The Dancer

Dancer letter

I saw Jane Hariott for the first time since our schooldays over the body of a dead Canadian. Normandy, June 1944.  I was fresh from England, still blinking away the things I’d seen on the voyage across the channel and on the drive down from the coast. As a nurse I was used to death, but within the confines of wards and funerals. Now, it was everywhere: the remains of an old woman strewn across the pavement, bombed out of her London flat, blood and brains staining her tea-dress. Or the corpse of an American tank commander, draped over the shell of his Sherman like dirty laundry.

The field hospital was between Bayeux and Caen, in what had once been an orchard but was now a swampy crater. Tiny, sour apples clung to the remaining trees – once, on the verge of passing out from hunger, I grabbed one and took a bite, only to spit it out again immediately. Tents crouched low in the space that was left, footprints and the wheels of heavy vehicles turning once solid ground to mud, the air full of the sound of the dying and the smell of the dead. In the time I was there, I don’t remember once hearing birdsong.

I climbed out of the jeep and presented myself to the nearest official – a young woman in full battledress, injecting a sweating man with morphine. She smiled at me. “Reinforcements,” she said, and I saw she had a homely gap in her teeth. Immediately, I liked her. Her name was Betty – the medical officer was on duty in the theatre tent. “You might have to wait a while, though,” she said, unscrewing her syringe as the man’s breathing steadied. “He’s in surgery.”

I hovered outside the tent. I still had my pack slung over my shoulder and I was conscious of the fact I hadn’t washed in several days. But looking too clean would make me conspicuous. The nurses here wore the gore smeared on their battledress with as much pride as the pips on their shoulders – the epaulettes signifying rank, expertise, experience. I had the pips but not the gore, just a damp sand-stain from where I’d fallen over on the rubble-strewn beach.

I pulled back the tent flap. Inside: a man stretched out on the operating table. His innards were shared between the people standing around him – each was covered in blood, engaged in stitching, pulling, prodding. They spoke to each other clearly, but in an undertone, as if worried about disturbing the patient. I inched closer and was stunned – surely, the man was beyond help? Still in uniform, the insignia of his Canadian regiment hung ragged from his shoulders but looked like the most substantial part of him. I hadn’t yet witnessed the medical miracles that would make these tents sacred. I glanced up at the nurse on duty, hoping to confirm my suspicions with a shared glance, and saw that the nurse was Jane Hariott.

We left boarding school together, five years previously. We hadn’t been friends but still I expected some indication of pleasure when she recognised me. Instead, her eyes widened above her mask and she looked away, horror-struck. She was so determined to avoid my eyes that she didn’t realise that the man had died on the table and continued to sterilise the equipment, arranging the scalpels on the surgeon’s tray. It took a nudge on the arm from the orderly for her to see that the scalpels were unnecessary. I wanted to smile at her, say something to dispel the unease that was now suddenly between us, but it seemed inappropriate to do so over a corpse.

“You were supposed to arrive with the gas.” It took a second for me to realise that the surgeon was talking to me. He turned, mask down. “Where’s the gas?”

I travelled to France on the HMS Lancaster. The gas and oxygen cylinders, the trunk containing my dress uniform and the crates of theatre instruments came on the sister ship. I watched from the deck of the Lancaster as the sister ship erupted into a ball of fire, burning for an impossibly long time on the dark waves, before sinking beneath the surface of the sea. A mine. It could have been us but, that time, it was them.

“I thought you knew,” I said. “They split us between two ships.” The surgeon stared at me. I knew I had to say it. If I didn’t say it, he’d hate me even more. “The other one went down. It’s just me.” We lost two medical officers on the ship, along with the gas and equipment. The body on the table stopped me from mentioning this.

The surgeon held me still with his stare and I flinched as he turned away, ripping his bloodstained apron from the front of his uniform. “My name is Lt Col Marks,” he said. “You need to report to the matron. And by the way,” he added, just as I was turning to leave. “You should have saluted.”

*

I fell into my duties quickly. I was desperate to speak to Jane, to reestablish our relationship, iron out any misunderstanding, but I didn’t get to speak to her for some time. We were busy, still dealing with the dregs of the Normandy survivors. We also began to take fresh wounded, those felled in more recent skirmishes, on the winding, hedge-lined lanes of the bocage. There were no shifts, not in those early days. If you could move your hands, you could heal.

The first break I had was with Betty, who offered me a cigarette and passed me a cup of Compo tea, premixed with milk and sugar. It was disgusting but I drank it anyway – I didn’t want to seem ungrateful.

“You’ll fit in right enough,” Betty said. “Once you get the hang of things.” It was early, the sun just breaking in a bloody mess across the sky. This was usually the time when the countryside began to stir, when hedgerows began to rustle and birds began to sing. But there were only human sounds – the murmur of different accents, someone laughing, the distant sound of shells.

“I actually know Jane,” I said. “We were at school together.”

Betty’s eyebrows shot up. “You’re a ballet dancer too?” she asked.

I frowned. “No,” I said. “Why would I be?”

Betty smiled. “Jane went to ballet school,” she said. “I’m sure that’s what she said.”

Back then I was quick to laugh. “I’m definitely not a dancer,” I snorted. “Maybe ballet came afterwards? We lost touch.”

“Yes,” Betty said. “That must be it.” She seemed the sort of person to cringe away from conflict. She wanted everyone to be friends, for everything to be the truth. She took a drag on her cigarette and exhaled upwards, squinting into the sky. “Looks like a scorcher,” she said.

*

 I remember being shocked at the number of Germans we treated. A lot of them were snipers, lone wolves, cut off from the rest of the pack. Like Betty said, after a while it stopped bothering you – you fell into rhythm, found the veins in their pale, delicate forearms and diluted their Aryan blood with morphine. It was hard to get worked up over a forearm.

I was just treating a German boy – too young to grow a moustache – when I heard Jane behind me. She had a high, nasal voice and she was talking about her brother, John. She was leaning low over an American paratrooper; the camp beds were shoved together under the sloping canvas roof and sometimes you had to get uncomfortably close to your patients to hear what they were saying. But Jane’s voice carried. “My brother John’s a wonderful horseman,” she was saying to the American. “I bet he could show you a thing or two.”

I had been there three days and I still had not managed to speak to her. If we ever shared a break, it was shared with others too. We passed each other, going in and out of the sleeping tents or emerging from the latrine pits, but she never slowed for a second. I caught her with the occasional ‘hello’ or ‘night’ but it seemed as though she was deliberately avoiding me. I didn’t have time to be offended: too much to do, to feel. I didn’t have a second to spare to worry about Jane. Not until I heard her mention her brother, John.

Like I say, I was never friends with Jane at school and that was partly because of her brother. She began to tell us about him in our first year, about his feats in the army, how clever he was, how handsome. He had always just been posted somewhere exotic, was always fighting in a far-off desert or swatting away insects in a rainforest. You couldn’t open an Atlas near Jane without her ramming her finger between the pages, pointing to a wonder of the world and saying, ‘my brother’s been there’.

“I didn’t know there was a war going on in Antarctica,” I remember saying, as she prodded the white sliver at the bottom of the page.

“He’s not there fighting,” Jane told me, witheringly. “He’s there on reconnaissance.” She was clever with her choice of words. This new word – reconnaissance – had exactly the effect she desired. I did not like to read aloud in class, could stumble through only a few lines of Bleak House before the teacher called the torture to a halt. “You’re supposed to breathe when there’s a comma, Atkins,” the teacher told me, in front of the whole class. “Not suffer a mild aneurism.” I cringed away from the unknown word like a wounded animal.

