’
Tap cider was as thick and cloudy as carrot soup. The first pint was like drinking acid. My tongue shrivelled. The insides of my cheeks felt like they’d been pebble dashed. The second went down a treat. The third one tasted like champagne.
Marlene leaned down, showing a good deal of her billowy embonpoint, and whispered, ‘I’ve slid a little gin in that one girly. Makes it right special, it does.’
Steve pushed his pint away with a pouty, ‘I’m driving you know.’ He sat with his hands clenched round chubby knees. ‘You look like a Toby Jug,’ said Marlene laughing like a jackal and displaying a little pointed tongue coated with squirrel grey fur.
I didn’t see Steve leave. One minute, he was there. Next minute, a burly docker was sitting beside me. He had spittle at the corners of his lips and stank of sweat and stale cigarette smoke. He slid his arm behind me. I felt sausage fingers resting on my shoulder. In his bullock face, brown teeth clacked up and down like a ventriloquist’s dummy. It was like being growled at by a grizzly bear with halitosis. Big Al’s stomach blocked out the light when he brought over another pair of pints. He winked and I heard him say, ‘Watch out Jasper. Best square it with Marlene first.’
My head wobbled as I peered into my pint. It looked like urine. I thought of rotting rats. Of snotty oysters. I didn’t have time to get to the loo but I did make it to the spittoon where I hurled and spat. A round of applause broke from the bar. A hazy Marlene materialised and rubbed my back in comforting circles as I coughed and wretched.
‘Better out than in girly,’ Marlene said in brisk nurse fashion.
‘Where’s Steve?’ I asked in a dolly voice.
‘Said to tell you he couldn’t wait any longer.’
‘He’s gone? Without me?’ I whined. ‘How am I going to get home?’
‘Don’t you worry,’ said Marlene, taking me by the hand and leading me back to the banquette. The grizzly bear put down the fag he was rolling and patted the seat beside him.
‘You come back with us girly,” she said, giving him a nod. “We’ll have a right old partay.’
It was still daylight when I pushed my way out of the Tap and onto the downs. The wind whipped me across the face. I looked down at my pink shoes spattered with puke. Staggering down to the main road, traffic thundered by as I painted on a smile and stuck out my thumb. I should have listened to Steve after all.
I stand in the doorway of the bedroom, and gaze across at her as she sits in front of the mirror of her dressing table. I wonder what her eyes see as she stares bleakly ahead at her reflection. Does she see what I do, a face marked with brown age spots and deep grooves earned through years of hard work and family troubles, and eyes dulled to a pale grey? Or does she see the shadows of the past, the smooth creamy skin, the cornflower blue eyes, and the burnished golden mass of hair cascading down her back?
Her hair remains her crowning glory, though it is now the colour of shining stars, and cut shorter, more befitting a lady of her age.
Her eyes drop down from the mirror and she stares at the silver hairbrush she holds in her hand. She was given it by her father on her 21st Birthday, and has used it every day since, brushing her hair, rhythmically and firmly, counting out one hundred strokes morning and night. A routine never missed. Today is different somehow, I can sense it, I have had this feeling before, and each time she has slipped away from me just that little bit further.
She picks aimlessly at one of the silver hairs caught in the bristles. As I watch, she carefully places the brush back on the table, settles back in the chair, and stares hopelessly at her hands which have started to shake.
I cannot move, emotion is paralysing me, and I can feel the tears stinging my eyes. I swallow, and force myself to step forward into the room.
She continues to stare at her hands, she has no awareness that I am standing behind her, she is no longer present in the bedroom herself. I touch her gently on the shoulder and she raises her head. I swallow again, preparing myself for what she is about to say. She has tears tracking slowly down the lines on her cheeks, “I can’t…….” “I don’t…..” she stumbles trying to form the words that neither of us wants to hear.
I need to remain calm; I cannot let my emotions show and result in upsetting her more.
I take the brush from the dressing table, and gently start brushing her hair.
