I Said I Like It Like That

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Justine’s mother bought herself a new phone when she moved to the States and, after that, Justine had trouble getting hold of her. She had the new number supposedly, sent to her via email from an unfamiliar address. She assumed the email was from her mother because it was characteristically brief and contained only the words ‘new number 4 florida’, followed by a string of unfamiliar digits. She tried the number a few times, locking herself in one of the guest bedrooms so that no one would ask who she was calling. Who would want to speak to you? But she never had to explain herself because no one ever picked up.

It was five years now since she’d spoken to her mother, which was a long time when your mother was eighty-seven and your siblings were dead or in prison. All apart from Dawn, her sister, but Justine never knew whether to count Dawn as a living relative. Living seemed to imply movement; a sense of the passage of time. Dawn had barely moved from her the sofa in her dark front room for over twenty years. Surely that was a kind of prison; Justine would rather be dead.

Now, she leaned against the granite workshop in her bespoke kitchen, holding a spatula of fluffy egg white with one hand, her phone with the other. The call echoed into nothing. Into Florida, if that’s where her mother still was. Justine had been to Florida once with Nigel and the kids when they were little, when Nigel became Head at St Faith’s. New house, new car, expensive holiday. Florida had been sun, sand and fat people. Was her mother fat now? Justine glanced at the clock. Florida was five hours behind. It was half-past one in Lincolnshire, the huge skies scorched by the midday heat. Half-past eight AM in Florida. It was fine; Mum had always been an early-riser. Probably because she’d never gone to bed in the first place, a constant haze of cigarette fumes fueling her from dusk until dawn.

But the phone rang on and on and Justine brought the spatula close to her face, the mixture shining a few centimeters away from her nose. She was about to stick out her tongue and lick it, when an American woman said her call couldn’t be taken at the moment but that she could leave a message after the tone.

‘Hi Mum,’ said Justine. ‘I don’t even know if this is the right number or what, but Travis has gone missing again and I was just wondering if he’d tried to contact you. It’s probably nothing, but anyway…’ She trailed off, staring out through the kitchen window into the garden. Her daughter, Chloe, was spread out on a sunbed next to the pool, the gleam from her belly-bar blinding. ‘Just give us a call when you get this. If you get this.’ She hung up to stop herself from saying anything else and put the phone screen-down on the worktop. Then she picked it up again. Nigel had told her not to call Travis again and with good reason. She was only filling Travis’ voicemail. Calling him had never brought him to heel in the past. If it had, he would be home already – here in this room, hunched over a bowl of cereal. The kitchen was clean, the surfaces shiny. There was only the mixing bowl, the meringue mixture and Justine, one hand on her hip, the other tapping at the screen of her new iPhone. Not available right now. Please leave a message.

The messages had documented perfectly her transition from best mother in the world to worst. At first, she’d been understanding: ‘Travis, love, it’s mummy here. Just wondering where you’ve got to, sweetheart. Just drop us a message when you can.’ She’d been very impressed with herself and had imagined telling somebody, a vaguely friend-shaped shadow, about parenting: how there’s no point pushing them, you have to let them come to you. But Travis hadn’t come to her and it was getting on for seventy-two hours which, with his track record, was a problem.

She began to speak just before the tone. She didn’t introduce herself – he knew who she was. ‘Listen to me, you little shitbag,’ she said. ‘This is enough. This is the final fucking straw. If you’re not home by the end of the day, don’t bother coming back at all. I bend over backwards for you and you piss in my face. Well that’s it. You’d better work out where you’re going to live.’ She hung up, finished the pavlova.

‘Sometimes,’ she said to the shadowy friend in her head. ‘It’s a firm hand that does it.’

*

The pavlova was for Martin and Rebecca, who were coming for dinner. Martin was Nigel’s right-hand man at the Federation of Academies and Rebecca was his new wife. For fifteen years, it had been Martin and Sharon. For the last five Christmases, Justine had incorrectly addressed their card and had to throw one out each time. This was unfortunate, as Justine liked to buy good-quality cards, the ones you could only buy in packs of five or six. Not the flimsy, charity efforts that came in multipacks. Each time she forgot Martin’s divorce it was another couple of quid down the drain.

‘I don’t know why you’re so bothered,’ Nigel said last December, as she swore over an embossed pop-out angel, its wings tipped with glitter and tiny sequined stars. ‘It’s not like we’re paupers.’