John marched triumphant over everybody’s anecdotes. Whatever we did over the holidays, John had achieved more. He had affairs with heiresses, duels with their jealous lovers. He could fence and was a fabulous marksman. By the time we were in fifth year, at the end of our school careers, John was also universally loathed throughout the school.

The worst part was, by the end, none of us even believed he existed. Every year, someone would ask (with a sly glance sideways at her friends) if John would be coming to the annual school play and, every year, Jane would have an excuse as to why he couldn’t.

“John’s contracted malaria, unfortunately,” I remember her saying in our fifth year. “He said he’d love to come but he doesn’t want to infect me. Can’t be putting the lives of schoolgirls at risk.”

By this time, she sensed that her stories were failing. She produced letters, crumped and mud-splattered, signed by John himself. Except the handwriting was very like her own, only with the ys, js and gs looped back over themselves. I used to sit next to her in class and I once saw her slip up by looping a y, betraying herself, allowing John to spill out onto the page. I told my friend Rachel, who told her friend Louise and so on. I’m not proud of my sixteen-year-old self but, when the material was so rich and beckoned so seductively, it was hard to resist. It was the thought of her writing them to herself, deciding how to word every line and then stamping on them with muddy shoes to make them look well-travelled. I did impressions of her in our dormitory, stamping up and down in my stockings on the rough wooden floorboards while the other girls roared, rolling around on the beds, beside themselves. Like I say, I’m not proud.

So when I heard her mention him to the American, I stood up abruptly, startling the German boy. I had no school-friends with which to exchange eye-rolls, only Betty, who was further down the row of beds and who had no reason to believe that John wasn’t a real person. A real, excellent horseman.

Jane was still with the American. Her cheeks bore acne pockmarks. I remembered someone trying to give her skin tonic and her fleeing to the bathroom, eyes brimming with tears. I saw the tonic in the dormitory bin and her skin never improved.

John was a fiction, of that I had no doubt, and I found it shocking that she still maintained the fantasy as a grown woman. But I was a grown woman too and it was nothing to do with me. On those wards, you saw people getting through however they could. Rosary beads, secret amulets sewn into seams, wedding rings tied on string around necks – you did what you had to in order to survive and that, I decided, was fine by me. But then Betty’s fiancé died and that changed things.

I still didn’t know Betty very well and so, when I found her sobbing in our sleeping tent, I felt I was intruding. It was Col Marks that told me during a break from surgery. He lit a second cigarette from his own and passed it to me, his bloodstained fingers leaving a smudge of red on the paper.

“Taken out by a sniper,” he said, exhaling smoke. “His name was Albert.”

I wondered if Betty would change around our young German, if someone should watch her, but the pale, drawn face she presented to him was the same one she now showed everyone. And life went on, wherever it could. I reduced my fluid intake, so I wouldn’t have to be escorted to the lavatory pits quite so frequently. We were supposed to be escorted now, because of snipers, which made the whole enterprise even more painful. Drinking was complicated because all water had to be boiled and the Compo Tea was vile, so I could go almost a whole day without a trip. However, between the dehydration and the humiliation of using public toilets (essentially a series of holes over a plank of wood in an open tent) we all had a near-constant ache in our guts, a heaviness that crept from our stomachs up into our chests, making it difficult to breathe. You noticed it when you stopped, when it was your turn to rest and you curled up in bed with your helmet on (new rules, again, on account of the snipers) only to spend the whole time tossing and turning, trying to negotiate the lump of cement inside you. But life went on, until a few days later, when I found Jane sobbing in the sleeping tent.

I stayed in the entrance for a second, watching her shoulders shake. I knew exactly what I should do but was unable to act, as if my quota of dutiful behavior had been used up for that day. And then Betty came in after me. She sank down onto the camp bed next to Jane and, rubbing her back, asked her what was wrong.

“It’s John,” Jane sobbed, her chest heaving. “My brother. He’s missing in action.”

*

I did well – I stayed silent while she told the story. John’s whole squad were missing, suspected dead. He was so brave, he had probably put himself in danger trying to save a friend. That would be so like him.

I moved over to my own bunk and began to tidy my things. I noticed as I unbuckled my pack that my hands were shaking. Earlier that day, I had been unable to remove shrapnel embedded in the face of a British squaddie called Len, blinded in a shell explosion. In a way, it was a relief to discover I had a reserve of emotion left.

But I managed not to say anything, anything at all, until she mentioned John’s unit. She said he was in the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry and my head snapped up, even under the weight of my helmet. That was when I knew – that particular lie was for me.

Jane hadn’t been the only impersonation in my repertoire during my school days. In the summer between my third and fourth years, my mother’s fortunes had taken a turn for the worse and, when I came home for the holidays, I found that our ‘home’ had moved to a small flat in the East End. We didn’t see much of our new neighbors, only heard their shouts and groans through the thin plaster walls, but one resident was impossible to avoid. His name was Carsall and he lived on the ground floor. The door leading to his chambers was right next to the central stairway and, as soon as you placed your foot on the bottom step, bourbon fumes would catch in your throat, halting your progress, and he would appear like a ghoul, swaying slightly in the gloomy hallway. If you were lucky, he’d let you go after half an hour, his diatribe – ‘I was the best of them, that’s why they couldn’t stand me,’ – still ringing in your ears. He’d served in the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry in the late twenties until some kind of scandalous incident had resulted in his swift ejection from the army. Carsall always skimmed over this part, murmuring something about a ‘misunderstanding’ involving a senior officer’s inability to appreciate ‘a soldier’s right to a good time’ and I never managed to get to the bottom of the story.

That didn’t stop me from exploiting it. I swayed around the dormitory, slopping the contents of my imaginary tankard over my friends as they howled with laughter. “King’s Own Yorkshires,” I slurred. “That’s me.” I turned the shameful – my mother’s gradual descent into financial ruin – into something funny. Now, Jane was using it, once again.

“The what?” I snapped at her. Her face, tear-streaked and blotchy, showed no hint of shame, or recognition. Was it conscious? Was she goading me deliberately, or had the name just stuck in her memory?

“The King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry,” she said again, her bottom lip trembling. “John’s battalion.”

“Except it isn’t his battalion, is it?” I said. I was tired, so tired. It was almost too much to keep my head up, the heavy helmet weighing it down. And then I said it. “Because John isn’t real.”

The pair of them stared at me, eyes wide, which made me even angrier.

“You didn’t go to ballet school,” I said. I was standing up now – I didn’t know how that had happened. “It’s pathetic.” The only thing left for me to do was storm out but my feet throbbed in my army-issue boots. After a moment of indecision, I stayed where I was, my arms crossed over my chest, shifting my weight from one foot to the other so I could deal with the pain in shifts.

Betty opened her mouth and then closed it again. Jane, tears still streaming, looked as though she was burning from the inside out. She was actually vibrating with anger.

“I have a letter,” she said, her teeth gritted, mouth twisted. Tears rolled down her nose, over her lips.

I started to laugh. “Well we’ve been here before,” I said. “Where is it?” My hands were still folded over my chest.

