“Do we have to go to dinner with that dreadful woman.” Lois sighed, as she finished applying blood red lipstick to her thin, pensive mouth.
“I do wish you wouldn’t say that about my mother.” Jeremy knew he was fighting a losing battle, but persevered nonetheless. He had always been attracted to headstrong women, but it often led to confrontations with his mother, a woman who was the template for the term “battle axe.”
“I can just tell she doesn’t think I’m good enough for you.”
A familiar tension filled the room.
“She thinks I’m stupid.”
Jeremy didn’t want to lie, but at the same time calling his highly strung and increasingly irritated girlfriend stupid to her face probably wasn’t the best plan either.
“Look, we’ll go, eat, make our excuses then leave. I’ll drive so you can drink.”
“And she’s making her Lemon Meringue Pie.”
“As long as she doesn’t make a comment if I go for seconds...”
She was smiling now, despite herself. Her dimples gave it away. It was in moments like this Jeremy remembered why he fell for Lois in the first place. Like a good meringue she was hard and elegant on the surface, but once cracked she had a centre that was soft, sweet and utterly irresistible.
“Shall we go then?”
Mike was already in a bad mood before he discovered the offending article in the bathroom bin. He’d briefly considered ignoring it and letting his wife Kate deal with the fallout, but that was the coward’s way. Instead he’d carefully picked it up and stomped into the lounge where his wife and daughter were sat watching TV. He’d had no idea how to broach the subject and had settled on righteous indignation; he always found the view from his high horse rather pleasing.
“Something you want to tell us, Claire?” Both Kate and Claire stared at him in bemusement. “Nothing?” They both continued to look at him nonplussed. “I thought we could trust you, Claire. I knew that little toe-rag was trouble, you wait till I get my hands on him.”
“Dad, what are you on about, I’m trying to watch TV?”
Her blasé dismissal was the final straw. “This is what!” and with a triumphant flourish he produced the used pregnancy test stick from behind his back. “I know this is yours.”
Claire’s eyes widened. “Dad, I…”
“No, don’t try and deny it or tell me it belongs to one of your friends.” Claire clamped her mouth shut and slowly turned to face her mum. “And don’t look to your mum for help either, this is your problem. So what have you got to say for yourself?”
“Actually…” said Kate speaking for the first time.
“Quiet, Kate, let her speak for herself.”
“It’s not hers.”
Mike was so consumed by rage that it took a while for those words to sink in. “What?”
“The test. It’s mine. I’m… we’re going to have a baby.”
A smug smile enveloped Claire’s face as she turned to face her dad. “So, Dad, what have you got to say for yourself?”
“I know this is yours.” she said, staring at him with that glacial look he knew so well. “I think its about time you told me the truth- you at least owe me that!”
He glanced around, searching for an escape route, or at least some inspiration. If he told her the truth, the police would instantly be called, she would have no compunction of having him thrown into jail – he knew that. His heart was hammering away inside his chest, the sweat coating his brow, the fear was palpable.
She could read him so well, she could see how uncomfortable he was feeling, that he knew he had been well and truly caught this time and was worried about what actions she would take. It wasn’t the first time, but she had never had the physical evidence previously. This time would have to be the last, she was not going to allow him to continue along this destructive path.
Agitated, and rocking from one foot to the other, he felt the emotion building. Determined not to cry, he bit down on his lip and stared at the floor, saying nothing. This just enraged her even more.
“OK then. No more chances!” With that she darted forward and grabbed him by his collar. “You’re coming with me to explain to Farmer Johnson how and why you’ve been stealing these apples from him!” Grabbing the heavy backpack filled with the ripe juicy spoils he had gathered that morning and hidden in the coal shed to share with his mates later on, she manhandled him to the door. “I am not having you end up like your Da, thieving for a living and ending up spending most of your time In Jail, this stops now!”
Rebecca wasn’t sure whether to take a sip of water. The tickle in her throat might pass, and she didn’t feel comfortable in the room. She felt self conscious and worried that she’d say something that might come out wrong. Phil looked at their counsellor, Trisha, waiting for her to speak.
“I thought it good to just sit a few moments and let things settle” Trisha opened with.
Nobody said anything until Rebecca raised her hand.
“You’re not in school, Rebecca. What did you want to say?”
“Well, it’s just that we often ignore the important conversations. The difficult stuff is what we don’t share” Rebecca managed to say.
Phil picked up his glass and took a large gulp of water.
“I have tried to speak to you. You clam up and change the subject. I can’t ask you anything without you leaving a room. That’s why we’re here” Phil locked eyes with Trisha avoiding looking at Rebecca.
Trisha saw sadness smothering her clients, she wanted to help them both breathe.