My feeling was right, this is another of those moments; another skill forever gone; she won’t be brushing her beautiful hair again.
“It’s ok mum, let me do it! Remember how I used to love doing your hair when you were getting ready to go out with Dad?”
I move round, and crouch down facing her, gently wiping her tears away I look into her eyes, searching...hoping ….
I see it, behind the fear, the panic, and the anger. I see that essence of my mother, and I know that whatever else Alzheimer’s takes away from her and will be forever gone, there will always be love.
John sat at the old kitchen table, tapping his foot, “Hazel, will you hurry? I thought you’d prepared everything earlier. We’re only going over for a Halloween party with the Anderson’s. You’re not baking for the Ritz.”
Hazel’s black eyes flashed, “I know, but these skull cookies must look good. Sandy wanted them as the centrepiece. I don’t want people to think I’m slapdash.”
John snorted, “You, slapdash, never. Everyone knows how much effort you put into your baking. I mean, how could you win the trophy for baking at the agricultural show if you were not the best! But time is marching on. There is a pea-souper fog swirling out there, perfect to lend the right ambience to this do, don’t you think?”
Hazel was carefully packing her baking into a deep biscuit tin, “Yes, great for ambience but not for travelling. I’m glad we’re close enough to walk. I’ve put the cookies into this container, so they don’t risk getting damp. How do you think the other guests will manage driving up the hill in this weather?”
“Shouldn’t be a problem, Len said he had hung lanterns on stands along the road.” By now, John was squatting in front of his “wine store.” In reality, it was just a fold-up wine rack. The choice should not be too difficult. There were only spaces for half a dozen bottles. “Do you think I should take red or white wine?”
“Red, of course, if any gets spilt, it will look like blood, have to keep in the spirit of the thing.”
In the old hallway of the farmhouse, they shrugged into their coats and outdoor walking shoes. John placed his bottle and Hazel’s cookie container in a large old basket.
Within a few steps of leaving the house, the fog had swallowed them up. Fearing they might lose each other as the visibility was only inches, John insisted on holding hands. They set off down the familiar pathway. Now it felt eerie, none of the usual landmarks were visible. Hazel felt scared. What if they wandered off the path? What if they got lost?
Then the rational part of her mind clicked in. She told herself to stop being silly. She had walked this path for so many years as well as the shortcut through to the Anderson’s. Her son and daughter and Sandy’s two children were all about the same age. She always knew if they weren’t visible in her garden, they would be over the way.
Now, of course, all the children were adults. Shaun was working as an electronics engineer in the States. He had gone there after university, married there and had kids of his own. He had lived there so long he was more American than English. Paula had stayed here but was an academic at Cambridge. She rarely made an effort to come home, which was strange since she never married and had most weekends free. She shook her head, enough thinking about the past. They were going to a party. She needed to be light and happy.
The pair of them safely negotiated the paths and scrunched up to the front door. It looked a little different, “They have gone to a lot of trouble, I’m sure that’s a new front door and the path is new gravel,” grunted John.
“Well, new door or not, ring the bell I don’t like standing out here in the fog.”
John reached out to ring the bell, but the door opened before he managed.
A stranger stood looking at them, surprised, “Good evening, can I help you?”
Taken aback, John gazed at the man. He did not recognise him. “Er, we’ve come to the party.”
Now the man in the doorway looked hard at them, “Who are you? What party are you talking about?”
It was John’s turn to look affronted, “Why the Andersons’ one of course. I’m sorry we’re a few minutes late. We just walked over from our place, but this fog made us walk slower.”
The man in the doorway looked strangely at them, then indicated for them to enter, “What time did you leave your house?”
John thought for a moment, “Well, we should have been here at eight o’clock.” He glanced down at his watch, “good heavens, it’s taken us twenty minutes to get here!”
“No, sir, it’s taken you years. Mrs Anderson moved out after the tragic death of her husband. Now you mention a party the date of the accident was Halloween ten years ago. Mr Anderson died when a car hit him and two other people. I understand there was terrible weather then too.”
