Oxygen

December 17, 2013 § 16 Comments

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‘Pilgrim,’ she whispered. ‘Do you think death is the end of everything?’

‘Can’t hear you. Hang on while I make this hole bigger with my ski.’

‘But hey,’ Tina continued. ‘I shan’t be going anywhere for a while. And neither will you.’ She brushed away a tear.

Pilgrim pulled the ski out of the air hole and wriggled around to face her. ‘What did you say?’

‘Forget it. Doesn’t matter.’

‘How do you know my name?’ he asked.

‘The instructor pointed you out the other day. He said Search and Rescue found the colour of your suit the easiest to spot in the snow. What the hell are we going to do?’

‘Well, I’ve done the first thing, so we won’t run out of oxygen. Now we need to dig ourselves out.’

‘How can you be so calm? What if we can’t get out?’

Pilgrim heaved himself into the full lotus position, closed his eyes and put his palms together like he was praying.

‘Hey. Get real!’ she sneered, staring at him in disbelief. ‘You’re not actually praying are you?’

‘Kind of,’ he said. ‘I won’t be long.’

Tina fidgeted then maneuvered into something like a half lotus. She put her palms together too and waited. But nothing happened – so she rummaged in her backpack and pulled out a cigarette. ‘You don’t mind, do you? In the circumstances, and all that.’

‘Close your eyes and empty your mind,’ he said gently.

‘Can’t,’ she said, flicking open her lighter.

‘OK, if you can’t, look at the daylight coming from the air hole and concentrate on that instead. And by the way, you’re using up oxygen with that lighter.’

Tina shrugged and snapped it shut. She stared at the air hole, but all she could think about was frostbite and dying.

‘I’m freezing and I can’t concentrate.’

‘Ok,’ said Pilgrim, opening his eyes. ‘Time to dig.’

‘Are you afraid of dying then?’ he asked, as he scraped away at the snow with the ski.

‘Hell. So you did hear what I said. Actually I’m shit scared.’

‘Why?’

‘How should I know? Maybe I’m frightened it’s going to hurt. Maybe I’m frightened of what comes afterwards.’

‘What does come afterwards, then?’

‘Going to hell, I suppose. The Bible says unbelievers go to Hades when they die, and then they go to hell or the Lake Of Fire. John 3:36. See. I’m not that ignorant. I’m not a Christian, so that’s where I’m heading next, right?’

He carried on digging. ‘I’m listening.’

‘Can’t say I’ve ever needed to give it any thought,’ she continued. ‘I work all hours in the City. Too busy earning the next crust for that shiny yellow 911.’ Tina smirked. ‘Actually Pilgrim, I don’t think anything happens to us when we die. When the body wears out, that’s it. Finito. Curtains.’

‘So why are you frightened of going to hell if it’s not going to happen?’

‘Because maybe, just maybe, I’m wrong.’

‘About what?’

‘About there being a god of course.’ Tina stopped digging and lay on her back.

‘Gimme a break.’

            ‘Half an hour more, then we’ll stop.’

            ‘I’m stopping for five, then I’ll make the air hole bigger,’ she said. ‘It looks like it might be closing up.’

            ‘Could be it’s just getting dark,’ suggested Pilgrim.

‘Can you hear that rumbling?’ shrieked Tina. ‘Shit! Another avalanche.’

            ‘Come here,’ he said, putting his arms around her shoulders. He was whispering to himself. Pilgrim was praying again.

The rumbling stopped. ‘We’re safe for now.’

‘So, you’re a Christian, then?’ she asked.

            ‘Not any more.’

‘But weren’t you praying just now?’

‘Not exactly. I was reciting a mantra.’

            ‘Well, what are you then?’

            ‘Suppose I’m a kind of Buddhist.’

            ‘Aren’t they the guys who believe in karma? Like if you do something bad, you’re born again as a dung beetle or something? Yeah, I remember now. In Tibet they chop you up and feed you to the vultures. Sky burial. Saw it on the telly. Gross.’

            ‘I know it sounds bad to you, but the ground is frozen solid in Tibet – it isn’t possible to have earth burials.’

            ‘Couldn’t they just burn the bodies and chuck them in the river like the Hindus?’

            ‘No,’ said Pilgrim gently. ‘That would pollute the water, and in any case there are hardly any trees in Tibet.’

