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In Dreams

Quietly, so quietly, I turn my key in the lock. The light coming from within is low, a burnt orange that reminds me of churches nearing Christmas. It bodes well; she may still be asleep. In I go, treading softly the crumpled path of precious clothes. They lie like discarded skins, and her perfume lingers. Lovingly, I pick them up. A diamond falls from something, and my heart jumps inside myself. I dive to stop it hitting the wooden floor, and land with a wobble, knees bent. The jewel is cupped inside my hand. It is the shape of a tear. I exhale mouthfuls of sweet relief, and smile. She is definitely asleep.

I remember the first time I came here, cream skinned and desperate to please. I wanted to absorb everything, from the diamonds to the Damien Hirsts. I barely comprehend them now; so steeped am I in luxury, it slips right by me. But this thing in my hand is suddenly real, cold and hard against my skin. I wonder what I’d need to have gone through to take it. I notice the brooch has drawn a pinprick of blood. It sits, a minute bubble upon my cushioned palm, and as I mount the stairs I stare at it outstretched before me like an offering.

The journey past her door is tense. I feel like a schoolgirl, corridor creeping. I so hate it when she greets me in her nightdress, the dark outline of her nipples making me redden, reminding me of my prudishness. I ease myself along the corridor, faintly pressing myself against the wall like a shadow, a thief. I have almost reached the office door when –

“Pops?”

I breathe, don’t reply. Here it is, my burst of liberation. A diminutive act of revolt, but it allows my pulse to gather speed.

“Hello?”

And still I say nothing. My heart is beating; I bite a long chewed lip.

“Poppy!”

“Coming” I call, injecting concentrated cheer into my tone:

“Just, just coming.”

I put the diamond in my pocket, suck the blood away. I place my hand on the door silently, cupping the cool brass handle with my other, twisting its head. I surprise myself by imagining it is a human head. It’s uncanny, allowing your mind to slip away from you like this. Click.

My voice is full of sunshine when it speaks.

“Good morning” it says, almost singing the latter word. I sound like something from an American advert. I want to laugh; so far away from myself do I feel. She eyes me with irritation.

“I slept terribly. It’s my back.”

I look at her, cock my head to one side.

“Oh dear. What can we do about it?”

A deep crease in my forehead appears. It will suffice for sympathy, this line. She buries her head under the pillow so that her voice is muffled. I catch something about tea, and retreat back downstairs to the kitchen. When I return, she is lying perfectly still in a silk Chinese robe. Her eyes are closed, her hands folded. The skin has a waxy appearance, but it is not unpleasant. She looks like a beautiful corpse, embalmed.

“I’ll just put your tea here, by your bed.”

She doesn’t move, not one inch. I consider leaning out to poke her.

“Next to your book. Make sure you don’t knock it over.”

I open my mouth to remind her to call her brother, but think better of it. Just as I am leaving the room, she speaks:

“Could you fetch my brooch?”

I cough with surprise, wondering at her intuition. Why do I always feel guilty for things I haven’t done?

“Your…?”

Her eyes still seem closed, but under the curtain of lashes, I think some part of them sees me.

“The tear shaped one.”

I do not ask her where it is, for I cannot feign this dialogue. She knows that I know. When I place it on her side table it makes a loud thud on the wood. Her fingers move and she flexes them, heavy as they are with stones. I am suddenly aware of my un-manicured nails, the subtle traces of dirt beneath them. I pull my sleeves down so that they are covered, twisting the fabric in knots between my fists. She speaks again:

“I had the strangest dream.”

Dreams are usually far more interesting to the person to whom they occur. Yet I wonder what it was, this one she deems worthy to relay.

“Oh?”

“Diamonds were worthless.” She smiles, and a crease forms between her eyes as she tries to decipher the intangible thread of her subconscious.

“It had been replaced by…bark, of all things.”

She lets out a small laugh, but it is uncomfortable, somehow. There is tightness around her mouth which real laughter should have loosened. I want to make an observation, say something interesting, but I can’t think what. She continues:

“And all the trees were bare. The jewelry you see… it just kept…breaking.”

In one sudden movement, she reaches out for the brooch, instinctively knowing, sensing where it is just from that thud. She doesn’t even turn her head to look at it. Perhaps she really has been watching me all this time. She clutches it to herself. I watch her earnestly, waiting for her to speak again. She has finished though, and I leave the room, tiptoeing out like a careful child.

Minutes pass, and I hear a door closing. It’s the housekeeper. I make out the growl of various kitchen appliances awoken from their slumber, and soon the familiar lethargic thumping on the stairs. As Martha gets closer, this is punctuated by light rasping breaths. She gives up half way, as I know she will.

“You wanna coffee, darlink?”

“Please.”

She mumbles something in Spanish, and I call words of thanks behind her. Within minutes there are noises from downstairs. I try to ignore them, but just as the smell of coffee and toast has begun to drift it’s way along the corridor, there is the sudden trill of breaking glass. A shriek comes from downstairs, but there is no real panic to be heard in it.

“Oh! Oh Jesus! Help!”

I close my eyes, sit back in my chair. I wonder for how long I can feasibly delay. As if she knows my game, the chaos amplifies. I surrender, get up.

Downstairs, the bedroom bears no resemblance to the quiet tomb I entered not long before. The acute, tremulous voice of Maria Callas resounds about the room. It pierces every orifice, bounces off the chandelier above my head. Everywhere there are clothes, products, books. A newspaper is open, its pages strewn about, encompassing the silken bed. The window is thrown wide open, and a sudden gust of wind lifts them. I follow the chaos like a trail and find her lying in the bath. Martha is on the floor cleaning up what looks like porridge. She gives me a knowing look. There is the smallest sound of a splash; a foot is raised, piecing the steaming film of water.

