Portraits from a town

Some people would draw it but I choose words for my pictures. You know the place, you’ve passed through on your way to somewhere else. You didn’t stop and if you did it was just to buy some food  before you drove on. It was nondescript, home to no one you know. You can’t even remember its name. It wasn’t big, it wasn’t small, it was just a town. What were the people like? who lived there?

Sameness came late in life. It didn’t have enough time to bed in. She always felt on the outer, even now. She still knew single women who owned bright scarves and loose fitting summer dresses. They danced on beaches in the moonlight in holiday brochures. In reality they drank cocktails and read racy novels by pools in places that were out of season, holidaying in weather that was slightly overcast.

She had learned to cry silently, just let the tears fall out of her eyes with no sound. She could do it anywhere. There was not the time or space to cry in front of anyone. She realised now that all women learned this skill somewhere. It was only men for whom tears were a show and tell session.

She supposed the house was nicely decorated. She did not know. It was the same with how she looked. She wasn’t indifferent just unsure. Maybe mirrors lied? She could never see her own image without seeing herself. She wanted to know what she looked like without knowing who she was, that way she could judge her looks objectively. How else could she know, how did anyone know? She didn’t know if other people had that problem and there was no one to ask.

The house was meant to be like her clothes, an extension of herself.  The walls were, grey, blue. Magnolia. Colours she never wore. She found it hard to see herself reflected back in décor. The whole idea seemed as elusive as the image in the mirror. It was a skill you could not learn. The house was a house. Nothing more. The car was the same. Things she knew she should be grateful for even though the weight of them on her shoulders…it was best not to think about it.

Then there was him. She did love him but she wasn’t sure he noticed. She couldn’t help thinking that if he had to choose between her and the sofa that the sofa might win. Or the telly. And almost certainly she was second to his phone. She had learned to cook, convinced herself to enjoy it. Convinced herself there was purpose in this life of looking after others. Contrary to her politics, to what she had spent her life saying, she had ‘settled down’. The emphasis she had realised too late was on the ‘down’.  

Trying to tell herself there was meaning in ironing someone’s shirts. It was bullshit. There was no meaning. The shirts were just ironed. They would need ironing next week. Wasn’t she lucky, she had a roof over her head? But when she added it up, the roof,  in exchange for the ironing? It had looked like a good deal on paper but was not so good in real life.

She knew she was meant to be happy and by comparison maybe she was. It was like the mirror, she didn’t really know. Certainly, there was no time to sit by a pool in overcast weather and read a book. Shouldn’t she be grateful for that? Except somewhere she wondered if women with bright scarves were actually dancing on beaches. 

She loved her children. They were both special and ordinary. There was no great tragedy to interrupt her days. No cataclysmic existential mountain she had to climb except everyday mundane existence. The ignomy of housework, the tedium of tidying up, the emotional hefting of small children, then big children. There was no war to suffer through, no hurdle that a tradesperson couldn’t overcome.

She loved her burgundy jacket with the same passion which she had once marched against-she couldn’t remember what she had marched against. Maybe she hated the jacket. Emotions were hard to separate when your time was spent moving the emotions between family members. His needs, childrens needs, someone else’s needs. Her thoughts and feelings only existed in the gaps. There were hardly any gaps. She went from yoga to pilates, to yoga again, sipping stupid ineffective diet tea along the way. She wore last seasons lip colour and this seasons nails.

She had friends but no one to talk to. She drank coffee in a place with an Italian name because otherwise it wasn’t real coffee, except that real coffee was grown in a different hemisphere. None of it made any sense. She tried hard, so hard, just to belong.

But hidden in the box in the back of the wardrobe, a place no one ever looked. In a box with a lock and key, hidden from the whole world, inside that box, written on a piece of paper-the name of a beach and bright, sparkly, brilliantly coloured –scarves.

Portraits from a town

Some people would draw it but I choose words for my pictures. You know the place, you’ve passed through on your way to somewhere else. You didn’t stop and if you did it was just to buy some food before you drove on. It was nondescript, home to no one you know. You can’t even remember its name. It wasn’t big, it wasn’t small, it was just a town.

She looks at the girl across the street. The loose fitting uniform, the smug jacket, walking beside the older woman, probably her mother. Her own uniform is tight. Curves. She likes it that way, in any event there is no money. She watches them from her spot on the wall. They don’t notice her.

The girl is talking to the woman. The woman is leaning into listen, brow furrowed as if she is thinking about what is being said. She wonders what that feels like. She wonders what the woman is thinking, what the girl is thinking? Probably they are both bored.

Her world is mostly shouting. She has not had a conversation like that with anyone recently. She is always talking loudly, too loudly. Everybody says that. She does that because she hopes they hear. But it seems no matter how loud she speaks no one hears. That girl, the one over the road is not speaking very loudly at all and still her voice is being heard. Perhaps if she looked like that?