            ‘But giving your granny’s remains to the vultures. That’s just disgusting.’

            ‘Vultures are sacred there. The body is given as an offering.’

            ‘But isn’t the body sacred, too?’

            Pilgrim explained that Buddhists believed it was just a vessel for the soul, and when it had worn out and was no longer needed, it should be put to good use rather than wasted.

            ‘So what do you think happens when you die?’ asked Tina.

            ‘The soul is born again into a new body.’

‘Sounds cool,’ said Tina.’ So however much I drink or overdo the coke, it doesn’t matter because I’ll always get a new body, right?’

Pilgrim nodded his head gently. ‘Kind of.’

            ‘So that’s why you’re not afraid of dying then.’

            ‘We need to dig some more,’ he said.

‘My boyfriend’s going to be wondering where I am.’

            ‘He wasn’t on the slopes when the avalanche happened?’

            ‘No, he was sleeping off a serious hangover.’

            She talked about their privileged lifestyle. The fast cars, the holidays, the parties.

            ‘And what about you,’ she asked. ‘Do you have a girlfriend?’

            ‘I’ve never had one.’

            ‘Never. How old are you?’

            ‘Twenty eight. It just never happened. I like my own company and I don’t meet new people much.’

            ‘What about work. Don’t you meet girls there?’

            ‘It isn’t that sort of place. I work in British Rail’s Complaints Department so most people are looking for a scapegoat rather than a friend.’

            Pilgrim stopped digging and knelt beside her.

            ‘I need to close my eyes for ten. Just ten. Maybe you could check the air hole.’

            ‘If we get close, we can keep each other warm,’ she suggested, as she shuffled up and laid her head on his shoulder. ‘You’re shy, aren’t you?’

            ‘Um, I suppose I must be.’

            What’s your favourite thing in the world?’

            ‘Easy. Going places on my bike and reading. And yours?’

            ‘Easy,’ she said, closing her eyes. ‘Sex.’

            ‘I never had the opportunity,’ replied Pilgrim sitting bolt upright. ‘We better get digging again.’

            ‘Yes, I suppose we should. In a minute, OK?’ And she held out her arms. ‘I still feel really sleepy.’

            ‘Mmm, me too. Did you check the air hole? We might be running low on oxygen.’

            Tina yawned. ‘I’ll do it in a minute. Pilgrim?’

‘Mmm?’ He barely whispered.

‘What’s the most important thing to you in the world?’

‘Being happy. And you?’

‘Same, I guess.’

Pilgrim shivered. ‘I am suddenly so, so cold.’

‘And me. I could sleep forever.’

And they lay down in the snow, curled themselves around one another, and went to sleep.

 …

 Any comments or suggestions for improvement much appreciated!

Circle

December 9, 2013 § 13 Comments

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His mother was a wild creature and knew how to run. With the brown hair-like fleece of her feral descendants, she was living archaeology to the ancient sheep of the Asian mountains. Her son had slit yellow eyes, and slid into my world in the long grass when no one was looking. He was a good size and already at the teat when I found him. Feisty and proud with sharp, thick horns, I kept him as breeding stock.

That was eleven years ago. Every November he did his job. I put him in with the ewes, and five months later each one scraped a shallow bowl in the home field, lay down, and pushed out his lambs.

He stayed wild – he never let me know him. And he hated the sheep dog – teaching his brothers and sisters to scatter. Eleven is old for a sheep, and he knew. His age could be counted on the rings of his horns – his battle scars shiny and white on his forehead. He was a fighter – and had been fighting again with his younger brothers to keep his place in the flock when I found him. His body looked wrong, his neck crooked. Perhaps dislocated.

The man came with the captive bolt in a black case. I made myself watch. I thought the killing would be easy, but his skull was old and thick. The ram fell forward when the crack came. Then he got up. Teetered. Shook himself. The man fetched a bolt strong enough for a cow. A louder crack, and the blood came like a bung lost from a barrel.

I walked away to be sick.

Soon after, the lambs came. A brown ewe scraped and lay down to push her baby out. All day it wouldn’t come. I washed my hands and put my fingers inside. Legs. Two back ones and a tail. Sticky yellow shit and blood stains on my hands.