This news shocked Hazel who shivered so badly it was difficult to get the words out, “You’re saying Sandy and Len aren’t here? But I was speaking to Sandy only half an hour ago.”
The man nodded, “Maybe half an hour ago plus ten years. You looked shocked. Come in and let me get you a drink.”
A slim brown-haired woman came in at that moment, “Vic, who was at the door I heard you talking.”
Then she saw the couple standing in the centre of the room looking lost. They wore old fashioned clothes, and the woman looked shattered.
“I don’t think they need a drink. Better have a hot cup of sweet tea. Please sit, make yourselves at home while I sort things out in the kitchen.”
Later, Vic and Trish waved their unexpected guests off. They could see the lights on in the house next door and two people heading that way.
Vic looked puzzled, “What do you think is going on here? That house has been empty for years, then suddenly people emerge out of the mist and the house looks like a ship with all those lights on. I’m going to explore there in the morning.”
The next day the only evidence Vic found was the traces of two pairs of shoes leading up to the front door, but no other signs of habitation.
I was wandering around the streets in what felt like a drunken stupor. I had been with the lads and we did have a few beers. My head certainly felt like I had gone twenty rounds of vodka slammers with a Russian.
The air was mildly sticky and hung heavy. I did struggle to breathe normally on a typical hot summer night. I looked up and the street lamps were, what seemed much brighter, the amber glow blinded me. The distant sirens of the inner-city police seemed deafening, the sickly smell of honeysuckle cloyed in my nostrils but I was on a street in the middle of the city in the retail section not a park for miles. I was broken from my confusion by Danny walking up to me and clapping me on the back.
‘Wow, an epic night out hey Silv?’
‘Yes mate it was, did you get with that blonde?’ I asked
‘Of course, midnight always gets his girl’
‘Is that your blood?’ I asked
‘No mate, that blond was a witch, a heathen.’
‘Of course, we all have to kill the heathens.’ I said nonchalantly
‘She was into freaky stuff even for them’ Midnight said
‘Cool one less to worry about let’s get back to the dorm and work out what to do next.’
I felt some compassion. She was a human.
We passed the old derelict warehouse, it’s cracked windows and bent metal roofing, showing it’s lack of use it had some sort of graffiti on it it was a circle with some sort of curly font come to think of it, it glowed a little well I’ll be so that’s where they hide. ‘Call the others I have found them’
Midnight turned and howled and a howl returned and our pack were on their way.
“Have you seen those two weirdos in the corner?”
Bill, the café owner, flicked a greasy thumb in the direction of two hooded youths. His cook, and wife of twenty-five years, threw a weary glance across the room. She saw two pale faces poking out of two black hoods, one male and the other female.
“They’ve ordered two full English’s, take them over when they’re done will you love, I’m going outside for a fag.”
The cook filled two plates, “Here you go, would you like red or brown sauce?
The hooded pair looked up, the male hood answered, “Red, and can we have two more tomato juices, please?”
After a few mouthfuls, the female hood spoke, “How did you get on last night? Any luck?”
“Nah, I went clubbing, trying to discover a virgin amongst that lot, was like trying to find an alcoholic in a milk bar! What about you?”
The female hood smiled a toothy grin, “Well, I had a brainwave. I slipped into the Kent Academy for Boys, that posh residential school. There were virgins aplenty. I had the time of my life!”
“Nice, so where are you sleeping it off today? Are you going back to the Peters-Kipling mausoleum?”
“Yes, I love the comforts of the Peters-Kipling family. What about you? Still roughing it in the City Cemetery?”
“No, I’m not going back there. I’m off to Johnson’s Funeral Directors, they’re closed until Monday, so I’ll have the place to myself. Wait a min …. is that your blood? There, on your sleeve?”
He stared as she dipped her fingertip into the red stain and licked it. “No not mine, that blood is male, probably from last night”.