She whispers things to herself in the night. But only silly things, like, you are really pretty. But then sometimes other things, like, you aren’t worth anything. Silent tears because she is never alone, there is never space in the house to be alone. No one notices. She is better off out here in the world. There are boys, boys out here. They are not the kind on the telly.

One of them grabbed her once, well actually it was two of them, but the details aren’t important she tells herself. At least it was a human touch. They just felt. They didn’t do anything. She had kicked one of them. She knew she had kicked hard. She hoped it hurt but worried that it hurt too much. She wanted to be a good girl, but a good girl for who.

For the boys? ‘Let me touch, but don’t tell’. For the teachers? ‘Study hard and if not be quiet so others can’. For her Mum? ‘Be invisible, you were a mistake, if you can’t be invisible be quiet.’ They all had a definition of a ‘good girl’ and she fitted none of them. She was loud but still no one heard. Soon she suspected she would have to choose what kind of ‘good girl’? There would be no time. It would be random, chance. There was no one to tell her. No one to listen to the questions she had.

Somehow she knew she would choose the boys. Everybody did, didn’t they? Maybe not the girl over the road. She wasn’t over the road, she was here on the wall. Soon she would be drinking, maybe try their drugs. She didn’t know. She was gravitating towards the people who could give her something, anything. She would be popular. She would belong. She would be their kind of ‘good girl’. She didn’t want that, but at least they heard her. Sometimes at least. It was touch, human touch.

Still she looked at the girl across the street, walking and talking with the woman who was probably her mother. How did that kind of belonging feel? She wondered. Someone to listen. Someone who thought you might have something to say. She could imagine the measured tone, the careful answers. No shouting. Sometimes her mother looked right through her, at one of the others, at something they had done.

Inside her head she knew stuff, knew she could know stuff. She was clever, it was such a long time since anyone had told her she was clever. She was the only person who knew she was clever. She kept it hidden. There simply wasn’t the space for it. If she just hadn’t had to scream so loudly for someone to notice, to please notice. What was it like to have someone who noticed?

The getting home time was getting later and no one noticed. The clothes were getting tighter, not just because that was what she wanted but because that was all there was. No one noticed.

She knew chances and time were running out. She had the urge to run across the street and grab the woman by the arm and scream, me, me, me, listen to me, I am worth it. She looked at her shoes. She knew she wasn’t. Wasn’t worth the teachers time, her mothers time, her father-no idea. No ones time. No one had time to listen. The voice had gotten louder, the actions more outrageous. She was a lost cause. No going back, just going on further and further down the hill. Like a car crashing over the barrier and down the bank.

They could put on the brakes, any of them could reach out and put on the brakes. But her car kept careening down the hill. The louder she was, the less she was heard. No one heard her scream as the car slid into the bottomless lake at the foot of the hill. She sank quietly into the mire. Seen without being seen. Loud yet voiceless. Even as she struggled through the water, she imagined a hand reaching down. What had happened to that girl across the street, in the nice uniform, where was her hand.

There were simply no hands. She struggled for every breath. Still she drowned in the weightless expectation of a failure that wasn’t hers. Screaming as loudly as she could. She drowned. No one noticed.

Portraits from a town

Some people would draw it but I choose words for my pictures. You know the place, you’ve passed through on your way to somewhere else. You didn’t stop and if you did it was just to buy some food  before you drove on. It was nondescript, home to no one you know. You can’t even remember its name. It wasn’t big, it wasn’t small, it was just a town.

She sits next to him on the train. Not always, just sometimes. He never seems to notice her. He has eyes only for his phone, for the slightly illicit morning conversation with the woman in the office. The one who’s butt and legs he fancies. Really he should have set that phone for a smaller font but he is so imbued with the importance of his own subterfuge he doesn’t care who sees. She thinks he thinks that he is too important to bother with discretion.  

He isn’t particularly observant. He lives one street away. She’s walked down that street sometimes. Knows which door he comes out of. Has seen the wife. The woman with perfect skin and bleach blond hair, gel nails, whose hips have widened out but who still fills her jeans and wears her boots with aplomb. She supposes she must still feel sexy. She thinks perhaps he never notices.

She needs glasses to read but she can still read his texts. She sees the words he writes to someone else. She sees someone else’s answers, coquettish, then open, then desperate for a compliment-‘I’m sure its nothing you haven’t seen before’. He replies about what he likes and how its ‘like’ their ‘together’.

She can see the wedding band, has watched him emerge from the house where he lives with his children that very morning. He kicks his bag accidentally on the train. No doubt he is thinking they are all consenting adults. In his bag is the lunch made for him by his wife. She makes lunch for him as she makes lunch for the children. He wonders how the wife  has let herself go so much after only two children. He rests his phone on his paunch. Poorly manicured nails hurry over the screen. His mother had three boys and was still glamorous until her grave. He takes up space on the train. Legs splayed, bag in front of him. He is important. She sits huddled in the corner and watches. She knows she shouldn’t.