“What is the one question you need to ask one another in a safe space?” Trisha asked.
Rebecca said she’d answer first and played with her hair a moment before speaking.
“My question is, why does it matter?…I mean, I’m certain and my word should be enough”
Trisha nodded at Phil to encourage his contribution.
“I want to know the truth about what has happened. I’d rather know. Should I be concerned?”
Rebecca turned to face Phil, moving her chair slightly. Her eyes were watering, tears were coming.
“You have nothing to worry about. I made a mistake but that’s in the past and we have a chance of a future together”
Rebecca took Phil’s hand and placed it on her small bump.
“I know this is yours.”
“She thinks I’m stupid.” I sign. Like for most people, it is my failure for not being able to communicate with them, never theirs for not being able to understand me. Few people start from the place of congruence, so the burden is always mine as the unconventional minority to bridge the gap in communication. Winston is one of the few people I know who talks to me from a point of similarity from which there is a more equitable outcome. He is my interpreter and I have to employ him. If this woman had to employ an interpreter to speak to me, would she bother?
He is signing to me, but not interpreting any more. He tells me that she is shouting now so that I might hear her better and that she is making eye contact with Winston, so that he can tell me what she wants me to hear. He has already explained that I require a seat with a clear view of the interpreter and she is saying that it is not possible, the auditorium holds a lot of people and due to the importance of the speaker, the venue is sold out. She is saying that if my interpreter does not have a ticket then he won’t have entry.
She looks to the next person in the queue apologising for the delay with her eyes. She tells Winston that Professor Norris, the eminent neurosurgeon who is making todays lecture will not appreciate the disruption of people taking their seat whilst he is speaking. She looks at all the lanyards and names she still has to process and the queue building up behind me, then at her watch. “What is your name please?” again to Winston who signs the question. Professor Norris I tell her.
“Why did you leave it?”
She considered his question in silence as they gazed into the night sky. Why sounded so direct, yet its answers never were. They wove about her in a tangle of self-doubt, regret, and tender hope. Most of her reasons for anything were invisible even to her, but they wrapped about her wrists, her ankles, tugging her along in their jerky marionette’s dance. Those reasons that gathered fastest on her tongue tasted stale, dry, empty of any true insight.
Why would she leave? Perhaps that could be answered well enough. How could she leave? That never would be.
She looked again to the star, tiny in the sky, glimmering with the light of home. She thought again of the once-green planet, faded to grey, and felt the familiar guilt of survival, of escape.
“I left,” she said at last, “because there was nothing left to stay for.”
The boss approached. Sweeping gracefully over the rippling ocean from the western continent which she must have finally finished inspecting. Apparently, they had gone all out over there. They’d inserted a preposterously long river, definitely the longest so far on this planet. A desert, a rainforest, enormous grassy plains and a wealth of underground ores and minerals. So predictable. They always had to be the ones to create the most prosperous continent. Every time.
“Now, Oz. You’ve been working on the great southern landmass. How have you been getting on?”
The boss scrutinised my work with vague noises of interest. Poking the south-eastern mountain ranges, judging their respectability. She pinched a small part of my widespread low plateau desert and seemed satisfied if not a little unimpressed. I waited, staunching the urge to interrupt.
“What is this?” the boss was indicating the red sandstone monolith in the middle of my continent.
I hesitated, “Don’t you like it?”
“Why did you leave it?”
“I meant to put it there.”
“Oz, don’t get me wrong. It’s original but I’m not sure it’s a good idea. The creatures intended for this planet may be confused by an enormous rock in the middle of such a large plateau. They have a predisposition for creating deities … and we need to discourage that.”
“But it serves a geological purpose! I’ve rigged it to produce streams of drinkable water once the surrounding landmass reaches a high enough temperature. The creatures will love it!”
“I don’t doubt that but we must be careful to make the planet as explainable as possible. You know that.”
“It’s my most innovative work,” I couldn’t keep the petulant, rebellious tone from my voice, “and I’m not moving it.”
Sarah’s face was twisted around her button nose. Her left cheek, now red with the heat of the moment, drawn up, stretching her tightly closed mouth up towards her more sinister nostril. Her eyes were wide, reddening and welling up with barely contained tears.
Her head dropped, her left hand rising to support it caught her cheek and pushed it even further up her face, creasing her left eye closed, tight.
A tear made its way down her nose, only to be drawn into her nostril as she snorted, her attempt to prevent breaking down completely in front of her friends.
Embarrassed by the ugly sound of her struggle, she pulled her other hand up and dropped her head, hiding behind the baggy woolly sleeves of her navy blue jumper.