Jane jerked her head over to her jacket, slung across the bed. Still burning, she made no move to get it. Betty only stared at me, dumbstruck, so I squeezed between them and the next bed, aware as I did so of how close we were, how vulnerable I would be if she chose to hit me, or dig her fingernails into my face. At that moment, it did not seem unlikely. As soon as I reached the jacket and found the slip of paper in one of the pockets, I darted back to my side of the tent, safely out of range.

To my horror, it looked legitimate. I had never seen one before so had nothing to compare it with but the words seemed official: typewritten and sterile. We regret to inform you that Sergeant John Harriot of the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry has been reported missing in action, presumed dead. I folded the paper back over, unwilling to look at it a moment longer and turned to Betty.

“Her brother doesn’t exist,” I told her. “At school, we all used to laugh at her because she made up these ridiculous-”

“You humiliated me because I was ugly.” Jane was on her feet too now.

“That’s not-”

“You made my life hell,” she spat. Betty was standing now as well, with an arm around Jane’s shoulder. “And now, after this happens, you torment me further.” Jane snatched the letter back and stuffed it into her jacket pocket.

Betty was frowning, an expression I had never seen before on her mild features. “She’s competitive,” I said to her, trying to assume a teacherly air of reason. “When you lost Albert-”

“Don’t you dare bring Albert into this.” Betty’s voice was quiet and dangerous. I was used to hearing her bark loudly with laughter, or shout instructions at me from one end of the busy tent to the other. This new, quiet Betty had shadows under her eyes and a scratchy voice, like she’d always just been crying.

“I don’t know how she’s got that letter,” I said. “But it’s not true. You should have known her before. We always used to say-”

“I think you’ve said quite enough, Mary,” Betty said. Jane was crying again, her head in her hands. It was only then that I realised what I’d done, how far I’d gone. There was no going back now. The die was cast.

“Fine,” I said. My own eyes were beginning to burn and I wanted to get out of there before they saw. “Fine.”

I left the two mourners in the tent and stepped out into the night feeling, for the first time in that crowded hospital, completely alone. Now looking back, I see my mistake. I showed my hand, I blinked first. I should have stared straight back.

*

Never before had I been written off as a villain and I felt miscast. I was used to the role of the clown – not pretty enough to be threatening but generally good fun to be around. I was always invited to things and expected to entertain. My mother was an actress and her troupe often rehearsed in our flat. I watched the actors playing the star-crossed lovers and imagined my mother and father in their place. It was widely known that my father was an eminent politician and I was the result of his extramarital affair with a young, penniless actress. I had never met him and wasn’t interested in forging a relationship. He had enough of an impact on my life as it was, with some girls warned off being my friend by virtuous parents and my mother and I enduring the humiliation of being shunned in certain shops and restaurants. At least one of the lovers always seemed to end up suffering, so I was never interested in the part. I was content with the clown. Appear in Act One, make everyone laugh, and then spend the rest of the play backstage, eating sugar mice and giggling with your friends. Fewer lines. It was a shock to find myself as the antagonist. Iago: motiveless and cruel.

Jane and Betty didn’t speak to me anymore. The rift went unnoticed by the higher-ups, as we were too busy wading through wounded for them to pay any attention to our social lives. I found a friend elsewhere – the orderly that had been on theatre duty when I’d first arrived at the camp. Had that really only been a week ago? With days flowing into nights and then days again without any rest, time was elusive; it whipped right past you when you were looking the other way, tightening a tourniquet.

His name was Brian. He had buck teeth and a West Country accent. I kept hoping he’d mention a wife or sweetheart soon, so that I could write off any possibility of him being attracted to me, but none was forthcoming. We cracked on, making each other laugh when we could, sharing tin mugs of Compo Tea, and then we heard about the move.

*

The camp was splitting up. Betty and Lt Col Marks were heading South West, towards Saint-Lô and Caen. Brian, Jane and I were to go North West, to Isigny-sur-Mer, to follow the Americans advancing towards the Cherbourg Peninsula. It was amazing how quickly the patients were moved, sent along the lines to other hospitals, how soon it was before we were standing in nothing more than a sad-looking orchard, dirty canvas lying in muddy pools at our feet.

We left early in the morning, the trucks crawling along the bumpy road. We were driving for an hour. It shouldn’t have taken so long, but the landscape was littered with debris. Moving troops blocked the roads and we were waved through only to be stopped abruptly by a tank or a truck backing into the road. I tried not to see the gravediggers, black clouds of flies churning above their heads as they dealt with the bodies. Fires burned, brazen and unconstrained, wherever there was oxygen and provocation. Occasionally, I saw what looked like a French family shivering by the roadside in their rags but it hurt to look at them so I tried not to see them either.

I was sitting at the back of the truck, near the tailgate, so had a good view of what we were leaving behind. Jane was at the other end of the truck, wedged behind the driver. I replayed the argument over and over in my head, thinking of all the things I should have said. But it was over. I was pleased Betty wasn’t coming with us. It would be a fresh slate, with a new group of people. As long as Jane and I stayed out of each other’s way, all would be well.

*

Over half of Isigny had been destroyed in two major bombardments on the 8th June, a few days after D-Day. We were in tents again, as there was barely a building left standing. We drove into Isigny on June 19th and, as the Americans grappled with the Germans troops in the winding lanes, between the dense green hedgerows, the sky turned black with storm.

Quickly, we fell into routines. Beds were crammed into tents. We kneeled in the mud between them if there was space and straddled the beds if there wasn’t. Over those few days, with the heavens opening up around us, I spoke more to patients than I did to either Brian or Jane.

I can’t tell you any more about Jane Hariott without telling you about Donald Rhodes. Don was an American paratrooper, a medic. The first time I saw him, he was screaming and it took me a moment too long to realise he was screaming at me. His voice was tinged with a twanging accent. By that time, I’d met enough Americans to create a kind of mental patchwork map of the US from their voices. I still had areas missing, but I knew enough to place him from the South, where they dragged out their ‘r’s and called you ‘ma’am’. In that moment, Don was not calling me ma’am. He was yelling at me to ‘get some goddamned morphine or the guy’s gonna die – what are you, nuts?’

I was in surgery that day, had already spent six hours passing the surgeon – forties, tall, skinny, slightly lecherous – his equipment, swallowing my distaste whenever I had to sponge the sweat from his forehead. We stopped for ten minutes and, while I was standing in the entrance to the tent, watching the rain pour down from the canvas, inches from my face, an ambulance tore into the street. A figure threw open the back doors of the truck from the inside while it was still moving and leapt out. A whistle blew and I began to run towards him, the rain deafening as it thundered on my helmet.

You had to drop everything. It didn’t matter if you’d been on duty ten minutes or ten hours, no one wanted to know. The man was already shouting by the time I got there, pulling a soldier out the back of the ambulance.

“Grab his legs!” he yelled, over the rain.

Together, we transported the wounded man into the theatre tent. Others descended on us, removing the man’s uniform as he coughed black blood onto the groundsheet.

The man that had leapt down from the truck was wearing a medic’s armband. He was bent low over his patient and had stopped shouting; he was now murmuring softly to him, stroking his face. I realised they knew each other, they were friends.

The wounded man was called Bill Moyer and, by some miracle, he survived. We got him stabilized that evening and then the next morning had him transported to the coastline, where he was shipped back to a hospital in England. Shot in the chest, just a bit too far off centre to hit anything vital. Few were so lucky.