She has often thought of just slipping a note to his wife through the letterbox. Nothing malicious, just a heads up, you should check his phone. Then just wait for the ‘for sale sign to appear. It is a non descript house, neat on the outside, with a family car on the drive and a middle aged man car beside it. She never did leave that note

One day he arrives at the station looking more haggard, then she sees the for sale sign a few weeks later. Perhaps someone else left the note? She sees the texts to the woman on the other end of the phone as he tries to extricate himself from something he had never intended. They had all been consenting adults. He has gone a bit far perhaps. He can’t understand her anger. It was a bit of fun between consenting adults, he’d enjoyed flirting like a teenager again. He had no idea she thought he genuinely cared. He looked through the texts, does the phrase, ‘its like we’re together’ indicate anything more than it said. His wife seemed to think so. That line had sent her over the edge. Its also the one that HR were talking about-amongst a raft of others.

His wife seemed to have grasped the seriousness straight away. It still eluded him. The stress has made his belly sag. He clearly has been leaving somewhere without looking in the mirror some mornings. The other woman is reassuring, he is still attractive.

Later that same week, she sees the text, the woman on the train. She notices now that he smells a bit. She thinks its his socks. Not washed. Perhaps she won’t sit here again. She watches. Observes. He clings on to something he never wanted because if he doesn’t HR will want to talk again. He doesn’t even recognise this woman in the conversation on the phone. He thinks about wide hips and tight jeans, boots and gel nails and the comfort of bleached blond hair and wonders where that has gone. He tries not to think about his kids. The bag on the floor is empty. He is buying lunches now. They are the best meal of the day.

He comes to the station via a different route. His shirt unironed, his bag empty, the trousers sagging as the stress takes its toll. She does not always sit next to him. She thinks about passing him a note. ‘Please wash your socks’ and then another day, ‘I think there is snot on the sleeve of your shirt.’ She sits there sometimes wishing she had a pen and paper. She was there the morning he broke up with her, the one who thought he’d seen it all before. The day he told her, it was like they were together doesn’t mean the same as we are together, or I want to be together, it just means ‘its like we are together’ but we are definitely not together. Its just like that. 10 minutes later, there is the summons to HR with a ‘please explain.’

Sometimes, even on a train you are privy to a private moment, to a transformation, a revelation. She sat there one morning, knowing he didn’t see her or recognise her in anyway. She was invisible to him. She looked at the haggard face, the sagging eyes, the sullen complexion, but she was lucky enough to witness the moment, that moment when he finally understood, a moment of vigour and life as he suddenly realised, ‘I am an idiot.’

There’s a man asleep in my coffee-Part 2

We no longer speak…why… read more

We no longer speak.

But I know I owe it all to her. She helped me save him. After we left the shop the first time, it went like this:

Half way down the street. I grabbed her arm.

‘We have to go back!’ In my head, that is a pivotal moment and I said it loudly and firmly. She, on the other hand, swears I mumbled it and that it was one sentence in a longer conversation.

We can’t agree.

I think she looked at me like I was mad but I also think, even then, she knew. We had to go back. We did go back.

I spun on my heel, forced myself to look at the café , took a breath and walked determinedly back. Striding across the pavement. At least that’s how I remember it.

She says it was more of a slow, bewildering, uncertain saunter.  She says if you actually spin on your heel you will break your ankle. There could be more truth in her version?

Anyway, maybe it was neither. Perhaps we walked there in a non-descript manner, both of us thinking different things and neither of us speaking.

We went in. I could see the table. The one we had just been sitting at. I could see the cup still sitting there. But- there was a woman by the chair, taking off her scarf which had somehow caught on her coat. She was trying to untangle it before she sat down.

We literally had moments. The chair was pulled out from the table already.

I ran. Lifting an elbow, I slid past and underneath the woman’s tangled arm, straight into the seat. She was surprised. Stepped back. I might have made contact with my elbow. I deny it.

The waitress was about to pick up the coffee cup with my sleepy friend. I flung my hand out to grab the saucer. There was a moment when we both had hold of it before she recognised me and let it go.

The woman meanwhile had stumbled. (Again I deny contact) She’d tripped and was sat on the knee of the person across from us. I didn’t look around but I could hear the apologies in the background. My friend meanwhile ambled back in and sat across from me.  That was really the beginning of the end of our friendship.

He was still there. In the coffee.  Asleep. The waitress stood there and I blurted out an order for an espresso for my friend.

He was gently snoring, swirling chocolate sprinkles into the air. I didn’t wake him.

Meanwhile the woman I had elbowed (allegedly) out of the way had gone over to the owner and was remonstrating about my behaviour. I could see him looking at me. I coolly and steadily met his gaze. The waitress was scowling at the coffee machine as it spluttered into life. I suddenly knew what I had to do. I had a plan.

The waitress was quick with the espresso. I think she wanted us gone. She placed it on the table, all the time glaring at me. I didn’t care. Focus. I was going to save him. He was breathing, alive. I opened my mouth, out came the words, the question.

