The uncontested star of your Reception class, all smiles and infectious laughter. You still pause over her name in the register before skipping to Daniel Harrison. They said that some of the fractures were old, had healed. Were there times she held herself more carefully than usual? You watch her face nightly to no avail. And was there a form of words or tone of voice that could have unlocked her, like a jewellery box filled with spiders?
2,979 words – approx. 10 minutes
Lisa squinted at the terracotta-coloured folder that lay on the small, round coffee table in her living room. “Pock,” she read out. “What’s pock?”
“P-O-C, mum,” said Jessica, carrying two glasses of water from the kitchen. She gave one to Lisa, who dropped a paracetamol in and watched it dissolve. “It means ‘people of colour’?”
“Oh right. That’s what we’re supposed to say now, is it?”
Jessica sighed extravagantly. “It has been for a while, which you’d know if you ever spent any time around people who aren’t white.”
The gaudy sparkle of a gameshow’s opening credits distracted Lisa for a moment, then she turned to her daughter. “Are you calling me racist?”
Jessica always found it difficult to deal with her mum’s directness – there was something about its sudden force that unbalanced her, like the step back you have to take when opening a hot oven. “I’m just saying, you don’t have any black friends.”
“Well there’s Deirdre,” huffed Lisa.
“You hate her!”
“That’s nothing to do with her colour though, she’s just useless. I had to spend two hours on Wednesday re-doing her forms, you know.”
They were quiet as the contestant was introduced. He was a balding man in his forties called Bruce, dressed in jeans and a cardigan. “He shouldn’t wear that, not on the telly,” said Lisa. Jessica, from her armchair, said nothing as they watched. Bruce was doing well – he’d answered correctly multiple-choice questions about the location of the Solar System’s largest volcano (Mars) and which continent the now-extinct quagga had inhabited (Africa).
“I don’t know if this one will be a little trickier for you,” said the host. “Which footballer has scored the most World Cup goals?”
“Lenny Henry!” exclaimed Lisa, to a bark of disbelief from Jessica. “No not that,” Lisa waved at the television. “I mean, I like him. He’s black.”
“That’s one man. And anyway, he’s an entertainer. Black men have been figures of fun throughout history.”
“He wants to be a figure of fun! He’s a comedian, if we didn’t laugh at him he’d be out of a job!”
“That’s not the point.”
“Alright then, Audrey Harrison.”
“It’s Audley. And just seeing black men in terms of their physical characteristics carries on the stereotype of them as beasts, not people.”
Lisa opened her mouth with a wet click, inhaled, and raised her eyebrows. “Doesn’t seem like there’s much I’m allowed to like them for.” Jessica pretended not to hear. On the television Bruce was now one question away from winning £25,000, and Jessica listened wearily to her mum’s commentary on the show.
“What was the name of Oasis’ first number one single?” asked the host. “Was it Some Might Say, Live Forever, or Wonderwall?”
“Some Might Say,” said Lisa.
“Pop music’s not really my forte,” said Bruce, with a rueful smile.
“I bet it’s not. Smug sod.”
“The only one I’ve heard of is Wonderwall – so it’s probably not that!” There was a ripple of appreciative laughter from the studio audience.
“No, it’s not. It’s Some Might Say.”
“I think I’ll go for the time-honoured tactic of picking the middle option. Live Forever.”
“It’s Some Might Say!”
“He can’t hear you, mum,” Jessica broke in finally.
The host looked at Bruce. “You’ve said Oasis’ first number one single was Live Forever. Remember – get this right and you’re guaranteed to go home with at least £25,000. Get it wrong and you leave with nothing. Will that decision live forever in your memory? Or might some say you’ve made a terrible mistake?” He turned to the camera and pretended to whisper. “I’ve not got anything for Wonderwall.” The audience laughed. “Find out-“
“-after the break,” said Lisa along with him. “I don’t know why they make out like it’s a cliffhanger when he’s obviously got it wrong.”
“Not everyone knows that,” said Jessica, standing to draw the curtains. It had been dark for nearly an hour now but her mum normally left them open until she went to bed.
Lisa made a non-committal noise and muted the set for the ads. “Well I do.”
Jessica wasn’t going to argue that one. She took her jacket from where it had been draped over the white plastic kitchen chair. She stood on tiptoe to see herself in the mirror; the arms were a bit short, but it still looked good. “I’m going out.”
“Like what? This is what I went to college in!”
“Is it.” With a gust of a sigh Jessica gathered her handbag and keys. “I won’t ask where you’re going, ‘cause you won’t tell me. But get some cigs, can you?”
Jessica looked at her mum. “I thought you’d given up?”
“Can you see an ashtray? I have. But Mark’s coming over later and you know how he likes a smoke.”
“And be back for tea, I’m making something new with chicken. In fact,” Lisa called to Jessica, who was almost out of the door, “it’s a recipe from whatsisname, Ainsley Harriott! There you are, Ainsley Harriott. Or can I not like a black man who cooks, either?” She knew Jessica had heard – the pause before the door slammed was proof enough. “Not got an answer to that, eh?” she said, to the empty flat, and settled into her chair.
Jessica took the stairs to try to burn off her frustration, but by the bottom of the five flights she just had sore thighs to go with her furious thoughts. At least her mum’s request had given purpose to what would otherwise have been an angry, aimless wander, just to get out of the flat. Her teeth ground furiously even though she was walking as quickly as she could – and not because of the horrible thought of oily Mark all over her mum. She knew when he liked to have his cigarettes.
It was exactly as Marcus had predicted in last week’s tutorial: her mum might not be consciously racist, but her expectations of the world had been shaped by lifetimes of injustice and oppression. Jessica’s new understanding was heady and exhilarating – which just added to her sense of failure. If only she had been able to explain to her mum, instead of getting in an argument then storming out!
The self-recrimination didn’t last long, however, and was swiftly followed by indignation: how could anyone fail to follow the logic once it was set out for them? Perhaps there was something in the way Marcus had introduced the idea to his students, or in how Callum would stand and deliver his own impassioned explanations to, it seemed to Jessica, the admiration of the entire class. His interventions stoked a pride within her, as well as a protective instinct. He could explain it in a way her mum could understand, she was sure. But that didn’t seem like such a great idea right now.
She was starting to regret not having put on another layer against the evening air. The temperature had dropped, and she ducked inside the nearest shop for some warmth, as well as the cigarettes. What Kennedy’s Food and Wine lacked in storefront decoration or in-store upkeep it made up for with a 24-hour licence and a relaxed attitude to age restrictions. Jessica had been here several times to buy vodka or sparkling wine, and when she walked in past the piles of fruit and veg in half-collapsed cardboard boxes, there was a group of boys who couldn’t be older than 14 crowded around a magazine. Jessica doubted she wanted to see it.
“Twenty Marlborough Lights please,” she asked the assistant, putting on her most nonchalant voice. She even looked around the shelves at the back with their spirits as if considering buying a bottle. But she’d not seen this man before, and she felt her confidence seep from her as he looked her up and down. She placed a hand on her stomach. “They’re for my mum, not me.”
“Mmhm, And how old are you?”
“Nineteen.” You never said eighteen. It was too convenient, too clear a lie. The man nodded slowly. He was tall and bony, and when he looked her up and down again she shivered.
“Hey!” Jessica turned sharply, for a sickening moment thinking she’d been caught. Another man, one she recognised, came striding out of the back of the shop and started shouting at the group of boys. “What are you doing? You little shits, you’ve ripped it, you’ll pay for it!” Next he started yelling at the assistant, who dashed out and grabbed the nearest boy by the arm.
“Sorry about that love,” said the man she recognised, who’d slipped behind the counter during the commotion. “What can I get you?”
“Twenty Marlborough Lights,” said Jessica again, trying to avoid the boy’s flailing arm as he struggled to escape. She left with the cigarettes. On her way out she took an apple from the box outside – she should be eating healthier now, really. A backwards glance confirmed the shopkeepers hadn’t seen. They were arguing about the incident, while the boy looked forlornly out at the friends who’d abandoned him to his fate and were now watching with a combination of glee and fear, ready to bolt at any sign of a pursuit.
Jessica’s phone buzzed. “Hey.”
“Hey, it’s me.”
She laughed. “You know your name comes up on the screen when you call, right? What’s up?” She could hear Callum’s breathing down the phone.
She waited. It often took time for Callum to say what he meant. To other people it could seem like he was shy or stand-offish, but that wasn’t true. He just sometimes had to build up to what he wanted to say.
“Have you told your mum yet?”
Jessica huffed and rolled her eyes. “No, I told you, I-“
“When are you going to?”
“Jesus Callum,” she hissed, thrusting her free hand into her armpit to keep it warm. He’d been like this since she’d told him, the first person she’d told after Sam. It was like he wanted it to be public, like it wouldn’t really exist as long as it stayed a secret. He didn’t know that Sam knew too, but she’d had to tell her – she was her best friend after all, and anyway, she couldn’t have just said nothing after she’d come out of the Hyperbowl loos in tears. “I will, just don’t rush me, alright?”
“I’ll be with you if you want.”
“I’m not scared of her. She was younger when she had me.” Her words sounded thin in the night air, like second-hand smoke. The shop owner appeared at the door, sending the boys scattering. Inside the assistant was talking to someone on the phone.
Callum broke the silence. “I love you.”
“I love you.” She meant it, but still the words sounded dulled. She was upset at his insistence, and his certainty that he could make it easier for her. Upset, too, that he was right: it would seem less serious if he were there when she told her mum, or at least less catastrophic if there were two of them, physical proof that whatever her mum said or did she wouldn’t be on her own.
“Do you want to come over?” asked Callum, hesitantly. “Dad’s out, and Lee’ll be in his room all night.”
The cigarette packet pushed against Jessica’s jeans pocket, which was barely big enough to hold it. “Yeah alright. Got any pizza?”
“Domino’s menu and dad’s card?”
“Amazing.” Jessica set off towards Callum’s house. She’d already made up her mind to stay over, and Callum wouldn’t make her leave. Mark would just have to go without.
The buzzer rasped through the flat. Lisa pressed the release button to let Mark in and put the door on the latch. She stretched her arms above her head to the ceiling, feeling her shoulders move beneath her skin. She was supposed to do this three or four times a day, that’s what Marie at her class had said, although she rarely remembered. Still, she was doing it now, and Mark said he’d noticed a difference since she’d started going.