As they get up to leave, the cook calls out, “Who ordered two steaks?” The pair shuddered. “Not us.”
As I gazed at him across the table, I knew Tinder had dealt me the winning hand at last. This handsome man was listening attentively to what I was saying, his hypnotic eyes crinkling as he smiled appreciatively at my pathetic jokes. His dark hair curled suggestively at his collar, and flopped forward onto his brow, giving him a boyish look that I was finding very attractive.
His hands, with long tapering fingers looked so graceful yet his shoulders seemed broad and powerful giving an impression of strength. No sign of a wedding ring, no tell-tale faint line of a ring ever having been worn. We had talked on the phone a number of times and he had entranced me with his tales of his home country, somewhere in Eastern Europe, his slight accent adding to his general attraction and mystery. I was already besotted when he had suggested he cook for us both so we could get to know each other without strangers intruding on our intimacy..so romantic!
He stood up.
“I have to check on the main course” he said, and being of a curious nature, I followed him into the kitchen.
“I’ll get another bottle from the fridge shall I?” I said, opening the door as I spoke.
Astounded, I stepped back not believing what I was looking at!
“Is that your blood?”
In front of me were at least fifty vials of dark crimson liquid neatly standing upright in specimen stands. I trembled as I felt him move behind me, his breath caressing my neck as he gently lifted my hair away from my skin.
“Those are snacks, but I am ready now for my main course!” he murmured menacingly.
“No, I don’t think so” I shook my head, it was far too expensive and my common sense told me to walk away. I had first seen the wedding dress a few days ago and kept coming back to look at it and then to try it on. It was beautiful, made of a rich heavy silk that would cling to my figure , embellished with a design of seed pearls and fastened down the front and up the sleeves to the elbows in tiny silk covered buttons.
The assistant had said “But Madam I’ve never seen this dress look so beautiful, it seems made for you, you’ll make a lovely bride’.
It was true, as I looked in the mirror I saw a beautiful version of myself. How much is it’? I had asked in a whisper.
‘It’s three thousands pounds Madam but your fiancé will be so proud ‘.
I shook my head regretfully and turned my back for the assistant to unhook me , ‘No I can’t afford it’. I thought of my meagre savings and all my expenses and then the new credit card I had not yet used but as I felt the rich material beneath my fingers, my heart sang.
‘Yes I will take it, you’re right it was made for me’. I did not let myself doubt as I waited for the assistant to box the dress, I thought only of how confident and desirable I felt in it.
It wasn’t until I had paid for it and walked to my car and was placing it on the back seat that I remembered that I was middle aged, tied to elderly parents, had never had a boyfriend and never would now.
‘Oh well at least I have a beautiful wedding dress’ , I sighed.
Slivers of light flickered through the half-drawn curtains, illuminating the carpet in front of the window. Franny tiptoed across the room. Outside, a car, parked a few doors down, flashed its headlights.
She sneaked downstairs, carefully placing both feet on each step. “Shh.” She slipped bare feet into fraying pink pumps and shoved her phone into the pocket of her denim jacket. Her fingers gripped the brass doorknob. She paused. “Easy does it.” Twisting the knob, she pulled the door towards her. It creaked. She froze and listened for her father’s feet stomping across the bedroom floor. The bed groaned but nothing more. She stepped outside, easing the squeaky door shut behind her.
Bitter wind blew straight through her flimsy nightie. “Brrr.” She sucked in a deep breath, buttoned her coat up to the neck and started towards the car.
“And where do you think you’re going?” He bellowed from an upstairs window.
Franny spun round, her voice quaking as she said, “Anywhere as long as it’s away from you.”
Her father’s gaze slithered from her long auburn locks to her tatty pumps. “No, I don’t think so.”
He clocked the young man crouching behind the blue Ford Fiesta.
“Oi,” he leaned out, resting massive forearms on the window ledge. “She ain’t going nowhere.”