I asked the question, ‘How much to buy this cup?’

She looked at the cappuccino which was now well past being able to be drunk. She still didn’t seem to see him.

‘Cappuccino is £2.80.’ She seemed to be slurring her words but my friend denies that completely, said I was behaving erratically and making people nervous. Unlikely!

What a cheek that waitress had anyway, she’d already picked up the money we had previously left at this table. I owned this cappuccino already and whilst I am not sure of the ethics of it, I certainly felt I was responsible for the welfare of the person sleeping in it. Again a question to which the internet has no answer??

‘Is that with the cup?’ I asked.

‘Cant buy the cup,’ she said-firmly. She was really being combative now. I would not be put off. This was not a competition. I just wanted the cup and the cappuccino in it.

‘How much is the cup?’ I persisted. Focus is important to success. My voice was steel. My eyes reflecting a determination to succeed that would make a boxer proud.

I have read a lot of self help books about handling this kind of situation (although I should add, not ones that specifically addressed where you are trying to buy a coffee cup because there is a man sleeping in it).

She went over to the manager who seemed to be examining some kind of possible bruise on the woman I had elbowed away. Which was rubbish because she almost certainly had injured herself in untangling her scarf and coat. Anyway what did I care? Convict me for assault, I had more important things on my mind.

She came back. ‘We don’t sell cups,’ she drawled.

‘£10 for the cup,’ I said. My friend looked at me, then looked away. Embarrassed. I didn’t understand why she didn’t understand. She didn’t understand why I didn’t understand.

Maybe she was right. It was quite a lot to pay for a white cup.

I could see the manager now coming my way. I was desperate. There was some kind of weird force at work. This wasn’t me. This was not how I behaved. My friend looked down. She started stirring sugar into her espresso. Why, when I needed her to focus on the s-i-t-u-a-t-i-o-n????

The manager was having trouble getting through the chairs to our table. He had to be polite, asking people to move their chairs in. He was nearly at my table. There was one table between him and me. And two chairs would need to be moved so he could get through. I heard the screeching of chair feet on lino as one chair moved out of his way.

I could see his belly starting to push through as the occupant of chair number two reached for the side of her chair to move it. I had to act. I could see her hand sliding down to grip her chair, in seconds it would move and the manager would be at my table. He might not sell me the cup.

I did the only thing I could think of.

He was coming to my table from one side and the door was to the other side. He was squeezing through one set of chairs (his own fault-too many tables).

I grabbed the cup with the sleeping man. I stood up. I went for the door. There was still a table between us. The Manager was squeezing through chairs, almost through and out the other side. I was going in the other direction to the door, balancing the cup. Trying to keep it stable so he didn’t wake up.

The manager turned all his energy to me and made a final push towards me. He had almost made it. He was going to stop me. No!

The waitress stood there. Frozen in panic. Was a customer really about to steal a cup? On her watch? Her eyes wide, her face contorted in distress as if she just realised Titanic actually sinks.

The manager was so close. I could smell his cheap aftershave.  I could feel the air swishing as his arm reached out towards me. If I’d looked at him I’d have been able to see each individual crumb in his beard.

FOCUS.

I think I yelled.

I remember the sound of a chair screeching across a lino floor. You know that screech! It was melded in with my scream. I had a rush of adrenalin. I turned my head briefly to look back. I could see his blue jacketed arm, the desperate chubby fingers reaching towards me. I could see the belly poking out from under the orange shirt, buttons straining with the effort, his yellow tie twisting in time with his rage.

And then. My friend.

I saw my friend. Looking at him. Realising she was my only hope. Her hands seemed to be moving in slow motion to the side of her chair. One hand each side of her chair as she heroically pushed back into him. Her coffee flung down onto the table with the suddenness of her movement. Dark black beautiful syrupy coffee flew everywhere as I made the door.

He was sprawling backwards, yelling. It was too late. I was gone. The door flung open. A coffee perfectly balanced.

Out into the street. I held the cup, walked away and did not look back.

Stay tuned for what happened next, next week?

There’s a man asleep in my coffee!

There was a man-in a cowboy hat- asleep in my coffee…read more

I like this café. I come here a lot. The service is seamless, fluid. They serve every kind of coffee you can imagine and they sneer at tea drinkers-what’s not to like. Except today was d-i-f-f-e-r-e-n-t.

I always have a cappuccino, my name is just a coincidence. I never drink a latte-well would you if you were me?

We were sitting at a table. It’s busy enough that you can never get the same table. We’d ordered. Nothing out of the ordinary yet. I could hear the milk being frothed in the background. All perfectly normal.

The waitress came over and put the coffee down. I didn’t pay much attention. We were mid conversation. It was just a quick acknowledgement and the waitress was gone again. It was uneventful. I always have one sugar in my cappuccino.