As she went back into the kitchen she knocked against the living room table, which rocked and shed its load of folders onto the carpet. “Watch yourself Lis!” she tutted, and set about gathering up the untidy pile. Why Jessica had to leave her college work there she didn’t know – she’d got her a desk from the British Heart Foundation last year, but that’d just ended up as somewhere to keep her nail varnishes. The top folder was the one she’d seen earlier, with its unfamiliar acronym in thick black pen. People of colour. The phrase felt strange and accusatory. In defiance she lifted the flap and pulled out the first sheet of paper: it had three slides down the left-hand side, and a space for notes that was filled with what Lisa recognised as Jessica’s looping handwriting. It was no use trying to read the slides; she couldn’t get any purchase, her gaze kept slipping over the words.
She heard the door open. “I still don’t know why you won’t give me a key,” called Mark by way of greeting. He hadn’t changed out of his paint-spattered overalls, and held a bunch of paintbrushes out like flowers. He’d want to wash them in the sink again.
“Hiya,” Lisa said, ignoring his complaint. “Busy day?”
“Been up since five, doing that house out in Dewsbury.” He put his free arm around her and kissed her on the lips, then moved to her neck.
“Mark don’t, Jessica’ll be back soon,” protested Lisa. It had no effect. “I’m cooking,” she said, and wriggled away from him. Mark relented, then followed her to the kitchen and grabbed a beer from the fridge.
“It’s rattling again, should get that fixed.”
“I will,” Lisa lied. The last time it did that they’d had to get the electrician out – the landlord had paid for it, but she didn’t want to complain again. It might sort itself out.
The oil had begun to spit in the pan. She pulled the recipe book from the shelf and gave a short laugh at Ainsley Harriott’s grinning face on the cover. It would take 50 minutes, the recipe said, although she knew from experience to add at least another twenty – she only had one pair of hands, and preferred doing all the chopping first, so she knew everything was ready.
Soon the smell of frying onions spread through the flat. The rooms were all adjoined except for the small corridor that connected the front door with the rest. Lisa liked that, it made the place feel airy, unlike their last flat which had by some failure of construction stayed darkened and claustrophobic the entire day. Right now the only closed door was to Jessica’s bedroom; no doubt if she tried to open it it’d catch on some discarded tights or a damp towel left on the floor.
“Smells good,” said Mark, who’d wandered back in search of another beer. He patted her arse as he passed her.
“Give Jessica a ring? My phone’s on the arm of the chair I think.”
As the chicken cooked through something niggled at the back of Lisa’s mind, something that had to do with the folders on the table. She’d never thought much of school, and Jessica’s accidental arrival had choked off any discussion of sixth form. University was never even considered for girls like her, and the graduates who filled her television screen may as well have been royalty, so removed were they from anything she could relate to. A familiar dismissive sneer rose within her as she thought of Jessica’s accusation. This time, though, it lacked the usual sharpness. It was one thing, after all, for some polished stranger to lecture her from a studio somewhere; it was quite another when it was her own daughter. Jessica was clever, she knew that, but Lisa had never imagined her as the sort of person who might one day sit in the city centre cafés with her laptop, and a hoodie that proudly displayed the name of her institution.
“No answer,” said Mark from the living room. “I left her a message though, saying she’d better be back quick or else.”
“Oh you didn’t,” sighed Lisa. That’d be another conversation with Jessica about how no, Mark wasn’t her dad and he wasn’t trying to be, it was just his way of messing around. But she couldn’t be angry. The thought of Jessica’s future had already spread into a fantasy, growing like something contained for too long and suddenly released. Not that she regretted the way things had turned out for her, she’d never say that, but there were opportunities for Jessica: a degree, a proper house, someone reliable. Not living too far away, near enough for weekend visits, but somewhere with her own space, where her mum wasn’t on top of her the whole time, smothering her whatever she did. Already it was so vivid in Lisa’s mind that it seemed inevitable, and an unfamiliar glow grew in her stomach. The library was open late tomorrow: she’d print off some brochures after work and surprise Jessica with them. Maybe Mark could drive them to a few places in the van when he wasn’t working – and hadn’t Sue’s lad gone to Leeds? She must still have her number somewhere.
But that wasn’t for tonight, Lisa told herself. Tonight was for the three of them, the family she’d fashioned for herself in spite of everything: her, Jessica, and Mark. Maybe she should think about getting that key cut; it had been long enough. She hummed to herself under her breath as she tipped in the tin of chopped tomatoes and watched with satisfaction as the sauce bubbled and popped.
5,343 words – approx. 18 minutes
The problem, Laura told herself firmly, was that she hadn’t had a holiday in years. For several months she had been feeling a little listless, somewhat uninterested – nothing alarming, but disorientating nonetheless, as if she had shifted very slightly out of her skin. She had tried returning to the activities commonly prescribed for such conditions, which she had some time ago allowed to lapse: yoga, light exercise, meditation. But these only required more entries in her already-crammed moleskine diary, and added to the bustling crowd of appointments, case histories, and the names of people and their pets she needed to remember.
Nick, at first, was unconvinced by this new diagnosis. “What about those weekends in Weymouth?”
“Oh please. I mean a proper holiday, not two nights in a B&B. Jav can look after the surgery.”
Nick’s mouth twisted into a noncommittal knot. But through the week he became less hostile to the idea, and on Sunday, ladling pancake batter into the pan, he announced his conversion. “Guess what,” he said to Laura, who was impatiently eating blueberries from the tub on the counter.
“We’re going to Berlin! I’ve got a schoolfriend there I’ve not seen in ages, and you said you wanted to get away.”
Laura didn’t ask if he’d already booked the flights. He had given up so much for her, quitting his job to help her set up the surgery, and dealing with the financial side while she spent long days in the back room, treating animals of all kinds on the stainless steel table. He deserved a break as much as she did – and why not Berlin? She slipped her arms around his waist and nestled her chin on his shoulder as the pancake mix bubbled and thickened.
Until that point, Laura’s only knowledge of German was a handful of immigrant words – zeitgeist, schadenfreude – and a single phrase: ich liebe dich. The latter she had learnt from a card Javinder had given her, which read: “Life is short, so tell people you love them. But it is also confusing and terrifying, so shout it at them in German. Ich liebe dich!” Nick wouldn’t join in her efforts to learn the language – everyone there speaks English, he said – but Laura was appalled by the idea of being the stereotypical little Englander, and bought a ‘German for beginners’ book and CD that she studied religiously in the evenings and the rare gaps between patients.
She found that she took well to the rough scrape of the unfamiliar sounds and the rigidity of the grammar, and she was soon at least as confident as she had been of her schoolgirl French on her last trip abroad. More so, in fact, because then she had been limited to an ossified set of phrases, which meant she could request an ensuite double room on the second floor, but not ask how regularly the trains ran between the airport and the town she and her friends had stayed in. Even when a word or phrase leapt into your mind, it could be wrong; you might think you’d found the right words, but they were just ones you’d been looking for some other time. In contrast her stunted German was more malleable, and could be rearranged into new meanings, repositioned at will, like jigsaw pieces that could form different pictures depending on how you connected them.
As the departure date approached Laura realised that she knew very little about Jack, Nick’s friend in Berlin who was also, it turned out, to be their host. “Did you say you went to school with him?” she asked, a few days before their flight.
“Yeah, he’s a translator, went there after graduating and never came back. I’ve visited him a few times, did I never tell you?”
He hadn’t. Further questioning revealed that Nick had been out there three times, all before he met Laura, and each time in a different place: once in a Soviet block in the old East, then in a flat with a balcony where the nearby church did sonographic battle with the neighbours’ music in the courtyard, and finally in a poky one-room apartment that stank of bacon, even though neither Jack nor his then-girlfriend ate any (the smell, they said, put them off). “I hope he’s settled down a bit now!” said Laura when Nick had finished, her laugh not quite covering the sharp point of the statement. Nick said nothing. “Really?” she said to his silence as dismay cloaked her face. “We’re spending the week with some itinerant bachelor you barely know? Oh fucking hell, Nick!” She stormed upstairs, ignoring his pleas that he’d sort it, that it would be alright, and slammed the door.
Scheisse. That was another word she knew.
It turned out fine in the end. An hour or so later Nick knocked sheepishly on the bedroom door. There had been a mix-up, apparently: Jack had thought they wanted to house-sit, so would be in Brussels while they were there. They’d have the flat to themselves.
“Okay.” Laura’s anger had long since soaked into her mood, and her voice was flat. Nick sat down next to her on the bed. The mattress, a wedding gift from her parents, creaked.
“To be honest, I’m quite glad he won’t be there. He didn’t sound like I remembered on the phone.” He had a new laugh.” A new laugh. How did that happen, wondered Laura. Was it something you picked up, like a shell from the beach? Or something you worked on? (Why would you do that?) “Laura?” Nick was looking straight at her now, and holding her shoulder with his right hand. “Alright?”
Laura nodded. It wasn’t quite an apology, but it was close, and there came a point when close blurred into the real thing. Nick kissed her cheek and left the room, and it was only then that she wondered what it was that Jack had been laughing about.
The night before they flew, Laura insisted on emptying her hand luggage onto the living room floor. Old train tickets, pens, unread copies of the Big Issue, and a blue poncho still in its bag – where had that come from? – scattered across the carpet like leaves on an autumn pavement.
“What on earth are you doing?” asked Nick when he came in to find Laura shaking out her bag.
“You can’t take liquids on the flight,” she said, triumphantly holding up a half-full bottle of water.
“That’s why they have the security gates,” replied Nick. Laura just ignored him and thrust her hands into the side pockets as if they might contain stinging nettles that had to grasped. Nick shrugged and went back upstairs. It was ten more minutes before Laura was satisfied that no bottles, tubs, or cans remained hidden. Nick might not appreciate it, she thought, but that was a lack of imagination. She could vividly picture the chaos in miniature of a misplaced aerosol: the flash of the x-ray machine, the exasperated looks from the staff, faces registering none of the worry that had seeded deep within them (“Idiot terrorists,” she’d heard someone joke on an airport documentary once. “Can’t they read the instructions?”). Then there would be the humiliation of unpacking her bags, her magazines, rice snacks, sanitary pads – private things – in front of everyone, while she held up the line.
They had to stand with their liquid-free bags on the train, a reassuring inconvenience that made Laura feel like she was going to work rather than on her first holiday for nearly a decade. The cheap flights were early in the morning, so they would be at the airport overnight, just as she had been last time. Then, the five of them had determinedly stayed awake, fuelled by caffeine and sparky excitement, but now she was looking forward to some snatched sleep in the stiff departure lounge seats that seemed designed for some other activity than sitting entirely.