“Sometimes, I think people pretend not to hear me.”

She extends a liquid arm, knocking over a glass of what looks like beetroot juice. I believe she knew quite well that it was there. Glass shatters upon white tiles, and I see Martha’s hands raised to her mouth in distress, but the opera somehow silences all noise of this. I breathe. I am serene, removed. This, above all other things, infuriates her. She turns her head to me, narrows her eyes.

“Where were you?”

The maroon liquid stretches across the floor like lava. I pull up my sleeves, summoning my sincerest smile.

“Nowhere. Here now.”

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Great Escape

Image

“Do you want to be an actor?” she asks. Her eyes are narrowed to strange slits, neighbours to a perfect nose. I ponder the question; speculate if there is some confusion in my being here. Want. Why did she emphasise that word? I shift in my seat. Her deliberate use of actor prompts a silent mockery of her, and I grasp this opportunity to distract me from myself. Actress is a less professional term, it seems. I feel soothed by this private moment of ridicule. I look at her long in the eye, daring myself to comment on the stupidity of the question. I don’t though. I don’t say a thing. My delay is possibly the reason she’s now distractedly doodling next to my name. As the minutes of this meeting drag themselves by, I suspect she will decipher this doodle as rejection.

When at last my voice comes, it is smaller than that which laughed seconds ago in my head.

“Yes. I do.”

She continues to scan me.

“You’re very… pretty.”

With all my strength I will my face to go cold. The tiniest drop of sweat trickles down my temple like a tease. I ignore it. My hands are held tight in the clammy solace of each other. Mustn’t, mustn’t shake.

“Thank you.”

She smiles. She has engineered this situation, and I have played right into her hands. I should have changed the subject, or emulated her bogus smile in recognition of my lovely face. There is no place for humility here. I consider how to redeem myself. I go to open my mouth, but she is too fast, snapping back with an energy that winds me:

“You like the stage?”

I nod, and it makes me think of figurine dogs found in bric-a-brac shops.

“Very much.”

I feel like Pollyanna. I should have dyed my hair, put some metal through my face. Even as I say them, I know my words are contrived, and I want to gather them back inside me, start again. And yet this is contrived; a tightrope of engineered persuasion. It is the business we’re in, them and I. Nearly I.

A bumble bee buzzes by the window behind my interviewers. It throws itself against the pane, exasperated and heavy like a drunken thing. My face feels tight with fatigue, and I remember the hours of insomnia that led me like betrayal to this moment. All night my mind was pregnant with words. Thou art not holy to belie me so. They pulsed through every inch of me, bit at my brain for long dark hours.  Drowsy am I with exhausted anguish, and strangely removed from the finality of this conversation. I am spent, just like the dear bumble bee. I look away from him, back to them, attempting to divide myself between the three people in whose unified gaze I am locked.

I will speak to kill the silence. Yet as I decide to do so, it occurs to me I have not a thing to say. There is a possibility of my laughing under whatever demeanour it is I wear, but I know if I permit myself to smile, I will be enveloped in hysteria. The knocking of the bee is becoming unsettling. How different our perspectives are, his and mine. I can see the open section of window clear as day. To him it is as an endless wall of glass. Speak.

“I –”

“I wonder if you want it enough.”

I meet her in the face, full of pluck. It melts so fast, my pluck, and a muscle in my face begins to spasm. The unreality is broken. With panic, I think how all my life will be marked by whatever it is we four say inside this sterile room. I try to tell myself how innocuous they look sat before me; pensive expressions spread, margarine-like upon their faces. So calm, my panel of tormentors. The main one, for this is how I see her, has her legs arranged in a way that makes me think of a bygone era. Not crossed, but folded to the side like a collapsible ironing board. In her hand sits a fountain pen, which she strokes menacingly between her thumb and index finger. I wonder how many dreams it has scratched through this day.

At last I speak, but they are words that sounded earnest in my head and now sound emphatic, absurd:

“Yes. I want it. I really do.”

The silence we return to makes me want to stand up and do something puerile.  To stick out my tongue or leap forward, make an obscene face.

The bottomly bee has given up on the glass, I see. He shuffles fruitlessly along the windowsill, quiet with discontent. I look to the floor and speak in a voice that makes me think I’m a character in a play:

“I’ve wanted it my whole life.”

The woman smiles: wet red stretching across shapely lips. It reeks of dislike. She is sat in the middle, but I think would naturally be my focus were it not for that. Her skin is very white and the lines among it are sparse, but there is a hardness about her that betrays her age. She was beautiful once, I think. Now though, her eyes are yellowy, and the skin on her lids press too heavily down, making me think of curtains. Despite her efforts, those eyes will never recapture their former sparkle. I realise I am drawing strength from that fact. It is so ugly, this profession.

The bee has resumed his mournful climb; the smell of nearby air reigniting his hope. I want so much for him to escape. I watch with a frustration that pre-empts his own as his instincts lie to him, and he unknowingly veers off course. I feel like an accomplice sat here, watching him fail time and again, and think I may just stand up and push the window wide open, guide his sturdy little legs with a piece of paper. But there is her voice again, and it is a question I knew would come:

“Then, I have to ask: why the delay?”