The medic was Don. Together, we carried Bill from the surgery tent to the wards and settled him into a cot. It was hard to do so gracefully; if you bent low over a bed, you were always shoving your arse into the face of the person next door. We stood in the awning of the tent, listening to the rain. I didn’t know that Jane was behind us until later and, even then, I didn’t want to think about it. I didn’t want to cheapen the moment.

When he wasn’t giving orders, Don was usually quietly-spoken but, that evening, he had to shout over the sound of the storm. “Somebody told me France was mighty fine this time of year,” he said.

“Somebody lied,” I said.

*

In those days, people could throw a party in any kind of structure, if it stayed intact long enough. We held dances in operating theatre tents, with the tables and equipment pushed to the sides of the room. Bombed-out churches with only a few shards of stained glass left in the windows made for eerie dance halls, the strains of Glen Miller bouncing off the gargoyles and buttresses.

Cherbourg was captured by the Allies on 25th June but we only heard about it twenty-four hours later, when the new influx of patients arrived on stretchers. We knew something good had happened when, despite their wounds, some of them were smiling.

Word spread through the camp about a party at the US base – all medical personnel welcome. The MO allowed those that would be off-duty anyway to go. I was one of the lucky few. So, unfortunately, was Jane.

Over the last few days, I had become aware of her tracing my steps, following me, I assumed in order to intimidate me. I remembered from school that she breathed heavily in her sleep and when we’d shared a tent at the first field hospital, I’d spent many nights trying to drown out the sound of her snores. Now, it was the silence keeping me awake. If she wasn’t snoring, she wasn’t sleeping. What was she doing? Planning? Staring at me as I lay in my sleeping bag, trying to kill me with the power of her stare? I was absurdly grateful for the new rules, demanding we wear our helmets to bed.

I smiled at her as I climbed into the back of the jeep, knowing that this would annoy her more than a shove to the chest, or an elbow to the ribs. Childish, I know, but I was wearing lipstick and my spirits were high. I was not in the mood for diplomacy. I wanted to drink champagne and dance.

The party was at the American Mess, ten minutes down the dark, twisting roads. We sang in the back of the truck, passing around a bottle of whisky and, by the time the truck stopped, we were all drunk already.

I had met Americans before, but always on their own when they were on the back foot, when they needed patching up. En mass, they were quite something. The songs were tasteless, but they were loud and drowned out insecurity. After years of blackout warnings, it was a joy to dance in a hall that was light and warm with bodies. I drank too much and danced until my feet throbbed. I saw Jane out of the corner of my eye, staring at me. She was sitting with a group of soldiers and, when she caught my eye, laughed theatrically at something one of them had said. I remembered this tactic from school and smiled to myself. With all her dance training, I wondered why she wasn’t here on the floor, showing the Americans a thing or two.

I sat down at a table and, within minutes, was joined by ten or twelve GIs. That was the problem – we were outnumbered to such a degree that it was exhausting. Looking back, however, I can’t pretend that it was always a burden. One of the GIs was a Bostonian of Irish descent. His name was Mickey and he was a fellow impressionist. He made me laugh until I thought I was going to be sick, doing an impersonating his platoon’s medic who had tied a cow to a tree in order to milk it.

“So we’re all there shitting ourselves,” Mickey said. “And then this guy lassos this fucking Friesian – pardon my language, ma’am – and starts milking it into his helmet. I mean, of all the crazy shit I’ve seen out here…” He wiped his eyes, laughing too hard to make it to the end of the sentence. “A real country boy, that guy. Hey, there he is! Rhodie! Hey Rhodie!”

Don Rhodes was making his way to our table, looking mortified.

“I was just telling… what was your name?”

“Mary.”

“I was just telling Mary about you lassoing that Friesian-“

“It was a Normande,” Don said.

“What?”

“The cow was a Normande, because we’re in Normandy. Friesians are Dutch.”

“Right whatever. Lassoing that cow. Man, that made my goddamned life.”

*

It took an embarrassingly short time for me to fall in love with Don Rhodes. I didn’t have much experience of love; I was too quick to make fun of myself, too gawky, too robust to be convincing as someone’s sweetheart. But Don didn’t seem to know what he was doing either. He preferred cows to people. I was glad he was slight – statistically, the smaller ones were the ones that had a better chance of making it through unscathed. His family owned a ranch in Texas and the only aspiration he had was to end up back there. Perhaps he could turn his medical training to use as a vet? He didn’t know. He was trying not to think too far ahead.

Word got back to camp that I was seeing someone. Brian was awkward around me, confirming my suspicions, but it was Jane that troubled me most. It’s a strange feeling, sleeping near someone that hates you so much. Sharing meals with them. I heard her talking to an Irish tank commander once; he was talking about how it was impossible to hate a German once they showed you a picture of their wife and kids. He said the first thing they did when they were captured was to reach into their jackets and bring out the photograph, holding in front of them like a shield shouting ‘Meine Frau, meine Kinder!’

“Oh I don’t know,” I heard Jane say as I walked past. “There’s definitely one person I’d see dead.”

It was moments like this that I felt aware of the equipment around us, the syringes, the scalpels. The instruments we had that could save life would be just as effective at ending it.

But the thing about love is, you feel like you’ve got a guardian angel watching you all the time, someone on your side. Nothing seems truly dangerous if you know that you can turn it into an anecdote, if you can make it malleable by language and intonation. Don was sometimes at the hospital; after dropping off a patient he would try to find me and kiss me roughly before disappearing again. When he could be spared for more than an hour we would walk together. It was strange, but not unpleasant.

“Sounds like one crazy lady,” he said, when I told him about Jane, but he was laughing when he said it and I felt slightly annoyed that he didn’t think she was a serious threat. But then, I supposed, to someone that spends most of their time under fire from machine-guns, she wasn’t. I tried to laugh too.

*

I came back one day from a walk with Don to find her sitting alone in the sleeping tent. When I couldn’t bear the silence any longer, I said, “Any news about John?” Honestly, I did not intend to goad her – it had been my way of trying to forge some sort of truce – but she just glared at me and, when she spoke, she was full of fury.

“What do you think will happen,” she asked. “When he finds out you’re a bastard, that your mother was a whore?”

I couldn’t speak for a second, the breath knocked out of me. “I’m sorry?” I said.

“These Americans are pious folk, you know,” Jane said. I wanted to slap the smug smile from her face. “Do you think he’ll be pleased, when he finds out what you come from?”

I breathed deeply, to get my heartbeat to return to normal. “I’m not ashamed of who I am,” I said, slowly. “I don’t have to lie to live with myself.” And this time, I had the sense to leave the tent, despite the throbbing in my feet, my head, my heart.

*

Don never did find out about my family. I knew as soon as I saw Mickey, standing in the entrance to the tent, wringing his hands, that Don was dead. A machine gun, not even a precise bullet, intended especially for him. He was killed in a spray.

Everything was dangerous again, everything was cruel. The soldiers I healed were no longer funny or loveable, but more opportunities to get hurt. I thought of Betty, crying over her letter. I even thought of Jane, how I’d kill someone that told me my pain wasn’t real. And then I shut it all down. Do your job. It’s all you have left.

But then we had a Texan on the wards. I found it difficult to listen to his voice and I was glad when Jane became his primary. I walked stiffly past his bed, as if he were somehow infected with something. One day, I was walking by and Jane was next to him, changing the bag on his IV. Her head turned slightly to the side and I knew she’d sensed I was there.

“I knew a Texan,” she said loudly, in her nasal voice. “We were going to be married.”