They are one of those shops with the sugar in an open jar-never sure whether that’s more or less wasteful than a little paper sachet. The sugar at the bottom is often hard and they must have to just throw that away fairly often. Anyways (which is not a proper word-it should never have an ‘s’), I loaded the spoon with the sweet brown crystals and was steering it towards the cappuccino when just left of the chocolate sprinkles I saw-him.

There was a man asleep in my coffee! In a cowboy hat!

I know! Never happens. There was a man-in a cowboy hat- asleep in my coffee. The hat was covering his head which must have been resting on the smooth, white, porcelain rim. His torso was poking out while his bottom half was nested in frothy milk. A kind of dairy duvet scenario. He was snuggled down in silky, smooth, soft cow’s milk, full cream as well. Don’t believe in the skinny stuff myself.

My hand stopped dead. I mean just stopped dead, midway between the sugar jar and the coffee. After all, who wants to be sprinkled in sugar while they sleep (you’re right- there’s probably a website).

I just stared. My hand hovering. Just hovering in mid air with a loaded spoon, like a plane who’s pilot has just realised the engine have failed-only less dramatic because it was only a spoonful of sugar. Thank goodness for all that yoga that made that sugar spoon stillness so possible

I looked across at my friend and nodded towards my coffee. She looked at it. At first she couldn’t see it. But I made her look again.

We nodded together and I whispered, ‘There’s a man asleep in my coffee’.  He might have been only the circumference of a coffee cup tall, but he was asleep. In my coffee!

We looked at each other. Panic crossed both of our faces. This had never happened to either of us before, anywhere, ever and I have drunk a lot of coffee.  

‘I’ll search it, on the internet’ she said. And she did.

‘Nothing’ she whispered ‘only people falling asleep when robbing coffee shops.’

‘Common? That’s so common it comes up on a search?’

She nodded. Our stress levels were through the roof by now. The internet did not have an answer. I repeat, the internet did not have an answer!!!!

What exactly is 21st century etiquette when a café serves you coffee that has a man asleep in it.

‘Try tea’ I said. Still nothing.

Could it get any worse?????

It got worse!!!!  He-started-to-snore. It was low level at first, just a kind of small humming sound. But then he started sucking in milk and it got messy. Really messy. This is why dairy duvets will never take off. This is why sprinkling chocolate granules on someone who is sleeping is a bad idea-it gets messy. Really messy-I have said it twice now, but just for emphasis-here it is a third time-really messy.

I looked at my friend. She looked at me. No one else seemed to notice. There was foam flying everywhere and the air in the cafe seemed laced with the faint whiff of chocolate sprinkles. There was a continuous low level breathing and snorting. NO ONE NOTICED!!!! I checked all my social media feeds, NO ONE HAD NOTICED!!!!

The waitress came over. ‘Is everything OK?’ she said, calmly, serenely. She had failed to notice the life changing event happening before us as well.

My friend and I looked at each other. We were both thinking the same thing. We will only get through this if we both pretend it’s not happening. We both nodded. ‘Yep Ok’ slipped off both our tongues simultaneously. Snap. We both went red. She looked at us, not at my coffee, not at my table. She-looked-at-us. It was like it wasn’t happening on her planet.

Embarrassed. We sat there. Hoping she would notice. Hoping she wouldn’t notice.

Hoping someone would notice. Hoping no one would notice. Hoping what-that he might sink into my coffee and drown, or leap up out of it and –and what???? Either way you can’t drink a coffee when someone has slept in it. Can you? I mean can you????

My friend positively skulled her coffee as I searched desperately for a fiver and enough change to cover the cost. Posh shop ‘n all this one.

We both got up and got the hell out of there. Leaving him there asleep, my coffee untouched. A spoon of sugar spilled all over the table and the money in a sloppy pile. The faint whiff of sprinkles swirling in the café air, we barged through the café door, elbowing someone else out of the way and started walking away as fast as we could.

Read next week and see what happens next…

It was her hands

It was her hands. The face was old, lined, wrinkled, the eyes squinting into ever increasing darkness. This was my community service. For vandalising my dentists car when she gave me teeth so white I needed sunglasses to look in the mirror-actually true-when I switched on the bathroom light, they shone so brightly I had to wear dark glasses. She refused compensation to me so I dented her car.

I now wear a mouth-guard wherever I go. And I have gotten used to sleeping with my mouth taped shut. And a breathing tube although there is still a faint fluorescent glow that lights up my nostrils in the night. Her car, on the other hand, one of those self repairing ones, just re-grew its bodywork and is all fine. Vehicles with an exterior made of reinforced bacteria that can reshape and reform itself-well you know how the commercial goes-accident free because one colony avoids another etc etc- and she had one of those vehicles that could phosphoresce. Which is nice in a car but not what I wanted with my teeth, hence the criminal damage.

