visitor

April 13, 2017 § 2 Comments

cat paws

I once had a cat who only visited at night. He was born on the farm so I thought of him as mine – but he never was. He belonged to himself. Gerald wore the history of his nightly wars in the oak meadow on his skin. At first I thought his battle cry was the shriek of a fox, and worried for the chickens who insisted on sleeping in the trees overhanging the pond – but I soon learned that foxes are quiet when they’re hungry.

His manners were his own, and driven entirely by instinct. A good jumper even for a cat, he would visit by leaping onto the conservatory roof then shrink himself thin to slide through the half open window onto the writing desk in my room. He left paw prints of mud and blood on the blank page. Then he would arch his back, wave his tail in the air like a sail pulled tight to catch the wind, and knead my chest until I got out of bed to feed him. I had been bloodied. Afterwards, he sat by the kitchen door and cleaned every part of himself  – his hawk like talons splayed as he stretched each back leg into the air to be washed. He sat quietly and waited for the door to be opened – he never did get the hang of the cat flap.

With long, grey fur that made him look like an expensive lap cat, he collected burrs and twigs and bits of broken shell from the snails he liked to eat; but unlike his sister, he never had the temperament for it. I was happy he didn’t spend much time in the house as he left his stink everywhere: on doorposts, on laundry straight off the line waiting to be folded, and on me. Even pots left to dry on the draining board could not escape the stench of his tomcat urine. Perhaps he didn’t know where he really belonged, so he marked everything to compensate.

But the last time he visited he broke his night time rule. He came in the afternoon. He had come home to die. I regarded it as a compliment. He walked in through the open door and stretched out on the sofa. Grown thin overnight, his fur had an odour I did not know. He shivered so I wrapped him in a towel. His body leaked death fluids – yet he kept his dignity. I think he’d been poisoned.

I still think of him sometimes – particularly when I hear the night time yowl of the fox, or new tomcats from neighbouring farms come to mark out their territory on his patch.

Things are different now. The chickens are gone, and I sleep with my window closed because these days I feel the cold. I miss the deep purring from his chest and the bloodiness on mine – and sometimes I wake and cannot be sure he’s not there. Perhaps he wants to be let in. I get out of bed, wrap myself in a blanket and open my window. I sit at my writing desk and listen. But now there are other noises – sounds that demand nothing of me. The wail of the curlew, the sharp cry of a rabbit being taken by a stoat – simple sounds of other lives not connected with me. So I close my window, and take up my pen.

PS. I think I’ve been reading too much Annie Dillard…

Bottle

May 15, 2014 § 29 Comments

This story has been removed from the blog as it has been published by the journal ‘Ariadne’s Thread.’

10th. Feb 2015

 

 

w-corfe-witch_bottle

 

Photo courtesy Times Online

 

 

 

Perfect

April 5, 2014 § 14 Comments

 My energy shifted for a day, and the adrenalin flowed.

Haiku bubbled away inside me anyway.

Just waiting.

Unstoppable.

What burst out of me was this: a modified version of a rough draft I blogged last year when hardly anyone was looking. Apologies if you’ve seen it before – but if you have, I hope you think it’s better…

 

Perfect

 Image

 

6.55: Leap out of bed. Stretch. Sun streaks through window. Breathe. Five-minute yoga. Jump in shower. Sing. Get soap in mouth. Blow bubbles. Dribble. Spit.

 

7.15: Put on clean clothes. Husband rolls onto my side. Knock on child’s door. Knock on other child’s door. Run downstairs. Fill kettle. Plug in. Lay table. Plates, mugs, knives, butter, Marmite, peanut butter. Tea bags in pot. Milk out of fridge. Slice bread. Load toaster. Call daughters. Brush hair. Let dog out. Seamless.

 

7.30: Girls downstairs. Kiss heads. Tell joke. Spread peanut butter. Milk in mugs. Pour tea. Eat toast with one hand. Fix hair with other. Number One daughter dresses self. Fresh socks. Clean knickers. Dress Number Two. Brush tangles out of blonde hair. Brush tangles out of brown hair. Still smiling. French plait both heads. Brush three sets of teeth in kitchen sink. Rinse. Spit.

 

7.45: Check satchels. Homework in. And gym kits. Call dog. On with duffle coats. Hats. Scarves. Unlock front door. Grab keys. Open car doors. Satchels and dog in boot. Girls in back. Seat belts on.

 

7.55: Sing songs. Dog slobbers. Scratches leather seats when smells sea. Don’t shout once.

 

8.25: School. Five minutes early. Open car doors. Girls out. Open boot. Dog escapes. Hand over satchels. Gym kits. Round up dog. Put back in car. Kiss heads. Smile. God I’m good.

 

8.35: Beach. Walk dog. Throw sticks for arthritic Doberman and Labrador with skin condition and no manners. Dog snores on way home. Wet sand on back seats. Melvyn Bragg on radio. Uses long words. Show off.

 

10.00: Husband has cleared breakfast table. Plumped cushions. Loaded dishwasher. Pink note with kisses on by sink.

 

10.15: Boot up Mac. Make cappuccino. Start penultimate chapter of magical realism novel. First draft.

 

~

 

7.25: Shit. Sleep through alarm. It’s going to rain. Period’s come early. Headache. Stomachache. Back ache. Want to swear. Shower. Scald self. No clean towel. Don’t sing. Pick up dirty clothes. Put on. Husband plays dead. Call girls. Silence. Trip on stairs. Bash knee. Scream. Hammer on bedroom doors.

 

7.40: Switch on kettle. Don’t fill. Burning smell. Kettle explodes. Open window. Let out stink. Fill saucepan. Turn on hob. Lay out plates, mugs, knives, butter, peanut butter, salami. Marmite jar empty. Fill teapot. Pour milk in. Slice bread. Load up toaster. Scream again. Girls come down. Bickering. Not dressed. Burn toast. Scrape off charcoal. Cut off crusts. Brush wet hair. Scrape back with rubber band. Number One goes upstairs to dress. Won’t come down. Says is sick. Watching TV. No clean socks in house. Blonde and brown hair tangled. Brush hard. Find nits. Brush harder. Number One yelps. Number Two whines. Don’t do French plaits. Don’t brush teeth. Don’t check satchels. Don’t care. Dog sits by door with legs crossed. Coping just fine.

 

8.15: Unlock front door. Car keys gone. In pocket. Unlock car doors. Satchels in boot. Girls in car. Call dog. Won’t come. Having pee. Steer with one hand. Eat toast with other. Hate peanut butter. Hate salami. Won’t sing.

 

8.50: School. Bell gone. Forgotten gym kits. Dog runs off. Chases football in playground. Punctures it. Small boy throws wobbler. Offer to pay. Hate dogs.