She felt the warm pressure of the hand upon her shoulder, a comforting touch from her friend. She didn’t look up, her tears were flowing freely now, her red cheeks were hot and wet, her eyes sore and her throat aching with the effort of keeping her sobbing silent. Her body started to shake and her shoulders heaved as her breathing became more erratic.
“What’s wrong, Sarah?” The voice was soft, whispered close to her hidden, sodden, face.
She tried to whisper her reply but her snorted, desperate breathing and restricted throat betrayed her. Whispered vowels became half voiced diphthongs, broken into hiccup like sounds that echoed around the room. “She thinks I’m stupid.”
She felt another hand at the base of her neck, a gentle rubbing over her hunched shoulders and a soft, sweet voice in her left ear.
“Actually, I think you’re as bright as a star, Sarah. Nobody knows everything, we all come here to learn. Even me.”
‘Why are you upside down?’
I couldn’t see where the squeaky little voice was coming from but it was definitely addressing me, because there was no one else around. Turning slowly in a full circle I surveyed the floor and the walls of the cave carefully.
On a high bit of rock in a gloomy corner, I spotted a little upside down face with bright eyes watching me. It had big ears and delicate leathery wings folded around itself like a monk’s cloak.
‘Did you speak to me?’ I asked, feeling a little foolish.
‘Obviously,’ was the reply. ‘There’s no one else here so unless you are very dim you will realise that I did.’ It smiled then, showing sharp little teeth.
‘Well, it is very dim in here,’ I replied huffily. ‘In fact I would say it’s quite dark. Another thing, you are the one who’s upside down. I assure you, I am standing upright on my own two feet.’
‘It’s a matter of perspective,’ came the retort. ‘If you are on my patch you are the one out of kilter. Stands to reason. But we do have some similarities!’ A sound like a snigger emerged.
Before I could engage in further conversation a fellow-explorer called from the entrance.
‘Come along Ears, we’ve got another site to visit before the bus comes.’
Old school friends can be so cruel even when we’re grown up. I suppose I’m lucky they dropped the ‘Bat’. Or worse, they could call me Batty. I wouldn’t mind Batman but I’m not sure my new friend would approve.
“Why are you upside down?”
“This is who I am Joan. Not a man, but a bat.”
“You’re an eejit Bruce, get down.”
“I will not. I will hang here until sundown, whereupon I will emerge to feast on gnats and flies. Now, please Joan, the light.”
Joan ignored him, as they knew she would. She no longer searched for him on a Saturday morning; he was always in the garage.
She never fetched the straw broom first though. She always gave him a chance to speak, for a fresh nugget of madness to drop from his scarlet face. This she would take to Susan and Ethel at Ground on the High Street. Over a dark wooden table, they would break his words apart like chocolate, and agree – Joan’s husband was mad.
What had she talked about before, she wondered, as she padded across the cold linoleum. Had there been anything, beyond the usual?
Didn’t matter. She was shielded from inquiry now by a black leathery wing and found purpose in its shadow.
Susan and Ethel called her Batwoman. She laughed.
Bruce shook. Even with his religious observance of toe curls, his muscles would soon give out. Every week, they gave out.
He clung on anyway, squeezing his eyelids tight against the strident light to make a darkness. This grey scrunch he made blue, filled it with squeaks and bombing untraceable flight.
When Joan returned, Bruce had already descended and was getting back into his pyjamas. She almost dropped the broom; gripped it tight.
“Silly really,” he said, wiping his eyes. “I couldn’t be a bat, could I? Too heavy.”
He went to move past her. The broom came up, bristles barbing his soft neck.
“If you’re not a bat,” said Joan, “then what the hell are you?”
Mr Ninian’s garden was beautiful. In high summer, Mr Ninian grew delphiniums, hollyhocks and convolvulus, not to mention lonicera, flax and hypericum. Peter was his next-door-neighbour. He washed his hair once a fortnight and shaved when there was a ‘z’ in the month. He lived on a mixture of dry corn flakes and TCP. He cast envious glances over the fence at Mr Ninian’s garden. His own was full of nettles, ragwort, dock, abandoned mattresses and decaying copies of the ‘Worthing Advertiser.’ Some of Peter’s mixed flora might have been attractive in the wild, but not in Mahonia Avenue.
One day Peter decided to annoy Mr Ninian. He walked into Mr Ninian’s exquisite vegetable garden, bursting with greenery, and sat down on his prize marrow. Mr Ninian rushed from his house and yelled:
‘What the hell do you think you’re doing, Peter?’
‘I’ve grown attached to your marrow.’
‘You’re sitting on it.’
‘Why shouldn’t I? It’s only a bloody vegetable. You can’t eat the blasted thing, anyway. You’ve filled it so full of chemicals, it would rot your insides if you took a single bite.’
