July 10, 2017 § 10 Comments
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 did mean the spiders couldn’t tell when she was spying on them. This one was smart. It hung upside down pretending it didn’t know she was there, swinging beneath its huge, dusty web waiting for something to set off its booby trap. Discarded bits of woodlouse and fly lay in a 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 again as a sign she should clear off. The closer she got the more manic it became. But Sophie took no notice, pointed the hose, and sucked the spider 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 one of those small, hand held vacuum cleaners people use to clean the inside of their cars, 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. She sat on a garden chair and drank fizzy lemonade while she waited until the larvae stopped squirming 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 getting rid of all the irritating things in her life, and that evening just after sunset, she attended to number three on her list. She leaned the stepladder 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 get the ladder – not a single wasp in sight. She celebrated with a bowl of strawberries and cream underneath the apple tree, and another long cool glass of homemade lemonade. All was well in Sophie’s world until a bumblebee came to sniff out the strawberries. This took the edge off her sense of achievement and set her thinking.
She felt a bit guilty about the bees. She liked 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 nasty 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,’ replied Sophie. ‘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 bees.
‘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 jumper. 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 her head out of her sleeve and make the woman behind the counter scream her head off. She liked eating spaghetti too – 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 the vermin sort: one type 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 evening 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 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 was 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. At 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 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 the job,’ 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 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.’
March 12, 2017 § 10 Comments
‘Pilgrim,’ she whispered. ‘Do you think death is the end of everything?’
‘Can’t hear you. Hang on while I make this hole bigger.’
‘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?’
‘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.
‘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.’
‘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 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. He was praying again.Then 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.
image courtesy NDTV
March 8, 2017 § 21 Comments
Part of a novel which turned into a very short story…
She used to say if I really wanted something to happen I should draw a picture of it, close my eyes and wish. So after he died I drew her holding hands with him by the sea. I concentrated on their faces, flushing their cheeks, filling their eyes with light and turning the corners of their mouths into smiles. I made each picture different because it made the magic stronger. Some had blue skies, others grey, and some had the cloudy stripes of a moon rising from the sea. I drew yellow suns, and grey thunderstorms, and rainbows arcing over their heads. I always made the sand yellow because that was my favourite colour.
I wished and wished but the spell didn’t work, so I drew every day until my table overflowed. One day the wind blew through the open window and scattered my wishes over the bedroom floor. I left them where they fell. After a while the pictures looked old and worn out. They curled at the edges and turned yellow.
Each night I traced the shape of my parents on the windowpane with my fingertips, and then knelt by my bed, my hands in supplication. But still my father didn’t come back. I got frightened of the dark after that.
When she wasn’t sleeping, my mother wandered around the house. She poked her head into dusty corners, pulled open drawers and examined cupboards. She became a hunter. But when I asked her what she was looking for she said she didn’t know.
Soon her voice went away, and the edges of her body disappeared like the smudged shadows I made when I rubbed the charcoal off my paper with my fingers.
Our days grew still and colourless, and the house took on the faded dullness of a thing aged before its time. My mother let the range go out and the kitchen grew icy cold, facing in on its own depths like a cave. The mirrors, the windows, and the silver teapot with the dented spout no longer glittered when the sun cast its light. Even the flower garden, so beloved by my mother, began to sink back into the earth.
I held images of our past deep inside my head. They were safe there, protected from the misery that filled our house. But they made me feel disconnected. The kitchen had once been a place of warmth where squares of sunlight slanted through the window onto the scrubbed table. My mother used to butter my toast with the old silver knife. She scraped a curl from the yellow roll wrapped in grease proof paper, spreading the butter so thickly it leaked onto my plate. Then there was my father’s kiss on her cheek, and the lightness of her laugh as she brushed him away. But the eggs I remembered most of all: almost green in their grassy yellowness. I cracked one open every morning and watched the yoke slither down the outside of the eggcup.