Franny gave her dad a defiant look. “You can’t stop me now.”
Spittle landed on the front of his sweat stained vest as he shouted, “Get inside girl. You’ll be sorry if I have to come down and drag you back.”
Franny sprinted for the car and clambered in. As they sped away, her brother asked, “Did he hurt you?”
She unbuttoned her coat, lifted her nightie, rubbed her hand over a purple bruise on her hip.
“For the last time. There's no going back.”
‘After a long battle...’ the conventional platitude carried me back across the decades into my boyhood bedroom on that sunny afternoon in the October of my fourteenth year.
“Is that your blood?” she’d asked, peering into the microscope I’d been given as a birthday present a few days before.
“Uh-huh,” I replied, not sure I could trust my new voice to hide the maelstrom of feelings washing over me.
“Where d’you get it?” she asked.
“Finger prick,” I said, trying to sound cool.
“Didn’t it hurt?”
“Nah... Well, maybe a bit.”
“Can we look at mine?” she asked, turning and looking at me as if for the first time. “Please?”
“Sure,” I said, passing her a sterile lancet. “Here you go.”
She hesitated. “I don’t think I can do it,” she said. “Will you do me?”
“Okay; which finger?”
She looked at them as if trying to see which might be the least sensitive. “This one,” she said, holding out her ring finger.
Her hand felt soft and smooth and warm in mine, her pale skin almost transparent in the gentle autumn sunlight. The thought that this was the first time we’d touched felt like a third presence in the room. She turned her head away and closed her eyes.
“Go on, do it,” she said, marking the moment when I decided to become a doctor.
I remember my quick stab with the lancet, her gasp of pain, and the crimson drop of blood that welled up on her fingertip. But mostly I remember how she turned and kissed me then, our lips meeting slightly off-center, amidst the faint smell of lavender.
And then a few minutes later she said: “My blood’s got a lot more white cells in it than yours.”
Sadly, she was right.
“Mum, when I grow up, can I be a tourist?”
“Well, it’s not a full-time job you know, sweetheart. Anyway, whatever gave you that idea?”
“’Cos then I could go lots and lots on Virgin.”
“I suppose you could. Where would you go?”
“Straight to Heaven, of course.”
“Oh... that kind of tourist.”
“Yes. My friend Khalil at school said he’s going to be a tourist like his uncle, and he told me all about it.”
“What exactly did he say, honey?”
“Well, we were arguing ’cos he said his maginary friend could beat up my maginary friend. And I was like ‘No way!’ and he was like ‘Could so!’ Mum, what’s a maginary friend?”
“It’s sort of like Father Christmas, sweetheart.”
“Khalil says he doesn’t believe in Father Christmas; he believes in Santa Claus instead. But I told him that Father Christmas could beat up Santa Claus anytime. He could Mum, couldn’t he?”
“Of course he could, Mum. He could get the elves to help him.”
“Well, what happened then?”
“Then... then we had a bit of a fight. Just to sort out which of us was right, you know?”
“And who won?”
“It was the end of recess, so we had to stop and get in line. And then Miss Snodgrass made us both write lines as a punishment for fighting; and in our best joined-up writing, too.”
“Good for her. What did you have to write?”
“‘I must learn to turn the other cheek’, which was silly because he hadn’t hit my cheek.”
“He had to write ‘I must learn never to resort to violence.’”
“I think I like your Miss Snodgrass.”
“But Mum, can I be a tourist when I grow up? Can I?”
"No, I don't think so."
‘Kindly step aboard.’
She shuffles into the back seat of Mr Kapasi’s trusty grey Hindustani Ambassador like a pony backing into a trap.
‘Hmmmph’ Mrs Rutabel says. ‘I see you own a car that was designed by those slave-traders, the damned British.’
‘Very perspicacious of you, Mrs Rutabel,’ Mr Kapasi replies. ‘This indeed a classic British design – a Morris Oxford of the nineteen-fifties.’