I liked community service though, in an old peoples home. Old people who mostly have robots for company don’t relish the idea of having to have a conversation with a human anymore, bot conversation is so much easier. But ‘she’ seemed to like me from the moment I arrived. There was only one kind of odd thing. She wore gloves. All the time, and I mean -all the time.  Gloves to make coffee, gloves to eat food, gloves to play on the computer. Gloves as she went into the bathroom. She even read her paper magazines with gloves. Nobody else seemed to notice. Well nobody else much was human, except for the other residents who all had their own little foibles.  

I was in her room one day and noticed she seemed to have gloves for every occasion. More pairs of gloves than I have shoes, no really more pairs of gloves than I have shoes.(67 by the way-assuming we aren’t counting flip flops-82-if we are-give or take a pair I left on a virtual holiday-I know, how?)

I wanted to ask about the gloves but the conversation never went in that direction. Then it got to my last week and finally my last day. She smiled across at me. I knew she could see the faint glow from my teeth but I was not sure she could make out all my features. We were there in her room sitting across the table from each other. There was a ceramic vase with fake plastic flowers on a doily between us. She moved it to one side. And then she did  it. She slipped off one glove and then the other. And I saw her hands.

Long elegant fingers, perfectly manicured, not a wrinkle on them, perfect flawless hands extending off gnarled, wrinkled wrists. Maybe the most expensive hands I have ever seen. Beautiful hands. Young hands. Human hands. Not her hands.

I didn’t know what to say. They must have cost a fortune.

‘They’re not mine’ she said.

Well I didn’t study rocket science but I knew that.

‘Who’s?’ I said, as that felt like the logical thing to ask. I wonder now if that wasn’t just a bit impolite.

‘My daughters,’ a pause, then awkwardly, oddly she went on, ‘she didn’t want them anymore and doesn’t want the hassle of coming to visit me, so she gave me her hands. She has mechanical ones and doesn’t want these ones. She was quite young when she had it done. Its sweet, she is with me always. I’m looking after them for her, until she comes back for them. She may want them again one day.’

I smiled.

As an aside I had decided that I didn’t want to exchange any body parts with my Mum. It remains contentious. She still wants my knees-that was a difficult conversation. She covets my knees but I still need my knees and I don’t like the look of the replacement ones. They’re so shiny, the last thing I need is shiny knees with my teeth. In the end my Mum got knees that have a small flip out screen on them so she can watch TV on the bus, they also have a torch function-useful for when she’s out jogging at night and you can use them as a phone on days where you’re feeling flexible. I never feel right calling my Mum’s knees though. I use the other number that’s connected directly to her ear-best not to ask what she’s done with her ears, brighter than my teeth. She’s her own personal club night when she’s out running..

‘I wonder’ she went on, ’would you do me a favour?’ I looked at the hands. Beautiful hands.

‘Of course.’

‘ Would you visit her, say hello, tell her I am ok?’

‘Your daughter?’

She nodded. It seemed a bit odd, I told her she should call or go herself. This place wasn’t prison but she insisted she wanted me to go and there was no reason not to. I watched her elegant hands scrawl writing, real writing-with a pen-across a piece of paper. It was mesmerising.

‘I’ll come back and let you know.’ I said.

‘No need’ she said and with that I felt as if we had said goodbye. I left. Those hands, those beautiful hands, that vision stayed with me for a few days.

A week later, I took out the slip of paper and took the bus to the nearest stop (yep there are still buses-for those of us who can’t afford bacteria based transport). I walked the rest of the way, rehearsing what I was going to say. Picturing the metallic hands at the end of human limbs and remembering how bright my teeth could be and that people had the right to make different choices-even my mother.

I turned onto the street, on one side a neat row of houses, on the other a metal fence surrounding a garden. This couldn’t be right. There was no number 53. I stopped and I asked someone and they told me the gate was further along and to go in. I did.

And there it was, plot number 53. Sometimes it goes wrong. Plot number 53, with a proper tombstone and everything. And the inscription, ‘Always and forever, Mummy holds your hands’.

My head was spinning, my teeth glowed, I spun on my heels and ran.

The Wolf Child

She is foaming at the mouth. There is nothing I can do. Nothing we can do. It happens. I know it happens. Just not to us, because this is our first and our only born. I didn’t see her future this way. I knew the risks. Of course I knew the risks. It’s just it had been such a long time. There had been none for so long. I thought we were safe, that we had somehow ‘bred it’ out, instead its mine to own.

She hates vegetables, has always hated vegetables. When she was seven a dentist told me her teeth were odd. We never went back. I knew then. I tried not to, but I knew. She loathes her grandmother’s cat, that’s on her fathers side. On my side, even now we all have an aversion to cats. It runs stronger in my family. It makes me feel like I am to blame.

Keep her? Of course I would like to keep her-but how? She was born for the wild and the call of it grows daily. She is barely able to sit still in class, her hair is long and ‘free range’. There is nothing I can do. She lingers by the meat in the supermarket, I can’t take her there anymore. . She gnarls her teeth and foams at the mouth, the scent of fresh meat is everywhere-summer barbecues drive her mad. Her bed looks more and more like a den every day. She sleeps curled up in a ball at the corner.

