Marshland

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.

Denim jac-

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.

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Ypres – at The Fiction Pool

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.

By the sea

“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.

“Dad?”

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.”

“Thanks dad!”

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.

Traps

We’ve walked for nearly an hour when Mischa calls “Stop.” We do. The grass out here is thicker, scratchier, and we’re glad not to need to keep fighting through it. It’s hard to pick our feet up with all the kit we’re carrying, and while the oversuits offer some protection they’re the ones we brought with us, years old now. My legs sting where the fabric has worn through.

Mischa turns to face us. It’s her first time leading, and her eyes flit nervously. Next to me I hear Lee mutter: “Never thought I’d be led by a lifer.” I don’t rise to it, but it annoys me all the same. Mischa’s young, but not so young to have been born out here. And what would it matter if she was?

“Alright trappers.” Her voice is loud but thin; brittle, like bird bones. “You all know why we’re here. The traps in this area are our last line of defence against what’s out there.” She turns to indicate the trees behind her. Even in the daylight they look imposing, dark ranks harbouring nightmares. “We need all these traps to be replaced and brought back to camp for checking. If even one is left and doesn’t work, it could be you or your family who regret it.”

She looks at us, searching for questions, then claps her hands and we start to scatter.

Except Lee.

“What if we find a sprung one?” he calls. Everyone turns. I want to punch him; he’s showing her up, showing off, asserting his dominance.

Mischa reddens, and for a moment I think she’s lost it. But then she recovers: “Anyone who finds a sprung trap, call for me. Don’t, under any circumstances, investigate it yourself – we don’t want a repeat of Tammy.” This draws a laugh from most of us and Tammy raises his arm in mock modesty; enough time has passed now that it’s a slapstick incident, and his finger’s almost fully healed. Even Lee gives an appreciative snort.

We work quickly, as always. They’ve rarely been seen before dusk, but still we all regularly glance up at the forest and check that our pistols are secure in their holsters, close at hand.

“Sprung trap!”

We stop. It was Rachael who shouted, one of the old hands. It’s rumoured that she lost her husband to them early on, before we left the old cities. When we thought they could be tamed.

“Keep working,” calls Mischa. It could be nothing, an unfortunate fox or some over-curious dormouse. It wasn’t unheard of. But we know Rachael, and we know the note of fear in her voice. I’m carefully closing and removing a trap, using the key to shut its heavy steel jaws so it can be safely lifted free, when out of the corner of my eye I see Mischa gingerly carrying something in her thick gloves.

So they were here last night.

I start to work even faster. I want to get back, back to the underground network of tunnels and caves that honeycomb the earth, the new way of living we’ve turned to. I’m focused only on my work; I can no longer see the others around me, just metal and earth and earth and metal.

Mischa is called to inspect several other traps, but none of them turn out to be of any concern, and I only have three left to lay when we hear the distant gunshot. Where there had been a cacophony of rustling and clanking there is silence as it echoes. We wait, then after several silent seconds we hurry back to our tasks, desperate now to finish.

Our arms ache as we haul the old traps home to be cleaned and checked, but no-one complains or asks for the truck. We can’t have fuel wasted on us. We reach the camp exhausted and Fran comes out to meet me, throwing her arms around my tired body.

“Was it alright?”

“Yeah. We heard a shot.”

She looks worried, but then we hear the sound of raised, jovial voices from another group, the loud relief of men who have learnt their fears were misplaced. “Don’t worry everyone, Imran just went off a bit quick.”

“Not for the first time!” Lee shouts, and there’s a roar of laughter, then we pile underground to where brimming glasses of beer are waiting for us.

The evening passes in a friendly glow, and I collapse into bed some time after midnight. But the drinking is still going on and sound travels easily here. I find myself remembering rather than sleeping.

It was a night like this, warm and sticky. I was back from my first trapping, and several celebratory drinks to the good when I realised with a stab of panic that I’d left my key out in the grass. My lungs felt suddenly full of thick, heavy air, and I left the party claiming sickness, which attracted a predictable good-natured barrage. I lay for hours in my bed, staring straight up at the ceiling, waiting for the noise to die down.

Once I was certain everyone was asleep I snuck out. I would never do it now – far better to face the short-lived anger, and the shame of friends willingly putting their lives in danger on an unplanned foray, than risk being caught in my own trap with no-one within screaming distance. But I was young and scared, and that’s a combination that to this day I think should excuse most things.

The moonlight was thin, but I didn’t dare turn on my torch until I was twenty minutes from the camp. As I moved further towards the boundary the nauseating feeling grew; I was lost, and the key would be out there all night. I had little concern for my own safety – it was images of the destroyed, smouldering camp, not of steel teeth closing around my leg, that flashed through my mind.

But then I saw the patch of flattened grass in the wild swing of my torch beam. We had been here, and I followed the evidence out until I could see the trees in the distance. I scoured the ground with my eyes and my hands, praying for the feel or glint of something small and metallic. I still remember the jolt that shot through my body as my fingers brushed something cold; I snapped them back, but it wasn’t a trap. I snatched the key as if it might escape, and as I did so the torch illuminated something giant just a few feet from me. It was tall – taller than a man on its two feet, thick-legged, and its entire body was covered in coarse brown hair that seemed to have more in common with pine needles than any fur I had ever known. I stared, mouth agape as it turned its huge head towards me, and for a moment our eyes met.