I waited for her to squeeze and carefully twisted the lamb out of her. Long and thin, it stretched out on the ground. With no breath.

I cleared the mucus from its mouth, its nose. Rubbed it gently. Spluttering. It shook itself to life.

The mother heard the life noise. A lick, a snicker. The only sound she ever made.

Any suggestions for improvements much appreciated…

Safely Dead:Three

November 30, 2013 § 12 Comments

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Earth was in deep trouble. Food mountains were shrinking to the size of molehills, deserts  appeared where none had been before, and everyone was suffering from S.A.D.  I tossed and turned and grew bags under my eyes. It was all my fault: if only I’d kept a closer eye on Bert.  I avoided the spy holes – I couldn’t bear to look. There was nothing to be done.

I kept busy. I enrolled on courses, studied hard, passed exams. As I climbed higher up the slippery pole of responsibility towards enlightenment, I began to hear rumours God was having trouble bringing the sun and all the clouds back to Earth.

I was attending a seminar on The Morals of Interference, and as I listened I was reminded of Bert’s mischief. ‘Excuse me,’ I said to my tutor. ‘May I unburden myself ?’

‘Please do,’ she smiled.

‘I once had a friend who interfered.’

‘And what happened?’ So I told her. ‘I wish you’d said earlier,’ she gasped. She sprang into the air, spread her wings and disappeared.

A few hours later I heard a distant crash. Holding my breath, I peered through a spy hole. Planet Earth was being soaked by a giant thunderstorm. Flashes of lightning shot through the darkness, and thousands of rain clouds were emptying their contents over the world. The seas became full, snow fell on the Himalayas, and the monsoon flooded the Bay of Bengal and turned it green. I even saw one or two smaller thunderclouds sitting over East Anglia. As the clouds cleared, a watery sun appeared over the horizon.

It was my turn on duty by the back door. Heaven was getting a lot of drowned people coming in that way, and they got confused if no one was there to meet them. I heard the familiar knock: it was the third request since I’d started my shift half an hour ago.  ‘Welcome,’ I said, holding my palms together in supplication. ‘Do come in.’

  ‘Didn’t know angels wore trousers,’ said the man with a face the colour of someone with heart disease. ‘Well, you’ll learn something new every day here,’ I said, adjusting my halo. ‘Hang on a mo…,’ said the man. ‘Don’t I know you?’

I stared a bit too long, and blinked. ‘Bert. Is it you?’

He nodded. ‘Never asked to come back. Was having a brilliant time.’

The words escaped from my lips before I could stop them. ‘Damn and blast and seven Hail Mary’s!’ I crossed myself quickly, and curled my mouth into a smile. ‘And to what do we owe the pleasure of this visit?’

            ‘Too much booze,’ said Bert. ‘Ticker gave out. Not my fault. The new wife – thirty years younger than me, she was – wore me out. And then there were those blue pills…’

            I tried not to flutter my wings in irritation, but they fluttered anyway. ‘Hmm,’ I said, remembering I was wearing a halo. ‘I suppose you’d better come in.’

*

Safely Dead: Two

November 29, 2013 § 13 Comments

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‘You don’t think she noticed, do you?’

‘Noticed what?’

‘The clouds, stupid.’

‘Maybe she did, maybe she didn’t,’ Bert replied. ‘Anyway, I don’t care. Not my problem. Don’t live there anymore.’ He scratched the shiny skin on top of his head. ‘Still, I am beginning to wonder where the sun’s gone. Maybe it’s an eclipse or something…’

Bert got down on his hands and knees and peered through one of the spy holes in heaven’s crust. ‘Looks a bit bleak down there. Still, Norfolk will have nice clear skies now. Shame about the dark.’ He struggled to his feet and stopped breathing. ‘Got it! It’s a side effect. Sun went ‘cos the clouds did.’

‘Ahh…’ I replied, not sure I was getting it at all. ‘You mean like when you take medicines and they make you even sicker?’

‘Exactly,’ said Bert.

‘That’s why you’re here, remember? The side effects of those pills you took for your little problem down below.’

‘What are you on about?’

‘They finished you off. Those Viagra things. Did you forget?’

‘I had rather.’ Bert started breathing again. ‘Oh dear. I feel quite peculiar.’