At three o’clock she woke, her neck rigid from the unfamiliar position. Nick wasn’t there; he’d wandered off, and taken his hand luggage. She stretched and went to queue for a coffee. The menus on the wall of each kiosk were so small that you had to get close to peer at them, and then you were already there so you might as well pay seven pounds for a bagel and a latte. But while she waited she changed her mind, and when she went back to where she’d been sat there was a young man there. She thought about saying something, then decided against it. You never knew how people might react – they were like dogs in that way.
The airport was waking up now. A bustle of people wandered through, blearily eating flat croissants. Some still wore travel pillows around their necks. Lights came on around the necklaces in the jewellery stands, making her think of minerals in a museum, or an aquarium fishtank.
Nick reappeared: “We’re ready to board.” Streams of people were moving now, like iron filings to a magnet. Laura dug her hand into her pocket, feeling the reassuring shape of her passport. Last time she had clutched it throughout like an amulet, ready to show it to anyone who asked. “Do you need this?” she’d said several times, to the woman at the check-in counter, the man directing the queues, even the flight attendant, anxious to prove that she too belonged there, among the men in shorts and socks and the girls in sunglasses drinking midday vodkas.
(No, that wasn’t right. The outward flight had been in the morning; it was the return leg that had been in the middle of the day.)
They sat in the boarding area as the priority boarders filed in first, heads held high, unrepentant. A couple next to them were filling the time by reading medical textbooks, the man combining this with listening to music that leaked from the earphones buried deep in his ears.
Nick wouldn’t join the queue until almost all the passengers had crossed the tarmac to the white steps; they had their allocated seats, so why wait in line? Their side of the aisle was a two, and Nick let Laura squeeze past him to take the window seat. This looked like a kind, thoughtful gesture, but Laura, with her years of experience of both sides of this particular worn-down coin, knew differently. The primary, even sole purpose of this awkward manoeuvre was to give Nick the ability to step out mid-flight and have a quiet, sharp word with the family across the aisle a few rows forward, the family whose child was repeatedly lowering and raising the screeching table tray – a word she would otherwise prevent him from having.
She’d sat by the window eight years ago as well. There had been a mark on the glass, and she had reached for it, but another pane she hadn’t seen was in the way. Her finger banged against it, as if she was testing it, considering breaking out. When they’d taken off the plastic of her water bottle – this was before the new security measures – had sucked in, like in a horror movie where things come alive.
They were yet to take off. A small crowd of air crew gathered at the front of the plane; perhaps someone was unwell. Laura noticed the shriek of the table tray had stopped. The people in the seats directly in front of Laura and Nick took this as an opportunity to get to know each other. Laura tuned into their voices like a radio dial.
“Where do you work?”
“I work in retail. For Next.”
“One of my tops is from Next – I was very impressed with it.”
The man who worked for Next took the compliment with grace, and Laura’s attention drifted across the aisle, although not before she noticed that the safety notice stuck to the back of the seat was branded with the airline’s bright logo. The couple with the medical textbooks were now reading a newspaper together. From the corner of her eye Laura could see if was a story about a child with incredible muscles, like a bodybuilder. In her limited vision he looked like the Michelin Man, or one of those obese 13-year-olds you saw on the news sometimes. “Weird,” said the man, and for some reason – no reason at all, really – Laura found this very funny, and had to stifle her laughter.
A whisper reached them that the hold-up was caused by someone who had dislocated her shoulder when putting her bag in the overhead locker. The captain apologised for the late departure, although it wasn’t his fault, and assured them they would be moving soon. Laura strained to see the woman, pale and disoriented, being escorted from the flight.
The sea, as they rose above it, looked wrinkled, like the soft aging skin of a dark blue balloon. And then they passed through the layer of cloud to a new, Arctic landscape. “They look like mushroom caps,” said Nick. No, no, ice floes! thought Laura, but said nothing.
For the first three days of the holiday she felt gluey and washed out. It was as though she hadn’t woken up properly, as if a weekday without operations, injections, and paperwork could only be due to illness, her body responding accordingly.
“What are you doing?” called Nick, to where she was, for the first time that week, logging in to her emails. It was her magazine that did it – out here in the Berlin heat words could look very different. They could spark all sorts of thoughts.
“Nothing,” she replied as the tired relief of her inbox rushed through her, caffeinating her in a way her milchkaffee had yet to near. If he’d been listening, he might have noticed her response was too quick, the discordant guilt, and guessed that her muscle memory was flying her fingers over the screen to allow her to remotely access her work. But he was just lying there reading the one book he’d brought with him, shifting position constantly. At the moment he was on his back, holding the paperback away from his face, sacrificing comfort to block out the sun. She could see his face with its little pine-needle moustache. When he’d grown it she’d teased him – but that was two years ago, and she’d long since stopped mentioning it.
She’d had to persuade Nick to let her bring the iPad, that it would give her something to do and take up less space than the books, games, and boredom she would otherwise pack. You could always get round Nick by showing how you’d save him money – and luggage charges were so high these days. It was the accountant in him. She had taken books to France, like bricks in her luggage. Short stories mostly. You knew where you were with short stories. If you lost the thread you could just start a new one, rather than hoping the author would provide a clumsy reminder and that no-one would ask you what you thought of it.
Back then they’d had no internet; instead they had been like slugs, lounging around and showering only every other day. In the morning they’d dragged a long-handled net through the pool to catch the leaves and twigs, the natural debris that otherwise would clog the filters.
Her bookmark on that trip was one she’d found tucked inside a now-forgotten novel at the local library’s book exchange: a coloured-in outline of a muscular man with DADDY written in large bubble letters. While her friends were seeing who could stay underwater the longest or padding wetly poolside to fetch another beer, she read, feeling somehow guilty for preferring the shade to the shimmering pool.
Her friends were uncomplicated, with wholehearted delight at the pool and the cool stone of the house. She, by contrast, was half-hearted, or less. Part-hearted. But their enthusiasm was infectious, and she managed a pale imitation, like the weak strain of a disease after an inoculation.
More things she remembered: there had been a duck, which they’d named Confit then felt bad about; and a notepad on which the first awake would scribble to say they’d gone to the boucherie. They ate the croissants shamelessly, adding butter to the already all-butter pastry without alarm. On the last day the cord on the pool cover, frayed from use, broke, and they worried about their deposit, even though it hadn’t been their fault, not really.
The two holidays were alike in only the most superficial ways – the clean, swept streets, the marvel of menus with unfamiliar terms for familiar things (surely Zwiebeln, Erdbeer and Hähnchen were politicians, not ingredients), or the stringy black men who ranged the sun-stricken streets offering – in Berlin, at least – Sonnenkreme! Sonnenkreme!
France, though, had been more uptight about the spread of English, unlike Germany, where you could find kaffee to go and take up exhortations to Explore Berlin on bike!. Shop assistants spoke English without resentment, even though Laura didn’t want them to – but the more she tried to stagger through an interaction with her lumpen vocabulary, the more kindly they showed their prowess.
In the first few days (what day was it?) they saw the remains of the Wall and refused to buy a souvenir piece. “They’ve been selling this for twenty-five years now. It’s just some bits of rubble from someone’s garden,” Nick complained. They also went to the Jewish Memorial Museum, throwing looks at the teenagers taking selfies on the plinths outside, and shared an audio tour. “I like that they call them people,” said Laura at one point, reading the translated text by an exhibit. Next to them an old man in a heavy coat coughed and muttered: “Because being a Jew is not enough?” They both pretended not to hear; that hadn’t been what she meant.
Perhaps it was the helpless shame of having been so misunderstood, perhaps the rare, enveloping heat that promised a thunderstorm that never came, but Laura was restless that night. She wanted to go for a walk, but the only route she knew was to the U-Bahn station, so she went there and back, feeling only a little reassured by the ghostly HSBC on the corner. This wasn’t her city; she didn’t know what belonged, what was memorial and what was graffiti. The following day, over salami and bitter rye bread, she suggested to Nick that they do something different – she’d had enough of culture, needed something simpler. He seemed to have adapted better to the new environment; she’d caught him leaving beer bottles on the street.
“Why are you doing that?” she’d asked.
“For the hobos.” The worded sounded strange from his mouth.
“But they’re empty.”
“They’ll collect them for the pfand.” This hadn’t been on her CD. “Pfand,” he explained. “You take the bottle to recycling and you get 25c or whatever. They’ll be gone by the morning, watch.” He has right: the next day, she saw with a tug of disappointment that they were no longer there.
There were table tennis tables throughout the city’s parks, so they bought a cheap bat and ball set and started playing. The table was exposed, but the only other one nearby was occupied by young men sitting and smoking, and neither Laura or Nick were in confrontational mood, especially in a foreign language.
They played unseriously. Laura thought she was slightly behind, but it was hard to tell: if the ball hit the metal net or overshot the edge they’d just carry on, unless it came to a stop in the sand that surrounded the table, in which case someone would have to serve. The wind that breezed through added an element of chance to their already casual game; it could drop the ball suddenly short so it rolled off the tip of the paddle, or send a well-aimed shot swirling wildly off the table’s edge.
A game so dependent on chance had a short life, and after an hour or so their interest had dwindled. They wandered through a park and came across what seemed to be a large semi-amphitheatre around which a crowd had gathered. Sweating from their exertions, and curious, they made their way over.
As they neared they heard the sound of a woman singing. The crowd was larger than it had first appeared; up the high, full banks of the amphitheatre’s seated side, people scratched fly-bitten shoulders, or fanned themselves with newspaper, or drank from bottled beer. The strange, separate rhythms of two hundred people in the same place. The singer finished and they applauded, their hands fluttering like birds set free among them.
She left the stage, and Laura took the opportunity to weave her way nearer, murmuring placatory Entschuldigungs as she did so. There was a man giving out and collecting small strips of paper, and he took to the microphone to announce the next act. “Oh no,” groaned Nick, who’d caught up to Laura. It took her a moment to realise the source of his exasperation: they had stumbled across some form of open-air karaoke. The crowd was right up against the stage, and without warning a girl of about ten clambered up just as the next performer came on to supportive applause. The girl began to wander around the stage – allowed to do so in a way a young boy couldn’t. Laura kept watching her as the act began (badly out of tune, and too close to the microphone). The girl clamped her hands to her ears, at first in a genuine effort to prevent the noise – then, when she noticed the indulgent attention it awarded her, more deliberately, sticking out her elbows and wheeling around like a plane. She was joined in this by a couple more tearaway girls, and they circled round the stage, the real show to themselves.