I mumble something about money, life choices. It’s not enough though, and I hear myself telling a story about a sick mother. The audacious lie of the thing lends a wonderful glaze to my eyes. I appear to be reliving some tender memory she’s unwittingly unlocked, and I want to laugh out loud for the compassion erupting on their faces. All except hers, that is.

She narrows her eyes, but it is the man who speaks now.

“A lot of girls come here thinking how glamorous. How wonderful to be… the focus.”

At last I’m the one who smiles, and it is a horrible, knowing smile. I’m not like them it says. I realise too late they’ve seen it painted on a thousand girls lips. I saw it myself only twenty minutes ago; it was on the boy with whom I waited in the corridor. Forty minutes we waited, with nothing between us but that look.

I pull myself back to the eyes in front of me, and speak the words I prepared before I walked in:

“For me, it’s just conceding. I think this is the only thing that gives me… contentment.”

My mind is pulled back like a puppet to that boy, my competitor. For now he lives fresh in my memory, but I suspect his face will be imprinted somewhere within me for years to come. There had been just the two of us in that corridor, wordless, breathing audibly by a door labelled ‘recalls.’  I’d sat frozen in my seat while he stretched and flung himself around like a rubber band. Do I really want this for myself, this tireless pretend world? I think I must.

The final woman licks younger, thinner lips. She is looking in my direction, but she is not focussed. Her mind is somewhere else, perhaps recalling a different version of herself, sat on this very seat. I doubt she thought she’d ever teach, but then they never do. I want so badly to make her look at me, but she is quite lost in the landscape of her past. This is what I want for my life, I think. Then why, why do I feel so sick?

One more sentence, that’s all I need summon.

“It’s my…”

They look at me, all of them. They are catlike in this moment, their eyes swelling with me. I have stopped shaking now, and begin to draw a strange sense of calm as their starring faces bore into me. Each one knows with utter certainty that I am about to say ‘dream.’

Haydn

The steam on the window is thick, and it makes rivers along the glass like frail fingers have dragged themselves down. I can see he wants to talk, but I can’t stay it out, somehow. I wonder at the strangeness of it all. That he’s my dad, and I can’t think of very much to say. The cushions on the kitchen chairs are dirty because of the dog that casually sleeps on them night after night.
I finger through a magazine on the table, and notice the pages are stiff, the corners curving upwards. Something was spilt on them long ago, it seems. I check the date. Six months it has been sat here, tired in the damp of yesterday. With regret, I register that the organised clutter does not make me smile. I used to relish it, this darling chaos of my father’s world.
He always keeps things long after they become a nuisance, their relevance half remembered ghosts amid a mess of stuff. He writes notes in pencil and rubs them out again and again, so that the paper softens and dulls. All the rest, the endless useless rest – wait their turn. Hoarding is his private stand against a disposable generation he deplores. I wonder if he realises it will make no difference in the end.
A violin quivers from the machine and echos about the kitchen; it jerks me from these thoughts. The quality is not perfect, and he walks over and taps the machine, first with two fingers, then harder, with a weary palm of the hand. He never did have much patience with technology. He shakes his head, conceding:
“Not like the old record player.”
I stare at him, this man who made me, observe his easy defeat. In this moment I see him as a stranger. He would have tampered with it once. I do not say that, though. Instead, I hear myself speak in a voice that doesn’t sound at all like mine. It comes from some hidden part of me, distant and distracted:
“I guess not.”
I attempt to order some of the papers, stacking them into futile little piles to relieve the suffocating table. It is beloved this table, ancient in my eyes. Here it stands, imprinted with a thousand nicks and stains from my childhood. So many spills it has endured. It had been a wedding present once, had smelt of polish and promise.
I gather up some more of the paper and touch what feels like jam stuck to one of the pages. It revolts me too much, the way that strange smells in other peoples’ houses do. A flood of emotion fills me, and I feel light headed with whatever it is. I fear it is pity that presses at my heart, hate myself for it.
“You should get rid of these, dad.”
He looks at me and smiles a vague smile. He does not know what I refer to.
“Hmm?”
I spread my hands, and try to squeeze or swallow the disapproval out of my voice.
“All this.”
He does not deserve it, that tone. Yet it is there, eclipsing the old one that used to soothe. Gone is the daughter’s voice, full of faith and awe. It is generic, I believe, a daughter’s passing admiration for every silly thing her father does. At some stage or other, it has to die. I clear my throat, make the voice that comes from it sound gentle.
“Paper. I can take it all away. Recycle it.”
He looks at it for a long time, as if he has not realised it was there at all.
“Oh that. No… I don’t think so. Got some life in them yet, I should think.”
I fidget, biting a nail. I want to smoke, but I know he won’t want me to. I smile something that is not quite sincere, and it makes me feel perfectly sad. I resist the cigarette, and suck slices of air in between my teeth. It is cold this kitchen, but then he has always claimed he doesn’t feel the cold. It was her who insisted on warmth. He seems to read my mind:
“I could see to the heating, if you’re…?”
“No.” I say. “I’m fine, thanks.”