Then there are human moments, moments where she looks at me as if to say-mummy what is happening, help me, please explain? But I can’t. There are no books, nothing in the library, no pages that set it out. She is wilding up. One night she will simply run out into the wilderness and never return. Of course we must facilitate it. We will move from here, London is no place for the wild creature we have. We know it must be done but we have not discussed it. As it gets closer we will move. Maybe Scotland, Wales, there is a distant cousin I have heard of there, maybe Europe-the wolves are back there now? Persecuted but returned and she will be more clever than your average wolf. She will after all still carry all that human knowledge in her head-I tell myself.

Somewhere out there in the darkness, she will howl at the moon. Alive in the wild, she will morph fully into what she is, live her life happily tearing apart sheep. I had hoped for something different. But it is not to be. We must go soon. I know we must go. 

Writhing in the mud

Now I think of it, I know if you’d looked closely you would have seen they were slightly underslept. -that’s not a word-read more…

I can’t tell you the name of the town, but I can tell you it was October. A warm and mild October, the evenings were drawing in, there was a hint of chill in the late afternoon air. I was there on the quayside, looking into the mud at low tide, wondering what it was that drew people here at this time of the year. I wasn’t alone. There were others around me but I seemed to be the only one that saw it.

A great long eel like creature, writhing in the mud. It was mesmerising. I was rugged against the expected cold. I looked at those around me. It seemed to be revelling in the mud, enjoying it. No one else seemed to have spotted it.  It seemed to be there for my sake and mine alone.

I was staying in town, just the week. I hadn’t really noticed that there were a lot of women my age in town, all with sunglasses and caps, an oddity at that time of year. Now I think of it, I know if you’d looked closely you would have seen they were slightly underslept. Too tense, agitated, as if they had an appetite that was unsated. I thought nothing of it at the time.

I went back to my holiday cottage, puzzled by the fact that I was the only one who had seen the creature in the mud. I ate my dinner. Washed up. Went to bed. I don’t remember much beyond that. A strange buzzing in my head, a kind of dull excitement that made sleeping difficult. Dinner hadn’t quite filled me.

But in the darkness, I couldn’t tell you the time, late night, early morning, low tide, I found myself by the quayside. A strange sense of being too early, of the tide not being far enough gone. It didn’t matter. I took off my clothes and walked down the steps. I could hear the water softly lapping, but I wasn’t here for the water.

I laid down in the mud. Without even thinking about it.

I felt it all over me. It was both hot and cold as I sank further into it. I writhed about in it. My whole body thrilled to the sensation of it. It was slippery and wet and I felt delirious joy in its slimy moist stickiness. I rolled and wriggled and laughed out loud. I sighed and screamed and whored myself to it. Sated, eventually. I got up and went home.

I had the good sense to shower before going to bed. I slept, at first the sleep of angels and then the restless sleep of an appetite that could not be met in the daylight hours. I donned cap and glasses and stalked the town. Like everyone else.

The next night, I did the same again. I knelt at first and covered myself in the mud and then I lay down and writhed and screamed and hollered my enjoyment. And I was not alone. There were others, other women, doing the same as me. We did not touch each other. We did not speak to each other. Each of us existed and acted alone, screaming mud fuelled ecstasy into the darkness.

It ought to have woken half the town. But no one came to watch. I was only to stay a week, but I begged another week from the landlady. By day I wandered through the town, a ghost. By night, I rolled and played in its muddy foreshore, happier at that moment than I have ever been, either before or since.

By the third week and tired of the mud, the landlady, accustomed no doubt to such strange behaviour, took me to the woodshed. There was a bed, browned sheets and a heater. I stayed there. I did not eat. I could not sleep. I longed for the night time, for the mud, its warmth, its coolness, its slimy, sticky covering. Every night, the same compulsion drove me to the shore, to luxuriate in its murky wetness. Every morning, the hunger and longing came again.

And then one day, just like that-the wrong tide, a different moon, the spell broke. I slept and awoke, hungry, dirty-covered in mud. Horrified, I showered, ate, left.  Leaving the sunglasses and cap on the bed. I have never been back. I cannot explain it. I wait for the hunger to come again.

The Shadow on the Wall

I am lonely, here in the wall, please read to me?..read more

I can’t remember when it started. I do remember how it started. I got up one night to use the toilet. And there it was.  On the wall. A shadow. Specifically the shadow of a child. No actual child casting the shadow. It was the middle of the night but light enough for a shadow because we always left the outside light on. It shone through the panelled glass door so that we could see our way to the bathroom. And there on the wall, in the half light, a shadow. It was playing. Skipping. In a world of its own. I was intrigued but I needed the toilet more.