Justine couldn’t blame herself entirely; Rebecca was forgettable. She had the same long blonde hair as Sharon, but fewer lines around her eyes and her tanned skin didn’t yet have that leathery, tea-stained finish. She probably had another few years left. Halfway through whisking the egg whites, Justine realised she didn’t know if Rebecca even liked pavlova but then, with the KitchenAid whirring away at maximum speed, Justine decided it was too far gone now. You couldn’t unbreak an egg.

*

The problem with this kitchen was that nothing slammed. When they’d had it fitted, soft-close drawers and cupboards had seemed like a good idea, with two teenagers that moved about plugged into iPhones, deaf to their own inconsiderate behaviour. But the kids ended up spending very little time at home. Chloe was always out with friends, friends with names like Jemima and Frances, whose fathers were always ‘in’ something. ‘In’ property, or ‘in’ banking. They never just ‘had’ a job. But whatever they did, they could afford houses that Chloe seemed to disappear into for whole weekends, only coming home when she needed a clean pair of pants or because she’d forgotten her swimsuit. Over time, these swimsuits got smaller and smaller, until there was really very little left to forget; barely a few pieces of string, tied in a knot over the gusset.

And then there was Travis. Justine didn’t like to think about where he was, or who he was with. He just wasn’t around, so it was her own anger that the kitchen ended up moderating. No matter how hard you threw the cupboard doors closed, they refused to slam. Over the years, they had somehow assumed the personality of Kimberley, that smug-bitch therapist she’d been sent to see. ‘Why don’t you try breathing?’ Kimberley and the cupboards asked her. None of them were any help whatsoever. None of them understood. If you wanted to cause a scene in this kitchen, you had to generate the noise yourself, which was exhausting. She’d found it was easier to drink from the wine glasses than smash them on the antique Minster-stone tiles.

Half-one was probably too early for a glass of wine. She’d allow herself one before the guests arrived. Maybe at half-five. Or five.

She spooned the mixture into a mound on the baking sheet and gouged out a crater in the middle. The idea was to bake the meringue and then cover up the hole and the cracks with a load of strawberries, cranberries and fresh cream. You had to let it cool completely before you added the fruit; Justine had learned that the hard way. In the early days of her marriage, when she’d still been in shock at having her own kitchen, she got over-excited about recipes and could never last the whole cooking time before going on to the next step. The very first time she’d made Nigel dinner, he’d come home from work to find a runny shepherd’s pie in pride of place on the kitchen counter, the meat not yet browned, the mash lumpy. He’d laughed, in the easy way he had back then, ruffled her hair and they’d gone upstairs to have athletic sex. But that was then. Now, she waited the appropriate time for the meat to brown, for sauces to reduce. The lasagna would be the highlight of her evening.

Even the oven door was polite. She watched the meringue in the orange glow for a few seconds, the first of the air bubbles beginning to prickle in the heat, before checking her phone. Her wallpaper was a picture of herself and Chloe, heads tilted together, clinking glasses of prosecco on a balcony in Paris. Her birthday last year. An hour after the photograph was taken, she’d had to restrain herself from throwing her daughter over that balcony, onto the Avenue Montaigne, when Chloe decided she was going to meet some old uni friends for cocktails that evening, instead of going with her mother to the dinner they’d booked at the Four Seasons. ‘I’ll be, like, an hour,’ Chloe had said, already slurring as she slung her Birkin Bag over her shoulder and tottered out of the room. Justine spent her fifty-eighth birthday alone in the hotel suite, watching old episodes of French soaps that she didn’t understand at first but seemed to gain poignancy with every mouthful of prosecco, swigged from the bottle like a hooker in a teen comedy.

The photograph of Justine and Chloe was clear of notifications – no one wanted to speak to her. And if she was honest, Justine didn’t want to speak to them either but, while one child baked in the sun, the other was loose, out of the pen. And he’d done enough damage already.

*

It was Nigel that came up with the idea that Travis should change his name. ‘It’s not just the fact you’ve been in jail,’ he’d said.  ‘It’s the fact you were in jail for something like that. You’ll be on a list.’