“I don’t know why you say German children are so well-behaved.” The voice came from behind them, a woman’s voice, wry and worn. Laura processed it awkwardly, jaggedly, and with a discomfort similar to a lump in her throat she realised she had no idea whether the sentence had been spoken in English or German. It made less sense in German – but she had heard no-one else speaking English in reply. And it could have been a German speaking to a foreigner, or a foreigner speaking in German.
She felt dizzy.
“Are you alright?” asked Nick, the sudden concern creasing his face.
“Just hungry. What time is it?”
Nick checked his watch. “Nearly two!”
“Well, no wonder then,” she forced a smile and linked her arm into his. They eased their way out through the crowd, which parted without argument. Whether it was the daylight or some Germanic characteristic she couldn’t be sure, but it seemed to Laura unlike any crowd she’d known in England, which were all elbows and frowns.
The supermarket – if that was the right word, it was really somewhere between that and a corner shop – was cool compared to the heat of the park. Outside, sticky fruit-filled pastries lingered behind ineffectual protective plastic. Wasps burrowed into the Danish.
Nick picked up the lunch items (brötchen, käse, and salami) while Laura grabbed a comb, her own having been lost somewhere in the apartment, and they made their way to the counter. There were no shortcuts to be had; the aisles were laid out so you had to wind your way around each of them, past the unfamiliar brands of tomato sauce and cereal. They had seen no-one else in the shop, but when they reached the counter an old woman was unloading her basket onto the weary conveyor belt. The checkout assistant, a dull-eyed, brown-haired girl, was having trouble with the machine. In accusatory green letter its display flashed: Kunde könnte nicht gerettet worden. Laura was trying to work out what this meant, reading it aloud in her juddering German, when a voice startled her.
“Does it hurt your throat to talk like that?” Laura turned to see a tall man with a small, round mouth looking at her. He seemed clean and reasonably dressed, and a quick glance confirmed that his shopping was respectable: eggs, cheese, and a jar of Bolognese sauce.
“No, not really,” she said with a little laugh. He had spoken in English so she did too, not wanting to be in unfamiliar territory with this stranger.
“It must be painful to speak so deeply.” He grabbed at his Adam’s apple with his thumb and middle finger to illustrate the point. She felt a little shiver and turned to Nick for help. He was determinedly looking at the cashier; she couldn’t catch his eye. Meanwhile the round-mouthed man continued in a light and not unpleasant tone that was all the more unsettling for it. Here was someone for whom the normal rules of conversation didn’t apply. It was like talking to someone who, quite un-self-consciously, believes that there is a global conspiracy for a particular group to control the world: there would somehow be a sinister undercurrent, whether the topic at hand was baseball, literature, or in this case, the mysteries of language.
“I’m so fascinated by different languages,” he continued. His English was very good for a madman. Laura made a noncommittal noise and angled herself away, still hoping he might suddenly realise that it would only be polite to stop talking.
“You know, in Berlin people talk to each other.” He said this in the same conversational tone as before, but the hint of a threat, of a violation that implied retribution, hummed through the words. If only the cashier would hurry! No-one else was paying them any attention, as if they were in a TV show where their dialogue was unnaturally loud for the audience’s benefit but the extras were oblivious. “It’s not like you’re in Munich.” Again Laura looked towards Nick, hoping that she could somehow communicate her situation to him, but he continued to stare steadfastedly ahead. The woman in front of them was buying five huge cartons of eggs, and taking her time about it.
“I can see you looking away from me,” the man said. Laura could feel the fluttering in her chest. The woman had finally paid, in maddeningly small coins, and they were next. Nick glanced at Laura as they moved towards the cashier. “And your looks at each other. You should at least wait until you are outside to do that.” This was partly advice and partly admonishment, and he’d seen through their attempts at subtlety with the matter-of-factness of a child. Laura wanted nothing more than to slap a ten Euro note on the counter, forget the change, and get out.
They’d planned to buy their things separately – Nick preferred to keep their expenditures distinct. But Laura felt in her pocket for her purse and discovered she had left her money at the apartment, so Nick paid for both. He was, she knew, keeping a careful mental note of the value of her debt.
“Go on, run from the crazy guy,” the man called after them as they left. They weren’t running, quite. Once they were out of sight of the shop Laura and Nick exchanged looks, and with false bravado Nick said, “Gaw, he was a bit weird!” She wasn’t sure about Nick, but Laura’s heart was hammering now from the fear and the pace. Nick looked over his shoulder. “He’s coming, he’s running!” Laura thought he might have been joking, but at the same time her mind skipped ahead to a television news story where this scene formed part of the setup before the… robbery? Assault? Murder? She ran brazenly through the extremes as she turned. If he was following, she didn’t want to be surprised. She didn’t want the first she knew of it to be the pinch of a hand around her neck.
She jolted when she saw him running towards them, his shopping bag swinging from his hand.
“I saw you at the checkout, looking at each other. At least wait until you’ve gone to do that.” He stopped, hands on his knees and panting. He seemed genuinely hurt by their reaction, and Laura felt guilty. She and Nick would later convince themselves that he was mad, and had ignored all social convention, and eventually it would become a story to bring out after a few drinks: remember that guy in the shop in Berlin? But at that moment Laura was swallowed by the feeling she had done him a great injustice.
“And I saw you pay together, to get out more quickly.”
“No, no, that wasn’t anything,” said Nick.
“Ah, not that one? Okay.” Who was this man who so easily accepted their explanations with the trust of a kitten brought in for its spaying?
“We have to turn this way,” said Laura. This was also true; she could not have told a lie just then.
“Bye,” said Nick. Laura didn’t dare to check back until they were through the gate and it had closed behind them, when Nick admitted he’d expected to see the man still following them. She joked that he might be waiting at the apartment door, the fear already receding to the chill of a childish nightmare. She strode, confident but tense, into the empty flat, and once they had wordlessly satisfied themselves of its safety, that it had not been breached, they settled down to eat.
After twenty minutes standing at the departure gate, the passengers were restless. There were no officials to be seen, and the sight of their plane abandoned through the glass only added to the frustration.
“They’ve all disappeared, the cowards,” said Nick. He was peering over the heads of passengers behind them, as if the sheer force of Being Nick could have a sheepish official stride over to them and sort things out. A fly landed on Laura’s arm. She twitched to shake it off, but it didn’t react (fearless!), so she blew it away instead.
Laura closed her eyes. On a sweltering train platform in France she had experienced a similar sense of helplessness, as the man at the station tried valiantly to explain in his scraps of English that their train had been cancelled due to a strike. They had stood around, fanning themselves with their now-useless tickets and soothing each other with talk of what the real time was, the time back home. Then he had rapped on the window of his booth to get their attention and explained, just about, that there would be a train they could get in just a few minutes from platform one. But when they reached platform one there was no train, and they flitted from platform to platform by way of the little subway, increasingly panicked like trapped wasps under a glass. When the train finally arrived – on platform one – they felt bad, because it was like they trusted the man at the station. Or maybe they just hadn’t understood him. That was better.
She opened her eyes when the crowd’s babble quietened. Someone had news. Nick craned his neck to see. They couldn’t make out what he was saying, but the relieved exhalations told them what they needed to hear.
On board, passengers clutched the odd combinations they’d bought in the duty-free: Pringles and Nutella, Hugo Boss perfume and an Ampelmann necklace, souvenirs of their temporary VAT-exempt madness. Towards the end of the flight, one of the cabin crew walked through the plane collecting in-flight magazines to reuse. Some people gave him little bags of rubbish they’d collected as well, which wasn’t really what he was there for, but he didn’t seem to mind taking them. He seemed used to it. He reached Laura’s row and she wanted to explain that she understood, but as he walked past her the words wouldn’t come, and she had to hand over her unread copy in silence, albeit with a smile.
Drop two handfuls of stones into the jar. The rattle should be rare and illicit. Scatter charcoal over them, then pile on the soil. Sink your hands into the soft, speckled earth and leave them there a while if you like the feeling. Create a hollow in the centre; this can be done as an excavation, as if gravedigging, or with a swirling motion, as if selecting a dessert from the cake trolley. Place the plants on top (gently!) and cover the roots. Seal the jar and place it in sunlight. Never open it again, even in times of emergency.
1,626 words – approx. 6 minutes
Clare had sex four and a half times before she decided it wasn’t for her. The final time, she pushed off the man – a floppy-haired art student two years younger than her, who said things like ‘What’s the damage?’ when the bill arrived – and said she wanted him to go. To her surprise he did. Who knew it was so simple, so much like demanding to see the manager?
Since then she’d spent the night with a few men, out of kindness. (They looked so happy! And so relieved when she insisted that no, really, it was fine!) She was sure to keep her contact with any individual man irregular and infrequent, as she only had one excuse – otherwise they would start to wonder about the amount of blood she must be losing. She worried sometimes that they would realise that her mind was elsewhere, and that she was pretending to shake the ketchup out of a particularly obstinate bottle, or that she was counting each stroke and calculating its factors or whether it was a prime number. But telepathy was an inexact science, and embarrassment a powerful silencer of questions.
Eventually she stopped seeing men altogether. The decision was liberating, and led to further lifestyle changes. She signed up to yoga, and started buying her lunches at night. In the bright excitement of the midday markets she could easily spend five pounds, even seven, whereas the tiredness of the evening lent itself more to limp-crusted sandwiches and crisps.
She told none of her friends about any of this, except for Barbara. “Do you think you’re a lesbian?” she asked, as specks of vinaigrette-drizzled tomato fell from her bruschetta.
Clare thought for a moment then pulled a face and shook her head. “None of it appeals.”
Barbara shrugged and tipped three sachets of sweetener into her coffee. She was studying to be a lawyer, so needed to look after her teeth.
Clare hoped that her newfound sexlessness would communicate itself to men in some way, perhaps through pheromones. To make sure, she started to spend time in the independent bookshop on Martin Street and pretend to read Proust. The only men who came in were older, or else bloodless in some undefinable way, and for a while she thought she’d found a way to avoid the routine exhaustions of their attention.
She had not.
The sound that roused her from her book was more of a cough than a greeting. The man was much taller than Clare, who was short and squat, forever being offered seats on the tube that she took gratefully (hey, she was tired). He wore a t-shirt that said Rules are for fools. “You like Proust?” he asked.