Then the next night again, there it was. I went and stood before it. Not close, against the stairwell. Again the next night. I watched some more and then one night.  It stopped. It stopped what it was doing and turned to face me. I couldn’t make out any face but I knew it was facing me. It was just a shadow. A dark shape on the wall.

It seemed curious. About me. Again the next night, it seemed sad. So I did what every mother would do. At 3am in the morning I read it a book. It seemed comforted. It slumped to the bottom of the wall and lay sleeping. I went back to bed.

Still I didn’t go near it. I sat across from it. Out of reach, but every night, 3am I got up to go to the bathroom and I read a book to the shadow, just a picture book. It didn’t take very long. I never went near the wall, I just felt I needed a distance. Instinct. I must have done that for two or three years, read a book every night. The interrupted sleep was difficult. My husband thought I was mad. He just couldn’t seem to see it. There was no shadow for him. Just a wall.

It grew, over time, the shadow grew, got older, bigger, like a child growing. The books got longer and more complex. In 2013 I did the entirety of Harry Potter-all of it. Sitting down and reading to the shadow over a series of nights. About an hour each night, sometimes more, often more.  

I didn’t understand it. It seemed to get more demanding. Somehow. More down cast every time I stopped and soon I was reading for 2 hours, then four and the toll on my voice, the lack of sleep. Did I say my husband couldn’t see it? He must have left about that time. I stayed on, a devoted mother.

The lack of sleep was consuming me but there was no way to stop. I kept reading to it every night. But I never went near it. I stayed away from it physically. After awhile I never even vacuumed near that wall, I didn’t want to wake it in the day. Soon we were into modern fiction and I was reading the Booker-out loud. I never meant for it to happen.

I went to bed early, got up in the middle of the night and read to the shadow. It never said anything, it couldn’t. It just sat there and listened. I never went very close to that wall. Did I say that already? Ever. I think I never really felt comfortable in its presence. I was attached to it, obligated, but still- fretful.

And then one night I did. I just went closer.

All I really remember is a loud sound, like a bang and feeling sticky all over. Like I was caught under the wall paper. And I could see him. I could see him as a real three dimensional person, walking into my bathroom, a whole human fully formed. He dressed himself in something my husband had left behind. He rifled through my bag and he left the house. Out into the night. He never returned.

I can’t see myself to tell you what I look like now. In the light that shines through the glass panels I know I am visible. In the night. I wait. There are new people who have moved in. I wait for the night. For that person to get out of bed at that exact moment, to see me. I have practiced it. Planned it.  And I know.

I know.  You’re reading this. I know you know. You know which wall I mean. I know how you try not to look my way at night. I was like that once too. But I am lonely, here in the wall, please read to me?

 

The Hand

I know what you’re thinking. If you find the bones of a human hand in the raised bed of the house you rent, you should…read more

I remember it clearly. I had decided on planting a herb garden in the raised beds on the patio out the back. It was not long after my mother had died. She had always wanted a herb garden. The garden beds had been completely unused since I arrived. I had turned the soil that day and was looking at it from the kitchen window. I could see something snowy white in the blackness of the soil. It pricked my curiosity. Then I ate dinner and forgot about it.

I live alone.

I went to the work the next day and somewhere, somehow that fragment of an idea crossed my mind. So when I went home, I went out to the raised bed and I dug around it. That little piece of white. It was not as white as I remembered, more a cream, perhaps it was how the evening light had caught it.

I rent this place.

It was a bone. How odd? A bone. I dug a bit more. There were more pieces, more fragments. I kept digging and by the end, I had all the bones for a human hand. I had found the skeleton of a whole human hand. I know what you’re thinking. If you find the bones of a human hand in the raised bed of the house you rent, you should…

I didn’t.

I took it inside. I gently washed the dirt off it, just like I had seen on that forensics show on the telly. I even got out an old toothbrush for effect. I felt like an archaeologist. I wished I’d had a white coat. I told myself I had not found a whole body, just a hand and what was the harm in keeping it. The next day I went shopping.

I bought a box.

A glass one, clear on all sides, I searched skeletons and I laid out the bones exactly as they should be in the box and then put it on the shelf. I ate dinner. I watched the telly. I tried not to look at it. But it was like- it was calling me. After all, this hand, hadn’t it stretched up from somewhere deep in the soil below to find me. Hadn’t it sprung through the soil of its own volition into my field of view.

Sometimes.

I took it out and sat it on my knee and stroked it. That hand that belonged to someone else. That elegant fleshless skeletal ornament. It was quite beautiful. Then suddenly the lease finished. What to do, the herb garden was thriving. I pulled up what I could to take with me. I packed my things into boxes. It was late summer, time to move on. All the time, there was the box with the hand, on the shelf. The hand that had given me so many nights of comfort in front of the telly. But it was someone else’s hand.

So I left it.

In the box.

On the shelf.

When I moved out.

Because it wasn’t mine. Because the next person might be lonely too. And I think that’s how I came to be here, people say. They say such bad things.