Afterwards, Mr Ninian complained bitterly about Peter to the Environmental Services Department of the Council. A jobsworth named Pritchard visited Peter and served on him an ‘improvement notice,’ a sort of referee’s yellow card which gave Peter forty days to transform his garden or he was out of his council house onto his substantial bat-like ear. On 20 July, when the Mr Ninian’s delphiniums were azure jewels, the hollyhocks pink flamingos and the convoluli had finer trumpets than Louis Armstrong, Peter hired a flame-thrower and razed the whole lot to the ground. ‘There,’ he subsequently said to Pritchard, ‘serve a bloody notice on him.’
We’d been tramping these hills for hours. The views were spectacular, but we were on a mission. We had to find the Gab Stone.
You might ask what it was. I mean, with such a strange name, why was it important? And more importantly, to whom?
Permit me to give you a brief background. This stone, which is nothing to look at, has the most notable qualities. It has been behind the success of many orators, poets and writers. Once it was in the centre of a stone circle in the west of our country. They used it for ancient rituals before the invaders came and called our rituals heathen. They brought their beliefs with them and converted many of our people.
Eventually, the circle and the stone were abandoned to all but a few diehards of storytellers and shamans. To be named as one you have to be crowned with a Garland of mistletoe and holly at midnight on Midwinters’ night while seated on the Gab Seat.
The invaders dealt what they thought was a deadly blow. They levelled the stone circle to reduce the power. It didn’t. They took the Gab Stone and hurled it aside. We are looking for it. We have a vague idea what it looks like, but do not know where to look. After months of scrying, a priest decided the stone was at the top of a hill. So here we are, climbing yet another hill. My body ached, my muscles felt like jelly. I flopped down onto the grass, but it was hard, it was a rock.
My companions shouted in joy.
“You’re sitting on it!”
I jumped up and sure enough, there, outlined was the rock, the Gab Stone. I could be crowned after all!
Pamela had only just sat down when she heard her name being called, “Miss Heatherington, please go to room 12, second on the left, Melissa Holme will see you now.”
Pam stood up and gathered her belongings. She searched for her phone. The receptionist looked up and rolled her eyes.
“You’re sitting on it!”
Blushing, Pamela scooped up the offending object and scuttled across the floor. She passed a line of wire racks each packed with an array of multi-coloured leaflets - the words ‘Mental Health’ seemed to feature prominently on each pamphlet.
The door to room 12 was ajar. Pam slipped inside, “Hi ya, Mel, how’s things?” The pair exchanged a weak handshake. Pam sensed a couple of inquiring eyes closely examining her, searching deep into her face, seeking answers.
Melissa Holme indicated for Pam to sit. She turned to face her computer screen and gently tapped the keyboard. “Well Pam, I was worried about you. I called at the flat, but a neighbour had said you had left a few days previously. She also said that Rob had been taken away, in handcuffs, by the Police and you left the next day carrying a holdall.”
“Nosey cow,” muttered Pam. Melissa winced, “Well? Is that true?”
Pam felt a sudden surge rise through her body, she pushed herself forward. “Look it’s not all Rob’s fault, you know, he was great, caring and kind until …….” Pam paused and drew breath, “It happened.” Pam’s eyes started to fill up, Melissa handed her a paper handkerchief.
Composing herself, Pam carried on, “He took it really bad you know, he lost his job and, like, he started doing drugs, just to pay the bills and stuff.”
“Do you know where he is now?” Pam shook her head. “Somewhere down south, I think.”
“Erm….well….aaah….yes!” He stood, looking perplexed. “Why are you upside down?”
“Well Officer; that’s a very good question! I was just hanging around here as my friends were late for a meeting, and decided to have a mooch around – pass the time you know? And then, it just happened – must have stepped into a loop of rope and……WHAM! BAM! CRASH! There I was hanging here upside down!” Could you be so kind as to cut me down? I’m starting to get a bit dizzy.”
“I’m not sure I can do that Sir! We had a call saying someone had broken into the Church… I have reason to believe that was you!”
“Not me Officer, the doors were open and the light on – maybe the person who left this rope for me to step into! By the way – what’s your name?”
“PC 449 Roberts, and I’m going to have to arrest you, just not quite sure how I do that with you being upside down! Think I’ll wait for backup! Can I have your name Sir?”
“PC Roberts eh? Good, good! My name is De’Ath.”
“Yes! Now please cut me down, I have a schedule and I’m going to be late.”
“I rather think being arrested will make you late Sir!”
“Hmmm, OK, but just cut me down!”
“Just promise not to cause bother!” And with that he took out his penknife and climbed onto the plinth to reach the rope more easily.
As the 8 ton bell came hurtling down to crush the policeman, De’Ath brushed himself down, and strolled over to check his handywork.