“Not really.” She nodded to his t-shirt. “Do you think that’s true?” He made a noise. “If rules are for fools, we shouldn’t follow any of the rules. But wouldn’t that be a rule in itself? The inescapable conclusion is that we’re all fools.”
He smiled with his teeth, as you would at an unfamiliar dog. “Are you a student?”
They met for coffee the next day. In a spirit of openness that seemed like it should accompany new friends she told him about her recent decisions, about yoga, then the lunches, then the sex. He didn’t appear to mind, although in hindsight he had begun to stir his latte more vigorously. In the evening as they drank beer from mismatched glasses he slid his hand up her leg.
“Hey!” she shouted, and then when neither he nor anyone else reacted, “That’s my leg!” as if perhaps he hadn’t realised.
There were similar encounters with two different men in the coming weeks. Each time she was sure she’d been clearer than ever, but it was no use. They were shiny apples that when you turned them were cavernous, grinning like a skull, with a worm for a tongue. She began to scowl at any man in the bookshop, and tut “Men,” during lulls in conversation with her friends.
“It’s not their fault,” said Barbara from the next cubicle. “It’s the pressure society puts them under.” Clare rolled her eyes. It seemed to her that the problem wasn’t that men were under pressure from society, it was that there wasn’t enough pressure, and that they were capable of interpreting whatever she did as meaning whatever they wanted. This felt like an important discovery that could explain a lot of things, although she hadn’t a clue what to do about it.
It would be easier, she decided, if she had a boyfriend. At university she’d reached a deal with her housemate Niall that if men started to dance with her (an awkward, concealing preposition – it was never with her but at her, to her), he would come over and place a hand on her shoulder. “Sorry mate,” the men would say, and wander off, buttoning up their shirts, even though Niall was five foot four and thin as a ryvita. She’d still had to be careful; she wanted a boyfriend for practical reasons, not as a pet. She knew those men, the ones who said “I’m so happy when I’m with you,” then let the next sentence hang there unsaid and the obligation steal over her like nightfall, or the flu.
Barbara was nonplussed. “You want a boyfriend, but you don’t want sex?”
“Exactly,” Clare almost shouted, then apologised as the couple in the row behind hushed her.
“I don’t get it,” said Barbara, and reached for the popcorn.
Her first idea was to try the Rainbow Bar. But they were out and proud now, which she was mostly happy about, although couldn’t help thinking it was little selfish. She endured an awkward night of platonic, sympathetic rejection, before returning despondent to her flat. In truth it had been her only idea. Out of desperation she called her mother. “You should be aloof with men, they’re easily bored,” her mother said after faking a heart attack that Clare had called at all. “Like bears.” She’d moved to Canada when Clare was at university, and now related everything to North American wildlife.
She practiced her ice-queen look in front of the mirror until she made herself uncomfortable. She knew that at first men would see her as a challenge, but she just had to trust in the process, like therapy. Her first opportunity to practice was at dinner with Barbara. “Are you constipated?” Barbara asked, loudly.
“I’m trying to be aloof,” Clare snapped. It was difficult to be aloof when the entire restaurant thought you had recalcitrant bowels.
Nonetheless, she was keen to try her new tactic out for real. There was a new bar in town, and on its first Friday night it was offering a free cocktail to everyone who came. Mojito in hand, she danced.
After a few songs and another mojito she started to get into it, closing her eyes. When she opened them a tall, muscular man was accommodating her moves with his, loosely outlining her body with his hands. Not unattractive, she thought, in the same way a chair could be handsome. She went along with it for a bit, but then felt his hands large and warm on her waist. She moved them away, firmly.
His demeanour changed. He stopped suddenly in front of her, his body like a brick wall. “Cock tease,” he said. Clare ignored him, but he blocked her way.
“Excuse me,” she said, not meeting his eye. She knew he was looking at her; heat radiated from him.
Then another voice: “Are you alright?” It was another man, young and slim, but confident in a way you couldn’t teach. He was looking directly at the man.
The first man looked from him to her, shifting his weight. “She started dancing with me,” he said. Like he was apologising, only not to her, thought a part of Clare that had kept its distance from the scene. Then he did address her: “You want to be careful. People might think you’re a slut.”
“There’s no need for that,” the second man said, but the first man had already gone, the crowds parting briefly then closing behind him like vertical waves.
“Thanks,” she said.
He waved her away. “I hate guys like him. Enjoy your night.”
Later, Clare called Barbara from the nightbus. “You should have got his number!” Barbara screeched when Clare recounted the evening. She’d put Clare on speakerphone, and her voice distorted with volume.
Clare sighed. “That’s not-” But Barbara was drunk, almost certainly on wine (white, of course – less risk of staining), and already starting to build a case.
“You just need to meet the right guy,” she said. “I’ll ask around on Monday, I think one of the guys in accounts just broke up with his girlfriend.”
How could she explain that there was no right guy, or girl? It would sound defeatist, a problem to be solved, when it was just a fact. She sat the phone on the seat next to her and listened to the rhythm of Barbara’s oblivious voice, her head juddering against the window. Eventually the indistinct sounds rose to a climax then stopped, as if waiting for applause.
“Clare?” She could just about make out words if they were separated by beats of silence. “Clare?” Her stop was coming up, but nothing was stopping her from staying on until it reached the end of its route and turned around to do it all again. She could use the money she’d been saving on lunch to pay each day’s fare. She might get in the paper.
“Clare?” There was a rustle as Barbara brought the phone to her ear. “Are you there? Hello? Hello? Hello?”
5,664 words – approx. 19 minutes
The voice that welcomed Scott into room 256 was warm and familiar. The door was lighter than he expected, and it crashed against something wooden and unyielding.
“Don’t worry,” smiled the woman at his apology. She seemed to mean it, and Scott couldn’t help but smile back. He didn’t usually go for black girls, but the soft contours of her face, framed by her dark hair, put him instantly at ease. She consulted a spiral-bound notebook. “Scott, isn’t it? Take a seat, please.”
The room was only a little larger than the room he’d woken up in, and had clearly been decorated by the same person – it had the same beige carpet and walls. But whereas his room was empty except for a bed and a small table, here there were tall, packed bookshelves lining the walls and a leafy plant stood in front of a large window, which looked out onto a field of some sort. A metal rail attached to the ceiling curved above the stiff wooden chair Scott now sat in.
The woman pressed a button and a blue plastic curtain slid around, cutting them off from the door.
“For privacy,” she explained. “Now, Scott, has anyone told you what this session’s about?”
Scott grinned, showing his teeth, and rolled his shoulders beneath the tight black t-shirt he’d found at the foot of his bed. “Nope. Just got told to come here after breakfast.”
She nodded, plucked a pen from a mug on the table, and made a note in black ink. Scott tried to steal a glance at the notebook but couldn’t make out the words. “Are there really that many rooms in this place?”
“What- oh! The numbers! No, we number them differently here. Each one’s double the one before. So we have one, two, four, eight-”
“Sixteen, thirty-two, sixty-four,” Scott continued, his grin returning. People always underestimated him. They saw his dirty teeth and tats and decided they knew everything about him; there was almost nothing better than proving them wrong. Besides, he was really starting to like this one. Smart girls were always the most impressed.
But she didn’t react as he’d expected, just made another note in the notebook. “Why’s that then?” he asked, a little put out.
“You know, I’ve never asked,” she said lightly. “Anyway. My name’s Donna, and I’m your counsellor here.” Scott raised an eyebrow and she hurried to correct him. “Not like that! I’m more like a guide. I’m here to make sure everything’s going okay. We’ll have these sessions a couple of times a week, just to check in.”
She seemed to be waiting for him to say something, so he nodded. “Yeah, sure.”
“Great. So is there anything you particularly want to talk about today?”
He mostly wanted to ask if she preferred cowgirl or doggy style, but she didn’t seem the type to respond to that. Too uptight. He’d need to work on her. He ran his hand over the bristles on his head as he tried to think of something. “We could maybe talk about the others here?” he said finally.
“Sure,” said Donna, in a voice that made Scott think there was something else she’d expected him to say. She made another note.
“Don’t get me wrong, they all seem sound, no trouble or anything,” he said. “Just at breakfast there was this one guy, older, he kept staring at me. Like, without blinking, or hardly, not moving his head.” Scott tucked his head into his shoulders and mimicked a hostile, if not directly threatening, glare. “Are you writing about me or him?” he demanded.
Donna looked up. “I just need to take a few notes to make sure we’re doing as well as we can for everyone here,” she said.
Scott shifted in his seat. “Well like I say, I didn’t even know the guy, never seen him before in my life, so for him to be giving me the eyes like that was a bit weird, you know?”
“Of course,” said Donna, with an understanding tilt of her head. “I can completely appreciate that. We take the safety and comfort of everyone here extremely seriously.”
“I mean, I wasn’t shitting myself or anything,” said Scott. “Sorry,” he added quickly.
Donna’s laugh was a lovely trip of a thing. He could definitely stand to hear that again. “That’s alright. I’ve heard worse.”
At this, a pang reverberated through Scott’s chest, and his hands clenched in his lap. “How many of us are there… here?”
“It changes. At present there are about seventeen.” When she thought, her lips pinched together in a cute little pout, but Scott hardly noticed.
“Do you see all of them?”
“No – there are a few of us, and we each see three or four.”
Scott nodded slowly and licked his dry lips. “And what is this place?” He spread his arms as he said this, and saw something flit across Donna’s face. But it vanished as soon as it had come, and now she was the one nodding.
“I understand why you’d have questions. We’re here to help you, and we want to answer anything you want to know.” She glanced at a watch on a thin silver strap that encircled her dark, slender wrist. “I’m afraid we’re out of time for this session, but I’ll be happy to answer any concerns you have next time.”
“All my questions?” asked Scott with a flirtatious glint in his eye.
“All your questions,” smiled Donna.
“I’ll hold you to that,” Scott winked. It was always good to leave on a bold note. He left with a swagger, leaving the door wide open behind him.
Donna waited until he’d gone before releasing a puff of laughter and closing her door. Back at the table she looked down at her notes. She took another pen from the mug, this time red, and in a tight, neat hand wrote in the top left corner of the page, Scott Carter, Session 8.
“Come in!” Donna called. Sometimes they knocked, sometimes they didn’t. It didn’t seem to mean anything clinically. There was a pause, then the door crashed into the bookcase.
“Sorry,” said Scott. His outline in the door could almost have been that of a stick man. Lean if you were feeling generous; stringy if not.