My bedroom filled with drawings, so I spread into the kitchen. Soon a pile of paper grew on the table. The chickens hid their eggs in the bushes and there were no eggs for breakfast. That was when her sister came. On the first day Maria wore a cheesecloth dress the colour of the sun. She cleaned and cooked and made the house shiny and gave it back its sharp edges.
I drew a picture of a celandine and gave it to my mother. The weak spring light struggled through the window, and she pressed her face against the pane until it grew misty with her breath. Then she began to cry, and taking the scissors, went to the garden and came back with a single celandine. She put it in an eggcup on the windowsill.
The next day I drew a crocus. Again my mother took the scissors, and this time returned with a bunch of the yellow flowers. She arranged them in a glass of water and took them to her room.
‘And now she refuses to come out,’ sighed Maria. ‘But at least she says she’s hungry.’
Soon the daffodils came, but after a week I stopped drawing them. ‘It isn’t working,’ I told Maria. ‘The more she picks, the more she weeps. ‘What shall we do?
‘Nothing,’ replied Maria. ‘Look what she’s done to the house. She’s filling it with yellow flowers.’
‘But she’s getting sadder and sadder.’
‘No,’ said Maria. ‘That’s not what she’s doing. She’s found the tears she never cried, and now she’s using them all up.’
My mother filled more teacups with crocuses and celandines and put them on the windowsills. After they were over she filled jugs with daffodils and narcissi, and draped branches of forsythia over the inglenook. But still she wept.
I gathered the drawings from my room and the kitchen table. ‘I want you to burn these please,’ I said.
‘Why?’ Maria asked.
‘I think she doesn’t need them anymore.’
Maria shook her head and smiled.
‘Where is she?’ I asked.
‘Busy,’ she replied. ‘Look.’ She pointed through the open window to the garden. My mother was digging. Every few minutes she stopped to wipe her eyes and blow her nose.
‘But she’s not fine,’ I said. ‘She’s crying.’
‘Listen,’ said Maria. ‘When she’s not crying, she’s singing.’
September 19, 2016 § 3 Comments
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 he slid out of her into 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 then 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. He was a fighter, and his battle scars were shiny and white upon his forehead. He had been warring 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.
February 21, 2016 § 13 Comments
A short story written some years ago when I lived miles from anywhere with working collies who slept on my bed, a pile of anarchist sheep with strange shaped horns who liked to go walkabout in the night, and some little black Celtic cows…
and an overactive imagination…
‘That’s what I’ll do,’ I said, as I slid a finger up his backbone and made the short, black fur stand on end. His tail twitched, and Gus’s 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 clearer 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. 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 if I had something nice in my pocket, then she’d be Mum’s if it was walkies time, 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 Dad put padlocks on the bins, I found her digging up the garden. He 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 I 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.
Image courtesy Charis P Sallo
December 2, 2015 § 12 Comments
a short story: second and final part
The men sail into the harbour with the albatross, their faces set and dark. The bird has drowned, caught by the long lines streamed out like deadly necklaces behind their boats. They haul it off the deck and leave it lying like a soft, white pillow on the wall, its hard hooked beak open wide as if still gasping for life. It lies there untouched, unburied – no one will return this bad omen to the sea.
That night when the clouds are masking the moon, Efa squats on the cobbles and plucks the long white feathers from its wings.
Anghared watches. ‘Why are you doing that?’
‘The albatross no longer needs them. I am making sure Penn’s soul will be liberated.’
‘I don’t understand. Are you making spells?’
Efa shakes her head. ‘Every albatross has the soul of a dead sailor inside. I am simply making sure he will be free.’
The albatross shrinks and blackens on the harbour wall, and the child inside Anghared’s wasting body beneath the greatcoat can no longer be kept a secret.
The priest lays a a hand on her shoulder. ‘I am sorry,’ he says. ‘Penn’s body has been found in the bay.’
She begins to shiver. ‘In that case, I do not want to live.’
‘Come to confession. Your evil thoughts must be purged.’
‘I will not,’ she wails. ‘I have done nothing wrong.’