“Yep, I was hanging around waiting for you Officer Roberts, your time was up! Bang on schedule! Now where are Plague, War and Famine, they’re late!”
I had only moved to the city a few days ago. It was quite the adjustment, going from the family farm to Belfast. The big smoke. And I don’t know if it was the air pollution or the anxiety of finally being here, but my chest did feel tighter.
This was my first time out on Union Street. I wasn’t out back home, but now, here, I could start anew.
The street was littered with packs of men and women, laughing, joking, getting off with each other. I’d never seen two men kiss each other before in the flesh, I tried not to gawp, but I couldn’t help myself.
I made my way into the Kremlin, my heart thumping in time to the music. As I approached the bar, a woman sidled up next to me.
“You're new here, aren’t you?”
“What gave it away?”
“Well, to be honest, I don’t know many gay blokes who’d go clubbing in khakis.”
Georgina was a stalwart of the Belfast gay scene. She was so glamorous, I didn’t think people like her existed in Northern Ireland. She smiled-
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to be a cow. Look I’ll buy you a drink and let’s have a chat outside, after all, anyone worth knowing knows who I am darling.”
After buying me a drink, she led me through the dance floor and into the smoking area.
“How are you finding it then, Belfast?”
“It’s definitely a big change. But, I needed it, you know. I was ready. After years of hiding, of being lonely, I just can’t wait to find my people, find my place.”
“Can’t you see?”
She took my hand, although it was the middle of November, our breath hanging in the air as we spoke, somehow her hands were soft and warm.
“You're standing right in the middle of it."
"I watched as she drowned.”
“You did what?”
“Yeah, it was kinda weird really. We grabbed her as she was treating Old Bobby’s gammy leg. Heh, that was a stroke of genius really, she never saw it coming. Her hand was covered in that gunk she carries round, eye of newt and all that stuff.”
“You mean the Volatarol?”
“Yeah, the Voldemort stuff… evil. Anyway, we waited til her hands were all slippy with the stuff and she was bent over Old Bobby and we put a pillowcase over her head so she couldn’t see who we were! Then, we tied her up and pushed her in the back of Jack’s Cortina and drove to the pond.”
“You kidnapped the community nurse? In the back of Jack’s Clapped out old car?”
“Well we couldn’t carry her! Besides, if we didn’t tie her up and put her on the back seat she’d’ve gotten free and who knows what’d happen then!”
“Well, I’d imagine she’d have hobbled away and probably called the police.”
“Yeah or the devil or some weird demon or something.”
“Or, you know… Just the police.”
“Yeah, the demon cops. Anyway we couldn’t risk her putting a curse on us so we took her to the pond and pushed her in. Right in the deep part. We reckoned she’d float, cos they do you know, and we were waiting with a load of sticks and some petrol. It was kinda a shock when she just sank. We weren’t expecting that.”
“You weren’t expecting a sixty year old woman, with a walking stick, who’s hands and ankles you tied together to sink in the pond?”
“Yeah, it was a total surprise they’re s’posed to float.”
“She’s a nurse, Boris, not a witch! A nurse! Medicine isn’t demonic magic!”
“He’s a bit of a weirdo, that Rob fella, where’d he come from?” Dave Atkinson and Paul Lambert stood watching Rob Parsons load a cement mixer onto the back of a pick-up truck. Paul shook his head, “Dunno mate, the Gaffa took him on, I think it’s one of his ‘rehabilitation’ men, if you know what I mean.” Paul raised his eyebrows and gave his colleague a sly wink. Dave nodded, “Our Gaffa, I mean he’s a nice bloke ‘n everything, but he ain’t half a love and peace lefty, always sees the good in fellas, eh?”
Paul shrugged, “Yeah, and remember you wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for his ‘love and peace’ mentality. I mean you had a ‘brush’ a while ago, didn’t you?” Dave stared down at his steel toe capped boots, and muttered, “Yeah, well that’s all behind me, I’m a top-class worker now, ain’t I!” He playfully shoved Paul in the small of his back. “Oh, and by the way, you couldn’t lend me a tenner just until payday, I’m skint and I fancy a pint tonight.”
“I’ll pay you back.”
Paul dipped his hand into his overall pocket and pulled out a battered wallet, “Here, just until payday mind, or I’ll send the boys round.” Dave took the proffered note and nodded his thanks.
“Anyway, talking of this Rob geezer, do you know he’s doing some sort of Uni course. I saw a book in his cab. Crimin … er … well some sort of an ‘olergy.’ I reckon he’s got brains under that thick skull of his.” Paul tapped the top of his head. Dave laughed, “Mate, it’s Criminology, my sister is doing it, she wants to be a social worker or summit.”