Donna smiled. “It’s lighter than you’d think, isn’t it. Take a seat. Scott, right?”
Scott nodded and ran a hand over his head and its short, dark bristles. He looked around the room. “Who- what’s your name?”
She waited for the curtain to shield them from the door before answering. “I’m Donna, and I’m a counsellor here.” When Scott raised his eyebrows and opened his mouth to protest, she added: “Not a mental health counsellor! I’m just here to make sure everything’s going okay, and that everyone here’s comfortable.”
“Right, yeah, great.” Scott gaze wasn’t settling. Donna made a note.
“We’ll have these sessions a couple of times a week. Is there anything you’d particularly like to talk about today?”
Was it her imagination, or was he looking her up and down? His tongue slipped from his mouth and wet the edge of his lips. “Can I contact anyone here? Like, on the outside?”
Donna tried not to react. “Who do you want to contact?”
“My mum. I mean, I figure I’ll be here a while, so maybe I could call her or write a letter or something?”
Donna was scribbling furiously on her notepad. “Sure, sure,” she said. When she was finished she looked Scott straight in the dull, green eyes. “Of course. I’m sure that’s something we can look into. Let me just check a couple of things, and then at the next session we-”
Three stern knocks interrupted her, and Donna exhaled through her teeth. “Sorry Scott, just a moment.”
She yanked the door open. “I’m with a clie-” she began, then stopped at the sight of the tall, balding figure in front of her. “Dr Saunders, sorry, I thought…”
“Donna,” said Dr Saunders, gesturing a white-sleeved arm to two men standing behind him, wearing identical dark suits. “This is Clarke Richards and Alan Hennessey from the Department.”
In turn the men stepped forward and shook her hand with dry efficiency. Donna eased the door closed behind her back.
“Mr Richards is from the Partnerships team, and Mr Hennessey’s in Outcomes. I think I’ve got that right. I’m showing them around our little facility here, and thought it would be good for them to meet you, as one of our most effective counsellors.”
Donna knew the compliment was deserved, but still the heat rose to her cheeks. “That’s very kind of you, but I’m with a client at the moment.”
“Oh, really?” Dr Saunders peered at the plastic panel by the door that held a sheet of paper with names and appointment times. He furrowed his brow. “Not according to this.”
Donna pulled out the sheet. “Damn, this is last week’s.”
“Not to worry,” breezed Dr Saunders. “I’ll have Chloe look into it.”
One of the men – Mr Hennessey – cut in. “There’s a patient in there?” The way he looked at the door put Donna in mind of a child peeking at the presents beneath the Christmas tree.
“We prefer client, but yes. Donna, perhaps you could give a quick précis of your client’s process?”
She’d have to work through lunch to catch up, but she couldn’t exactly refuse. “Scott’s a level 3, so one of our more challenging clients. He’s had, uh, he’s on his ninth session now.”
“Meaning he’s got three more before we can see if the effects have taken and we can consider withdrawal,” Dr Saunders broke in.
Mr Richards nodded and addressed Dr Saunders. “And do we know how the targetting’s working so far?”
“Yes,” said Donna, unable to keep irritation from the edges of her voice. “All the signs are positive. No recall identified.”
“Fascinating,” murmured Mr Hennessey. “Alan, will we have time to observe a session?”
“Not on this occasion, unfortunately,” Dr Saunders smiled sadly. “But it’s certainly something we could discuss in the future.” Donna looked at him urgently. The sessions were confidential, and if he thought she or any of the other counsellors would agree to break that just so he could impress some civil servants he could think again.
But if he noticed Donna’s glare, Dr Saunders didn’t show it. “Right!” he said with a clap. “I think we’ve taken enough of Ms Walker’s time.”
“Yes, of course. Thank you, it’s been extremely interesting to talk to you.”
“You’re welcome,” said Donna. “Have you seen the Adjustment Centre yet?”
“We’re headed there now,” smiled Dr Saunders. “Gentlemen, if you’d like to follow me.”
Donna waited until they rounded a corner before going back into her office. It was silly, but she half expected to find an empty table and Scott gone – but no, he was sat placidly, his hands on his lap.
“Sorry about that,” she said. “Now, where were we?”
“Writing to my mum?”
“Ah yes, well that’s definitely something to discuss at the next sessions. But for today it’d be great to find out how you’re getting on here so far.”
Scott paused for a moment, thinking, then scratched at his arm. “Are there really that many rooms in this place?”
Donna checked her watch again and sighed. She stood, walked to a bookcase and ran her fingers over the spines, then with her index finger she eased a thick book from its berth. She had to squint to read the dense text: a tangle of words, numbers, symbols. It was less than five years since books like this had been her life – days, evenings, and weekends, to the exclusion of near enough everything else, chasing the uncertain promise of a conclusion, a finding, something to justify the time she was spending in silent twenty-four-hour libraries, the glow of computer screens lingering when she closed her eyes.
And now here she was, taking that dry theory and applying it. It was only a trial, she had to remind herself, but even that was a momentous step towards the world she knew was possible, a world with true second chances instead of brutal prison sentences or mistrusted rehabilitation that left a persistent shadow over people’s lives. Every morning here was a thrill; she still paused outside of her office – hers! – to read the bronze plaque that read Dr D Walker, PhD. She replaced the book, taking care not to let it bow or bend, and looked again at her watch. It was now five minutes since the session should have started. The clients were never late; they woke early in an unfamiliar room with a note slipped under the door, telling them where to be and when. Invariably they obeyed – glad, Donna assumed, of some indication of order in the strange place they found themselves in.
Except today. Donna thought back to their last session, when Dr Saunders and his visitors had interrupted them. Could that have had an effect? She was sure she’d closed the door while they spoke, but perhaps Scott had heard something that had lodged itself deep enough to have stayed there overnight, hidden enough that the neurotargetting hadn’t found it. This latest formulation was the strongest yet, but…
She exhaled. She was getting ahead of herself, she knew, but she couldn’t help it. It had been the same in her doctorate: she always wanted to get deeper, to test the foundations rather than staying focused on the immediate problem. She could feel her mind overheating, and she tried to apply cool reason to it. Even if he’d tried to run he couldn’t have got far. The nearest town was ten miles away, and before that there was a three-mile radius covered by a grid of hundreds of cameras and heat and motion detectors. It had been a condition of building the facility that Donna had, at the time, thought ludicrous, but she was glad of it now. If Scott had run, he’d be caught – and then what? She didn’t want him to be hurt.
Dr Saunders would know the protocol. They might even have brought Scott in already. She was starting to dial when there was a knock at the door.
“Come in,” Donna called. Her body was taut. The door swung open and Scott stood there, his arms hanging by his sides, his eyebrows a little lowered. His eyes flicked around the room, before settling on Donna.
“You must be Scott,” she said, fighting to keep the simmering panic from her voice. At first he didn’t move, then he began to walk forward in slow steps. She offered him a seat, but he just stood by the chair. “Please,” she said.
He sat, then spoke in a low, careful voice. “Do I know you?”
Donna was grateful for the familiar words she could recite while her mind stormed. “My name’s Donna, and I’m your counsellor here. I’m here to make sure your stay is as comfortable as possible.”
She stopped. Scott was grinding the palm of his hand into his forehead and groaning.
“Are you alright?” Donna asked, her voice shot through with genuine concern.
“What is this place?” he growled through gritted teeth, still not looking at her. She started to reply but he leapt up, towering over Donna, eyes ablaze. “No. Shut the fuck up with your bullshit!”
His nostrils were flaring, in and out, his body shaking. Donna’s palm rested on the button below her desk. If she pressed it, within thirty seconds two guards would be here. But after a moment Scott sank back down into the chair and shook his head slowly in his hands.
“I just…” he started. Donna’s body was rigid with anticipation. “It’s there, on the edge of my mind. I remember bits, but…”
“Bits of what?”
“Not remembering, really. Things seeming familiar. Like, I’ve met you before, I know.” He looked at her then, for confirmation, and she saw the dark rings below his eyes.
“Have you been sleeping well?”
“No, I-” he began, then stopped.
As slowly as she could stand, Donna took a pen and started writing. “And have you talked to any of the other residents about these thoughts?”
Scott shook his head, and Donna sighed in relief.
“Alright,” she said. “We can talk about this more at our next session. In the meantime, try to get some sleep.”
Scott shot her a look. “I know that’s when you do it.”
“When we do what?” Donna could feel her hands shaking.
“When you make me forget.”
The dialling tone was loud in Donna’s ears. “Come on,” she muttered, tapping her nails on the table.
“Hello?” said Dr Saunders, before something seemed to distract him. “Yeah, just a moment, hang on – hello?”
“Dr Saunders, it’s Donna, I-”
“No, two sugars, two sugars. Thank you. Hi, Donna? Sorry about that, some idiot Eastern European who can’t speak English.”
“No problem. Is now still a good time to talk? Chloe said you’d be free.”
“Did she? Okay, sure, yeah, sure. What’s up?”
Donna could hear the slurp of coffee down the line. “I was hoping you’d read the report I sent? About Scott?”
Now there was the sound of papers being riffled. “Right, yeah, here we are. Scott Carter, level three, da da da… I did read it, but maybe you could give me a quick summary.”
Despite her tension, Donna rolled her eyes. She’d sent the report last week, and had wanted to speak to Dr Saunders sooner, but he’d been off around the world, trips to China and Australia. She didn’t know what he’d been doing there – something about investment, probably. Whatever it was, it clearly hadn’t involved catching up with papers.
“Sure. So Scott was one of our first intake back in February. He seemed to be responding well, no memories of the facility or before it, and no other psychological issues present. But for the last four sessions he’s been acting strangely.” She’d brought up her report on the screen, and was now reading directly from it. “He appeared in an agitated state, and physical indicators were suggestive of a lack of sleep, which he confirmed verbally. He was mistrustful and appeared to have retained some indistinct cognisance of his surroundings from previous sessions.”
She stopped there and waited.
“This has been over several sessions now? Why didn’t you report this earlier?”
“I tried, but Chloe said you-”
“Never mind, never mind. Is the retained cognisance only of the facility, or is there anything from earlier?”
“No, nothing earlier. The kitchen has said he’s not been eating,” Donna added.
Dr Saunders murmured something she couldn’t catch. “Sorry?” she said.
“I’m thinking he might be suspicious of the food. Is there any indication he’s spoken to any other clients?”
“No – he’s said as much, and no-one else has reported any similar incidents. I think he’s as suspicious of them as everything else.”