I look to the floor, which he keeps so clean. To the familiar lino that has for so long imitated floorboards. My mother always said it was like having a pine floor without the hassle of maintaining one. “No one would suspect it wasn’t real” she used to say, a proud expression in her eyes at deceiving the neighbours. I’d never really liked pine, as it happened. Now, for the first time, it occurs to me how strange it is that someone would actually want to imitate it.
The lino is raised at the edges, tired and apologetic. It seems to know it has been exposed as a fraud. I can see he has tried to superglue it, and the glue strains to pull it back to its foundation. I stop myself from offering to replace the whole thing, and wonder what I can say.
“Did I tell you Sarah quit smoking?”
His eyes are uncomprehending, and he looks apologetic.
“Sarah?”
“Butler. My bes…” I trail off. It seems so inane, now, to talk of a ‘best’ friend. I used to use the expression all the time. I ponder the word, and hundreds of half forgotten memories are summoned to my mind like lyrics of a song; “Sarah is my best friend and Charlie is my second best friend…” Endless car journeys, chattering to my father incessantly and boring him with the vital nonsense that made up my school days. He was so good at being interested.
I pull myself out of the past and focus on the father that belongs to now, the one standing hunched and grey before me. When did he go grey? I look at him for longer than I mean to, willing him to recall.
“Dark hair. The one…from school?”
He frowns and bites his lip. His eyes are glazed as if he cannot see far beyond where he stands. I feel like forcing a laugh that is not in me, pretending there never was a Sarah. I didn’t mean to confuse him. Then out of nowhere, suddenly he smiles, revealing a beautiful set of teeth that are not his own:
“Ah ye –es. Sarah! Of course.”
I smile, relieved. I wait for him to remember all he can. He does this quickly, and then:
“How are her parents?”
I barely think about the lie, but do not look at him as I speak it:
“Oh, you know. Still going.”
He smiles again.
“I’m glad.”
The music is playing and it occurs to me that he has not listened to it in a while, because each new movement comes as something of a surprise. Occasionally he mutters something, an observation: “Ah yes; bassoon.”
I look up at the walls whose paint is pealing with damp. There is a faint cobweb in one of the corners and in it a daddy long legs sits, casually imposing, like a king. An extended leg occasionally taps the plaster beneath. Everywhere there are photos of her. Everywhere is her absence.
“I might have a cigarette. If you don’t mind.”
I know he will mind, but I need to get out. My jumper feels too tight and I am hot, though I know it is not warm in here. I get up and walk to the door, turn my back on the relentless violins. At last the door is open. The night embraces me, and I feel freed, reassured. I breathe in the air that smells like far off bonfires. I stand there, leaving the kitchen door slightly ajar. I don’t want to cut him out completely.
I take a long drag, and it burns my throat. I feel a faint nausea trickling down through my body, and close my eyes to the sound of woodwind. The next drag is better.
“Getting colder.”
I speak over a team of flutes, knowing he is lost in them.
“What’s that?”
“It’s cold, now.”
“Mmm.”
I close the door to stop the chill, and stand down from the step. I watch his silhouette through the window. He has his back to me, and moves his head in time with the music. He raises a hand. Gently, so gently, he strokes the air with his fingers. He caresses it like something loved, conducting his invisible orchestra. I make out the rumble of the kettledrums from within and watch him, letting the cool air kiss me.
He does not know that I am watching, and my absence allows his animation. He moves with the rhythm, his feet seemingly lifting from the ground. It is coming back to him now, this piece. Suddenly he points to a corner of the room, pre-empting the sudden clash of the cymbal. I blow smoke into the glass, watch his figure through the dispersing grey.
When I come back inside, he is on the floor. For a second I’m terrified, but then realise he is conscious, just absorbed with something. I shed the nausea like a cloak; lull my thumping heart back to regularity. A battered tube of superglue lies next to him, its lid discarded. The glue is potent. The smell intensifies as I move closer, and I realise he is pressing the lino down. I feel quite drunk, though I’ve had only one glass of wine. I come over to him and kneel down, pressing my hands upon the bits that he is not holding in place. Our heads are nearly touching, and nothing between us but the song of flutes. He speaks first.
“Lovely, isn’t it?”
He is talking about the music, I know.
“Beautiful.”
He looks very thoughtful, and I remember for the first time this evening how wonderfully blue his eyes are. For now they are a young man’s eyes, and they dance before me.
“Did I ever tell you my father’s last words?”
I hadn’t expected this. I fear for the direction the conversation will take, though I very much want to know. I shake my head, wait for him to speak.
“After the goodbyes and so forth, his final words weren’t spoken to any of us.”
He laughs to himself, and it makes me laugh too, though I do not yet know why. He continues:
“His family, I mean. I believe my mother was almost…miffed.”
I laugh again; remember how I love the old-fashioned terms which litter his speech. I can’t seem to stop smiling, but I want so much to cry. To sit and sob for the mother and the wife we have lost. For all that was ours, that is ours no longer. For the damned unfairness of it all.
He is looking just past me, remembering. I want to climb inside those eyes and see what it is he recalls.
“What did he say, Dad?”
He smiles.
“Haydn: I salute you.”

 

 

First accompanying image (in sepia) by Charlie Mackesy.

Writer’s Block

Now I have slept a thousand sleeps, and with these I have done.
For when I clutch with aching hands
At sentences begun –
I feel my thoughts compound me:
My instincts come undone.

Her Palace of Roses

As a child I observed my grandmother with caution. She was not maternal, and I always felt found my presence unsettling. She loved fine things, and surrounded herself with antique vases and hand painted lamps that stood like regal friends, glowing with the private worlds they contained and longing to be penetrated by my sticky hands. Everything she owned was beautiful; from the tortoiseshell coasters to the crystal glasses with which they were entrusted, to the smooth walnut table beneath.