So now Travis was Trent, except Justine couldn’t keep it up all the time. To the family, he was still Travis. They didn’t offer an explanation as to why the young man brooding under his greasy fringe had two names and no one asked. Everyone knew better than to question the Carter family quirks. At the Federation of Academies, people didn’t ask Nigel Carter to explain himself. Which is why Trent Briggs could be employed at St Francis’ C of E Academy as a groom in the new Equestrian centre. Under the guidance of Nigel Carter, the school had become an Academy, had government funds coming out of its ears. Travis Carter was on a list, but Trent Briggs was a stranger.

Travis had always been twitchy. Nowadays, he would probably be diagnosed with ADHD or something – one of those conditions that meant you got a note from a doctor saying you could do your exams in a small, quiet room with a laptop, instead of slaving away with pen and paper like everyone else. Travis would have liked that – a bit of extra attention. But Travis ended up sitting barely any of his GCSE exams because he had fallen into the wrong crowd and was often high on the sofa of some little twat’s mother, deep in the labyrinth of the city council estates. Or shooting up behind the back of Sainsbury’s. It made you wonder if it was in the genes. All her hard work gone to waste. The drugs were one thing, but the other stuff – exposing himself in that way to those kids – made her think of her Uncle Brian, with his moist smile and his hairy hands. The thing that had passed from Brian to Travis, did it run through her too? She’d thought she’d done a good job of stamping it out, keeping the kids away from all that, but it was a lifelong game of whack-a-mole. Just when you thought you’d exorcised all the demons, a new kind of fresh hell would crawl out of the pit.

It was a good job that Nigel had been able to get him the equestrian training once he was out. He’d only been inside six months but that was enough. Six months and a black mark next to your name could follow you forever. But Travis became Trent and he went on the residential course. They used the Federation credit cards – the state had taken six months off him, so it was only right that it paid for the course. Fair was fair.

The Academy Federation had acquired properties in France, for use by the schools during residential trips. Nigel had taken Justine with him to scout out the various locations. She’d fallen in love with a place in Normandy. It was £1.9 million, situated barely an hour’s drive from Bayeux with a banqueting hall and spaces easily divided into apartments. Justine had been such a help on the visit that Nigel had paid her a consultant’s fee – an extra £55,000 for the year’s work. It had been a blast, picking out the bathrooms, deciding which bedrooms would open onto what. She’d liked the floor tiles so much that she’d chosen them for their own en-suite upstairs. As an additional thank you, Nigel had suggested she take some friends for the weekend when it was all finished. He was so busy at work at that time that he didn’t seem to realise she’d shed most of her friendships. Intentionally, of course. As she became more involved with the academies, after she transferred the kids to single-sex private schools, after they moved from the city centre to the six-bedroom, hundred-acre Lodge which presided over the Fens and had its own pool, she found that looking at those people made her depressed. She didn’t want to think about the conversations they’d had in the playground of the inner-city Primary School all those years ago. She didn’t want to think about the grotty Starbucks coffee dates, or the aqua-aerobics classes they’d taken together, dodging the floating plasters and leering pensioners. She was a different person now and needed new friends. In the end, she’d joined a salsa club and asked a few people from there to come along. They’d shimmied and swayed across the floor of the banquet hall to Pete Rodriguez, drinking sangria and laughing. She was pretty sure Sharon had been among them, or was it a different woman, with a similar shaggy blonde hairstyle? Someone else – Jules? Julie? – had accidentally broken a pane in the French windows when she’d kicked her foot backwards into an arabesque and her wedge heel had flown off, shattering the glass.

‘It’s ok, really!’ Justine had said as the woman apologised over and over again. ‘The kids aren’t going to come here for ages.’

In fact, Nigel hadn’t mentioned any school trips to the Normandy retreat yet. Mind you, there was so much in the curriculum these days. So many exams and whatnot. The kids probably didn’t have time.

*

In some ways the Academy credit cards made life much easier, but when things went wrong, it was complicated. Like when Travis went missing, for example. To be fair to him, since he’d come out he’d been better. He still sloped around, disappeared for the night without telling them and came back reeking of marijuana. But he was in his twenties – young men did that kind of thing. Justine was able to tolerate the odd wild weekend. It was when he did things like this – disappearing for several days in a row – that people started to ask questions. It had been the St Faith’s sports day yesterday for Christ’s sake. He had responsibilities – mowing the grass in preparation etc. People noticed if he went missing now. And someone, any one of them, might call the police. Justine didn’t know much about how the police went about their business, but she assumed it wouldn’t take them long to realise that the person everyone knew as Trent Briggs had once been Travis Carter and that Travis Carter was on a list. Trent Briggs worked at a school. They would also see that Trent Briggs had been on a training course funded by the Academy and they might start looking at credit card statements. Salaries paid to Justine Carter and Chloe Carter, for ‘consultancy’ work. Business trips to Paris. Which is why Travis had to come home.