‘What kind of peculiar?’

‘Hot around the gills.’

‘You do look a bit weird,’ I said. ‘You’ve gone all rosy cheeked like you did before the ambulance came.’

‘I feel weird. Got pins and needles all over – like I’m not quite dead any more.’

The dust stirred underfoot and the trapdoor creaked open – all by itself. With a whoosh like a rather large tornado, a silvery wind coiled itself round Bert’s body and sucked him through the door. Then, it clicked silently shut.

Safely Dead: One

November 28, 2013 § 9 Comments

This is dedicated to mikesteeden who writes in the satirical genre much better than I ever could. Check out his site.

Parts Two and Three will be blogged Friday and Saturday. Any comments gratefully received…

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            ‘Dear me,’ I said, pursing my lips. ‘Now you’ve done it. How many clouds can you see then?’

            ‘Don’t get shirty,’ wheezed Bert under his breath. ‘Saw fifteen cumuli hanging over Norfolk this morning, and a few lenticulars loitering over the Himalayas. Can’t see any now though – it’s gone all dark.’

            ‘Did you mean to get rid of the clouds?’

            ‘Course. That was the whole idea. Part of my plan to improve the weather for East Anglia.’

            ‘But you didn’t reckon on the sun disappearing as well?’

            ‘What do you think?’ Bert replied. He knew he’d been rumbled. ‘If I did do it, didn’t mean to!’

            ‘Keep your hair on,’ I smiled, patting his shiny bald patch. Bert took a lazy swing at me and missed. ‘Got to watch the old blood pressure. Anyway, can’t say I didn’t warn you. You shouldn’t muck about with the weather until you’ve practiced on other things that don’t matter quite as much.’

            ‘Like what?’

            ‘Well,’ I replied, stroking my new beard. ‘You could have a go at turning zebras spotty or making rivers go uphill. That sort of thing.’

We were in trouble – at least Bert was – and as usual, I knew I’d have to pick up the pieces and do all the apologizing. But this time was different. Bert was in up to his neck, and I didn’t have a clue how he was going to wriggle out of it.

We’d only been in heaven a week or two, and we’d both read the rulebook. Bert had flicked through his in five minutes, but I’d taken the whole day and read it twice – cover to cover – so I could recite it word for word in case anyone asked. Top of the list in big red letters was the bit about playing God. Not allowed. Ever. Rule Number One said it was strictly illegal to change the course of history until you’d passed all your exams and been given a special certificate.

‘What we going to do then?’ said Bert in his best wheedling voice.

‘Not doing anything,’ I replied. ‘Had enough. You’re on your own, mate. Use your common sense.’

 Bert stamped his foot. ‘What was that?’ he exclaimed, staring at an old trapdoor hidden under a thick layer of dust. A gust of wind came out of nowhere, sparkled a bit, then settled as if nothing had happened. But it had: an angel had appeared – and was wagging a finger at us.

‘Rule number thirty two,’ she said with a sweet kind of smile that I didn’t quite like the look of. ‘Don’t bang on any of heaven’s doors! Not ever. That trapdoor hasn’t been used in years. We’re obliged to come and check to see if anyone wants to come in. We don’t like practical jokes.’

‘Sorry,’ I said, bending myself double in a respectful bow. ‘Won’t happen again.’

The angel nodded, turning her lips into a thin smile. ‘Enjoy your time here,’ she said. ‘And don’t forget that everything that happens is for your own good.’ She winked, waved prettily, and flew off.

Don’t Forget To Breathe: Part Two

November 25, 2013 § 2 Comments

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Tabitha lived off her great aunt’s inheritance and didn’t know what to do with herself. But one day – perhaps by coincidence, perhaps simply by accident – she discovered something that allowed her to get closer to her obsession – the aeroplane.

‘I’m taking flying lessons,’ she announced to her husband over dinner.

‘Whatever for?’ he asked, gulping down his second glass of Verve Cliquot Rose Reserve 1985.

‘It means I’ll get a better view of the clouds, silly.’

‘That’s nice my love,’ he said, finishing the bottle. ‘Delicious. I must order some more 1985 tomorrow.’ Tabitha slid the flying logbook off the table and sat on it. He really wasn’t in the slightly bit interested.