 

9.00: Beach. Deep breath. Dog runs off. Catches baby rabbit. Gulps it down in one. It wriggles as it goes down. Want to be sick. Labrador mounts our dog. Shriek. Throw stones. Separate. Put on lead. Haul back to car. Labrador man jumps up and down. Doberman dances around car.  Gouges paintwork with claws.

 

10.30: Husband gone. Beds not made. Breakfast not cleared. Dishwasher not loaded. Cushions not plumped. Back caning. Headache worse.

 

10.45: Find scotch at back of cereal cupboard. Crack ice out of freezer with screwdriver. Dog sick on carpet. Dead rabbit comes out. Go upstairs. Puke. Feel better. Husband’s clothes gone. Suitcase disappeared. No note. Bastard. Go downstairs. More scotch. And another. Load dishwasher. Plump up cushions. Crawl upstairs. Fall asleep.

 

11.30 ish: Dream. Large white room. Chapel-high windows. Sun streaming. White carpet. No stains. No clutter. White Steinway. White shelves. Books filed neatly in order. No husband. No children. No dog. No dead rabbits. No aches. No period. I am clean, thin and beautiful. Flirt with postman. Have fling with man next door. Break a heart or two. Novel published. Accolades. Parties. Groucho Club. Ben Affleck invites me to lunch. Have yin yang tattoo done on thigh. Get rich. Cheques don’t bounce. Buy Porsche. Stay single. Break more hearts.

 

2.30: Wake up. Headache worse. Want new body. Take Aspirin. Phone vet for morning after pill. Don’t make bed. Lost car keys. Find in car. Dog jumps on back seat. Stinks of puke. Daren’t look at self in mirror.

 

3.00: Hate Tesco’s. Buy kettle, alarm clock, Marmite, whisky, pot noodles. Won’t cook ever again. Husband can go to hell. Want to get on plane. See world. South America. Tibet. Mongolia. New York. Find out who I am. First Class Virgin ticket with thick down pillows. Go dancing. Eat at Nobu’s. Dance to Eric Clapton at Carnegie Hall. Have a Macy’s Credit Card. All expenses paid.

 

3.45: Late picking up. Scotch worn off. And Aspirin. Girls sulk. Want feeding. Buy chocolate. Don’t sing. Don’t talk.

 

4.15: Telly on. Thumbs in mouths. Feed dog. Feed girls pot noodles. Open whisky bottle. Out of ice.

 

6.30: Husband walks in. With takeaway. Says sorry. All his fault. Bunch of red roses behind back. Put in vase. Bathe girls. Put to bed.

 

7.30: Eat lukewarm supper out of cartons on sofa. Give dog leftovers. Watch DVD. Share bottle. Feel giddy. Load up washing machine. Close eyes.

 

10.00: Put sticking plaster on heart. Again. Have to think of the children.

 

*

 

 

 

 

Where The Wild Roses Grow

February 24, 2014 § 20 Comments

 Image

            ‘That’s what I’ll do,’ I said, as I slid a finger up his backbone making the short, black fur stand on end. Gus’s tail twitched, and the claws slid out of his front paws as a warning. ‘Don’t you see?’ I crooned, putting the flat of my hand on his neck and smoothing the fur back into a shine. ‘Bertha knows everything. She’ll tell us.’ The tail relaxed into a question mark, and the grey slit eyes stared into mine like two empty mirrors.

Gus wasn’t mine. He wasn’t anyone’s really, but he hung out with me when he had nothing better to do. I’d been telling him about the plan because thinking out loud made it clear in my head. I was going to need Bertha. She was brighter than me, so I was going to follow her around ’til she showed me what she knew, and I didn’t. Dogs were clever, and she was a border collie which put her at the top of the smart pooch list. Her nose was one of the cleverest bits about her, and she could sniff out the chocolate biscuits Dad squirreled away for special, even though he never hid them in the same place twice.

Bertha was one of those dogs that pleased herself. She belonged to whoever had what she was after. Sometimes she was my dog, then she’d been Mum’s; but mostly Dad was flavour of the month. The reason was simple: she liked being in the back of his pickup with her head stuck out of the tractor cab window catching flies and keeping an eye on things. That was her job when she wasn’t rounding up sheep. Dad said she wasn’t Mum’s anymore since she’d buggered off. ‘Abandoned us’, he said, squinting as if the sun was in his eyes.

All Bertha did these days was go off on what Dad called one of her adventures, and he said there was nothing he could do to stop her. ‘It’s not as if I haven’t tried,’ he complained. If he locked her in the house she drove him crackers with her howling, and if he tied her up in the barn, the neighbours complained the racket echoed down their valley like she was stuck in a tunnel. ‘She’ll stop running off when she gets used to how things are,’ he said, pinching my cheek a bit too hard. ‘Or if she’s really stupid she’ll find herself looking down the barrel of a shotgun. Either way, we’ll have to put up with it.’

It had been all right in the beginning. By the beginning I mean when we started having two in our family instead of three. Bertha was all over me. She waited the other side of the back door when she heard the school bus stop at the bottom of our drive, ready to lick my face clean and knock me over. She was nearly as big as me when she stood on her back legs, and our eyes got so close I could see two little faces grinning back at me. But I knew it wouldn’t be like that forever, because I was still growing, and she wasn’t.

I thought it’d be easy following Bertha around, but it turned out she was smarter than I thought. She kept giving me the slip. Gus tried to help by waving his tail around like it was one of those snakes that came out of its basket in India when someone played a tune; but that didn’t work. I thought he was giving me clues so I’d follow where the tail pointed. Sometimes I thought I was getting somewhere, but the tail kept changing its mind.

What Gus and I did find out was Bertha spent a lot of time hanging around the dustbins standing on her back legs and pushing them over. She wriggled inside and rummaged ’til she found the leftovers. All you could see was a black tail with a white tip waving about; but we could hear her: it was the only time she ever made noises like a pig. Her liking the dustbins explained why she smelled so bad, but it wasn’t her fault – it was Dad’s because he kept forgetting to fill her food bowl. She took to digging holes in the compost heap too because that was where the grass snakes lived, and Bertha knew how good they were to eat.

So far my plan wasn’t working – all I’d found out was where she went scavenging. But after he put padlocks on the bins, I found her digging up the garden. Dad said he didn’t care – the garden had been Mum’s business. Bertha uprooted dandelions and ground elder that Mum would have hoed out anyway, but then she started on the rose bushes. Mum wouldn’t have been happy about that. Then Bertha found it – and with her nose covered in soil and dribble, she presented Dad with one of Mum’s old gardening gloves. Sometimes I thought Bertha knew how to smile. ‘Look what she’s got,’ I grinned. ‘Isn’t she clever?’

Dad pulled a face and threw the stinky glove in the bin. ‘She lost that years ago. No use to her now, is it?’

‘But Dad, she’s only trying to help find Mum.’

‘I know where she is,’ he said crossly. ‘Living the high life with that new fancy man.’