The women no longer come to the harbour wall, but Anghared continues to stand, her back hard against the wind.
‘Why do you still wait?’ asks the harbour master’s wife.
‘I am not. I am singing to Penn.’
‘And can he hear?’
‘Of course.He sings back.’
‘Of what does he sing?’
‘I will not say. You would not understand.’
Efa opens her arms. ‘Come to my house and eat. You are wasting away. This child will think it is unwanted.’
‘Perhaps the child is right,’ says Anghared, turning away. ‘I want Penn.’
Efa goes to the priest. ‘She’ll go the way of her husband,’ she says.
‘That is wrong in the eyes of the Lord. 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.’
‘Then I will pray for her soul. But if she will not admit her sin, there is nothing to be done.’
The church is full. Anghared grips the pew until her knuckles turn white, Penn’s coat hanging from her shrunken frame, her belly full and round. As his body is lowered to the ground, Efa holds her tight. ‘Stand back. You will fall.’
‘I shall fall if I want!’ she spits. ‘You lied to me.’
‘How did I lie?’
Anghared points at the coffin.
‘Wait a little longer,’ says Efa.
The two women stand silently by the grave until they are alone. Soon the priest returns. ‘Come to confession now, my child. God wants to hear of your sinful thoughts.’
‘There can be no God!’ she says bitterly. ‘And I am not your child.’
Efa closes her eyes for a moment then opens her bag. She takes out the albatross feathers one by one, and arranges them on the mound of newly turned earth.
‘Take them away!’ orders the priest, crossing himself. ‘I will not have a pagan act on God’s soil.’ Efa gathers the feathers and throws them in the air. They float and twist around Anghared’s head.
When the women of the village hear what Efa has done they jeer and call her a witch. ‘Keep away from Anghared,’ they say. But Efa takes no notice, and sensing that her time is near, knocks on Anghared’s door. ‘I have come to help,’ she says simply.
‘The others say I should not have you in my house. I have no need of you.’
‘I have food and blankets. And healing herbs.’ She lays them on the kitchen table and hands her a bunch of sage leaves. ‘To protect you from evil.’
Anghared is hungry so she eats the proffered meal. Then the pains begin. Sudden and sharp they shoot through her body as a warning. ‘I want to die,’ she groans, curling her body into a tight coil upon the kitchen floor. Efa covers her with blankets, and boils a kettle of water to make medicine from the birthing herbs. But still Anghared shrieks.
‘You are stopping this child from coming,’ says Efa. ‘It will not be born until it knows it will be loved.’
Anghared tosses and turns on the floor. As the moon comes up, her bloody waters burst. ‘My back will break in two,’ she moans.
But still the child will not come. Efa paces the floor. ‘We must find him, and we must go now.’ Anghared has no strength left to argue and allows Efa to help her to her feet. Draping the greatcoat around her shoulders, and taking most of Anghared’s weight, she helps her outside. Every few yards she stands quietly as Anghared breathes through her pain. They come to the lych gate. ‘I will wait here for you,’ she says. ‘Now go.’ The gate creaks its opening, and the arc of the new moon casts empty shadows on the gravestones. Anghared struggles up the path and disappears.
Efa sits inside the lych gate and closes her eyes. As her breathing slows, a chill creeps through her body and fills her heart. She begins to shiver. This is a place of death, not life, she thinks. We should not be here. An owl hoots. It’s warning me. I have done wrong. Exhausted, she lets her eyes close.
She wakes to a shuddering in the early morning air. Opening her eyes, she sees a great white bird lifting itself clumsily into the light. Something has ended, she thinks.
The sun rises behind the steeple. A blackbird lands on the lych gate roof and begins to sing. Efa walks slowly up the path. As she reaches the grave she cries out. The ground is covered with pure white feathers. Anghared lies curled up beneath them, the rise and fall of her chest invisible. Penn’s greatcoat is bundled on the ground beside her.
‘Are you all right?’ she whispers, expecting no answer.