Sometimes, I can still hear the sound of the slap I gave her. When I lie in bed at night, I can feel it still trembling in my hands as they lie on the sheets in the dark. I can hear the slap and the chill silence as, head snapped to the side, she turned to face me, smiling.

*

They couldn’t keep us together after that. It was shocking, the MO said. Never before had he seen such behaviour from a member of his staff. I was lucky to not be losing my job, but they were so understaffed that they needed every pair of hands they could get. I was sent away to Caen. The less they heard from me the better.

I couldn’t bring myself to care. I’d been in France three months and, in that time, seemed to have sampled the entire range of emotion war had to offer. I was ready to go home and yet it went on and on.

I went to Caen, Brussels and Louvain. I was driven through destroyed cities, populated only by mangy dogs and rats, only to suddenly pull into a town that was untouched. One day I would have to eat whatever was left of the hospital’s K-rations, normally ground into a powder at the bottom of the packets, and then the next there could be freshly-baked croissants, wine from the vineyard of the local chateau. There was sometimes cheese too, but everyone steered clear of the camembert; now I knew it smelled not dissimilar to rotting flesh.

I joined a convoy of British medical officers and, when we stopped in Poix on the way to Belgium, we stayed in an abandoned SS barracks. There were indoor lavatories and tinned food left in the larder. German uniforms were slung over the backs of chairs and hung up on pegs behind doors. There were also German magazines, full of naked women positioned into convoluted shapes. We were still laughing as I opened a drawer in a chest. Inside was a collection of maps. They showed the south of England and, though many of the place names were misspelled, were eerily accurate. Hand-drawn arrows showed exactly how the invasion would take place. I quickly handed the maps to the MO. I felt uneasy about sleeping in the room with them there, in the drawer. The German’s handwriting bothered me, the way the ys looped back over themselves.

In Belgium, we set up our hospital in a beautiful medieval convent. The nuns were still resident and eager to help, but often their efforts made life more complicated as they couldn’t speak English and my French hadn’t progressed much past my schooldays. They cheered us up though – they were plump and rosy-cheeked, scurrying around their wards in their habits, happy to be doing God’s work. I didn’t believe in Heaven any more, only Hell, but it was nice to think that there were those that still thought good could triumph over evil.

It was while I was in Louvain, trying to prevent Sister Sophia-Marie from giving a patient an overdose, that I met John Hariott.

The POW camp had been liberated and he was being treated for malnutrition. On the whole, he hadn’t done too badly and, when he was discharged, I bought him dinner. It seemed like the right thing to do.

John Hariott slurped his soup, wiped his nose on his sleeve of his uniform as he buttered his bread with his other hand.

“Janey never mentioned anyone called Mary,” he said with his mouth full of food. “She said she had a bunch of schoolfriends but I thought she made them all up. She was always such a brat.”

I had lost my appetite and now my soup was cold. When it was brought over to the table it had smelled delicious and I was sad to see it go to waste.

“What was she like at school?” John asked, mopping up the rest of his soup with a hunk of bread.

I thought for a second. “Lonely,” I said.

He snorted. “Yeah that sounds right. She was obsessed with this play thing you did every year. She said she was always picked to do the solo dance.”

“Did you ever write to her?” I asked.

John looked at me over his beer glass as he took a swig. “No,” he said. He had a moustache of froth along his top lip. “We never got on. I was already posted abroad when she was young. What? Why?”

I thought about telling him he needed to wipe his top lip. “Right,” I said. It was late and there were only two other tables occupied by diners. I wondered how long it would be before I could leave without seeming rude.

“Are you going to eat that?” John was pointing at the bowl of cold soup in front of me. I shook my head and pushed it towards him.

He insisted on walking me back to the convent. It was obvious from the way he hovered near the gates that he’d expected something more from the evening but I was clear – painfully so – and, as he walked away, he kicked a stone up the road. I watched him go, walking through this ancient, medieval city as though it had been saved especially for him, so he could kick this stone down this street, and I realised that in a way I had been right. Jane’s John did not exist. This man was his shadow.

*

Victory in Europe Day. I was in Brussels, having dinner with a friend. Nancy was a nurse I’d met in Louvain and, by then, we knew not to talk about what we’d seen. Now, there was a future to toast and we wasted no time on the past, uncorking a bottle of champagne with our appetizer.

Later we went dancing. The city was a mess, but it was joy that was creating the mayhem, spilling out over the edges. The parties flowed into the streets and Nancy and I danced with each other, with strangers and, when no one else could keep up, on our own. Just before midnight, I glanced across the cobbled street and saw a young woman, dancing with a GI. In the lamplight, her acne scars were pitted, pronounced, but she was no longer hunched over. Her posture was upright, elevated, and her legs moved quickly, skirting the ground, whipping around the soldier’s legs.

“Do you know her?” Nancy asked me.

“We went to school together,” I said. “Her name’s Jane. She’s a dancer.”

About the author

Ellen LavelleEllen Lavelle is a postgraduate student on The University of Warwick Writing Programme. An aspiring novelist and screenwriter, she has worked with The Young Journalist Academy since the age of fourteen, writing articles and making short films for their website. She’s currently working on a crime novel, a historical fiction novel and the script for a period drama. She interviews authors for her blog and you can follow her @ellenrlavelle on Twitter.

 

Advertisements

Short stories by Philip Roth you can read for free right now

220px-Philip_Roth_-_1973

Celebrated as “the last of the great white male” American authors of the 20th Century, Philip Roth has died at the age of 85.

Rather than devote pages (or pixels, as may more accurately be the case) to an obituary recounting the same great feats of an author who has towered over the US literary scene for decades, we have endeavoured to find and bring to you short stories, as well as one excellent piece of non-fiction, written by the man himself.

All the following texts are available online for free.

Conversion of the Jews

Extract:

If one should compare the light of day to the life of man: sunrise to birth; sunset—the dropping down over the edge— to death; then as Ozzie Freedman wiggled through the trapdoor of the synagogue roof, his feet kicking backwards bronco-style at Rabbi Binder’s outstretched arms-at that moment the day was fifty years old. As a rule, fifty or fifty-five reflects accurately the age of late afternoons in
November, for it is in that month, during those hours, that one’s awareness of light seems no longer a matter of seeing, but of hearing: light begins clicking away. In fact, as Ozzie locked shut the trapdoor in the rabbi’s face, the sharp click of the bolt into the lock might momentarily have been mistaken for the sound of the heavier gray that had just throbbed through the sky.

Defender of the faith

Extract:

Long ago, someone had taught Grossbart the sad rule that only lies can get the truth. Not that I couldn’t believe in the fact of Halpern’s crying; his eyes alwaysseemed red-rimmed. But, fact or not, it became a lie when Grossbart uttered it. He was entirely strategic. But then—it came with the force of indictment—so was I! There are strategies of aggression, but there are strategies of retreat as well. And so, recognizing that I myself had not been without craft and guile, I told him what I knew. “It is the Pacific.”

He let out a small gasp, which was not a lie. “I’ll tell him. I wish it was otherwise.”

“So do I.”

He jumped on my words. “You mean you think you could do something? A change, maybe?”

“No, I couldn’t do a thing.”

“Don’t you know anybody over at C. and A.?”

“Grossbart, there’s nothing I can do,” I said. “If your orders are for the Pacific, then it’s the Pacific.”