Tabitha’s idea of heaven was no longer a new pair of Manolo Blahniks – it was gliding between her beloved clouds as her wingtips glittered like sparklers in the sunlight. But her instructor was no ordinary man: he taught her how to land on them. ‘Saves on the landing fees,’ he said. He found a cloud with a flat top and Tabitha set up the approach path. Playing with the throttle settings, she let the flaps down fifteen degrees or so to get her angle of descent right, then flew along the top pretending it was a runway. Then flaps up, full power on, and the take off was in the bag. If she messed up the landing she disappeared into the cloud and came out the other side with dewdrops on her wings. Flying was like being in a magic place – rather like a mystical experience, she decided – and she soon grew silent and sullen and didn’t want to land.

Don’t Forget To Breathe: Part One

November 22, 2013 § 6 Comments

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Tabitha liked clouds. Cirrus, altostratus, cumulonimbus, lenticular formations – it didn’t much matter. She drove for hours for the pleasure of trawling through mildewed bookshops and adding to her already considerable collection on nephology. On her return, she took her acquisitions into the garden and stretched out flat on her stomach. Carefully unwrapping each one, she flicked through the photos with the joy more often seen on a child’s face in a sweetie shop. Afterwards, bathed in a warm glow, she rolled over, pointed her face to the sky, and watched the objects of her obsession drifting overhead.

Superstition

November 21, 2013 § 11 Comments

A short piece of flash. Just a draft…

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            Maud’s hands were still shaking when she found the empty table by the window in the cafeteria. She stiffened her jaw and tried to look unfriendly. Speaking to anyone would break the spell. She dumped her backpack on the spare seats and wondered if the fluttering in her stomach meant she was going to be sick.

The overnight ferry from Harwich to Esbjerg was tethered to the quay in an untidy cat’s cradle of hawsers, and the snake of cars nudged down the ramp deep into the ship’s insides. But, she told herself taking another swig from her water bottle – surely people don’t get seasick just from sitting on a ship in a harbour. She remembered her mother’s words, and pulled out a packet of oatcakes from the front pocket of her backpack.

            Maud had never been on a ship before – in fact she’d never been abroad. That was why she was wearing the scarlet shirt. Exciting things always happened when she wore red – like the time she’d met Josh. She’d ironed it carefully that morning then boarded the train from Brighton to Liverpool Street. She’d held on tight to the rabbit’s foot – it meant she’d find her way around the Tube without getting in a state.

            The train to Ipswich was slow and old, and mostly empty.  It stopped at Manningtree where yachts propped up on stilts leaned dangerously in the estuary mud. She got off and waited for the shuttle to Harwich. The air was thick with sea salt. This was the end of the line; but Maud knew it was the beginning of the next phrase of her life.

            She had bought the shirt the week before from the Oxfam shop in Kensington Gardens. It was the old fashioned type with no collar and had probably once belonged to an old man. It had fine dark blue stripes on a maroon background, and was long enough to tuck into her best jeans – the ones with the rip in the knee that were perfectly bleached from being endlessly scrubbed and left out in the sun. She smoothed her hair and examined her reflection in the window. You look good, she reassured herself.

            The ship’s motion suddenly changed and it began to sway gently from side to side. The hawsers holding it fast had gone, and the ferry moved sideways leaving a swirling channel full of plastic bottles. The oily water bubbled and churned as if there was something alive under the surface. I’ve done it, she thought, patting her stomach; no one can stop me now.

 

 

The Sailor

November 18, 2013 § 8 Comments

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He had enough love for both of us. Sufficient passion for Crème Eggs and me. But I couldn’t stay. Being loved too much hurt my bones. Made me ache. Made my skin itch. And the chocolate would have made me fat.

            So he found other women who looked like me. Seduced by his wit, they stopped his heart hurting for a while. He brought them to me for my approval. Sometimes I told him what he wanted to hear.

But he was always a sailor and couldn’t stay in a place that stood still. He grew a beard and sea legs. The yacht was small and seaworthy and he would sail to America. It was January and he had no radio.

A fisherman found the boat. Drifting in the Azores: sails flapping and shredded. And he was gone.

He wasn’t the suicidal sort.

I hope he remembered the Crème Eggs.