‘I suppose it will have to do. What’s that on your dashboard?’
‘It’s Ganesha the Elephant God, Lord of Good Fortune, Prosperity, Wealth and Success.’
‘How come you’re driving a taxi, then?’
‘It’s only a stepping-stone in my career.’
‘No decent Christian would worship an elephant.’
‘I’m not a Christian, I’m a Hindu. Ganesha is popular in western countries because everybody loves elephants.’
‘They don’t in Jamaica. We worship God and Bob Marley. They are trying to make us worship the prime minister, Mr Holness, but he is not suitable at all. He is booguyaga. He copied the British imperialists and had his children privately educated.’
After a few minutes’ silence, Mrs Rutabel speaks, with considerable venom.
‘Don’t you hate the British?’
‘No, I don't think so, Mrs Rutabel. I try to follow the teachings of the great Lord Hanuman, who symbolizes the human excellences of loving, emotional devotion to the God Rama as well as inner self-control, faith and service to a cause.’
‘How can you ever trust them?’ she says. My countrymen recount the racism they faced on arrival. Those who worked for years to rebuild the country from the ashes of war feel the sharpest betrayal, now their passports have been revoked. That’s the British way. They are qwengas. They are fassyholes.’
He smiles. She snorts. He parks outside her hotel and they go their separate ways.
Me, Silas and Jimmy Legs met up again that night at the Luxembourg Soft Cheese And Jazz Festival. We talked about getting the band back together. It had been over 10 years since we’d played as a band – at the Ork & Ostrich Festival in Mindless, Northern Belzonia. Our performance was marred by a fight, which Jimmy Legs started, or it may have been me. Or Silas. We oozed excitability. It was our only ability, some people said, hurtfully.
I took breakfast in the hotel where we were staying in Luxembourg, enjoying my passion for ketchup on cereal. Silas popped into the restaurant and said he was heading for the beach. I explained Luxembourg had no beach as he stood there in his shorts, his veiny legs like pillars of Danish Blue.
Instead, we remembered old times. We’d even had some chart success back in the day with “Mixed Signals Or Moonbeams.” A haunting melody and always popular live. I had written the song at a particularly low point in my career, aching with insecurity after my wife, Shirin, had left me.
We both thought a reunion might work since, in our 50’s now, it’d be less likely for the three of us to fight over the slightest thing anymore.
I asked Silas where Jimmy Legs was this fine morning in Luxembourg, and was told that when he’d arrived the previous night, Jimmy was with some woman and probably “taking breakfast” in their room.
Just then, Jimmy and his girlfriend entered the hotel restaurant. And it all kicked off again…. his girlfriend was only my ex-wife, Shirin.
We were all ejected from the hotel midway through brawling.
“Still up for a reunion?” Silas asked me.
“No, I don’t think so.” I said through bloody lips and two wobbly teeth.
It was getting dark much earlier now. The sun was barely in the sky before it set again and the moon was revelling in its elevation to the lead role. Unseen stars sparkled from far distant galaxies, masked from sight by thick, dark, blankets of cloud. Rain clattered against the thin metal roof, creating a din reminiscent of the ill fated millipede tap troops latest review.
“Yes, Professor?” The oddly shaped man looked up from the table before him, an eyebrow raised in quizzical fashion.
“An ear Frank, I need an Ear.”
“My apologies, professor Styen.” The man turned and picked up a small pickle jar with his clawed hand. A fleshy blob, delicate and pale, floated within, unrecognisably distorted by the fluid and the glass. He groaned as he struggled and twisted the jar. The professor looked on, shaking her head and sighing.
“I’ll have it in a minute professor, just -unh- just give me a minute.”
Professor Styen rolled her eyes.