“But Mickey—”

“Mickey, you, me—everybody, Grossbart. There’s nothing to be done. Maybe the war’ll end before you go. Pray for a miracle.”

“But—”

“Good night, Grossbart.” I settled back, and was relieved to feel the springs unbend as Grossbart rose to leave. I could see him clearly now; his jaw had dropped, and he looked like a dazed prizefighter. I noticed for the first time a little paper bag in his hand.

“Grossbart.” I smiled. “My gift?”

“Oh, yes, Sergeant. Here—from all of us.” He handed me the bag. “It’s egg roll.”

“Egg roll?” I accepted the bag and felt a damp grease spot on the bottom. I opened it, sure that Grossbart was joking.

“We thought you’d probably like it. You know—Chinese egg roll. We thought you’d probably have a taste for—”

“Your aunt served egg roll?”

“She wasn’t home.”

“Grossbart, she invited you. You told me she invited you and your friends.”

“I know,” he said. “I just reread the letter. Next week.”

I got out of bed and walked to the window. “Grossbart,” I said. But I was not calling to him.

“What?”

“What are you, Grossbart? Honest to God, what are you?”

I think it was the first time I’d asked him a question for which he didn’t have an immediate answer.

“How can you do this to people?” I went on.

“Sergeant, the day away did us all a world of good. Fishbein, you should see him, he loves Chinese food.”

“But the Seder,” I said.

“We took second best, Sergeant.”

Rage came charging at me. I didn’t sidestep. “Grossbart, you’re a liar!” I said. “You’re a schemer and a crook. You’ve got no respect for anything. Nothing at all. Not for me, for the truth—not even for poor Halpern! You use us all—”

“Sergeant, Sergeant, I feel for Mickey. Honest to God, I do. I love Mickey. I try—”

“You try! You feel!” I lurched toward him and grabbed his shirt front. I shook him furiously. “Grossbart, get out! Get out and stay the hell away from me. Because if I see you, I’ll make your life miserable You understand that?”

“Yes.”

I let him free, and when he walked from the room, I wanted to spit on the floor where he had stood. I couldn’t stop the fury. It engulfed me, owned me, till it seemed I could only rid myself of it with tears or an act of violence. I snatched from the bed the bag Grossbart had given me and, with all my strength, threw it out the window. And the next morning, as the men policed the area around the barracks, I heard a great cry go up from one of the trainees, who had been anticipating only his morning handful of cigarette butts and candy wrappers. “Egg roll!” he shouted. “Holy Christ, Chinese goddam egg roll!”

An open letter to Wikipedia 

Extract:

Novel writing is for the novelist a game of let’s pretend. Like most every other novelist I know, once I had what Henry James called “the germ”—in this case, Mel Tumin’s story of muddleheadedness at Princeton—I proceeded to pretend and to invent Faunia Farley; Les Farley; Coleman Silk; Coleman’s family background; the girlfriends of his youth; his brief professional career as a boxer; the college where he rises to be a dean; his colleagues both hostile and sympathetic; his field of study; his bedeviled wife; his children both hostile and sympathetic; his schoolteacher sister, Ernestine, who is his strongest judge at the conclusion of the book; his angry, disapproving brother; and five thousand more of those biographical bits and pieces that taken together form the fictional character at the center of a novel.

 

‘The 8th Emotion’ – An Extract

An extract from Josh Spiller’s forthcoming speculative fiction novel, ‘The 8th Emotion’…

 

In a tribdwell situated in Karthalia, but beyond the boundary of any tribe – like some exiled building – Pavneet worked frantically.

Night-time candles glowed on his desk, while a cooking fire burned in the corner of his tribdwell’s main room. The smell of acidic chemicals singed the warm air, emanating from the beaker of green liquid that sat on his desk.

Taking yet another sheet of paper, Pavneet scrawled more notes, his eyes – behind his brass-rimmed glasses – in a trance-like state. He wore a long, stained jacket which he used as a makeshift lab coat. Above his greying temples, his craggily-lined forehead was furrowed in intense concentration. His World had contracted to the sheet of paper that lay before him, so much so that he hadn’t noticed that Bastian, his sandy-coloured dog, was barking in agitation and fear.

Two strident door-knocks resounded through the room. Cowering, Bastian fell silent, before leaning forward and barking with even more aggression.

Pavneet, frozen still, stared over the rim of his glasses, at the front door that lay directly ahead of him. No one had knocked on that door in years. Cautiously, he rose from his wooden chair, and started to shuffle around his desk.

Then with frightening suddenness, something shattered loudly. Pavneet instinctively ducked, snapping his gaze in the direction of the noise. Any last dregs of his trance-state were gone. The real World had come roaring in, flooding his alert mind with intense, vivid impressions. From beneath Bastian’s deafening barking, he heard, with acute sensitivity, a dull and solid thud strike the floorboards somewhere nearby. Then he saw that the single window in the left-hand wall was smashed open. And framed within its new jags of glass, which were like a jaw of predatory, vitreous teeth, a balaclavaed face stared back at Pavneet.

“Shut that dog up!” the balaclavaed man hissed. Then, with menacing slowness, he raised a lit candle into view. “Or we’ll blaze this place to the ground.”

In a state of shock, Pavneet whispered: “Sh-shush boy. Shush.” Bastian fell silent.

“Good,” the balaclavaed man said, and Pavneet could practically hear the smirk in his voice. “Now – open the door.”

An enormous fear gripped Pavneet, rattling his heart in its gigantic grip. Please, he thought. Oh please, don’t let them hurt me…

With a trembling hand, he unlocked the door, and pulled it toward him.

Two imposing men, balaclavaed like the one at the window, stood before him. One held a knife, its sharp point only an inch away from Pavneet’s gut.

“Get inside,” the man with the blade said. Within the holes of the man’s balaclava, Pavneet saw tiny, gloating, and vicious eyes. Silently, just enough to prod the flesh without cutting it, the man jabbed the knife into Pavneet’s stomach.

“W-what do you want?” Pavneet mumbled, fearfully stepping backwards toward his desk. He couldn’t believe a stranger was attacking him. Such a thing had been known to happen in other lands, in other times, but never in Karthalia. It was a peaceful place. “P-please. I’ll give you anything.”

“We already know that,” the man carrying the blade said, speaking with a twisted and gleeful sense of power.

He forced Pavneet back into the chair by the desk. Half-collapsing into it, Pavneet rubbed Bastian’s neck with trembling hands, as if he were trying to soothe his beloved companion, when it must have been obvious that it was simply a nervous expression of his own terror. Bastian growled, baring his teeth.

“E-easy, boy” Pavneet whispered. “Shhh.”

The other two intruders seemed subservient to the man with the blade. Both were now searching Pavneet’s tribdwell, one rifling through the sheafs of pamphlets and notepaper which Pavneet, to get them out of his way, had piled up around the edges of the room; the other, taller one standing nearby, inspecting the notes in the drawers of Pavneet’s desk. It was obvious that neither was finding what they were looking for.

The man carrying the blade spoke, still holding the knife just in front of Pavneet’s chest: “You’re not a liar, are you Pavneet?”

“N-no.”

“So this is true?” ‘Blade’ withdrew from his pocket a scrunched-up piece of paper. He flattened it out on the top of the desk, before showing it to Pavneet. With a gut-wrenching sense of horror, Pavneet recognised it at once. The page had been ripped out from the last scientific pamphlet he’d written, published only a week ago.