I recall many a tortured Sunday spent sniffling and sobbing into my best dress, eyeing the despised brussel sprouts she mercilessly insisted I ate. The punishment for failing this obstacle was omission from the sweet helpings of pavlova or pecan pie or whatever it happened to be that day which signalled the finish line. I can still feel the cool touch of her white speckled hand smacking down on mine if I dared reach for what I had not earned, her voice an iron whisper:
“I think not.”
Granny had a rose garden, and would snip carefully selected blooms she knew wouldn’t scar in their absence. With these she’d return; their thorny and fragile bodies cradled in her arms. Her step was very light, and suddenly she’d stand before me, smelling of outside and impenetrable secrets swimming in her eyes. She’d touch the stems lovingly with a patience she did not afford her family, before carefully cutting them to size and placing them in the scattered vases.
Even my mother, her age old enemy, reluctantly admitted she had a gift for rearing flowers, and occasionally yielded to her curiosity: how did she get the petals to look so plump, so utterly white? In such moments there was a cool look of triumph about Granny’s face, but she would never answer the question. Instead she’d stare at her for a long time, and say in a quite distracted voice:
“It really doesn’t come naturally to you at all, does it?”
My mother would blink at her, embarrassed, liking her less, before catching her final word. It was very quiet and apparently said more to herself than the woman she addressed:
“Funny.”
Theirs was a strained relationship. My mother tolerated her, but below the surface simmered a loathing she sought hard to control. I once overheard a story of how, in the early years of her marriage, my young mother had taken a glass of lemonade and thrown it over her appalled mother in law, in what must have been the most exhilarating moment of her life. Whether true or not, I would play this scene over and over in my mind whilst forcing down mouthfuls of under chewed brussel sprouts, secretly defiant in my knowledge of her bravery. My mum was the courageous princess, the only challenger of the wicked witch in her palace of roses.

One Sunday, after an agonising lunch, my little sister and I were encouraged to play in the garden. My father had failed in his bid to dispel the tension that ebbed and loomed like an indecisive spirit hovering about the family meal, and offered to accompany our mother on a walk into the village. He suggested in a conspiratorial whisper that we seek out Sir Siegfried Slow. Siegfried, he explained, was an ancient member of the Hampshire Slow Worm dynasty; a wise gentleman with a tail that would break clean off if you caused him the discourtesy of touching it, and a wicked smile that had been known to fracture even Granny’s icy mouth.
Before departing, my father had tickled my sister’s ear before turning to look me in the face and said
“Be good with gran while we’re gone. You’re in charge.”
We set to work burrowing and calling for Siegfried. We spoke and we sang, whispered and hollered. We begged him to show himself. He did not, and eventually we tired of the hunt. Spent, we sat down by the roses, deflated in the fleeting way that precedes distraction. My sister picked up a stick and pushed it around the dirt, writing her name amid the old leaves and bits of bracken.
“Why is Granny mean?”
Despite the odd challenge, it was generally acknowledged by my sister that I held the answers to life’s mysteries. I was the eldest, and wisdom was therefore mine by right. I pondered the question.
“She isn’t happy.”
I dropped my head back and looked up at the sky. It was grey, and I was tired. It was starting to rain, and a faint droplet landed on my nose. There was a tickling sensation. I realised my sister’s eyes were still on me, wide and sincere.
“Why is she not happy?”
I felt certain I knew, but I could have plucked the most unlikely explanation from the air around us, and probably she would have believed me. Such is the faith instilled in an elder sibling. At last I spoke:
“Because she lives by herself.”
My sister looked sad, and her curly hair was crowned with tiny dots of rain. She had cast aside the stick, and was now sat slumped, her bulging cheeks cupped in her hands. I breathed in audibly, suddenly inspired:
“Get up. I’ve got an idea.”

When she saw us, the pallid skin on my grandmother’s forehead came alive. If I close my eyes now, I can still see the way it slowly creased and folded to a frown as we marched ceremonially in. My sister went first, her chest swollen with pride and her sacrifice held out before her. Hers was a five-year-old voice full of love, eagerly pushing her present forward, keen for the praise it would prompt:
“Grammy”
In each child’s life that there arrives a defining moment which, forgotten or remembered, will shape an aspect of their personality forever. A crossroads of such relative magnitude that foreboding and bravery meet eye to eye, and fight for prominence in the small decider. To confess or remain silent. Here was mine, and I recall as if it had enveloped me just yesterday the regret that lurched in my stomach and bubbled in my throat after choosing the coward’s way.
The smacks were hard when they struck; this I could hear as well as I could see. Their resonance has stayed with me. The sheer injustice of the punishment made me want to scream with protestation, to dig my nails into our wicked grandmother’s flesh and wrench her away from the person I suddenly knew I loved more than anything else in my tiny precious world. But there I stood, staring at the scene unfold before me. Horrified and hatefully still. I remember my sister’s eyes closing as the clatter of claps on her skin lulled all other sound. Her face reddened and her little hands clenched, but never did she act my betrayer. The roses in vases seemed to wobble and shake, though with sympathy or encouragement, I could not tell.
We’d intended the bunch of wilted flowers as a present, had braved their thorns – the menacing little teeth with which they fought us – to please her alone. The unreserved trust children place in adults’ capacity to do the right thing is remarkable. It takes practice in dismay to become a sceptic.