“Of course, Frank. Take your time, no hurry, I’m sure the storm’ll last a few hours yet, maybe even days. I mean, we’ve only waited all year for it…”
“It’s coming, professor, just a….” A grunt, a twist, the clatter of a small tin lid bouncing off the cobbled floor. Frank held up the open jar, a toothless smile on his twisted, pride filled face. The Formaldehyde splashed over the rim and onto the patchwork body on the table. The woman stretched two fingers into the jar, pulling out the body part.
“I don’t think this is an ear, Frank.” The fleshy part was most definitely not the delicate shell of an ear. Frank blushed.
“OO err, no Professor. I.. I must have brought the wrong jar.”
“So…” The professor sighed. “Where’s this bit go?”
“What is this thing called, love?”
“Oh, very funny. It’s a whatchamacallit, a thingummy... You know.”
“You mean a doohickey?”
“More of a whatsit.”
“Well, why didn’t you say so, then? What should I do with it?”
“Don’t be vulgar.”
“I know what you were thinking, and it’s too big.”
“Now who’s being vulgar? Just pass me the thingamabob, would you?”
“No, that’s a thingamajig. I need the thingamabob.”
“I don’t know how you can tell them apart.”
“Easy: the thingamabob has a longer whatnot.”
“Where is it?”
“Oh, sorry. I must have left it under the hoojamaflip.”
“No, it’s not there; I looked.”
“Maybe I lent it to Bob, then.”
“Oh, that Bob. Why didn’t you say so in the first place? What did he need it for?”
“He’s building himself a knickknack. Never mind; I think I can make do with the adjustable gizmo.”
“Why don’t you call it what it is?”
“I just did.”
“No, you didn’t. You called it a gizmo.”
“An adjustable gizmo.”
“But it’s not a gizmo; it’s a dingus. Anyone can see that.”
“If it were a dingus, it’d have a bigger whosis.”
“I don’t know how you can keep all these thingies straight in your mind.”
“Oh, it’s easy when you’ve got experience. The important thing is to know all their names.”
“Here it is, then; whatever it’s called.”
“Thanks. Hold it steady so I can slide my widget into your geegaw...”
“As the actress said to the Bishop...”
“There we are... Finished.”
"Where's this bit go?"
Life felt hopeless to say the least. After months of lockdown I felt no drive whatsoever to do anything. I was lucky to have a job, but it was dull and had little direction to it. Home life was a tedious routine with no purpose. By the time life returned to normal if it ever did I would be well old.
Sitting on a park bench I stared into space as time passed by eating my baguette. Feeling a prod on my back I glanced over hoping it was not someone asking for money. To my astonishment it was a robin! It perched on the bench right behind me. I thought that was brave coming so close to a moody guy like me.
“Here, drink this” I muttered as I offered what was left of my water. Chirping with more cheerfulness than I had in all of the last ten years, the robin cheekily eyed my baguette instead. Throwing some crumbs to the ground the robin took them back to its nest full of vigour. After only a few mouthfuls of my baguette the robin was back, chirping for more. Feeling appreciated I threw some crumbs on the bench right by me, daring the robin. It didn’t hesitate. Chuckling to myself the robin was back a third time and even took bread from my hand.
Sitting there and smiling I took in the wonderful awe of the moment. Striding back from lunch I was more cheerful than in months. I thought how lucky I was to have a job, a house and to be healthy. Feeling inspired I volunteered to do befriending calls for what was left of lockdown. Despite the struggles all around the world I felt honoured that I could still make a difference.
Rush hour in Cardiff, and jib-pulling commuters pushed through a busy drizzle. Hurried heels slid on slimy cobbles, while the castle tower wound in its wet neck. The gargoyles lining the castle wall, stared with glass eyes. The vulture and lynx, the anteater with its new nose, and the hyena, hunched and ready to ransack.
Running for cover, I cut through the arcades. I had just enough time. Past the violin restorer and his hand-written sign, the board games specialist that only opens Tuesdays, and the fancy dress shop where a busty superhero pressed against the glass.
Weighed with work-day hassle, I reached my shop and found a man on the ground, lying across the doors on flattened cardboard boxes, wrapped in a sleeping bag that was split and shedding stuffing.