‘We are here,’ breathes Anghared, wrapping her arms around the greatcoat. ‘We are all here. I am whole again.’
‘Why do you not cover yourself?’ Efa hears a whimper inside the greatcoat, and Anghared reaches inside for the boy child.
‘He kept his promise. I will never be alone. I am alive again.’
Image courtesy National Geographic
December 1, 2015 § 9 Comments
A short story: part one
Every day the woman comes, her face turned towards the ocean, her back poker straight to fight the wind. All day she whispers, her lips fluttering sounds no one can understand. The dying storm catches the words and flings them back in her face.
She paces back and forth along the harbour wall, her bare feet sliding raw inside sea boots too big for her. Each night she slips them off and lines them up beside the black iron bed. She knows he would have liked her wearing his boots, he would have understood. She wears his army greatcoat too even though people stare. Anghared doesn’t care. She wraps the thick coat around her body like a shroud, and pulls its collar tight over her nose. She has to have the smell of him, make him flesh and blood again. She drinks in his sweat, his salt, the cigarettes he smokes when his boat works the fishing grounds.
She stops in her tracks as if remembering something long forgotten, and steps gingerly to the edge where the harbour wall meets the waves. She looks down to where the slimy film of weed settles and thrives in the cracks between the cobbles. Dragged by the full moon like a compass point to the north, a shoal of jellyfish cluster tight against the wall, floating like thickened water without apparent plan or will. It is time for the females to drop their eggs and for the males to squirt their sperm into the sea. The shoal begins to dance its ritual that makes new life, and Anghared hugs Penn’s coat tight to her belly. She smiles at the brightening horizon. ‘It’s a sign, Penn. We too have made new life, and when you return, you will see.’ She doesn’t see the eggs sinking to the bottom where the lobsters wait and snap their claws in anticipation.
The next day she comes again. This time the moon is hidden and the jellyfish gone.
‘Go home,’ says Efa, the harbourmaster’s wife. ‘Nothing good will come of this. Penn will come back when it’s time.’
‘When?’ she asks.
‘As I said, when it is time.’
‘But when will that be?’
‘Be patient, Anghared,’ the woman soothes.
‘But I want to see him now.’
‘Trust me. He will come, but you may not recognise him.’
The other wives as is their custom when a fisherman does not return, come to the wall every day for seven days. They stand back from the edge near the slime of seaweed with their mouths set in a sharp, thin line. The younger women hold the hands of their children so tight their knuckles turn white, and the old wives bring fishing rods on their backs with bread and currants for bait, and pretend to fish; but they are simply waiting too. When they stand too close to Anghared or when they lift an arm to put around her shoulders, she lowers her gaze and turns her back. Her face grows stiff, and lines like grey commas stretch around the edges of her mouth.
Sometimes she is there before dawn when the smacks leave for the fishing grounds. They sail silent and colourless out of the glassy harbour, sometimes followed by flecks of phosphorescence that flow like the tails of the manta ray the men sometimes catch in the nets. Penn says the old men call this glittering the stars of the sea. ‘It means the boats will return with their holds full of fish.’
‘Like a sort of magic?’ she asks.
‘No,’ he laughs. ‘There’s no such thing. 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 pass through the harbour mouth, the greatcoat flapping around Anghared’s body like a clumsy bird struggling to take flight. They make no sound of greeting but each raises an arm as a mark of respect, as a sign they know she must keep vigil.
Efa watches every day from her cottage at the end of the harbour wall. ‘Come away,’ she says on the eighth day, pulling at the young woman’s sleeve. ‘At least when the child is born it will have the soul of its father.’
‘There will be no child,’ retorts Anghared bitterly.
‘You know that’s your sadness speaking,’ Efa replies sternly. ‘You can’t hide it from me. It has been growing in your belly for six weeks now.’
The full moon comes once more, and still she waits. The plankton glitters, and the jellyfish come back and thicken the water by the harbour wall. And still he doesn’t come…
A revised story written and blogged a while back. The concluding part should come tomorrow… 🙂