In the years exceeding that visit, my mother ensured that we were never left alone with our grandmother. We continued to see her on occasional stilted Sundays, but these days saw us chaperoned. Our mother, the fierce lioness, sat between her young and their tormenter, baring her teeth if ever the evil one got too close.
Ours was a relationship maintained by the impression of perseverance on all sides. In reality it was an illusion. Narrow hours were pencilled in diaries months in advance, with none of the informal reliance that makes a grandparent indispensible or loved. As we grew up, our obligation was somehow loosened, and we were expected to see her less and less. Where our childhood selves had longed for something tangible, our teenage hands grew greedy for the small cheques she posted at Christmas and birthdays. We’d write her sterile letters proclaiming gratitude and see her ever infrequently.
Years passed. Now I am older, an adult. I am told she may not last much longer. She has been weak for a long time, but I doubt she could ever really die. She was always stubborn, and I am sceptical.
After too much time cooking up excuses, my guilt succeeds in prompting a visit. I decide to see her on my own, without the protection of my sister. I enter very quietly without knocking, at the advice of a nurse. She could be asleep. Better not to give them shocks.

She has led a long life, my grandmother, has outlived all the kindly aged people we once knew. Her beautiful house has long been sold, the beautiful things in it dispersed. There she lies, eyes closed, propped up on ivory pillows. Her hair is no longer flecked with grey, but entirely white. Her hands are folded, and she has a sapphire ring on her finger. Her face is an old woman’s, but the lines are so very faint. She does not look 94. I walk towards her, and inexplicably the old fear grasps me. Am I trespassing? Her eyes snap open.
“You.”
I stop moving, and meet the familiar gaze. She is lucid, then.
“Me.”
“They said you’d come.”
It is strange to see her in this little place, shrunken and vulnerable. To know I need not be afraid of her. For she has indeed shrunk; she is so much smaller than I remember her.
“ I’m sorry I’ve not been for a while.”
The room is largely barren, but I notice one of the tortoiseshell coasters on the small table beside her. There are photographs on the wall. When I look closer, I realise there are many of my sister and me. The room smells of disinfectant, and I notice an open cupboard that contains slippers and what look like nappies. I quickly look away. I feel myself reddening, and force a smile.
“How… have you been?”
There is a knock at the door, and a large woman comes into the room holding a tray. She addresses my grandmother with a cloying kindness she must hate.
“Lunch time Mrs Robertson.”
The fat woman smiles at me, and my grandmother turns her face away so that she is staring out of the window while a large plastic bib is fastened around her neck. The woman’s joviality unnerves me, but I know she is just trying to be friendly. She smiles at me again, but bigger this time, so I feel I have to explain my presence.
“I’m the… her granddaughter.”
She beams back at me, and starts to fuss over a plastic tray.
“We’re popular today. Lovely.”
There is a robin on the windowsill, and it hops from foot to foot, tilting its head and staring at the scene on the other side of the glass. He does not look away, but I focus on the floor, the wall, anything but the woman’s puffy hand spooning something towards my grandmother. The performance lasts much longer than I want it to. The food looks inedible, and her mouth is too slack to eat it with dignity.

Finally it is over, and the woman leaves, her enormous bottom gently brushing chairs and tables as she exits. The robin flies away. The spectacle is over.
“Ghastly, isn’t it?”
“What?”
“You know what. Age.”
Her eyes narrow slightly, and she looks to the bag in my hand.
“Are those..?”
“Roses. Yes.”

She smiles, and it is as if I am eight again, and all the lights in all the world have been switched on.

Alice and George

George had married at twenty; pulled between the clutches of duty and dread at losing his identity to a girl he neither knew nor cared for. Alice had been knocked up, pregnant and proud – once soothed by the crystal rock on her nineteen year old finger. She’d known it wasn’t a real diamond, but she didn’t care. She had him – really and truly – and she knew he would stay.
They settled in a small flat bought generously by her father, the son in law’s prize for doing the right thing. It was not an interesting space, but Alice eagerly stripped the green flaking lino from below their feet, and upon some pallid yellow material they’d been landed as a wedding present, she sew patterns she asked him first to approve. She spent hours perfecting them, and he liked the way her face looked strangely solemn as she focused on the task. By the time they were heaved up and hung, bunting-like, framing the windows of this place they now called home, he heard himself tell her they were the nicest curtains he’d ever seen. As she beamed back at him, her eyes full of love, he realised with pleasure that he hadn’t even had to lie.
He found it strange, living with this girl who took such care in small things he’d never considered, like the smell of soap and the suppleness of loo roll. He quickly learned she was a slave to fads, and found her experiments with makeup and hairstyles perplexing. He laughed out loud when in the fifth month of their marriage he discovered a stiff brazier contraption under her nightie, which she’d suddenly and inexplicably taken to wearing, convinced it would save her figure after the baby was born. It lasted all of a week, after which she confided it was damned uncomfortable, and that “Marilyn could bloody well keep it.”
He took a long time to realise that telling her she looked ‘just fine’ made her tearful, but quickly found that advising her to hold off on second portions when she’d been complaining about her weight, propelled her into disproportionate rages resulting in days of slashed portions for them both.
He was surprised that someone so house-proud could be such a magnet for clutter, and he swore blind when forced to manoeuvre his way through the mountains of paperwork she’d accumulated. He became aware of his temper; so much a part of him, and yet over which he’d never before considered exercising control. She made him see that it was unreasonable, but usually only afterwards, after she’d locked him out for shouting so forcefully the neighbours had banged on the walls, and he’d been forced to sleep cold and disgraced on a bench in a nearby park.
She had a habit of contradicting him when he was least patient for it, so much so he felt she must do it intentionally. If he felt one particular way about a politician, she would raise her eyebrows, enraging him, and say something like:

“Well, I’m not sure I agree with that dear.”