“Oh ‘kin ‘ell, just what this country needs, another bloody social worker!”
The pool shimmered in the silent afternoon heat and there was not so much as a ripple on the clear blue water. Everyone in the villa was taking a siesta. Even the two teenage boys in the group, drained by the heat and the unaccustomed alcohol at lunch time, had crashed out on the patio.
‘They’re on holiday! Let them have a glass of Sangria!’ Pete had laughed off Debbie’s reluctance and the cousins needed no encouragement. However, she put her foot down and refused their younger sisters any. They had gone off to their room to play on their phones.
My two brothers and their wives and children numbered five. Each family had the requisite two offspring, one of each, then Michael and Sally had a precious little afterthought, Daisy, nearly three years old.
I was the odd one out being on my own. The single sister, invited as the villa had an extra bedroom. I expected to sing for my supper by babysitting occasionally while the couples went out to dinner together.
The little girl in her bright yellow sundress toddled out onto the patio but the boys didn’t stir. No one noticed her making her way to the pool or leaning over to try and reach a floating flower. No one noticed when, with a small splash, she slipped into the water.
I woke up and looked out at the baking landscape and decided to take a swim. I glanced over towards the pool and a flash of yellow caught my eye. Something was floating. It gave a little jerk then was still.
I screamed and then I fainted. When I came round Debbie was with me, red-eyed and silent.
‘I saw her but it was too late.’ I sobbed. ‘I watched as she drowned.’
His favourite model shop had a sale. He gazed at the display. Shoulders slumped and eyes downcast, he turned and made his way home, kicking a stone along as he was thinking.
“Sheila, I know you save your pocket money. There’s a sale at the model shop. Could you lend me some money? They have a car there, but I think I could remake it.”
She looked at her twin. They both had red hair and blue eyes. That’s where the twin thing ended. Sean had twinkling eyes, a ready smile, and was a spendthrift. Sheila’s eyes were penetrating. She was introverted and cautious, especially with money.
“Sean, how much do you need.”
“Oh, sis, I really need two pounds.”
She raided her piggy bank. As Sean ran off, he yelled over his shoulder. “I’ll pay you back sometime.”
Sheila snorted, her brother was full of good intentions which he rarely remembered.
Years went by after university she married. Her husband died suddenly. Leaving her with two little girls. Sheila worked hard, her habit of being careful paid off. The family managed the necessities of life with few frivolities. Sean moved overseas and did well in engineering. Sadly, there was little time to keep in contact.
When Sean came home for his Father’s funeral, it shocked him to see Sheila ground down and struggling.
A few days later, there was a knock at her door. Sean stood smiling beside a new car holding a massive bouquet.
He said, “Hi, Sis, these are for you.” Holding out the bouquet and the car keys.
Puzzled, she said, “Why? What have I done to deserve this?”
“You lent me money when I needed it.”
“But that was pocket money!”
I said, “I’ll pay you back.”
Maggie and Jim sat on the bench. The evening would arrive soon enough, and the day’s warmth would leave them. Autumn was approaching. The leaves were beginning to change their colours.
“It’s over. There’s no going back.” Maggie said, her voice calm, her hands clasped together on her lap.
“You’ve made it that way. I didn’t get a say.”
“You understand that we’ve reached the end of the road, though?”
“This has all been your decision. I had no idea it was this - bad.” Jim’s voice betrayed his sadness.
He couldn’t look at Maggie. He tried but each time he turned his face towards her, he stopped himself. Her eyes were always so beautiful. They would plead with him. Jim had loved Maggie for thirty years and now everything was all disappearing.
“It’s been heading this way, admit it, Jim. You know things got worse after mum came to stay.”
“You were the one who insisted she did. You were the one who said there was no other option, that she shouldn’t rot in a home.”
He’d held her hand in the room the day they’d lost hope of babies, and he’d listened to her tell him all the news and gossip she wanted to share. Not that Maggie was one for gossip. She preferred to keep her life as private.
“How do we do this?” Jim asked.
“We sit here for a while and take it all in. We let it settle, and then we deal with what’s ahead. There’ll be questions. You need to be prepared for that.”
“What do I say? I can’t tell the truth.”
“I’m happy to do the talking, so that we can move on and find a way of living separately.” Maggie’s voice was flat as she spoke.
“I don’t see why we can’t try… We have choices about how we deal with this.”
“There are some things that bind you and some things that unravel you. We are never going to be the same people, Jim. It simply wouldn’t work. Besides, it’s out of my hands.”
The sky lowered and the temperature began to dip. Their time was ebbing away.
“When did you decide to - end it? Was it a long time ago, or was it a sudden decision?” Jim asked.