The Good Wife

November 13, 2013 § 13 Comments

A Short Story

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She sat on the stairs and stared. The spider behind the central heating pipe stared right back. Sophie had taken to wearing sunglasses in the house which made it hard to spot the cobwebs, but it meant the spiders couldn’t tell when she was watching them. This one was smart. It hung upside down pretending it didn’t know she was there, swinging calmly beneath its huge, dusty web waiting for something to set off its booby trap. Discarded bits of woodlouse and spider lay in an untidy pile on the white carpet, and Sophie remembered why spiders got on her nerves.

As she leaned forward to get a closer look, the spider vibrated its web so fast it turned into a blur and made Sophie’s head spin. It didn’t look like a very nice spider because it had a pattern like a tattoo of a human skull on its fat, round body; and after she’d looked it up in her arachnid book and found out about its bad habits – including its fondness for eating its own babies – she decided to suck it up with the vacuum cleaner. That way it could do the nasty things it did inside the paper dust bag and she wouldn’t have to watch.

She switched on the machine and the spider vibrated its web so ferociously Sophie began to feel sick. The closer she got, the more manic it became. But Sophie took no notice, pointed the hose, and sucked it into the brown paper bag.

‘Hi, sweetheart,’ called Colin. ‘I’m home. Had a good day?’

Sophie kissed him on the cheek. ‘Lovely,’ she smiled.

‘What have you been up to?’

‘Just a bit of spring cleaning, my love.’

The next day Sophie bought a car vacuum cleaner she could carry around the house without getting backache, and every day for a week she sucked up everything that made a web. It made her very happy.

Mosquitoes were next on Sophie’s list because they kept coming in through the bedroom window to steal her blood and give her malaria. They were easy to deal with because Sophie knew where they lived: inside the water butt in the back yard. She liked to swish them around with a stick as they wriggled on the surface breathing in air through tubes sticking out of their heads. But that was yesterday. Today, Sophie turned on the tap at the bottom of the barrel until it emptied itself, then she waited until the larvae lay still on the steaming concrete. Soon they began to shrivel and turn black in the sun.

‘Did you forget to turn the tap off, sweetie?’ asked Colin when he got home.

‘Sorry, darling. All my fault. Not to worry. Rain’s forecast for the weekend.’

Sophie thought she was doing rather well clearing out the irritating things in her life, and that evening, just after sunset, she attended to number three on her list. She leaned the stepladder carefully against the apple tree where the wasps were settling in for the night, and dropped a deadly smoke bomb into their nest. She ran off as fast as she could, as she’d heard wasps could be rather vengeful.

 The following morning she went to retrieve the ladder – not a single wasp in sight – she thought happily. She celebrated with a bowl of strawberries and cream underneath the apple tree, and a long cool glass of homemade lemonade with muscovado frosting around the rim. All was well in Sophie’s world until a bumblebee came to sniff out the strawberries. This minor irritation took the edge off her sense of achievement and set her thinking.

She felt a transient pang of remorse about the bumblebees. She did like them buzzing about in the garden, but they would keep getting trapped in the kitchen and bashing themselves against the windows. They could turn quite vicious when she tried to rescue them. The buzzing was making Sophie rather bad tempered, so she decided that a little bit of meddling wouldn’t make any difference to the world bee population.

She bought some ant poison that said in big red letters on the tin that it was harmful to wildlife, particularly bees, and poured it down their holes in the garden. Then she plugged the holes up with cotton wool. Sophie was sure they wouldn’t suffer, and in any case the poison would come in handy if she got an ant infestation in the front garden like last year.

‘Are you bored, my love?’ Colin enquired.

‘Not at all, sweetheart. Why do you think that?’

‘Well,’ he said. ‘It’s just that you seem to want to change things all of a sudden.’

‘Like what?’ asked Sophie.

‘First you vacuumed up all the spiders. Then you got rid of the mosquitoes. Then there was the wasps’ nest.’ Colin didn’t know about the bumblebees.

‘Really, I’m fine, sweetie. Just trying to make life easier for us. That’s all.’

‘Fair enough,’ said Colin brightly. ‘But if you want to go out and get a little job, I really wouldn’t mind you know.’

Sophie didn’t believe in God, so she didn’t believe in divine retribution either, but when the rats appeared in the front garden and took up residence in the foundations because the airbrick had fallen out, she did wonder if there was a God around who’d decided she needed teaching a lesson.