When he presented her with a plan, she offered an alternative, usually starting with “Or, just a thought…” This he could have just about tolerated were it not for the fact that she nearly always came back to his original idea as if it were her own, and to make things worse did so in the precise moment he’d accepted and begun planning for the wretched alternative.

A few weeks before the baby was born, she discovered some pictures of pin-ups in a draw on his side of the bed, and there he found her crying in the dark. When she’d asked him if he thought the women more beautiful than her, he’d known better than to tell the truth, and shaking his head, wrapped her in his arms. He knew Alice was not the finest girl he’d ever seen, but when he looked at her now, her face wet with tears and her soft hair falling out of the chignon she’d taken to tying it into, he thought how very lovely she was, and how he hated, really hated himself for making her cry. He took the pictures and burned them outside.
Years later, after the last of the babies was grown and gone, they found themselves thinking of those ancient first months when it had been just the two of them, and the careful strangers they had been. How little they had known not of each other, of life. At the time of their moving into that little flat, they had not travelled or socialised, dabbled with careers or lovers. They had not ever been in love. It had not occurred to them then to seek out their soul mates, as was the passion of the young. They watched their eldest daughter marry in love and divorce in hate within eighteen months, and wondered at the strangeness of it all.
As he lay beside her each night, he felt that theirs was a generation passing, and wondered which of them would be the first to go. He feared for her to be left without him, in this cold world where women were not ladies and men no longer gentle. He was out dated, as his children were so fond of telling him, but he had no intention of adapting to fit this place. When, early one May morning he brushed her leg with his toe, as had long become his berated habit, and she did not stir, he knew that she had won the race. He breathed long and deep, and though he knew the answer, whispered a question into the dark –
“Have you gone, my love?”

There was nothing, as he had known there would not be. George knew that soon, he would somehow have to find the strength to get up and draw the fraying yellow curtains, and that then it would be more real than he could bear. But for now he lay still, reassured by the touch of her beside him. He looked at her lovely hair, thinner now, but still as soft as it ever was. So many hairstyles he had watched this woman wear. He held her to him. There was the faint, familiar smell. He breathed her in, and thanked his lucky stars the fates had brought him such a girl.

Love Me Tender

The sun beat down upon their bodies. Somewhere close by, the sound of children entering water could be heard. He stared at her. Her eyes were closed, and on her face lay the contented trace of laughter they’d shared minutes before. Her mouth was slightly open, and an ivory tooth, chipped from a forgotten something in her teenage years, lay partly exposed beneath a curtain of lip.
“I love you Jane,” he whispered, so quietly he wasn’t sure she’d heard. She didn’t answer.

A couple were walking down near the sea, but not together, he noticed. They had the air of argument between them. The woman walked ahead, her arms determinedly folded about her as if to shut her lover out. The man followed slowly, his hands tucked firmly inside his pockets.

He lay back down beside her, breathing the last of her lingering perfume. He felt at peace like this, watching her small chest rise and fall, her sometimes heavy breathing as she drifted in and out of sleep. Her skin, normally so very white, was speckled with sandy freckles, and on her shoulder sat a small familiar, darkened mole. He watched the little blonde hairs on her arm, and wondered how long it would take to count them.

He noticed with love a faint line that sat along her stomach, so taught when stretched flat out. He pressed his lips upon it and tasted salt. He wondered at the beautiful spontaneity of it, of being allowed to do it, and marvelled that she didn’t start at the shock of intimacy. So part of her was he that she did not notice when he moved to touch her in her sleep. He pondered with sadness if another had kissed her here. Of whether she would ever think of it again.
“Will you love me always, Jane?”
Her eyes opened at last. They were bluer than he remembered. She licked her lips, stretching in the sunlight.
“I want to, my love.”
The noncommittal response did not placate him as he knew it should. He traced her tummy button with his finger, unconscious of how possessive the gesture would seem in tandem with his words:
“I’ll always love you. I don’t have any difficulty saying that.”
She smiled at him, and tried to take his hand. He moved it, pretending to scratch an itch she knew did not exist. The sun was in his eyes, and he tried to sound detached:
“Have you loved someone like this before?”
She hated the way he narrowed his eyes like that; as if he were suspicious of her. The sound of a wasp could be heard, and it danced and hummed between them. She wanted him to swat it. In different circumstances she would have moved. Instead she sat, determinedly trying to ignore the amplified buzzing in her ear.

When at last she spoke her voice was quiet, saddened.
“It’s choosing which of us to sting.”
She met his gaze, angry at him, wondering if it showed. He stared at her, willing her to answer his question. She breathed deeply, trying to suppress a yawn. It was very hot.
“Not like this. But you know that I have loved before… you.”
He nodded. He knew that he was being brutal, but he could not stop:
“I think a part of you is pleased to have that in your past.”
She frowned. It was – he realised with remorse – a habitual frown he had often provoked. A frown he’d received and rebuked and adored. Part of him wanted to reach out and stroke it with his index finger, to brush and stroke and kiss it far away. And yet he heard himself speak again:
“Come on darling, you know what I mean. It lends you a defence of me… a means of reasoning me away. ‘In the scheme of things’, you can say, ‘he is just another’.”
There was pain in his voice that lingered on that last word, but she heard only resentment. She shook her head, trying not to become irrational. Why did he do this? Why did he need to own her? She wanted to hurt him, and conjured the words to do so – never mind that they weren’t true.
“I can’t pretend I don’t relish the memory of…. some of them.”
She hadn’t meant to emphasise the word ‘some.’ He visibly flinched at this, and she wanted to reach out to him and tell him he was all she’d ever like and love and touch. And yet she couldn’t. He laughed a laugh that was not his; a bitter ugly laugh she hated.
“I don’t doubt it. I’ve always known you liked variety.”
At this she recoiled. He was cruel, provocative and cruel. Her words fell from her mouth before she had the chance to save the ears they burned:
“And I’ve been starved of it since I met you!”