The chain of reasoning Pavneet had expounded in the pamphlet flashed into his mind, fierce and white-hot like burning magnesium:

  1. Single-celled organisms don’t experience emotions, or if they do, they experience very little.
  2. Humans evolved from single-celled organisms.
  3. Humans experience emotions.
  4. Thus, humans must have evolved emotions.

Then came the main part of Pavneet’s article. He’d claimed that he knew how to unlock humanity’s next emotion, so that it could become a permanent part of anyone who wanted it. What’s more, he’d said that when everyone possessed it, it would end all human conflict, equalising everyone profoundly, and ushering in a true paradise.

For now, though – he’d ended his article – he needed to do more testing, to check that what he’d discovered was safe. But in the next pamphlet he released, he would explain how people could tap into this emotion for themselves.

This memory of what he’d written hit Pavneet with the force of a tempest, and then, following close behind, realisation stabbed through him: these men were searching for proof that he really could unlock this next emotion. Why? He had no idea. But if they found it, he knew they’d have no reason to keep him alive.

“I lied,” Pavneet blurted. “I just did it to sell the next issue. I’m alone, my income, it’s all through trading these pamph—”

Out of nowhere, Blade’s knife-gripping fist smashed into Pavneet’s cheek, knocking him into his desk and rattling the container of chemicals that sat on top of it. Bastian barked ferociously, but Pavneet retained his terrified, white-knuckled grip on the dog’s collar. As he gasped from the blow, Pavneet could almost feel ‘Blade’ grinning at him sadistically from behind his balaclava.

“Give me a reason to do that again,” ‘Blade’ said.

Then one of the other men came over to ‘Blade’, pointing at something on a piece of paper.

They’ve got it, Pavneet thought, a cold thrill of terror running though him, shifting the hyper-real present into even sharper focus. He felt upon his back the heat from the cooking fire in the corner. Saw the fire’s light gleaming upon the knife, as if the blade shone with its own golden, vicious soul. An inchoate, instinctual plan was forming in his mind.

With regret, he remembered how – on the day of his breakthrough – he had told himself that he would never again inflict any type of injury on another human being. A sort of premonitory sympathy pain shot through him: he understood the agony these men might be about to suffer. And there was something still worse…

He looked at Bastian with sorrow.

‘Blade’ stared at the piece of paper, his eyes widening in a look of quiet awe. All humour had dropped out of his voice: “So you really can do it.”

And with that, Pavneet’s decision was made.

With his right hand, he shoved Bastian forward and released the dog’s collar. “Go!” he shouted, and Bastian leapt upon ‘Blade’, slobbering fangs barking and snapping. Spinning round, Pavneet snatched up the container of chemicals and threw it at the cooking fire. A blaze exploded upwards, blasting a wave of searing heat over Pavneet’s face. Everything became confusion and clamour. Fire-tongues gobbled ravenously at floorboards and terracotta walls, vomiting black smoke. Pavneet bolted across the room, past the indistinct shapes of his attackers, through a haze of barking, swearing, and shouts. Leaping, he hauled himself up to the smashed-in window, his adrenaline making him oblivious to the jags of glass that were slicing open his forearms.

Then, through the whirlwind of smoke and shouts, there cut a sharp, canine yelp. For a moment, Pavneet froze. Tears brimmed in his eyes. Blood poured out of his arms. He wanted to look back, but he couldn’t bring himself to do it. Struggling over the knives of glass that jutted up below him, he toppled out the window’s other side, landing with a thump on the soil and vegetables below.

Gasping for breath, he hauled himself to his feet, and ran, trampling vegetables, fruit, and grass, sprinting alongside the winding River Menignus. The reek of sulphur burned in his nostrils, beneath a clear, starry sky.

Who were those men? Why were they after him? He didn’t know. And that meant he couldn’t trust anyone.

Still running, he tried to ignore his screaming desire to go back, even as tears ran down his cheeks. Bastian… it was Pavneet’s fault. And it was too late for him to do anything about it.

And as he ran, Pavneet also imagined that gang of men, amongst the fiery confusion, enduring an emotion they’d never felt before… enduring Oceanos, as the flames ate through the scientific specimens stored in his bedroom, and released their psychotropic vapours into the air.

 

 

You can read more about ‘The 8th Emotion’ – and order your own signed first-edition copy of the novel – here

White winter mist

snow-forest-trees-winter-large

The woods are shrouded in a white winter mist. Snow falls from the sombre sky, trees twist and creak in the icy wind. There is someone lying in the woods. A girl.

Her skin is as white as the snow around her, and yet it is a sickly pallor. Her mouth, once as red as blood, is now pale and lifeless. Her hair, as black as ebony, is unkempt and lies straggled on her shoulders. Her figure is delicately cracked in place, as if she were porcelain. Yet the cracks are tinted with faint blue hues – the tell-traces of cyanide.

She had always been so lively – scampering and exploring the woodlands which had become her home. Her eyes had shone with bright delight whenever she found a new fruit, flower or animal.

Everything she encountered seemed to befriend her. She was the darling Snow White; her pure white skin, her vibrant red lips, her glossy black hair made her perfect.

She was irresistible.

She was envied.

The girl was exploring in the woods, when the Queen – the Hag – crept up to her, offered up the cursed fruit. She had seen the young girl’s beauty, and was overcome with jealousy.

“An apple darling?” she rasped, outstretching a withered hand.

The girl should have run – she might have been spared. Yet alas, she was blind to the Hag’s wicked ways.

“For me?” she cried, her innocent eyes, widening in surprise.

“For you,” replied the Witch, in her feigned, scratchy voice.

The girl gazed at the fruit: its red flesh looked positively divine. “It’s to die for.” the old woman chuckled. Like Eve, the girl was tempted. Like Eve, she couldn’t stay strong. She gave in, took a bite, and fell. Her body collapsed upon the freezing snow, her limbs spread-eagled, her mouth parted slightly in shock. The Hag vanished – victorious.

The girl grew weaker and weaker; the poison grew stronger and stronger. It surged through her veins, controlling her, overwhelming her. She could not move. The snow whirled, the winds howled furiously, as if to rouse her from her sleep – her nightmare. She could not sleep. She could not wake.

There was no-one to save her; the pulse slowed in her wrist. The girl’s heart stopped beating in the white winter mist.

 

About the author

Profile Picture.jpgJudith Webster is an English student and aspiring journalist who loves reading and analysing books, which inspired her to start her own blog. Her favourite books to read are classic novels, Gothic novels and a little mix of Horror and Young Adult books, too. She has always been quite a creative person, as well as a bookworm, and so always wrote stories as a a child. As she makes her way as an aspiring creative writer, she is inspired by reading other people’s posts and watching “BookTube” videos on YouTube. You can find her on Goodreads, here.

The Starling

'Starling'. Photograph: Lori Garske/Flickr

‘Starling’. Photograph: Lori Garske/Flickr

I paused. There was a noise above my head, in the attic. It was intermittent. I wasn’t sure if I’d heard anything at all it was so indistinct, so gentle. The child which remained somewhere within me played with the idea of ghosts and spirits but I wasn’t intrigued enough to venture into the cold space that topped the whole house in wintry mystery. It had been a while since I had climbed the stairs up there. I resumed brushing my teeth with a stiff-shouldered shrug. My bed and hot water bottle were waiting for me, and silence had returned to keep me company.