               Gus got bored after that and spent his days sitting on the doorstep stretching out each leg and cleaning himself over and over, but Bertha kept on hunting. Every day for a week she took one of Mum’s shoes in her mouth from the pile in the porch and trotted up close to the garden fence. She went round and round the edge for what seemed like hours, then disappeared when I turned my back. But I knew she was up to something. And she knew I knew.

On Saturday she took one of Mum’s red sandals in her mouth and began doing her round and round game again. When she thought I wasn’t looking she slunk through the gap in the fence to the sheep field. This time Gus and I followed. Bertha made herself small: flattening her ears, her tail trailing along the ground. She got to the barn, had a quick look to see where I was, and veered  through the big barn doors. Then she did something weird: she went straight out through the back door. She was trying to throw us off the scent – but I ran hard leaving Gus behind, and spotted her squeezing through the five-bar into the sheep field.

Again, she kept close to the line of the hedge trying to look like she wasn’t there. Then we lost her. But there was only one place she could have gone – the old coppice wood where the barn owls lived. ‘Bertha!’ I shouted. ‘Bertha. Come out!’ But as usual these days, she pretended to be deaf.

I plunged into the overgrown wood; I’d never been there by myself as it gave me the creeps. I didn’t like it. It was dark. I stopped to listen. I could hear my heart. Gus’s tail was flicking. Then I heard it. It was like breathing – but faster – like someone was running too hard. I crept closer. It was an animal noise – something was grunting.

Pushing through the rose brambles, the smell reminded me of Mum’s perfume and made me want to cry. The thorns tore at my clothes and ripped at my skin. I licked my wrists and tasted my blood. ‘Bertha. Bertha!’ I yelled. ‘Where are you?’ The grunting stopped and Bertha yelped. There she was – between two hazel bushes, her tail wagging with excitement, her behind spattered with dirt. Bertha was digging a big hole – and around the hole were Mum’s shoes. The shiny black fur on Gus’s back rose, and he spat.

What have you got there, girl?’ I whispered. The smell of roses still filled the air, but now it mingled with something sharper, stronger. It was a nice smell at first – and then it wasn’t.

Bertha howled and wagged her tail; Gus slid into the undergrowth. She’d found what I’d been looking for.

albatross continued

February 12, 2014 § 16 Comments

albatross-help

 a short story: second and final part

The men sailed into the harbour with the albatross, their faces set and dark. The bird had drowned: caught on the long lines streamed out like deadly necklaces behind their boats. They hauled it off the deck and left it lying like a soft, white pillow on the wall, its hard, hooked beak open wide as if still gasping for life. It lay there untouched, unburied – no one would return the bad omen to the sea.

At night, when the clouds were masking the moon, Efa squatted on the cobbles and plucked the long white feathers from its wings.

‘Why are you doing that?’ asked Anghared.

‘The albatross no longer needs them. I am making sure that Penn’s soul is liberated.’

‘I don’t understand. Are you making spells?’

Efa shook her head. ‘Every albatross has the soul of a dead sailor inside. I am simply making sure he is free.’

The albatross shrank and blackened on the harbour wall, and the child growing in Anghared’s wasting body beneath the greatcoat could no longer be kept a secret.

‘I am sorry,’ said the priest. ‘Your husband’s body has been found in the bay.’

‘If I have lost him,’ she wept. ‘I do not want to live.’

‘Come to confession,’ he said. ‘Your evil thoughts must be purged.’

‘I will not,’ she wailed. ‘I have done nothing wrong.’

~

The women no longer came to the harbour wall; but still she stood, her back hardened against the wind.

‘Why do you watch?’ asked Efa.

‘I am not. I am singing to Penn.’

‘And can he hear?’

‘Of course,’ she replied coldly. ‘He sings too.’

‘Of what does he sing?’

‘I cannot say. He speaks in another tongue.’

Efa opened her arms. ‘Come to my house and eat. You are wasting away. The child will believe it is unwanted.’

‘The child is right,’ she replied, turning away. ‘I want Penn.’

~

Efa went to the church. ‘She’ll go the way of her husband,’ she told the priest.

‘That would be wrong in the eyes of the Lord,’ he said. ‘It will be a sin if she takes her own life.’

‘But she needs our help. She says she has no life without him. She is broken.’

‘I will pray for her soul,’ he said. ‘But if she will not admit her sin, there is nothing to be done.’

~

The church was full. Anghared gripped the pew until her knuckles turned white: Penn’s coat hanging from her shrunken frame, her belly full and round. As his body was lowered into the ground, Efa held her tight. ‘Stand back. You may fall.’

‘I shall fall if I want!’ she spat. ‘He lied to me.’

‘How did he lie?’

Anghared pointed at the coffin.

‘Wait a little longer,’ she replied. ‘Then you will understand.’

The two women stood silently by the grave until they were alone. Soon the priest returned. ‘Come to confession now, my child. God wants to hear of your sinful thoughts.’

‘There is no God,’ she said bitterly. ‘And I am not your child.

Efa closed her eyes for a moment then opened her bag. She took out the albatross feathers one by one, and arranged them on the mound of newly turned earth.

‘Take them away,’ ordered the priest raising his hands. ‘I will not have a pagan act on God’s soil.’  Efa gathered up the feathers and threw them angrily in the air. They floated and twisted around Anghared’s head.

~

The women jeered at Efa and called her a witch. ‘Keep away from Anghared,’ they said. But Efa took no notice, and sensing that her time was near, knocked on Anghared’s door. ‘I have come to help,’ she said simply.

‘The others say I should not have you in my house. I have no need of you.’

‘But I have food and blankets,’ said Efa. ‘And healing herbs.’ She laid them on the kitchen table, and handed her a bunch of sage leaves. ‘To protect you from evil.’

Anghared was hungry so she ate the offered food, and then the pains began. Sudden and sharp, they shot through her body like a warning. ‘I must be very sick,’ she groaned, curling her body into a tight coil upon the kitchen floor. Efa covered her with blankets, and boiled water to make medicine from the birthing herbs; but still Anghared cried with pain.

‘You are stopping this child from coming,’ sighed Efa. ‘It will not be born until it knows it will be loved.’

Anghared tossed and turned on the floor shrieking with pain. As the moon came up, her bloody waters broke. ‘My back will break in two,’ she moaned.

              But still the child would not come. ‘We must find him,’ said Efa. ‘We must go now.’ Anghared had no strength left to fight, and allowed Efa to help her to her feet. She draped the greatcoat around her shoulders, and taking her weight, helped her outside. Every few yards she stood quietly as Anghared breathed through her pain. ‘It’s not far now,’ she said. They came to the lych gate at the church. ‘I will wait here for you. Go to him.’ The gate creaked its opening, and the arc of a new moon cast empty shadows on the gravestones. Anghared struggled up the path to the new mound of earth.