*

Martin and Sharon – no, Rebecca – were coming at seven, which meant the lasagna had to be in the oven by six. At five, she was chopping mushrooms, the mince browning in a thick-bottomed saucepan. It had been a bad idea, cooking a lasagna on a hot day like this. She kept having to wipe away her sweaty fringe with the back of her hand. She’d been crying earlier, because of the onions, and could feel gritty bits of mascara worked into her eyeballs when she rubbed them. It made you thirsty, cooking in this heat, and so when she opened a bottle of merlot for the Bolognese, she also poured herself a glass. Usually, she preferred rosé – something sweet, like a White Zinfandel or a Grenache Rose. It didn’t seem like such a terrible indiscretion, if you didn’t drink the thing you really wanted.

She was adding the mushrooms to the pan when she heard a car door slam. Nigel. She’d told him to be home at a decent time and, for once, he’d listened to her. The front door opened and closed. She could hear him breathing in his usual, huffing way, could hear his shoes on the parquet and almost cried again for no good reason. The onions were cooking in the sauce, had lost their edge, so it must have been the wine making her eyes prickle. When he stepped into the doorway, his paunch appearing first the way it always did now, she wanted to fling her arms around him, or as far around him as she could reach, and bawl her eyes out onto his expensive white shirt.

But he was already snarling like a Pitbull. ‘Tonight,’ he said, slamming his briefcase down on one of the stools at the breakfast bar. ‘If Martin asks if you’ve heard from Travis, I need you to tell him you have.’

Justine scraped the last of the mushrooms into the pot and gave it a stir, the little baldy bastards drowning in the thick red sauce. ‘Why?’ she asked.

‘Because I’ve told him you’ve spoken to him.’ He said this painfully slowly, as if she was deaf. Sometimes, he behaved like she was a teenager, a student at one of his academies. She’d flag this up in future, when all of this had blown over.

‘Why did you do that?’ she asked, setting her knife and chopping board safely out of the way.

‘Martin’s getting twitchy. He thinks I’m losing control. He’s worried this is going to blow everything open.’

She turned to look at him. ‘Are you?’ she asked.

He’d loosened his tie and was getting himself a glass from the cupboard. My god, from the side he looked particularly hefty. She’d have to let out the waist of his trousers soon. ‘What?

‘Are you losing control?’

‘Am I fuck.’ He sloshed wine into the glass. ‘Just tell him he’s texted you or something.’ The wine gushed out of the bottle.

‘I need that for the sauce.’

‘How much?’

‘Just don’t pour any more,’ she said. Once the glass was full to the brim, he set the bottle down on the counter. Justine stirred the pot. ‘So you haven’t heard anything?’

‘No,’ he said, taking a swig. ‘He’s pushed it too far this time.’

She moved to the fridge. For years, everyone had asked her what the secret ingredient was in her Bolognese. It was the Thai Sweet Chilli Sauce that gave it its zing. It wasn’t much of a secret ingredient, actually, as she told everyone who asked.

‘No idea what he’s risking. No way of beating it into his thick fucking skull.’

She squeezed the bottle of Sweet Chilli into the Bolognese and it spurted up the sides of the pan. ‘Don’t say things like that,’ she said.

‘Well it’s true,’ Nigel said, wiping wine from his mouth with the back of his hand. His eyes flickered over to the window. Chloe was still stretched out on the sun lounger, plugged into her phone. Watching something, messaging someone: rotting her brain. Nigel jabbed a finger in his daughter’s direction. ‘And that one’s a waste of fucking space.’

‘Nigel…’ The sauce had to simmer for a while. In the meantime, she’d make the cheese roux.

‘I’ve got Simon on the job.’ Nigel said.

‘What?’