He looked at her now as a stranger, not the woman he’d held in long nights of love. How odd, he thought, that she appears quite different to me now. Her features seemed cat-like, pinched. Her nose was sharper than he’d realised before this day. He would hurt her then, the way she’d just hurt him. And even as he said them, the words were wrong to him; a betrayal of every tiny part that made him up.
“I’ve been thinking about that. It might do us both good to experience other people.”
He needed her to say no. That the very idea was abhorrent to her. That she’d never never never want another.
She mustn’t cry, and yet she felt a river of acidity trickling down her throat. She recalled a beautiful girl, quite different from herself in every way, upon whose lovely frame his eyes had mused that morning. She was not enough for him.
“Perhaps it would”
– was all her voice could manage.

Sweet Nothing (A Short Story)

He found her alone, curled up and crying in a cinema he’d frequented for years. He didn’t ask her why she cried, but she told him anyway. She was hiding from a man named Bill who smoked expensive cigarettes and liked to put his hand over her mouth when they made love. He winced when she told him the last part, and she was struck by his sincerity. “Bill’s very sweet sometimes” she had offered, out of shame at her indiscretion and further shame at her appalling tolerance. He had looked at her for a long time, searching her face so that she felt more naked than she had ever truly been with the brutal strangers of her past.

He’d asked her if she was hungry, and she’d surprised herself by saying yes, quite starving, and might they go somewhere close by. When they moved to leave, her step fell into his, and she felt herself wanting to lean against this quiet stranger who steered her out of the door whilst keeping a conscious distance.

He swung the door open in front of her and the sun hit her without warning. She looked up at him through slit eyes –
“Do you always pick up girls in the cinema?”
He didn’t meet her gaze. He seemed pensive. The contours of his mouth had leant him a quietly sombre expression. She wanted very much to make him laugh, but as yet, had not the faintest notion of how to do so. He had a small scar above his lip, and she wanted to ask how it had come about. She watched it, liking it, willing it to move.
Finally he spoke:
“I don’t tend to pick up girls anywhere.”
He began to move more quickly, and instinctively she leant out and touched his arm.
“Won’t your wife mind?” She was smiling at him now. He looked at her fully, and she wanted to apologise for being inappropriate, for this is how he made her feel. She felt herself blush and looked away.
Long seconds passed, and in them she wondered a thousand questions she’d somehow have to order in her mind before asking. She could not help but glance at him. When she did, she liked the deep line that sat between his eyes when he was lost in thought.

“She must be quite a girl – your wife, I mean.” She bit her lip childishly, and looked at him with sincerity she had not intended: “I know I’d mind.”
He stopped walking so quietly that she barely noticed she was now ahead of him, and when it spoke, his lullaby voice was soft and kind.
“Not if I tell her. I do. Intend to tell her.”
She looked to the ground, desperate not to betray the acute sadness that had engulfed her like wind as he acknowledged a person she’d thought could not exist.
“Of course” was all she said.

They walked in sometimes silence, side by side, weaving among the streets that were seams of his patchwork childhood. He spoke of his family. Of his father teaching him football along the quiet alleys near home when he was too young to realise what a wonderful thing that was. He pointed to museums he’d loved and churches he’d come to forget.
“You no longer go in?” She asked.
He looked up at a grey building, homage to a God he couldn’t feel.
“I used to experience fear or relief when I went in. Now I feel… isolation. Churches aren’t meant to do that. Perhaps I’m sad to relinquish it entirely. A strand of faith is preserved if I don’t go in.”
She asked him what he prized most of the city. It was the bridges. Of what he hated, “The litter. Always that.” She looked at him for what she knew was too long a time, and thought: how he cares.

Over lunch he had made her laugh so that her eyes watered and her side ached, and she forgot that her teeth were not as straight as she’d have liked, so that for what must have been the first time, her whole face was alive in its carelessness. She had something on her chin, this he gently pointed out whilst trying to disguise a smile, and to her amazement she had not felt like a fool. He asked her about herself and she found that she spoke more freely than she thought herself capable of, and he, in turn, told her about himself. He loved gardening and jazz music, toffee and scrabble, and a million other things that did nothing to distinguish him from a thousand others she hadn’t a care to meet. And yet everything he said made her wonder at how very different he was, and she began to dread the nice to meet you so long then that was somehow, dreadfully, just minutes away.

She watched the gentle way his hands moved as he told a story, and noted how his ears became red when he felt he’d divulged too much. She relished his voice as if it were the first time she’d heard one speak, and tried not to imagine it calling her darling. Outside she listened to something like a clock striking, but in this stolen private world of theirs she phased it out like a painter brushing water on colour.

As they stood outside he maintained his forever distance, and thanked her for company. She looked at him, barely blinking for fear of losing him from sight, and tried to conjure her most sincere smile. “Goodbye.”
He placed his hand so gently on hers, and for a moment she quite forgot that he belonged utterly to someone else. “Goodbye.”