Efa sank onto the bench inside the gate and closed her eyes. As her breathing slowed, a chill crept through her body and entered her heart. She began to shiver. This is a place of death, not life, she thought. We should not be here. An owl hooted. It’s warning me. I have done wrong. Exhausted, she let her eyes close, and fell into a fitful sleep.

~

She woke to a shuddering in the early morning air. Opening her eyes, she saw a great white bird lifting itself clumsily into the light. Something has ended, she thought. Efa held her breath, and waited.

A blackbird landed on the lych gate roof and began to sing. The sun rose behind the steeple. Efa walked slowly up the path, and as she approached Penn’s grave, she cried out. The ground was covered with pure white feathers. Anghared lay curled up beneath them, the rise and fall of her chest invisible. Penn’s greatcoat lay bundled on the ground beside her.

‘Anghared?’ she whispered, expecting no answer.

‘We are here,’ breathed Anghared, wrapping her arms around the greatcoat. ‘We are all here. I am whole again.’

‘But are you not alone? And why do you not cover yourself?’ Efa heard a whimper inside the greatcoat, and Anghared reached inside for the boy child.

‘He kept his promise. I will never be alone. My heart is alive again.’

*

Image courtesy national geographic

Albatross

February 10, 2014 § 12 Comments

Image

A Short Story. Part One of Two

Every day the woman came: her face turned towards the ocean, her back poker straight to fight the wind. All day she prayed, her lips fluttering sounds no one could understand. The dying storm caught the words and flung them, like icy fragments, back in her face.

              She paced back and forth along the harbour wall, her bare feet sliding raw inside sea boots too big for her. Each night she slipped them off and lined them up neatly beside the black, iron bed. She knew he would have liked her wearing his boots, would have understood. She wore his army greatcoat too, even though people stared. Anghared didn’t care. She wrapped the thick coat around her body like a shroud, and pulled its collar tight over her nose. She had to have the smell of him, make him flesh and blood again. She drank in his sweat, his salt, the cigarettes he smoked when his boat worked the fishing grounds.

She stopped in her tracks as if remembering something long forgotten, and stepping gingerly to the edge where the harbour wall met the waves, looked down to where the slimy film of weed settled and thrived in the cracks between the cobbles. The moon was full, casting its sheen deep into the water. Dragged by the moon like a compass point to the north, a shoal of jellyfish clustered tight against the wall, floating like thickened water, without apparent plan or will. It was time for the females to drop their eggs, and for the males to squirt their sperm into the sea. The shoal began to dance its ritual that made new life, and Anghared hugged Penn’s coat tight to her belly. Eyes wide, she smiled at the brightening horizon. ‘It’s a sign, Penn,’ she said. ‘We too have made new life, and when you return, you will see.’ Anghared didn’t see the eggs sinking to the bottom where the lobsters waited and snapped their claws with hunger.

The next day she came again. This time the moon was hidden and the jellyfish gone.

‘Go home,’ said Efa, the harbourmaster’s wife. ‘Nothing good will come of this. Penn will come back when it’s time.’

‘When?’ she asked.

‘As I said, when it is time.’

‘But when will that be?’

‘Be patient. Anghared,’ soothed Efa.

‘But I want to see him.’

‘He will come. But you may not recognise him.’

The other wives, as was their custom when a fisherman did not return, came to the wall every day for seven days. They stood back from the edge near the slime of seaweed with their mouths set in a sharp, thin line. The younger women held the hands of their children so tight their knuckles turned white, and the old wives brought fishing rods on their backs with bread and currants for bait, and pretended to fish; but they were simply waiting too. When they stood too close to Anghared, or when they lifted an arm to put around her shoulders, she lowered her gaze and gently turned her back. Her face grew stiff, and lines like grey commas stretched around the edges of her mouth.

              Sometimes she was there before dawn when the smacks left for the fishing grounds. They sailed silent and colourless out of the glassy harbour, sometimes followed by flecks of phosphorescence that flowed like the tails of the manta ray the men sometimes caught in the nets. Penn said the old men called this glittering the stars of the sea. ‘It means the boats will return with their holds full of fish,’ he said.

‘Like a sort of magic?’ she asked.

‘No,’ he laughed. ‘There’s no such thing as magic. It’s just plankton. When it comes, so do the hungry fish. All we have to do is catch them.’

The fishermen cast their eyes down to their boots as they passed through the harbour mouth, the greatcoat flapping around Anghared’s body like a clumsy bird struggling to take flight. They made no sound of greeting, but raised their arms as a mark of respect, as a sign they knew she must keep vigil.

Efa watched every day from her cottage at the end of the harbour wall. ‘Come away,’ she said on the seventh day, pulling at the young woman’s sleeve. ‘At least when the child is born it will have the soul of its father.’

‘There is no child,’ retorted Anghared bitterly.

‘You know that’s your sickness,’ said Efa sternly. ‘You can’t hide it from me. It has been growing in your belly for six weeks now.’

~

The full moon came once more, and still she waited. The plankton glittered, and the jellyfish came back and thickened the water by the harbour wall. And still he didn’t come.

~

The men sailed into the harbour with the albatross, their faces set and dark. The bird had drowned: caught on the long lines streamed out like deadly necklaces behind their boats. They hauled it off the deck and left it lying like a soft, white pillow on the wall, its hard, hooked beak open wide as if still gasping for life. It lay there untouched, unburied – no one would return the bad omen to the sea.

At night, when the clouds were masking the moon, Efa squatted on the cobbles and plucked the long white feathers from its wings.

‘Why are you doing that?’ asked Anghared.

‘The albatross no longer needs them. I am making sure that Penn’s soul is liberated.’

‘I don’t understand. Are you making spells?’

Efa shook her head. ‘Every albatross has the soul of a dead sailor inside. I am simply making sure he is free.’

The albatross shrank and blackened on the harbour wall, and the child growing in Anghared’s wasting body beneath the greatcoat could no longer be kept a secret.

~

To be continued Wednesday 12th. Feb

Geometry – Part Two

February 4, 2014 § 8 Comments

 point-of-ayr-lighthouse-21A Short Story

‘Cod and chips, please. Twice,’  Dorcas smiled.

‘Anything you say,’ replied the chip shop man with a wink. ‘Have you got a young man, then?’

‘Nope. But seeing as you’re asking, one’s for Old Salty. He could use some company. Don’t tell I said.’

He sat on the bow of his boat, his face turned to the sun.

‘Ahoy,’ she shouted. ‘You’ll hurt your eyes if you do that.’

‘They’re closed. I was smelling the sea.’

‘Why?’

‘That’s a funny question. Because I miss it, of course.’

‘I’ve bought you some fish and chips.’

He grunted. ‘You’d better come up then.’ He pointed to the ladder and threw down a bucket on the end of a rope.