‘Simon. Simon Withers, you know,’ Nigel said. ‘He’s going to find Travis.’ Justine stopped stirring and stared at her husband. ‘Simon?’ she asked, her heartbeat suddenly loud in her ears. Simon was the youngest member of the senior management team. He had coiffed hair, an unnatural tan and was a little too pleased with his company Audi. He was probably about thirty, but Justine always thought of him as being seven years old, could imagine him making ‘broom, broom’ noises behind the wheel of his car. He’d been for dinner a couple of times and Justine had resisted the urge to ask him if he wanted her to cut up his chicken into little pieces. She’d felt fond of him initially and then less so later when, a couple of glasses down, he’d lost minutes at a time staring into Chloe’s cleavage. This was the man that Nigel had enlisted to find her son.

‘You asked Simon?’ she asked.

‘Everyone else in the senior team is busy and I’m not involving anyone lower. There are enough people running around as it is. It’s only me, you and Simon that know.’ Nigel said. Then he frowned, putting his glass down on the worktop. ‘And Chloe, unfortunately. She’s not told any of her stupid friends has she?

‘You’ve given this to Simon?

‘Simon’s a smart lad. He’s very bright.’

‘He’s fucking twelve!’ Suddenly, she was shouting, which was alarming even to her. ‘He still gels his hair!’

‘Justine, get your shit together. I’m not having this conversation with you when you’re like this.’

‘Our son is missing, Nigel,’ she said.

‘Actually, we don’t know what’s happened,’ Nigel said, resting one hand on the counter, the other on his hip. There was the headmaster again.

Justine left the wooden spoon in the pot and folded her arms. ‘You want me to lie,’ she said.

‘He’s probably fine. He’ll be off his face somewhere, the little shit. ‘

‘Three days, Nigel. He could be hurt,’ she said and then, before she lost her courage to say what she’d been thinking all day, she added: ‘he could be dead.’ She had intended this as a bombshell, thought it would shake Nigel out of his aggression, force him to take her seriously. But it did the opposite.

Snorting, Nigel reached for his wine again. ‘He wouldn’t be that bloody considerate,’ he said into the glass.

‘Nigel!’

‘He’ll turn up in a few days and then I really will kill him.’

Justine stared at her husband for a second and then her eyes drifted to the clock. It was five-past six. Fuck. The roux, the fucking roux.  She had to walk past Nigel to get the flour out of the cupboard, the butter out of the fridge. Sticking her nose in the air, she fully intended to give him the silent treatment but, on her way back across the kitchen, her resolve crumbled.

‘But what if he doesn’t?’ she asked, slamming the butter down on the scale. Fifty grams the display said, meekly. ‘What if he doesn’t and people start asking why we haven’t called the police.’

‘No.’ Nigel threatened her with a podgy finger. ‘Don’t even go there. Don’t you dare.’

‘But what if that’s what happens?’ Flour billowed out across the worktop in a cloud. ‘What will we say then?’

‘He’s going to turn up.’ The finger was still pointing at her. ‘And in the meantime, you’re not going to tell anyone.’ Something must have flickered across her face, a kind of guilty shadow, because suddenly Nigel was in front of her, wine on his breath. He was surprisingly fast, for such a lardy bastard. ‘What? What have you done?’ he breathed. ‘Who have you told?’

‘I need to get to the hob.’

‘Who have you fucking told?’

She was almost certain he wouldn’t hit her. She looked up at him, at his bloated ruddy cheeks, his black eyes squinting into hers. ‘My mother,’ she said.

Nigel blinked, stunned. ‘Your mother?’

Justine stepped around him, pulled a saucepan out of the cupboard. ‘I didn’t actually tell her. I just… I left a message on her answerphone.’ The butter slid around in the pan, shining wetly.

‘For the love of fucking Christ.’ Nigel had his hands over his face now. With his arms up like that, she could see the sweat patches blossoming under his pits. He smelled oniony, or was that just the sauce? ‘I’m trying to keep a lid on this thing and you’re blowing it wide open.’

She stirred the butter with a metal spoon; Nigel was blocking the drawer that held the rest of her wooden ones. ‘Have you thought for a moment what it’s like for me?’ she asked into the pan. ‘What it’s like on my own in this house?’