“It began that day in the garden when I was trimming the rose bushes. You were laughing at my sunhat. Remember? Mum was sitting in the chair we brought out. She agreed that I looked ridiculous in the hat, and then she told me to do my homework. You laughed at that, but my heart broke into tiny pieces.” Maggie cleared her throat.
“It was funny. I suppose for me, it was sweet, imagining you as a schoolgirl. I bet I’d have had a crush on you then.”
The tenderness in Jim’s words were the worst. Not now, it was too late.
“Yes, but it showed me that it was gone. There was nothing left.”
“You are wrong, it’s not all gone. It can’t be.”
“Jim, how will you ever be able to trust me or look at me again? You can’t even look at me now.”
“I’m in shock. Allow me that. And, I’m angry, too. You should have told me how bad it had gotten. I knew it was difficult but… I went to work and had no clue about the days stretching ahead for you, that the dementia made her say such cruel things.”
“She told me I had an ugly face last week, that no man would ever marry me. She said that I smelled of sex, that I was a whore. She hit me when I bathed her and she screamed, too. The worst thing was when she’d wake from her rant and recognise me briefly. The sadness, she’d feel. She’d stroke my hair and call me sweet Maggie, her miracle baby. A moment later, I’d be told to leave the house and never return, that I was stealing from her.”
Jim began to cry. Maggie reached over, found his hand, squeezing it tightly.
“She was mum for a few moments yesterday. She said she didn’t want to live anymore. She asked me to do what I could to end it”
“She wasn’t herself, Mags. The illness took her away.”
“This afternoon she started up again. She called me a thieving bitch who wasn’t welcome in her home. She threw hot tea at me. She found the strength to do that. I knew then. I waited an hour until she was sleeping and… There wasn’t much of a struggle.”
It was becoming chilly on the bench. Maggie let go of Jim’s hand.
“We go back to the house now, and I ring an ambulance and tell them what I’ve done. The police will want statements. You say nothing about what I’ve told you. You know nothing. I will tell them everything” Maggie said.
“I don’t want this. I love you. They don’t need to know what really happened, they’ll think she died in her sleep.”
Maggie stood up and smiled at Jim, then turned and walked back to the house.
The words had been there once. In them, with them, between them, around them—the words had been plentiful and had held them close. Their words had pattered about on eager feet, played between them on quiet afternoons, demanded their stories long into the night. They had never tired of the stories, of each other, of the mysteries that remained in words not yet spoken.
But those words had grown: more tired, more familiar, more infrequent. By now the words had gone, leaving behind an empty nest, an empty place they could not fill. And so they sat, leaving a space for the silence between them, with nothing left to say.
Sarah hadn’t expected him to look so normal. Average height, average build, a typical haircut, appropriate clothes for the cool weather. Not what she had been picturing at all. When he came to sit on the bench beside her she was about to tell him that she was waiting for someone else and so he couldn’t sit there. But before she got a chance he started talking.
“Are you sure you want to do this?” His voice was low, and he spoke without turning to look at her so his words were almost whipped away on the coastal wind. It had been his suggestion to meet here, overlooking the dunes of a miserable British beach. She’d sent the kids off to play in the sand. She wondered if he had kids too.
“Yes.” She said, though her throat was dry and her words came out all strangled. She swallowed and tried again, louder “Yes. I’m sure.”
His head whipped round and he stared her dead in the eyes until she felt the heat of embarrassment creep up her neck, but she held his gaze. Her hazel-brown eyes locked onto his steel blues. She was serious, and he saw that.
Satisfied he turned his gaze back to the water. “Do you have the money with you?”
She leant down to the handbag at her feet and tugged open the zip. He glanced down at the wads of banknotes secured with orange bands then gave a sharp nod.
“Once you leave this bench, the deal is done.” He growled. “And then there’s no going back.”
“I know.” She affirmed. “I’m not going to change my mind.”
“Then I guess you better be on your way.” The man’s gaze was still fixed in the distance, watching the waves crash on top of each other. He seemed tired, resigned.
Sarah stood, straightening her sweater and tucking her hair behind one ear so the wind wouldn’t throw it into her face. “Don’t you want to know why?” she asked, folding her arms across her chest.
He looked up at her, took in her image. She had the same air his clients always had; that they knew better, that they were entitled to get what they wanted no matter what it might cost another person. They always wanted to tell him their stories, detailing how they’d been so desperately wronged and how he was supposed to set it right. They always had justifications.
“Would it make any difference?” he said wearily as another wave crashed on the shore.
She thought for a moment, then shrugged. “I guess not.”
And that was the end of their conversation. Sarah flounced off down the beach to collect her children, leaving the bag beneath the bench as planned. After she’d dusted sand off each one and they began their walk home she pulled her phone from her pocket and texted her husband, and then her lover. Both were blissfully unaware of the meeting that had just taken place. She felt good, as she always did when she got exactly what she wanted.