“Okay, that’s good,” said Dr Saunders, more to himself than Donna. Then his voice softened, turned more soothing, which always pissed Donna off. “As you say, he’s one of the first cohort, so there’s bound to be some unanticipated responses.”
“I really don’t think we should just leave it.”
“If you’re feeling unsafe, we can-”
“No, it’s not that.”
There was the scrape of a stool down the line, and she could hear Dr Saunders’ sarcastic ‘Excuse me!’ to the offender. She tried to collect her thoughts. She didn’t feel unsafe – on edge, yes, but she knew that all she had to do was press a button and any danger would quickly be dealt with. It was the anguish punched on to Scott’s face, the incomprehension, that she couldn’t bear.
When Dr Saunders returned to the line, she knew what to say. “We need to know why some memories are coming back.”
There was a moment’s silence. “You said he’s not sleeping?”
“Yes – he thinks that might be when we wipe his memory.”
Dr Saunders laughed drily. “Well, he’s got a point. Can we tranq him? We know the neurotargetting works best if the client’s unconscious. If he’s not sleeping well we’d expect it have an impact on the treatment.”
“But that doesn’t explain why he’s not sleeping. What if it’s something to do with the formulation, about how it reacts to him? Or something we’re doing, something to do with the environment? He leaves my office every session thinking we’ll answer his questions next time! Something’s making him suspicious.”
“Okay Donna, what do you suggest?”
She took a breath. “If we could put cameras, or even just audio, in the bedrooms, we could-”
Even over the phone his reaction made her flinch. “Come on Donna, do that and we’ll have Liberty and the rest of the human rights lobby straight up our arses.”
“It’d only be for a few nights, a week at most – they wouldn’t need to find out.”
“No, Donna, that’s out of the question. For Christ’s sake, I can’t jeopardise the entire project for what is, at best, a fishing expedition.”
“Look, I don’t like it either, but it’s where we are. Until they see the sense of what we’re doing they’ll look for any opportunity to shut us down.”
Donna closed her eyes. He was right, she knew that. But there had to be something. “Maybe we could just search them,” she said, then as she heard Dr Saunders’ objections start she hurriedly added: “Just the rooms, not the clients.”
“Just the rooms.”
“We’re allowed to do that, right?”
“As long as there are no clients present, yes, we can inspect the rooms however we want. About the only bloody thing we’ve managed to get. Okay, I’ll arrange that for… Wednesday?”
“Great. Is there anything else we need to talk about? I’m supposed to have a panini on the way, but I expect they’ve forgotten.”
“No, that’s all.”
“Alright. I’ll be back in the office next week, we can catch up then.”
Donna sat at the table and waited for Scott. The light through the window came and went as clouds covered then released the sun. The thin laptop blinked intermittently, and Donna occasionally picked up the brown medicine bottle as if to inspect it, although it had nothing else to tell her.
“Come in,” she called when she heard the knock. By now she was no longer shocked by Scott’s deteriorating condition, the bruised sag of the skin below his eyes, the revealed sharpness of his cheekbones. He hovered uncertainly. “Take a seat.”
“Do I know you?” he asked.
“What makes you think that?” Donna asked, pleasantly. Scott shook his head and growled, as if even this question was too much for his exhausted state.
“My name’s Donna, and I’m a counsellor here.”
“Where’s here? Where am I?” The frustrated tone from previous sessions was still there, but the hot fury had dissipated with his energy over the last weeks. He’d still not been eating, and what had once been a blazing fire was now a guttering flame.
“I’ll tell you everything, I promise. But first I want to hear what you know.” Donna readied the notepad in front of her. She genuinely wanted to find this out – it might contain some useful data they could use in future.
Scott didn’t reply immediately. The effort of thinking was etched into his features.
“Why don’t you tell me about your morning?” Donna asked.
He started to speak in a low, distant voice. “I woke up and… I was in a room. It was a room I remembered, but hadn’t been in for a long time. Like my bedroom when I was a kid, you know?” Donna nodded encouragingly. “And there were clothes on the bed, I mean that was all there was really, just a bed, a table, and a light. So I put the clothes on.” He tugged at the black t-shirt that now hung a little loosely over his frame. “There was a note under the door, in plastic, telling me to go to breakfast, then to come here.”
Donna took this down. There was something he wasn’t telling her, a slight catch in his voice, but she still didn’t know what it was. There was no need to push just yet though. They would get to that. “Is that all?” she asked.
Scott closed his eyes as if thinking, or trying to make a decision, then nodded.
“Alright. And other than this morning, what do you know about where you are?”
“It’s… it’s some sort of facility. Medical, maybe. I recognise parts of it, I mean I’ve been here before, I know it, but it just doesn’t make any fucking sense.”
“And you recognise me?”
“This must be quite scary for you.”
“Yeah,” he said, not meeting her eye.
“Are you scared of me?”
He nodded again.
“Because… because you’re to do with this. Whatever this is. You’re part of it.”
Donna held up the pill bottle. “Do you know what this is?”
“Some sort of medicine?”
“On most mornings the sign on your door also tells you to take two of these. The bottle’s in the bedside table. But for the last week or so it hasn’t.”
“I’ve been here a week?” Scott squeezed his eyes shut, trying to force some sense from the situation.
“Nearly three months now,” said Donna. “These are only sugar pills but we use them to make sure everything’s alright. If someone doesn’t take them, we know there’s a problem. You’ve not been eating, either, have you Scott?”
“Why am I here?” He was digging his nails into his palms now, rocking gently backwards and forwards.
Satisfaction licked at the nape of Donna’s neck. Soon she’d understand. Soon she’d have solved the mystery, and after that she wouldn’t need to worry and Scott could return to the schedule. “We’re only here to help you Scott – you and the other clients.”
“Clients, what do you mean clients? You take our memories.”
“Overnight we diffuse a neurotargetting chemical into the bedrooms. It works best if you’re fully asleep, which you haven’t been, which is why you’re having these unwelcome… half memories. Can you tell me why you’re not sleeping?”
Scott shook his head in refusal. Donna sighed and tapped her fingers on the desk. She’d hoped it wouldn’t come to this, although she had to admit she was interested to see what would happen. She opened the laptop. “I’m going to show you a video now, and afterwards you’ll understand why you’re here.”
A few clicks brought up an image. Scott gasped in incomprehension as he saw himself on the screen. It looked like security camera footage – it was of a small room, painted unappealingly in light green. Next to him was a thin man in a suit with a stack of papers, and opposite were a man and a woman in white shirts. The woman pressed a button on a tape recorder on the table, and began to speak in a voice that sounded like he was reading from a sheet of paper, although there was none in front of him.
“Scott Carter, you have consented to the commutation of the sentence handed down to you by the Crown Court. The fact of this consent and the details of the commutation have been provided to you in writing.” He looked at the man next to Scott. “Mr Hargreaves, do you have the signed agreement?”
The lawyer slid a single typed sheet across the table.
“Very good. Now, Mr Hennessey, as has been explained to you, your commutation is conditional upon a full, recorded confession. Once you have entered the program you will no longer have any awareness of your previous actions, and so this will be your final sanction. Are you still prepared to make this confession?”
Scott swallowed hard and nodded, looking at his hands. Donna had seen the footage before, but even she found herself tense, waiting for him to speak. Beside her, Scott was very still and pale.
On the screen, Scott began to speak in a dull recital. “On August the 12th 2021, at around 10:30pm, I was in the south east corner of Hyde Park. I was drunk, I’d had maybe eight or nine cans of beer. A woman walked past me and I stepped out in front of her. She was alone. I told her she was pretty, then I asked her if she wanted to engage in sexual relations with me. When she said no, I grabbed her wrist, and-”
“Turn it off,” said Scott suddenly. “TURN IT OFF!”
Donna did. The room was silent except for Scott’s wild breathing. There was a charge in the air, and no-one spoke until it had begun to subside.
“Did I…” he began.
“Yes,” said Donna. Then she added, as gently as she could: “How have you been remembering things, Scott?”
Wordlessly, Scott reached to his waistband and pulled out a small, crumpled page of paper. Donna recognised it as from her notebook. “How did you…?”
“I don’t remember,” Scott said, and for a moment they both wanted to laugh. Then Scott laid a pen on top of it. “It doesn’t make a lot of sense,” he said, gesturing apologetically to the paper, and Donna could see he was right; fragments of thought and random words spidered across the page.
“Is this all of it?”
“Thank you. Now, we’ll give you a tranquiliser to help you sleep tonight. I’ve checked with the doctor and it won’t interfere with the treatment. Is that okay?”
Scott nodded. “What will happen to me once the treatment’s over?”
Donna ran her tongue along her teeth. There was no harm in telling him, she supposed. “There’s a community about fifteen miles away from here. Purpose-built.”
“I won’t go home?”
“You wouldn’t be safe. It was part of the approval of the program.”
Scott sat, taking this in. “How many others?”
“About fifteen so far, but there’s a waiting list for the facility. Soon it’ll be a real village.”
“Are they all like me?”
“More or less, yes. It’s only appropriate for certain clients.”
He nodded. He was drawing circles with his finger on the back of his hand, a gesture which seemed oddly sweet to Donna. “I think I should go now.”
“Okay Scott. There’ll be someone come to give you the tranquiliser shortly.”
He nodded again, and for a moment looked as if he was about to speak. Then he left the room. For several minutes Donna sat without moving, then closed the laptop lid, the screen still frozen on Scott’s face.
One Wednesday morning in July, on a day the heat made the air shimmer in the distance, Scott walked into Donna’s office for the final time. Donna felt excited, and ready, and proud as she waited for him. She was glad he’d not questioned the continuation of his treatment after she’d shown him the confession – not that they could legally have stopped it, but it was a good sign all the same.
She wondered if he’d be any different. He shouldn’t, she knew, but he still one of her first finished clients. Whatever the science, or even the four clients who she’d seen off previously, said, there was a flicker of expectation.
The door crashed open, and Donna had to keep herself from laughing. She’d now installed a shock absorber to protect the bookcase, but it was still alarming.
“Hi, you must be Scott,” she said.
Scott blinked and nodded, and took the seat she gestured to. She sent the curtain around them one last time.
“Where am I?” Scott asked.
Donna smiled. “I’m your counsellor here, and I’m here to take you to your new life. I just have to check a few final things, and then you’ll be off to somewhere new, somewhere designed just for you.”
He ran a hand over his head. “I don’t… is this heaven?”