‘Oh yes it must be really hard for you,’ Nigel crooned. God, she hated when he imitated her like this. Her voice wasn’t that high. ‘With the pool and the wine and the-’

The metal spoon was out of the pan and in his face. She waved it at him and a drop of hot butter must have flicked into his eyeball as he recoiled, rubbing it and swearing. ‘I have no one to tell, Nigel,’ she hissed. When she was mad, she went quiet. That was where Nigel’s impressions always went wrong. ‘No one. That’s why I called my mother, who wouldn’t even pick up the bloody phone. I’m going mad here, Nigel. People are going to start noticing something’s wrong, but it’s not going to be because of me.’ She stared at him a second, while he rubbed his eye like a baby, and then she grabbed the flour which was behind him on the counter. ‘You’re in the way,’ she said.

He eased himself away from the worktop. She could feel him glaring at her, hear him breathing, smell him – it wasn’t the Bolognese. She stirred the roux, the flour bubbling, turning biscuity.

‘If you’re going to go mad, do it silently,’ Nigel said. ‘Don’t make a fucking noise.’ She heard him gulp down his wine. ‘If you tell another living soul,’ he said. ‘This family is finished.’

*

It was handy, therefore, that she never knew whether to class Dawn as a living relative. Nigel was a clever man and Justine respected his achievements, but he didn’t know everything. He hadn’t grown up in a house where sons did time the same way other boys went to scout camp. He would thank her and repent, down on his knees, when she was the one that brought Travis home.

She did it when she was still upstairs, just after having a shower but before she got dressed and did her makeup. The lasagna was in the oven – the cheese bubbling away like the hide of a living, breathing animal – and the pavlova was setting in the fridge. Justine stared at her reflection in the mirror for a minute – a minute too long, really, without any makeup on – unlocked her phone and tapped out a text to Dawn.

Travis missing again. I need your help. She pressed send at the same time as she took a sip from the glass of White Zinfandel she’d brought upstairs. So, she’d had a glass of red before five o’clock and was on rosé now. That was probably an extra three hundred calories right there, but it had been a trying day. And anyway, she’d forgo the pavlova later. Give hers to Nigel. Perhaps, if she was lucky, he’d have a heart attack.

*

When, in the future, she thought back to that evening and the dinner with Martin and Rebecca, she’d struggle to remember the order of events. It would have been easy to blame the wine and, honestly, she had drunk a fair quantity even by the time she opened the door. She flicked her hair over her shoulders and said ‘hello’ in the breezy way she’d adopted, as though they’d just interrupted her in the middle of tai chi or caught her having an intellectual debate with one of her many erudite offspring.

In fact, she hadn’t spoken to Chloe for several hours and only realised she was going out when she tramped downstairs later in a pair of stilettos and an unflattering jumpsuit. ‘Taxi’s here,’ Chloe called, seemingly without any need for a response. It was just as well. By that point in the evening, Justine wasn’t up to arguing with her daughter. She was already dealing with Martin.

She knew that Martin and Rebecca had been on time; she remembered them handing her a bottle of wine as they stepped from the porch into the hallway. She couldn’t recall the colour of this wine, or what had happened to it. She was sure she hadn’t drunk any of it. Was it the one that was smashed, much later? Perhaps. But they’d definitely handed her a bottle and she’d put it on the countertop in the kitchen, next to the toaster.

The evening was tinted gold, the dying sunlight streaming in through the French windows. In her memory, shadows lengthened and shortened again, snapping back with every event placed out-of-sequence. By the time Martin stood up, scraping his chair along the wooden floor, and frog-marched Rebecca out of the room, there weren’t any shadows because the main light was on. They could see each other clearly while they destroyed the relationship that had united the two men, five schools and amassed millions of pounds over the last twenty years.

She’d put too much Sweet Chili in the Bolognese. The tang stayed on her tongue for the next few days, forever merging in her mind with betrayal. The spice made them all drink more, which was no doubt a factor in the proceedings. Smug-bitch therapists like Kimberley would no doubt be able to flow-chart the shit out of that. But that was all very easy in retrospect, when you were charging a hundred quid an hour. In the moment, with your mouth on fire, you just knew you needed a drink. You didn’t stop and think about it.

Over the course of the evening, Travis came up by name on three occasions – moments she recalled with perfect clarity as they had sent a flash of cold panic through her body and prompted her to find something to do with her hands, like folding napkins or topping up glasses. Though his name was mentioned only three times, Travis’ presence (or rather, his absence) was heavy at the table, as if he himself was lying spread-eagled over it, his greasy head resting on the condiments tray, dirty trainers in the lasagna dish.