‘What’s that for?’

‘Dog.’

‘Bouncer won’t go in there.’

‘Kipper will.’

‘Well Bouncer won’t.’ Dorcas put the fish and chips in the bucket, and stuffed Bouncer into her armpit. ‘Can you smell the sea, then?’

‘I can. There’s an onshore breeze today. It helps me remember. I couldn’t remember anything yesterday – the smell went somewhere else. Must be the wind.’

She handed him his tea wrapped in last week’s newspaper. He pointed to the steps that led down to the cabin. ‘You’d better come below to eat. It’s more civilised.’

             Every space in the cabin was covered with shells. Oysters, cockles, periwinkles. Shells for mussels and hermit crabs, and a clam shell big enough for an octopus to sleep in.

            ‘Why have you collected so many?’

            ‘My memories are inside. They tell me stories.’

            ‘What’s that big one?’

            ‘Nautilus. From Australia. Found it on the beach there. I used to be a sailor.’

            ‘But you don’t go to sea anymore?’

            ‘No. Delilah didn’t like it.’ He closed his eyes and began to sing:

‘The seashell spoke in whispers,

Then it began to sing

Of corals and dolphins and shipwrecked gold,

And many a beautiful thing.

Of whales that keened,

Of crabs that danced,

Or the grace of the dolphin ballet.

Of mermaid’s tears that are shed for the dead,

And of seahorses racing away.’

              ‘Lovely,’ she sighed. ‘Did you make that up?’

‘Delilah’s favourite.’ His bottom lip loosened, and the old man turned away.

Dorcas was beginning to think Old Salty might be the same breed of person as her.  She liked to recall their meals together, and she sang his song on the way to the chip shop. Every Saturday she brushed her hair until it shone and put on a clean dress. Armed with supper, she would whistle her arrival. He welcomed her with his customary grunt, and soon it became clear he had tidied the boat, and trimmed his beard into a neat curve that followed the shape of his chin. After tea, they sat on the cabin roof in a comfortable silence watching the sun disappear beneath the sea. The dogs ran around the boat in circles chasing their tails. Maybe they understand one another too, she thought.

‘Will you always live here?’

‘No such thing as always.’

‘But isn’t this your home?’

‘Don’t have one. It’s just where I stay.’

‘Don’t you get lonely all by yourself?’

He looked in the direction of the sea. ‘Don’t you?’

Dorcas didn’t answer straight away. ‘I don’t know that I do. I think I quite like things as they are.’

Old Salty sighed. ‘You can call me Samuel if you like. It’s the name I was born with.’

‘Thank you,’ she said, putting her hand on his shoulder.

‘Are you sure?’

‘I am. But it’s a fact, Delilah didn’t like it.’

‘Well I do. It was my grandfather’s name.’

As she climbed down the ladder, Samuel put a plastic bag in the bucket. ‘Look inside when you get home.’ It’s contents tinkled as it hit the sand.

‘I can’t take your shells,’ she said. ‘They’re your memories. How will you know what to remember?’

‘Don’t need them now. Past is past.’

His face began to redden, so Dorcas changed the subject. ‘Where do you go in your little boat?’

‘Down what’s left of the estuary towards the sea.’

‘I’ve never been in a boat.’

‘One day I’ll take you,’ he replied.

Every day Dorcas took the dog along the old seabed at first light. Samuel and Kipper would wait for her like statues half hidden in the marsh. As they walked, the dogs arced like ripples around their feet. She collected an armful of sea lavender to decorate the lighthouse, and Samuel took a knife from his pocket and began cutting a plant that grew close by.

‘What’s that?’ she asked.

‘Food.’

‘Doesn’t look like it. Surely you can’t eat seaweed?’

‘It isn’t seaweed. Poor man’s asparagus. It’s samphire: marsh samphire.’

‘Shall we eat it together?’

He shook his head slowly and handed her the bag. ‘Boil for ten minutes and eat with butter.’

‘Please come.’

‘Not this time,’ he said coughing nervously. ‘But will you come to the boat? I want to show you something.’ They walked silently, their eyes staring straight ahead.

Samuel had hung dresses in the cabin. Like offerings, she thought.

‘They were Delilah’s. I don’t think she’ll be back for them. Might fit you.’

The dresses had full swirling skirts and fitted bodices. They were printed with flowers and butterflies. ‘She liked nice things,’ he said. His eyes grew glassy, and Dorcas turned away so she wouldn’t see his pain.

‘That’s beautiful,’ she exclaimed, picking up a pale blue cotton dress with a pattern of tiny shells.

            ‘Take it. I have no use for it.’

            Dorcas knew she was about to become a liar. ‘I couldn’t. It looks far too small for me.’

~

‘My usual please,’ he said quietly to Dorcas across the counter.

‘Thank you for the dress you left on my doorstep,’ she said. ‘It’s beautiful. Would you like to come for tea tomorrow and have a look at where I live?’

            ‘I don’t need to see any old lighthouse. I know what they look like. Thank you anyway.’

‘Please,’ she pleaded. ‘I want to show you something too.’

            ‘Just five minutes then.’

Samuel stood at the threshold hopping from one foot to the other, his hands thrust deep into his pockets. He had shaved his beard, and his chin had red scratches where he’d cut himself. His body said he was about to bolt. Dorcas had put on the blue dress. Samuel opened his eyes wide and breathed out deeply.

‘Come in. Please come in,’ she said. ‘Kettle’s on.’

            ‘You look just like she did thirty years ago.’

Dorcas didn’t answer at once. ‘Here,’ she said slowly, holding out a wooden frame. ‘I did a drawing of the nautilus shell. And I made a frame out of driftwood.’

‘Thank you. Delilah liked to draw you know.’ He looked about him. ‘Someone’s been meddling with that table, I see.’

‘The floors aren’t level. Things kept rolling about.’

            ‘It was Delilah’s. The table.’

            ‘What did you say?’

‘Table belonged to Delilah. Too big to fit in the boat.’

‘You mean you were the lighthouse keeper?’ Samuel nodded. ‘Where is she now?’

            ‘I don’t know. Was a long time ago – when the sea was still here. I didn’t want her to go. She wanted a child but it never came. It made her ill. Twenty years ago it was.’

            ‘Are you waiting for her?’

Samuel lowered his gaze. ‘She won’t come back, will she?’ he asked, like he wasn’t sure whether it was a question.

‘I don’t know,’ she replied gently.

‘No, I know she won’t.’

Dorcas turned off the kettle. ‘Shall I show you around?’

‘I don’t need to see any more. But thank you.’ Samuel stood in the doorway.

‘The coracle is outside. I thought you and Bouncer might like it.’ She opened her mouth to speak. ‘But….’

‘Excuse me,’ he interrupted. ‘I have a lot to do.’