‘Not today, come on!’ I said out loud, to myself.
On reviled tiptoes, I stepped over him and by the time I had unlocked the doors, he had hauled himself to half-mast.
‘I’m sorry. I’ll get out of your way now, in a minute.’
His voice was deep. It had a quality. While he rolled his bedding, I stood and unfolded my arms.
‘Look, I don’t open for a bit. Do you want to come in and warm up?’
He stopped and looked up, through his wild, matted eyebrows, looking for truth.
I sat him at the counter and I made coffee.
‘Here, drink this.’
‘Oh, thanks. Is it caffeinated? I don’t drink caffeine. But thanks, genuine.
‘You said “Not today” when you saw me. What’s happening today?’
I hadn’t meant him to hear.
‘It’s nothing. My investor is coming to check things over.’
‘I hope it goes well for you. Good things happen to good people.’
He smiled, left and closed the doors quietly.
Many years ago when Technology hadn’t taken over our lives, we lived in the lap of nature among green sheltering trees, and the whisper of wind in our ears. Like other mothers in our village, Mother had her own formula to keep us strong and healthy. It was a tablespoon of castor oil every Saturday morning to cleanse our system from all toxic elements that might have found their way into our system. Every three months there was a de-worming medicine too.
How we hated those Saturday mornings! We would cry and protest and try to hide, but to no avail. Held down in a chair, our nostrils pinched together, the nauseous oil was forcibly poured down our throats. We were starved of breakfast until our first trip to the loo. Needless to say that for most of the day, we were trapped indoors out of sheer necessity. I still feel like puking at the very thought of castor oil.
This was a regular shindig that annoyed my mother and the other grown-ups. They discussed how to put an end to our weekly wails.
“Shove a teaspoon of sugar in their mouths after the castor oil goes down,” someone suggested.
This only made us puke all the more.
Then my father had a brilliant idea. He thought of mixing the oil in a glassful of sweet lemonade to make it more palatable. This merely prolonged our agony. But he was not a guy to tolerate backchat or disobedience.
One morning, substituting for mother, he arrived with the concoction in one hand and a rattan in another. “Here, drink this” he bellowed. There was no escape.
My city bred children today call it cruelty, which would have been reported to the police and the Ministry of Child Welfare.
Yosef lifted his glass and observed as the solitary ice cube shimmered against the sunlight. He gently twisted the glass, watching the ice cube slide about in the ever-increasing pool. Yosef focused in on the mundanity of the melting ice cube, phasing out the murmurs of those conversing around him, until all that was left was a thin layer of cool water, which Yosef then glugged down.
A woman in a black dress, clutching a matching handbag, glided through the crowds of well-to-do socialites, then deposited herself into the seat opposite him. She noticed the vapid expression on his face and sighed.
“Is this really how it’s going to do?” She spoke in a sharp whispered tongue.
Yusef finally placed the glass on the table. He smiled. “I’d rather it not go anyway.”
“Yeah, well, you know the rules.” The woman removed a silver flask from her bag, then reached for the empty glass, but Yosef grabbed her wrist before she could.
Amara gave Yosef a deathly stare. “Do not say my name aloud.”
“Do we really need to do this?”
“Let go of my arm.”
Yosef paused for a moment, thinking through his options. There was no way to escape, and even if there was, there was nowhere he could hide. The only option was to talk his way out, and he was losing faith in that option.
Yosef let go and Amara emptied a black liquid from her flask into the glass.
"Here, drink this."
“I’ll do anything.”
“I’m sorry… Please, Yosef.”
Yosef nodded. His hand was shaking now. He took the glass and stared at the liquid within. “Will it hurt?”
He placed the glass against his lips. "Well, at least that’s good.”
Yosef closed his eyes, then tipped the black liquid into his mouth.
Issue 6 & 7
The Stories & Poems
To request your story to be removed from online publication: EMAIL US