The man collected up the bag and walked with it back to his car. There was no-one around to see him. This sleepy seaside town was as empty as always outside of the tourist season. He threw the bag onto the passenger seat and double-checked the info he’d been given; he knew exactly where he needed to be to meet his target. He unlocked the glovebox, pulling out what he needed. He pulled the mask over his face, and loaded his gun.
He couldn’t look at her, he had tried, he had even tried talking to her this morning. That had just made it worse. She sat there as she did every day, hands neatly on her lap, knees together, a peaceful pose, gentle, soft, but it screamed “Don’t, just don’t.” So he hadn’t. He simply sat there, on the roomy bench, in silence. Waiting.
Until this morning.
This morning he was feeling oddly alive. He had woken with a feeling of renewed purpose, a feeling that he had truly woken up after a year of living in a haze. So this morning he had tried. It started with a nod of his head as he approached, a friendly smile on his lips. She didn’t move, didn’t acknowledge his existence at all. Then he sat, looking up the road, trying to avoid her falling into his line of sight. If he couldn’t see her he wouldn’t have to deal with the thought that she didn’t share the moment he had tried to create.
It had made him feel small, sad and just a little belligerent. Who is this woman? They had sat together every weekday morning for the last six months. Perched on the roadside bench in all weathers. They shared this time, this space. They shared this air, this sun. She was part of his life, they were familiar, and yet he didn’t know her. He didn’t know her name, he didn’t know where she went, or where she came from. He didn’t know how she would sound if she spoke or what she thought. But they knew each other on sight now. They knew that they would see each other every week day at this time, on this bench, rain, hail or shine. It was strange, he thought, to share so much with somebody, to sit so close to somebody and to know nothing about them.
He brought his hand up to his mouth and coughed, clearing his throat. “It’s… err… it’s a nice day, huh?”
There was no response. He felt an emptiness build within him, an emptiness that turned to the heat of anger. He stood and walked a step or two away from the bench, kicking up dust from the dry mud path. He shrugged his shoulder, bringing his left arm up in front of him and checked the exposed watch at his wrist, tutted and then went back to sitting on the bench. Staring off down the road, waiting.
She had begun to wonder about the man’s life. Where did he go when they parted? Did he work in the city as she did? Where did he come from? It must have been somewhere close, perhaps from the new houses up on the hill. He seemed like a gentle man, a kind man, at least that’s how she imagined him. His eyes always seemed to glisten with a smile. She wished he would talk to her, she wanted to talk to him but was far too shy. Perhaps he wasn’t interested in a conversation, perhaps he had a wife at home, someone that filled his heart and his thoughts, someone that filled his eyes with that shimmering light she so loved.
She had been alone for a year now. Her husband had left her for a new life and a new family in the south. It had hurt her so deeply, she had given him fifteen years of her life, devoted her heart and her soul to him, and he had thrown it all away. Perhaps, she had thought, this man could fill her life. Perhaps he could give her the happiness, the love, that she felt she deserved. For weeks her evenings had been filled with thoughts of him, of his smile, of his strong arms wrapped around her, his soft, deep voice filling her heart as they talked about their day.
She hadn’t wanted to leave her house this morning. She felt fragile, her hand had still been shaking as she poured the milk into her coffee, her eyes felt full of sand. Sleep had been evasive and she had turned to the bottle of red wine that had been sat on her kitchen bench, for comfort. It had helped, a little, at least it had sent her into a doze. A terror filled doze, full of anguish. She had only managed to snatch a couple of hours of restless sleep from the darkness of the night and the sun's rise was unwelcome. Still, she had to leave the house, she had to walk the dirt path to the bench, she had to wait before heading off into the city.
She sat on the bench, holding back her emotions. She hadn’t known him, despite their shared ritual. She never knew his name. She never knew if there was someone waiting for him at home. She never knew what he thought, how he felt about her. She never would.
This would normally be the moment he wandered toward her, the moment he would sit beside her, his scent filling her nose, her breath synching with his. But that would never happen again. Not after yesterday. Not after that moment, when the car mounted the pavement, when the screeching of brakes filled the air, when the man she so desperately wanted to speak to, to know, to connect with was taken from her. Taken from the world.
A warm wind picked up as she sat, blew across her face with a whisper and swirled before her. A moment passed and the breeze swirled away picking up a little dust from the path, a clicking sound filled the air, like two pebbles clacking together and the breeze settled down. A lump formed in her throat, a tear filled her eye. A tear for a missed opportunity, a missed life and a man she never knew but would miss desperately for some time to come.
Issue 8 & 9
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