Sophie liked domesticated rats – the female sort with silky white fur that lived in cages, smelled sweet, and got taken to the vet when they were under the weather – but Sophie didn’t know the pet varieties were exactly the same species as the wild ones that were eating their way through her floorboards.

Fancy Pants had been Sophie’s pet when she was four years old, and her favourite place had been up Sophie’s sleeve. Every Monday they would go to the post office and wait in the queue; and when it was her mum’s turn, Sophie poked Fancy Pants to make her pop out her head out and make the woman behind the counter scream her head off. Fancy Pants didn’t mean any harm, she was simply being nosey. She liked running up and down the piano keys too, and eating spaghetti – and could eat one strand of the long variety in twelve seconds flat. Fancy Pants died of stomach cancer when she was snacking on rhubarb crumble and listening to The Archers, and although Sophie wept as they buried her in the rose garden, she knew she’d had a good life.

But Sophie knew there was one difference between pet rats and vermin rats: one sort she loved and the other she didn’t. After a day or two of settling in under the floorboards, the rats began to take liberties.  Every afternoon they’d come out for a bit of fresh air and exercise. Dad first, then Mum, then the babies, all in a long line, smallest last. Sophie decided it was a bit of a cheek to take over the garden as well, and wondered what to do. But while she was wondering, she started having nightmares. Rats the same size as she was barged into the house without knocking, then marched from room to room in a regimental line on their hind legs, big one first, baby last. When she told them to clear off, they rudely growled in unison, showed their yellow fangs, and gnawed spitefully at any piece of furniture close to hand.

Sophie decided if she sorted out the rat problem then the nightmares would stop, so she emptied a whole tin of rat bait into the hole, and stuffed a new brick into the gap with some ready made cement.

Sophie felt pleased with herself. She was getting good at setting her life in order. She’d taken the cat off her list because the postman had accidentally reversed over it, which she hadn’t minded about because it was black and left bits of mouse on the kitchen floor. That was the other thing: Sophie didn’t like anything that was black, and this soon refined itself into an aversion to anything that wasn’t white.

And then the smell started. At first it was a slightly sweet, not sure whether it was really there, type of smell. Sophie opened the windows and bought a plug-in air freshener that gave off a sharp, chemical stink of something that was supposed to be roses. It least it masked the other smell – for a while. After a few days Sophie worked out what it was – it was the rats rotting.

‘What’s that pong? said Sophie’s husband. So she told him. ‘Don’t worry, darling,’ he said. ‘Why don’t we take that holiday to Brazil you’ve been after? The smell will be gone by the time we get back.’

But Sophie had been reading up on Brazil. She knew about the man-eating caimans that lay in wait for days lusting for the taste of human flesh, and the Surucucu Bushmaster snake that sent you into a coma if you as much as poked it. Malaria, dengue fever, rabies, Chagas’ disease, leprosy, bilharzia, she knew about them all. Then there were the rats as big as cats that would bite off your nose while you slept, and the chiggers that laid eggs under your toenails then crawled into your blood stream and fed off your brain.

‘Changed my mind,’ she said decisively. ‘Too uncivilized. Why don’t we spend the money refurnishing the house instead?’

‘If you like, darling. But what’s wrong with it as it is?’

‘It isn’t white,’ she said.

The next day Sophie got down to the serious business of ordering the right colour furniture and gallons of white paint. A skip was delivered and Sophie began filling it with anything that wasn’t white.

‘Good morning,’ said Maria from next door.

‘Good morning,’ said Sophie panting a bit.

‘You look like you could do with a coffee. Kettle’s on.’

So Sophie and Maria became friends. Maria helped lug the heavy furniture into the skip and began telling Sophie her life story. She started with her husband. ‘He never talks to me,’ she moaned.

Maria took to knocking on Sophie’s door at eleven o’clock every weekday for coffee and more life story instalments. Maria’s complaining soon began to get on Sophie’s nerves, so she changed the subject and told her about the grand plan that had changed her life. Maria was so impressed she decided to have a go herself. Sophie lent her the little vacuum cleaner, and soon a skip turned up in Maria’s front garden.