It was the day after and I was in the garden. I wasn’t able to move all that well because I had wrapped up so tightly against winter, refusing to let in a single gust. Still, my face was furiously chilled, and my nose felt a separate extremity with the cold. At times I touched it with my gloved hand or scrunched it up just to move it about. The thought of a cup of English Breakfast tea warmed me, and the promise of it spurred me on. The field beyond the sparse lawn was veiled in crystal, and the early light offered a pearlescent shine. In fact every piece of patchwork land which stretched undisturbed to the distant horizon was painted in the same frosty hue. Each naked tree of the arboretum was paler in suspended death, the branches ready to snap. The leafless hedgerows were tangled streaks of caliginous grey against the earth; the ice-dry veins of the countryside. Nothing moved, except myself. Turning my back on the austere scene I proceeded to the open barn.

The barn was dark despite its facelessness. The machinery was dark too. The red of the tractor had become a sanguine brown, the green of the mower a murky sea colour and the black of the old car chassis blacker still. Above, in the wood-worm beams numerous items were suspended; rusted oil lanterns I had replaced long ago with torches; an ancient canoe which I had never used; rope, coiled like snake-skin.

The smell of fuel left its addictive trace on the exposed, broken carburetor which I knew lay abandoned upon the wooden workstation tucked into the deepest shadows of the old barn. The enjoyable scent accompanied that of the log pile I had to tackle before I could have that cup of tea.

And there they were, the logs, crowded together as if for protection. You’ll all burn eventually I said to myself. I reached down to collect the long-handled axe my father had left to me years ago. I dragged the tool to the chopping block, it felt heavier than last winter. Or perhaps I was weaker. I let the handle slip through my hand gradually until the axe hit the ground with a dull, resigned thump, and then I propped it against the block. I returned to the huddled logs and continued to load the rusted wheelbarrow with them, pushing them to the end of their road. The single wheel left a harsh trail in the crunchy, pale grass.

With a deliberate tempo I began the task. Each blow echoed from the barn behind, only to be shouted across the open expanse of the field in front. The countryside almost barked back in retaliation, and each sound bounced from the wall of my house. The arc and swing of the axe, its downward plummet and inevitable thud savagely marked the passing of time, and soon only kindling remained of the botched logs and sizable chunks of the clean-cut ones. I refilled the wheelbarrow with the butchered wood and left the axe to suffer the cold.

I looked up at the house. The attic windows, two eyes with pyramid pupils, stared across the land I had been gazing at. Like captive’s facing an enemy interrogation, they had a clandestine look. I remembered the bodiless noise I had heard in the attic, but again, was not certain if I had imagined it. And so I let the memory go.

***

I was in the garden again, but not for logs. I needed the stepladder to replace the light in the high-ceilinged drawing room. On my way to the garage I passed my car, the only car; the once-white-now-ashen estate. I still needed to take a look at the guts of it, to try and locate the cause of the splutter whenever the ignition was turned. I paused briefly, only to scratch the rust from the passenger door’s handle. I approached the large garage. The broken padlock hung limply, feigning protection, its mechanism no longer functioning. I considered throwing it out, but as I pulled open the heavy door with both hands the inclination left me. I had neglected to put on my gloves, and so my fingers reluctantly left the frigid surface of the handle. I rubbed my hands against one another and entered. The fragile light form outside fell through the crack in one severe splinter, cutting the darkness in two. The stepladder was in the light’s path. I marched to it, my lungs already chilled, my breath already short.

I hitched the stepladder under one arm. En route to the house I paused again, but it wasn’t my car which took my attention. The fountain was frozen. I broke the ice, cracking the hostile cover and promising myself I would do it the next day and the day after, and continue throughout the perpetual winter until the sun usurped the chill and stole my deed from me.

The drawing room was cold; I hadn’t heated the room for a while. Warmth never seemed to linger so I had given up trying the year my father had died. I opened the stepladder beneath the broken light. The neglected fireplace was beautiful in its dormancy. Before I climbed the stepladder I brushed the dust from the marble mantle. It was as I removed the spent bulb and slotted the new one into place that the slightest of sounds reached my ears. It had come from the attic, I was certain this time. My brow furrowed with the doubt that almost immediately pushed against the momentary certainty, and I kept still, one ear cocked upward. The noise didn’t occur again, but my heart felt a little quicker for the interruption. I returned the stepladder to the garage. Closing the door, I positioned the broken padlock, and turned my back on it.

The heat of my house wasn’t able to purge the frostiness from my limbs, nor did the tea do much to warm me. I made my second cup, the tinkling of the teaspoon stirring in the one-and-a-half sugars the only sound to grace the many vacant rooms. Even the fire seemed hushed, and outside there was nothing. It smelt of extinction and seclusion. As I tapped the teaspoon a final time on the edge of the aged cup I heard noises above, in the attic. They were a little more urgent, a little less soft. I exhaled and, pushing ghosts and spirits from my mind, began the ascent, leaving my tea to steam its life away.

At the foot of the attic stairs I lingered, and as if waiting for such an action, another noise sounded. A whispered beat. I climbed carefully until I reached the trap door. When I opened it the noise ceased with a violent blast of cold. I closed the wooden door behind me quietly and stood, the image of a statue. I turned my head slowly, my eyes falling over each corpse of furniture, each piece of moth-eaten fabric, each damaged toy with colourless faces and eyeless sockets. Old shelving units leaned this way and that under the weight of dusty boxes containing perhaps old photographs or once-sentimental trinkets. Mounds of faded newspaper cuttings rested precariously atop stacks of obsolete books. Some, it seemed, had been disturbed recently. I licked my lips and scoured the cluttered yet vacant space. Everything was shrouded by an insubstantial murk.

Then I saw it, the starling.

I was spooked by life, life that was carried on oil-coloured wings. I had startled it too, and at once it erupted about the eaves, its flapping noise suddenly frantic, no longer delicate. I followed it with my eyes, immediately captivated by its fervor, its movement. Some of the newspaper cuttings were blown about in a haze of dust which clouded my vision of the creature momentarily. Its silhouette became clearer as the dust settled back into place, coating the newly exposed areas. I inched closer, willing the starling to be calm, but I only panicked it further. It crashed against the large, slanted window pane before hurtling across the messy space, barely avoiding the detritus of bygone years I could not recollect the details of. It didn’t pass me, but it seemed to sense that its space was shrinking. One last attempt at the impenetrable pane drew it to a shuddering stop. I thought it had broken its neck but it looked at me, its tiny chest twitching with its heart’s troubled beat. Its black eyes seemed so full of fear that I halted.

I observed it, as it observed me. It was odd to see something so animated, I had become so accustomed to stillness. The colours of its plumage were like dark rainbows, peppered with pinpricks of white. A bird-shaped galaxy. Gradually, ever so gradually, I extended my arm, stretching my fingers until they gripped the cold latch, but my fingers were oddly warm. They had been so icy, white twigs, but now they were pink with life. I pulled and pushed and the window opened.

I waited. The starling waited too, uncertainty in the eye that watched me. Then it hopped once onto the window sill, and again into grateful flight. I hurried to watch the creature find its home. There it was, a graceful dot in the leaden sky rapidly being consumed by the otherwise lifeless space. I shivered, my hands were cold again.

About the author

Hannah Fairney Jeans was constantly imagining as a young child. These ‘imaginings’ were brought to life by her favourite toy; her type-writer. Now, twenty years on, Hannah is still penning stories, still consumed by her worlds, and still in love with creation, and her type-writer.