            Dorcas climbed the stairs to the lantern room and watched him go, his back bent so much more than usual. She wanted to help this kind, humble man, but knew he wouldn’t allow such intimacy. He has done so much for me, she thought. Given me my life back. I am not frightened of life anymore. But Dorcas knew it was different for Samuel. The more he had talked of Delilah, the more disturbed and restless he became. She lay down on the bed and Bouncer curled up beside her.

She woke at dusk to the smell of burning, to the sound of Bouncer’s warning bark. Samuel’s boat was ablaze.

            The wood was dry and burnt like tinder. Dorcas pushed her way through the crowd. There was little left. Just a pile of hissing ash. A burnt black tangle of rigging wire. The metal compass lay useless in the sand. Bouncer lifted his leg and the circle of glass sizzled and exploded. ‘Come,’ she said. ‘Samuel wants us to go for a sail. He wants us to be free. Just like him.’

Geometry – Part One

February 3, 2014 § 7 Comments

point-of-ayr-lighthouse-21

A Short Story

Confused by memories of ships that passed in the night, the lighthouse stood solitary in the sand, disturbed only by the screech of seagulls bickering over nesting space. One winter, men came and meddled with nature. They built groins in the next bay and moved sand around with giant diggers. When they had gone, the harvest moon whipped up the coast into a wild storm. The tide went out as usual – but it never came back.

Trinity House took away the glass reflector, and the red and white stripes – which could be seen for miles around – peeled off the walls like old wallpaper. The barnacles fell off the rocks that used to stick out of the sea like stalagmites at low spring tide. Ivy crawled up its sides as a warning. And no one cared, until Dorcas turned up.

She turned the rusty key in the lock and peered through the doorway. A mouse skittered along the skirting board, and a well-worn pair of rigger’s boots lay unwanted on the bare, concrete floor; the history of their owner written on the stained and misshapen leather.

Dorcas believed in the power of symbolism, and as she walked round and round the kitchen, it suddenly came to her why she had to live in a lighthouse. No dark corners where painful memories jump out and crawl inside my head, she thought. No sharp edges to graze my skin and make it bleed. I’ll be safe here, she smiled. Because it’s round. This is where I’m meant to be.

She climbed the circular staircase to the empty lantern room, sat on the window ledge, and waited. Waited for the sun to fill her bones with warmth, waited for the thoughts to stop buzzing around in her head like a swarm of angry bees.

It had been Zac’s doing. He played jazz trumpet for a living, and liked to improvise. He did that with his life as well. And hers. ‘You know I’m an honest man by nature,’ he used to say. ‘But I have to be spontaneous. I’m not really changing my mind at all. You wouldn’t like me if I was predictable.’

‘How do you know?’ said Dorcas, trying not to let her mouth turn down at the edges. ‘I never know where I am with you.’

‘But you know I’ll never leave you,’ he said. But the more she believed his version of how life was, the more bewildered she became; and her brain turned from a neat little road map into a wild, tangled maze she was always getting lost in. All Dorcas had wanted was a simple life that looked like a long straight road with a beginning, a middle, and a happy ending – or at least one with no serious car crashes. The fewer choices she had, the better she liked it.

But Zac had gone – just like the small voice in her head had said he would – taking his backpack, his saxophone, and a head full of broken promises. So maybe he’ll come back, she mused – but she knew he wouldn’t. Like the cuckoo he was, he had found a new bed to nest in.

Dorcas put the boots in the cupboard under the sink, and repainted the inside of the lighthouse. I’ll hide the dirt and scratches of its past, she said to herself. Just like me, it can have a fresh start.

The next day she went to see a counsellor to sort out her head.  ‘I got it wrong,’ she said firmly, as she lay on the couch staring at a painting of a sailing ship floundering in a storm. ‘I thought I wanted to live life in a long, straight line, but I don’t. I want to live it in a circular kind of way. I found a lighthouse to live in, and I need your help with the rest of it.’ The counsellor stared until Dorcas squirmed noisily on the leather couch. ‘Well, perhaps with the odd straight line thrown in for variety,’ she added.

‘I’m not sure that would work,’ the counsellor replied. ‘It might mean you’ll never get anywhere.’

‘But I’ll always know where I am. Don’t you see?’

The woman nodded and began to write on a notepad. ‘Tell me about your life.’

‘I’d sooner not,’ said Dorcas. ‘I just want to look straight ahead.’

‘That’s fine,’ she replied, scribbling furiously. ‘But how can we understand ourselves if we don’t look into the past?’

Dorcas climbed off the couch and put on her coat. ‘Thank you very much, but I think I’ll be better off getting a dog.’

Tied to the cage at the rescue centre was a typewritten sign:

This young man has a happy temperament

and boundless enthusiasm for life.

He is looking for a good home where there are no other dogs.

Dorcas got down on her hands and knees and put her fingers through the cage. ‘Are you the one?’ she whispered. The Jack Russell with a stump for a tail sniffed at her, then ran round and round the cage barking wildly. ‘I think you better stop that,’ she said gently. He dug his front paws into the ground, swayed a bit, then toppled over. She interpreted this behaviour as a sign they were meant for one another, adding to it the rationale that he’d be able to continue his orbital habit in the lighthouse without bumping into things. She called him Bouncer because he was, but knew the name didn’t quite fit.

The kennel maid told her it wasn’t a good idea to let him sleep on her bed, so Dorcas went looking for a beanbag. The pet shop only had round ones, and this too, she decided, was yet another sign.

Later that day she sat cross-legged on the kitchen floor and explained to him how life was going to be. She crawled about on all fours, sniffing out anything that might poison him – a plastic bottle of toilet cleaner, strangle him – an old coil of rope, or kill him instantly – anything with a plug on. He sat on his tail and watched with his ears pricked. ‘I’m just pretending to be you,’ she said, adding firmly that it would strengthen his moral fibre if he slept in the kitchen by himself, then they could reunite in the morning, rested and ravenous for breakfast.

But he hadn’t read the rules. That night he howled like a banshee at the kitchen door, and just before first light, she gave in. She saw the bags under his eyes, looked in the mirror and saw her own purple half moons hanging limply as a bloodhound’s. Bouncer moved upstairs after that.

The second night Dorcas was restless. Tossing and turning, she rolled off the bed onto the beanbag. It broke her fall – but she landed on the dog. After the yelping had stopped, she decided to make amends by giving him an early breakfast. As she spooned their food out of the saucepan, the tinned meatballs and peas slid off the plates and rolled across the floor. Dorcas went outside to the tool shed and saw what she hadn’t noticed before – the lighthouse was leaning. She fished out her saw, and laying the spirit level across the mattress, hacked away at the legs of her bed, measuring with the ruler as she went. She stopped when all that was left were four untidy stumps. Then she started on the kitchen table, whittling away at the legs until a lone pea stayed put on the tabletop. ‘From now on,’ she told Bouncer, ‘and just to be on the safe side, I shall eat straight out of the tin, or only eat stuff like mashed potatoes that sticks to the plate.’