Then Maria’s husband disappeared. ‘He said I was obsessive and he’d had enough.’ Every day at eleven o’clock Maria wept her heart out all over the brand new white kitchen table until Sophie decided she’d had enough too.

The rat bait came in little pellets, and Sophie thought that if she put one in Maria’s coffee every day it might make her feel a bit poorly and she’d stop coming over. Nothing happened for a while, until one day Maria complained she was feeling a bit dizzy.’ It must be the anti-depressants the doctor put me on,’ she said.

‘Perhaps you should stop taking them and see if you feel better,’ said Sophie helpfully.

Sophie carried on putting a pellet in Maria’s coffee every day but it made no difference to the frequency of her visits.

‘Did the doctor take you off the happy pills then?’ she enquired.

‘He did. And he’s put me on some stronger ones. Now I feel even worse.’

Maria began to get quite wobbly on her feet, so Sophie advised her to go to bed and stay there until she felt better. She promised to pop in for a chat every day.

But Sophie was so excited about getting the house just right that she forgot. Colin said it looked very beautiful and what a resourceful woman she was, so Sophie changed her mind about the last item on her list and crossed it off with a thick black pen.

Sophie’s life was perfect. Everything was as it should be, and Maria was now in excellent health and had found herself a new husband.

‘I love my new job,’ she told Sophie. ‘Perhaps you should get one too.’

‘Perhaps I should,’ Sophie agreed.

‘I’m drinking Earl Grey these days. Milk or lemon?’

‘Lemon, please,’ she said.

‘You know,’ said Maria thoughtfully. ‘My stomach has been absolutely fine since I stopped drinking that coffee.

‘I’m sure you’ll enjoy it,’ said Colin. ‘You’re getting so bored here by yourself.’

Sophie was grateful to Maria for putting in a good word for her at the nursing home. Maria introduced her to all the elderly patients and showed her what to do.

‘They’re so sweet and so loving,’ said Sophie happily. Just like children.’

Sophie and Maria were put on dining room duty. ‘It reminds me so much of when my children were babies,’ laughed Maria spooning scrambled egg into an old lady’s mouth.

‘Sometimes I regret not having children of my own,’ sighed Sophie.

‘Did you have a choice?’ asked Maria.

‘I did, but I thought I wouldn’t be able to handle their toys all over the place, and all that dreadful noise.’

‘Wise move then,’ she replied.

‘I’m not sure now. This is so rewarding.’

            Everyone was excited. ‘What’s going on?’ asked Sophie.

‘A new patient’s arriving today. All the ladies have dressed up and had their hair done. It’s a rare thing to have a new man in their midst. He’ll be spoilt something rotten.’

Daniel had a shock of white hair, an innocent smile and a short fuse. ‘It’s quite normal for patients with advanced dementia to have little outbursts,’ said Sophie. ‘He doesn’t mean it. He’s lovely.’

            Sophie was right, and Daniel became the centre of the old ladies lives. A week later Michael arrived. He was a rather deaf mild mannered man of few words, and now Daniel had to compete for the ladies attention. He didn’t like it. He began to make a fuss at mealtimes, shouting at Michael and upsetting the ladies. ‘What can we do?’ asked Sophie.

            ‘I really don’t know. We’ll have to keep a close eye on him. Matron will make sure they don’t sit at the same table.’

            ‘But surely if he is told to behave, then he will,’ said Sophie.

            ‘Life isn’t like that here,’ said Maria. ‘Remember, some of them really are like children.’

            ‘In that case,’ said Sophie, ‘I shall treat him like one.’

            Sophie began to punish him. She smacked him when she thought no one was looking, and sent him to bed without supper if he wouldn’t do as he was told.

            ‘You can’t treat him like that,’ said Maria. ‘If Matron were to hear of it you would be sacked.’

            Daniel didn’t stop behaving badly and neither did Sophie.

‘This is not working out,’ said Matron. ‘Your behaviour towards Daniel is unacceptable. I am giving you one week’s notice.’

Sophie began to cry. ‘I really don’t want to go, it will break my heart.’

Maria was silent until Matron had gone. Then she hugged Sophie very, very tightly until she couldn’t breathe. ‘Don’t worry,’ said Maria with the kind of smile she reserved for the old people. ‘I’ve learnt so much from you. I know just what to do.’

 

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