When I think of it now, years later, I imagine those eyes as pure black, gleaming in the light of my torch. But such was my terror that I can’t be sure of that – only that I turned and wildly ran, gripping my key and the torch all the way back to safety. I never told anyone of my late-night expedition, nor of what I had seen. But I knew it had been on its way to us, and I know that for as long as we are here they will be waiting, on the edges of our new lives, until it is dark and until we make a mistake.

Dinner date

“Are you…” I begin, then stop.

Liam looks up at me, his fork poised expectantly en route to his mouth. We’ve nearly finished our mains, and soon will come the familiar unspoken tussle over whether to have dessert. He’ll be tight-lipped, and his eyes will drift to my stomach, while I’ll study the menu as if I haven’t already decided I want the chocolate fudge brownie.

Are you seeing someone else? The words suddenly sound stupid in my head, histrionic, more fit for a soap opera than seven thirty at Bellini’s.

The waiter is hovering with the wine bottle, trying to tempt us. Liam nods and holds up his glass, a dark stain of red at the bottom of the bowl. That’s what the part of the wine glass is called – I learnt that on a tasting course last year.

“Sir?” the waiter asks, and I shake my head. Liam raises an eyebrow in mock astonishment before taking a sip. A loose button dangles from his cuff. I recognise the shirt; I helped him buy it. It’s not his nicest, but he still stands out among the diners.

“Don’t tell me you’re pregnant,” he says, and I can’t help but smile at the twinkle in his eye. “Go on,” he prompts after a moment. “Am I what?”

It’s probably nothing. Maybe Lianne only thought she saw him. I can’t ruin our first night out in months, whether with a false accusation or a true one.

“Are you going to finish that?” I ask, and without waiting for an answer I swipe the last forkful of carbonara and stuff it into my mouth before I can say something I might regret.

Enquiries

No-one had seen nothing. It was all PC Mick Talbot had heard that afternoon on the Shelley estate, although rarely in so many words. Instead it came to him through grille-fronted doors slammed in his face, rueful shakes of the head, or simple refusals to answer his increasingly leaden knocks.

Three dead in as many weeks and still no-one was talking. Rat poison, the toxicologist had confirmed. If they found the dealers, or better still the stash, they could do something – but years of working this beat had taught him that the odds were stacked against them without inside help.

Mick sighed. The sky was thick and grey and the first drops of rain were beginning to darken the asphalt. He’d do a quick check of some of the more common hiding places then head home, where Julia would be waiting for him with a beer and a shepherd’s pie.

“Scuse me mister.”

Mick’s hand jerked backwards to the handle of his baton, then relaxed as he saw who was calling him. He’d seen the boy cycling round the estate throughout his enquiries, a skinny, sticky-looking lad who could have been anything between seven and thirteen. His hair was cut close to his scalp, and he wore an off-white vest and loose cargo pants that had clearly originally been bought for someone else.

“You a copper?” the boy asked, a hesitation in his voice. In his uniform and custodian helmet Mick could hardly deny it, but the question put him on edge. With a tinge of guilt at the assumption, he mentally ran through the content of his duty belt, just in case.

“What’s it like?”

The question surprised Mick, and he tried to answer truthfully. “I enjoy it. It’s hard work. But sometimes you get a result and it’s worth it – you scare off some attacker, or get someone’s things back after a robbery.”

The boy nodded slowly. He was looking at the ground, at the huge metal bins, anywhere but at Mick.  There was something the boy wanted to say, and Mick chose his next words carefully. “Has anyone ever asked you to do them a favour? Take something somewhere for them?”

“Like what?”

“A package? A parcel? Anything like that?”

The boy thought for a moment then shook his head. “No, sorry.”

“It’s alright,” said Mick, trying not to let his disappointment show. He checked his watch. There wouldn’t be anything to be found. He could just go home. “What’s your name, mate? I’m Mick.”

The boy didn’t reply. Old suspicions died hard, Mick thought, a childhood of being taught to see the police as the enemy who might take you, your father, or your brother away, never justified no matter what they’d done. He crouched and pulled out a small rectangular card. “Tell you what, if you ever fancy finding out more about being a policeman, give me a ring and I’ll show you around the station.”

The boy stepped off his bike and let it clatter to the ground. He approached Mick in small, uncertain steps – probably the first time he’d ever deliberately got near to a copper, Mick thought. He took the card from Mick’s outstretched hand, then swung his leg back and planted a kick in Mick’s groin.

Mick spluttered as the pain blazed through him.

“Cunt.”

The boy spat, saliva mixing with the raindrops, fatter now, and he reached into the large green metal bin, pulled out a bag packed with white powder, then in one movement picked up his bike, swung himself onto it and pedalled away, leaving Mick gasping on the ground as the sky opened above.