Dorcas needed a job, so she answered the ad in the fish and chip shop. Each day she followed the curve of the bay to the old promenade, and every evening after she’d worked her shift, she dangled her legs over the old harbour wall and ate cod and chips straight from the newspaper. Saving half for the dog, she followed her tracks carefully back to the lighthouse, climbed the curling stairs to the lantern room, and watched the sun go down with Bouncer on her lap.

But Dorcas kept forgetting Zac wasn’t in her bed. She would wake and reach out for his warmth – but his side was always empty and cold. I’m rewinding, she thought. And I don’t like it. ‘The problem is this,’ she said to Bouncer. ‘I have to change my thinking from was to is, from then to now. Simple.’ Bouncer wagged his tail. She lifted him onto the bed. ‘There,’ she smiled. ‘We’ll share.’

‘Cod, peas and chips please,’ said the man with the grizzly beard and hair the colour of chestnuts. He was wearing scuffed riggers’ boots and a belt with a skull and crossbones on the buckle.

‘That’s your next door neighbour,’ said the chip shop man. ‘Old Salty. And the one with the hat’s Kipper.’

‘Pardon me?’ she asked.

‘Old Salty. Lives on the boat stuck in the mud down by where the sea used to be. The one with stilts that looks like an insect with long legs. Kipper’s the one with the sun hat about to lift his leg on my doorpost. Don’t pat the little sod, he bites.’

‘What’s his boat called?’ she asked, shovelling chips into a greaseproof bag.

‘Samson and Delilah. Got stuck when the tide went out. Still there because it never came back. Expect you’ve heard the story.’

Soon something was happening in Dorcas’ head. She was getting bored taking the same route to work; so some days she took a deep breath and walked directly to the fish and chip shop, or followed the winding path through the marshes. She untied her long hair for the first time since Zac had gone, and listened for the buzzing in her head. All she could hear was the breeze twisting the curls around her ears.

‘Usual please,’ said Old Salty.

‘Are you the man who lives on the boat that looks like an insect?’ she asked.

‘Who wants to know?’

‘I’m Dorcas and I live in the lighthouse that’s leaning over. How come your dog keeps his hat on?’

‘He knows what’s good for him.’

‘How’s that?’

‘He knows he’ll get sunburn if he doesn’t.’

‘Must be a smart dog, then.’

Kipper sat dribbling by the door.

‘Hungry is what he is.’

‘Why does your boat have stilts on?’

‘You ask a lot of questions. Never complain and never explain.’

‘Pardon?’

‘Groucho Marx. My dinner’s getting cold,’ he said, hauling Kipper onto the pavement.

She bought a sketchbook and sticks of charcoal, and on her day off wandered about looking for things to draw. Shells, dried up seaweed, bits of wood – anything that didn’t require her to be exact. She gave each shell a different kind of roundness. As she sat drawing a pile of razor shells tangled with seaweed, Bouncer let rip his special bark like a pistol shot that signaled there was another dog around, but all she could see was a man pulling a small coracle through the mud. It was the man in the boat.

‘Hello,’ she said. Old Salty grunted. ‘It’s Dorcas from the fish and chip shop.’

‘Ah, yes,’ he said, with the faintest of smiles. Kipper leapt out of the coracle showing his teeth, and headed straight for Bouncer. ‘Down!’ he shouted, and Kipper sank to the ground wagging his tail. Dorcas pointed to the boat sitting high and dry in the marsh.

‘Have you had it long?’

‘Might have.’

‘Do you live on it?’

‘Her,’ said Old Salty. ‘All boats are women. Everybody knows that.’

‘The chip shop man said it, sorry, she was called Samson and Delilah. Why have you painted out the Delilah bit?’

‘She doesn’t live there anymore. Gone.’

‘Ah,’ said Dorcas. ‘Are you Samson then?’

            ‘You ask a lot of questions.’

            ‘Sorry. Don’t mean to be nosey.’

            ‘Since you’re asking, she used to call me Samson.’

            ‘I see,’ said Dorcas.

‘Don’t expect you do,’ he replied. ‘She reminds me of you.’

To be continued tomorrow…

Because She Could: Part Two

January 11, 2014 § 27 Comments

A short story: second and final part

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The cold winds raced around the garden, and Isabella felt strange.

‘Best place is bed,’ said her mother, tucking her in. ‘You’re burning up.’ But Isabella got hotter. She kicked off the bedclothes and her limbs turned to ice. She made a cocoon of her duvet and her body filled with fire.  She tore off her pyjamas and thrust the cover aside. Isabella didn’t care anymore. Everything was muddled. Curling up naked on the bed, she closed her eyes and began to drift. The pain in her body floated away, and she had the oddest sensation she was losing her skin.

Then suddenly she was wide awake. Opening her eyes, she looked down and saw herself lying naked on the bed. ‘You really do look poorly,’ she said sternly. ‘And why aren’t you wearing your pyjamas?’ Isabella’s body didn’t move.  ‘Humph. Well I don’t care if you don’t answer me. It’s so nice to be flying again… only Mum said I really shouldn’t, so I suppose I…’

She stretched out her arms and aimed at her body. But like a drifting balloon, she rose higher and higher. She moved her limbs as if swimming in deep water. She paddled harder and faster. Nothing happened. ‘Help!’ she yelled. ‘I don’t want to die.’

Thump!

Isabella had crashed.

Thump, thump, thump.

High above the clouds, Isabella was hitting something hard and invisible.

‘I warned you before. Come down at once!’ It was her mother. ‘If you go any further you’ll be in heaven – and then you’ll be stuck.’

Isabella looked around and started to wobble. Losing her balance, she began to fall: faster and faster, plummeting out of control. She tumbled past the stars, between the heavy, black clouds, through the cold, sharp rain. And then she saw her street. There was her house, her garden, her swing. Spreading her limbs like a bat, she slowed herself down – pulling up sharp just before she hit the ground. Swooping through the front door, she glided up the banisters, and missing the grandfather clock at the top of the stairs, swerved around the sharp corner into her bedroom. Her body lay on the bed under the duvet. Isabella held her breath, and plunged back inside.

‘You look cold and confused,’ her mother whispered, tucking her in. ‘You’d fallen asleep with no clothes on, and I couldn’t wake you up. You do look much better.’ She put the thermometer under Isabella’s tongue.

‘I’ve had a very peculiar dream.’

‘It was probably the fever,’ she smiled, taking the thermometer out of Isabella’s mouth. ‘Good. All back to normal.’

‘Were you telling me off a minute ago?’ Isabella asked.

‘I was not. I was doing the washing up.’

The hair on her parents’ heads turned silver, and the garden swing was gone. ‘You should come and see us more often,’ her father sighed.