This time she did laugh. “No Scott. No it isn’t. We’re just here to help you.” She ran through the final set of questions that confirmed no memories remained. “Come with me.”
They walked along the pale yellow corridors. “You don’t know this,” Donna said, finally delivering the speech she’d had prepared for several weeks. “But we’ve been looking after you for some time now.”
She paused to let Scott process this. It made a distant, vague sense; he felt safe, as he was among people who understood him. There were boundaries to his thoughts, but he was happy to stay within them. He felt swaddled, not constrained. Donna continued her speech as she led him through corridors he didn’t remember. There were doors with signs outside bearing inexplicable patterns of numbers. He’d ask about that when they stopped, but for now he followed.
They saw no-one else on the journey. The whole place had a sterilised feel; he could almost imagine they were alone in the building, although he knew from his breakfast, when he’d sat on a long, white table shared with around ten silent others, that they weren’t.
At one point they passed a door with heavy-looking metal bars across it and a flashing red light above. Then Donna stopped.
“Here we are,” she said. For a sick, dropping moment Scott thought she was going to open the grilled door and force him inside. But instead she motioned to a set of large blue-tinted glass doors, outside of which stood a coach.
“This is your ride,” she said, smiling. “Good luck, Scott.”
He blinked, and then dumbly shook her outstretched hand. The coach was empty save for the driver, a short man with thinning hair who didn’t look at him. He took a seat in the middle of the coach and in the reflection of the window he watched Donna waving as it pulled away.
Denim jacket, black shirt, white top with black stripes. No, dark blue. No, black. Shit. Blonde hair, purple tinge. Shoes, what shoes was she wearing?
Water hammers against the sink. The plates and cutlery sit as the foam rises around them. He turns off the tap.
Denim jacket, black shirt, whi-
He closes his eyes. Focus. The hollow hum of pipes echo through the walls, the distant rain of the shower above it. No telling Hannah’s schedule. Some days she can sleep through til the evening; other times she lies on the sofa, half-covered in a rug, eyes staring like a mannequin.
He snatches a sheet of paper and scrawls down as much as he can remember about Sammy’s outfit, leaving words unfinished to leap to the next. When he’s done the page is filled with large, loose writing. It’s a form of relief; thin, watery, unsatisfying, but relief nonetheless. His breathing slows to a more deliberate pace, reminding him absurdly of cattle. His hand is shaking. He feels faint, as if he’s had a glass too many with a Sunday roast.
He places his hands on the counter for support. The bottle stood by the sink is only half full; had that been yesterday? Memories can be slippery. He pulls out the stopper and sniffs. Plum, blackcurrant, dark chocolate. No trace of vinegar. The glasses had been a wedding gift from Hannah’s parents, and the wine eddies around the sides of the bowl as he gently swirls it.
Through to the living room where he closes the curtains. When he’d come back from work he’d had to open them, even though there’d been no more than an hour’s dusky light left in the day. He wouldn’t let the house spend the whole day in darkness. His novel sits splayed on the coffee table, weeks overdue from the library. He has no expectation he’ll be able to concentrate on it, and so it proves. The words dance and refuse to arrange themselves into anything beyond an impressionistic blur, and a character he doesn’t remember is now under suspicion of murder. He puts it down with a promise to return it tomorrow. Weekends are the worst, the hinterland free from structure, and a task will help. He flicks through several channels before settling on a panel show.
Hannah comes downstairs, a small towel wrapped around her head. She sits in the corner of the sofa, her legs tucked in, but she lets him kiss her cheek. Her face is pale and bare these days, on the brink of something – tears, perhaps, or an apology. They watch in silence until the studio audience’s laughter seems mocking, a candle in a cave.
Wind whines down the chimney. They’d left the photographs up, but their presence is a constant reminder of decisions yet to be taken, conclusions yet to be reached. He avoids looking at them now, suspects Sammy and Hannah do the same. What happens to pictures that are no longer seen? Do they lose some vital quality, like sunflowers deprived of light? The thought is too large. He feels saturated, needs wringing out. The one image they did take down has no human life at all. A landscape of the marshland that hung above the fireplace, picked up from the market during a short-lived attempt to promote local artists. It now sits in the loft; he’s been meaning to take it to a charity shop, or put it on eBay, or leave it out the front like an old fridge for someone to take.
The chime of his phone. There was no end of calls and texts at first, to the point that he bought a second handset in case the police needed to contact him. Ex-colleagues, distant cousins, even a couple of university friends who’d found him online. It happened to lottery winners as well, he’d read somewhere. He did his best to keep the conversations clipped, but people always wanted to insert themselves into your tragedy, holiday there for a few days then return, their bags stuffed with duty-free. Now it’s slipped from the thrill of loss to an altogether less appealing prospect, every message is a surprise.
It’s the badminton lot with an invitation to drinks. He replies quickly to say he can’t, which is true, if incomplete. Once on a training course he’d been shown an exercise in which you had to fill up a jar with different sized stones. The trick was to start with the largest, then the next largest, and so on; the final step was to pour sand in the gaps that remained. “Or beer!” the instructor laughed through his moustache. The same applies to conversation, only he just has one giant boulder that blocks the jar and leaves everything else bouncing to the floor. And if he didn’t bring it up himself he know the subject would hang in the air, thickening like mist until they were all soaked through.
But that’s not the only reason. You never know who’d be somewhere like that; there’s never been an arrest, and the last lead sputtered out months ago. In the kitchen he pours another glass, a little fuller this time to finish the bottle. Hannah must have turned the television off, and the silence begins to settle once again like dust. Could you hire a cleaner for silence, someone to come round once a fortnight and brush it all away?
He returns to the washing up. He’d forgotten it was still there, but tells himself he was just letting the dishes soak. There’d been no food in the house so he’d ordered takeaway, the korma sliding from the container like paint, and Sammy started eating even before he prised the lid from the pilau rice. Hannah ate in small, meek forkfuls, and when it came to clearing up scraped almost half her plate into the bin.
As he wipes and rinses the suds, the house phone sits silent and squat in its base. It was blinking red in the afternoon, and he approached it carefully, as if over-eagerness could somehow affect the message’s contents. But it was just the media liaison, confirming the plans for the anniversary, his words hard to make out over the background noise. A reporter going to the re-enactment; an appeal shown on Look East. He’s confident, he said, but either he’s bullshitting or he must be the only one who’s not long since lost faith that there will be anything beyond more unverifiable sightings, well-meaning speculation, and outright cranks. At first the police were all action, stressing that the first 48 hours were the most important. Then the 48 hours had passed, then a week, then a month, and now almost a year. No-one talks about urgency anymore; it’s chances, breaks, luck. The language of gambling.
The dishes done, upstairs he pulls out a number of boxes then rolls out some wrapping paper on the bedroom carpet. They’d bought it last year when Sammy was in her Hello Kitty phase; He’s never been sure whether it was ironic, and hasn’t dared to ask. She seems permanently pitched on the edge of insolence. So much like her sister. He checks the time. Two hours now, and she still hasn’t texted. The boy – the man – who’d collected her was tall and slim, in dark jeans and a leather jacket, and seemed to find something amusing. He’d grinned and introduced himself between wet smacks of his chewing gum, then he and Hannah watched their daughter walk towards the blue Vauxhall outside, arms swinging by her sides, a hand lightly pressing the small of her back. For a few minutes he can lose himself in the routine of scissors, sellotape, and wrapping paper, but he finds his thoughts pressing in like fog over the fens, accompanied by a smothering, helpless guilt that nothing he does for Sammy, not even wrapping her birthday presents, can ever only be about her again.
He needs a pen. He reaches into his coat pocket and finds a plastic-windowed envelope from the RAC. A renewal letter he grabbed from the mat yesterday before Hannah could see it. He’ll call tomorrow to cancel it. They can always take out another one.
Once he’s written the labels, he checks his phone. Still no message. He won’t call her, they’d promised her that. She’s having fun, that’s what teenage girls do isn’t it? It’s a good sign, shows she‘s resilient. But for a moment, just for a moment, he allows himself the pathetic fantasy of getting in the car and driving into town, of finding Sammy and bringing her home. Then the vision shifts and he’s sucked into the familiar tour of last known surroundings: the Prince of Wales, outside the post office on Kellen Road, and… where? He strains, as if effort could reveal new information. As always, there is nothing.
Downstairs the television is still off, and Hannah is still there. He joins her on the sofa, and moves his hand cross the fabric, stopping less than an inch from her fingers. He can’t quite bring himself to touch her, to force a decision that would set things in motion one way or the other. He only told the truth, that a body could mean closure. The counsellor assured them that anything they said would stay within the four walls. But it hadn’t; it had followed them home and settled over them like a chill. Outside the rain spits against the windows. They sit in front of the blank TV set, and they wait.
I’ve not been writing a huge amount recently – hence the lack of updates here – but once recent piece I’m very proud of is Ypres, which has now been published by The Fiction Pool! Huge thanks to them for putting it up, and you can read it here.
I have a flash fiction piece up at the excellent Spelk Fiction as part of its August Summer Flash Read series – you can read it here, and stick around to see what they’re publishing for the rest of the month!
“Found one!” Sean raced over the worn patterned carpet to where his brother was on his hands and knees, sweeping for coins underneath a mechanical grabbing game. They put the two pence piece in the slot together, thumbs touching, and watched as it bounced down and slid so it was flat. A wall within the machine moved backwards and forwards, pushing their coin, which in turn pushed others nearer the lip.
There was a metallic clatter as a couple spilled over to the second level.
“Go on!” urged Sam. If these coins pushed some over the next edge, they’d win and could keep playing. But the coins didn’t move far enough; they clung to the rim, defying gravity. Sam ran his hand along the trough below the machine. Nothing.
“Do you think dad’s got any?” Sean asked eventually.
They found him outside leaning on a railing in front of the stony beach. The white paint had flaked in several places so the black metal showed through.
Craig turned around. His breath mixed with the smoke from his cigarette. “What do you think about staying here tonight, boys?”
“Yeah maybe,” Sam said, uncertainly.
“What about school?” asked Sean.
“School!” scoffed Craig, attempting a grin, but as he looked from one boy to the other he realised it wouldn’t work. She’d use this against him, like she did everything. That’s why he’d had to pick them up at the gates and say Karen had said he could see them. A white lie. But he had to take them home tonight. “Never mind.” He pulled out a couple of coins. “Put them in the change machine.”
Craig watched the boys charge back to the arcade, then turned to watch the waves breaking on the shore for a few more minutes, until they returned to tell him the money had run out.