I wish I lived closer,’ she replied. ‘Mum isn’t herself these days.’

Her mother’s mind could only hold the past. The present did not exist.’Someone’s taken Isabella’s swing,’ she complained. ‘Isn’t it time to get her from school?’

‘Sometimes she cooks for three,’ he said. ‘Then worries when you don’t come home to eat. She’s always falling asleep; and when I wake her, it’s as if she’s in a dream and can’t escape. She says she wants to go home.’

Her mother’s mind was dividing itself in two: slipping in and out of the world she knew and shared with others, and another that no one could know but her. ‘I write labels on everything,’ said her father, with a sigh. ‘But she can’t remember what the words mean any more.’

Isabella was waiting for something to happen. She couldn’t settle. She sat bolt upright in bed when the phone rang. ‘You must come now,’ said her father. ‘It’s your mother.’

She drove fast. Kissing the warm, papery cheek, her mother opened her eyes.’She’s happy you’re here,’ he said. ‘She hasn’t responded to anyone. Not even me.’ All that day her mother slipped between this world and the next. As day turned to night her chest stopped moving – then she spluttered, struggling for air. Again and again her breathing stopped for a few moments, then she took a desperate gasp of air.

‘Don’t be frightened,’ Isabella whispered. But her mother lay quiet – her eyes flickering beneath her lids.

Her father rested in the next room, and Isabella sat by the bed. Exhausted, she passed fitfully in and out of sleep. Her father came with a blanket, and Isabella began to dream. She was alone with her mother: standing close by her side facing a closed door. She took her mother’s hand. It trembled slightly beneath her touch. ‘Soon it will be time, Mum. You can leave when you’re ready.’

‘But I want to be here. And I’m afraid. What if I don’t like it on the other side?’

‘Come with me,’ Isabella whispered. ‘We’ll go together.’  She opened the door, and their bodies flooded with a clear white light. ‘Look Mum. It’s beautiful.’

Her mother’s hand became firm. ‘Yes,’ she said. Now I remember. And it is time. And do you remember too, Isabella?’

‘What should I remember?’

‘That you are staying here. I’ll come and tell you when it’s your turn.’

Her mother untangled her hand from Isabella’s grasp, and walked into the light.

Because She Could: Part 1

January 10, 2014 § 18 Comments

A short story in two parts. Part 2 will be published tomorrow.

Enjoy – and any feedback, as always, will be appreciated!

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The first time it happened, Isabella was playing in the garden. She’d fallen off the swing and landed upside down on her head. A feeling of lightness stirred in her solar plexus, spreading through her body until the tips of her toes tingled with a pleasurable kind of emptiness. Isabella looked down and saw herself lying crumpled in the grass. She was floating – or to be precise – something that had been inside her body had got out and was cruising around in the sunlight in a rather disorderly fashion. Isabella had left her body behind.

She hovered for a while trying to keep her balance, then discovering a pair of invisible limbs, moved them back and forth in a kind of frenetic breaststroke she’d been practicing at swimming club. The air was slippery and heavy like water.

‘What are you doing up there?’ her mother yelled. ‘If you go any higher you won’t come back, and you’ll stay dead forever.’

Isabella looked around but couldn’t see her mother anywhere. She pointed herself sleek as a shark, and swooping down into the garden slipped back inside her body. She had found the sensation of lightness utterly delightful.

Isabella came round and opened her eyes. Bright lights flickered at the end of her bed, and machines were clicking like the crickets that hung upside down on her bedroom ceiling. Everything echoed and was making her head swim. She closed her eyes tight shut.

Her mother sat by the bed squeezing a handkerchief.

‘Where am I?’ Isabella asked.

‘In hospital, my love.’

‘Why?’

‘You had a little accident.’

Isabella blinked, and squinted at her mother. ‘What did you mean about me staying dead forever?’

‘I said nothing of the sort. All I did was shriek and dial 999. You must have imagined it.’

‘But I didn’t.’

‘Have a little nap, sweetheart,’ her mother sniffled. ‘They think you’ve got concussion.’

Isabella never forgot that day, and on the way home from hospital she decided she’d never, ever go flying again in case she got stuck and ended up dead.

But she wasn’t altogether successful. It started happening again. If she was cross, or frightened – or just wanted to be somewhere else because she was bored – she slid out of her body and cruised around for a while. After about five minutes – although she was never sure how long it really was as time was passing in a rather peculiar way – she slid back in again. Although it was a nice feeling, Isabella found being in two places at once rather confusing.

Nobody seemed to notice anything strange, until her mother made an announcement. ‘Your father and I have thinking,’ she said. ‘You’re always falling asleep these days. It might help if you went to bed earlier.’

Isabella rarely argued with her mother – it wasn’t worth the trouble when she used her slow, loud voice – so she went to bed half an hour earlier every night. It didn’t help. She still fell asleep without warning in front of the telly, and however hard her mother shook her, Isabella wouldn’t wake up until her body had joined itself up with the rest of her.

She didn’t really mind about the early nights, because she could go places without anyone noticing. She kept an atlas under her bed, and was soon travelling the world. She flew around corners and saw things that were supposed to be private, like next door’s baby being born; and she flew so high she could see the whole planet revolving in front of her in bright shades of green and blue. If somewhere took her fancy – like Italy because it was shaped like a boot – or the Horse Latitudes where she could hunt for her favourite animal, she would point her arms into a dive, and zoom in like a telescope to get a better look.

Isabella stayed tired, but the doctor couldn’t find anything wrong. ‘Must be psychological’, he said. ‘I recommend lots of sleep.’ Then it happened: Isabella stopped leaving her body.

That winter the dog got sick. Titus was old and stiff, and could no longer climb the stairs to sleep in his favourite place on Isabella’s bed. He got thinner too, because he forgot to eat. He lay in his basket all day, and even refused the chocolate she saved for him in secret.

‘His body’s wearing out,’ said her mother. ‘Soon it will be time for him to go to heaven.’

‘Is that where I nearly went?’ Isabella asked.

‘I really don’t know, my love. But it’s alright now because you don’t go there anymore, do you?’

‘No, I don’t, she replied.

Every night for a week, Isabella stroked the old dog’s bony frame. ‘It’s probably very nice in heaven,’ she whispered. ‘I’m sure you’ll like it.’

On the seventh day, his breathing slowed down to a whisper, and the air around him turned dark into a grey cloud. He opened his eyes wide, looked hard at his mistress, and breathed out a loud, slow sigh. A shiny, bright shadow rose slowly from his body and hovered above his head. Isabella put out her hand to catch it, but it floated through her flesh – like her hand wasn’t there – and was gone.

She put her lips to his ear. ‘Are you coming back, Titus? If you don’t do it soon, you might get stuck there forever.’ Titus paddled his front legs like he was having a chasing dream, then lay perfectly still.

Where Am I?

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