‘He’s with friends,’ Justine remembered saying, as she cleared away the dishes. Looking back, she wasn’t sure if these were the dishes that had been used for the garlic bread she’d served as a starter or if they had been stained orange with oil from the pasta. About two things she was completely certain. The first; they weren’t the plates intended for pavlova, as they’d never got around to eating dessert. Second, as she leaned over Martin, as he removed the scrunched-up napkin from his lap and put it on the plate, her eyes were caught by his. And it was clear beyond all doubt that he didn’t believe her.

Nigel had made it sound easy. Say you’ve heard from Travis. Say he’s texted you or something. But ‘or something’ was a dangerous realm. She’d thought there would be strength in ambiguity but – what had Nigel said? – she’d ‘blown it all open’. Well he should have done it himself. He should have got up off his fat arse and found their son.

There was a sense of something simmering from the beginning; the feeling of performance, like the house was an elaborate set and Nigel and Justine were crap actors on some over-funded BBC Two drama. Nigel had always been a sweaty bloke but he’d soaked his shirt within the first hour. Rebecca was laughing at everything, even things that weren’t supposed to be funny. ‘I accidentally chipped this bowl’, ‘I got this tablecloth from a nice boutique but it’s closed now’ and ‘would you like a top-up?’ were all met with her warbling, high falsetto. Justine just stood there, wine bottle in hand, while Rebecca laughed herself silly. When the laughter showed no sign of abating, Justine went ahead and refilled the glass. It seemed as though Rebecca needed it.

Through it all, Martin sat back in his chair, arms crossed. He was a small man and he and Nigel had always made a good team – little and large, chalk and cheese, bad cop/good cop. While Nigel raged, Martin – painfully polite – would talk you through the restructure, explain to you why you’d lost your job, why your funding had been cut, why he was leaving you for his secretary. And all in such a civilized manner that you couldn’t possibly blame him. While Nigel’s body was broad and flabby, Martin’s power was concentrated, dense as a ball-bearing. The longer she watched him sitting there – arms crossed, eyes narrow – the more certain she became that tonight, David would take down Goliath.

‘He’s with friends,’ Justine said as she took Martin’s plate. ‘That’s where he is.’ She concentrated on stacking the dishes, so that she wouldn’t have to look at Martin again or listen to his silence. It was as she was moving from the dining room to the kitchen, crossing the parquet floor in the hall, that she heard him mutter, ‘We all know that’s a load of bollocks.’

Looking back, this was the moment when everything changed. Or at least, the moment when everything that had already been changing for some time came into sharp focus. These seconds would stay with her for years to come. A spasm of guilt and she was back there, standing in the dark hallway with the plates trembling in front of her – they had traces of lasagna on them she remembered now – the cutlery quivering as she hovered between rooms. The hallway was safe, free of allegiances. But she couldn’t stay there forever. She was stuck in the middle, with the dining room and Nigel behind her, kitchen and pavlova in front. She could go back to Nigel. In the glow of the John Lewis chandelier, she could put her hand in his and they could face it all together. Face Martin, the police, whoever.

The refrigerator hummed in the dark kitchen but the dining room was quiet. She turned her head slightly, twisted an ear towards the open door.

‘You want to say that again?’ This was Nigel, low and dangerous. It was the only tone he seemed to use these days. After a while, it lost its effect.

She shuffled into the kitchen and turned on the light. The room gleamed, welcoming her with its shining surfaces. She set the plates down and opened the fridge. The pavlova had been waiting for her, glistening patiently on the middle shelf. Some of the berries and cream had bled into the meringue. Or was her eyesight just blurry from wine?

When she arrived back in the dining room, carrying the pavlova in front of her, both men were out of their seats, gesticulating over the table. Rebecca was making feeble attempts at grabbing Martin, as if he was seriously going to take Nigel on. She was dimly aware of her own name coming up, amongst the profanity and hysteria – ‘That psycho is going to drag you down, Nigel; you, Justine and Chloe…’ – but set the pavlova down on the table anyway, twisting it round so the most impressive side faced her guests.

‘Plates,’ she murmured to no one in particular and was about to go back into the kitchen to get some, when Chloe darted through the hall, a flash of tanned skin and satin.

‘Taxi’s here!’ Chloe called. The door slammed.

Justine blinked before starting towards the kitchen again. She needed a knife to cut the pavlova, or maybe a spatula of some kind – the cream might be gloopy.

‘I’m not going to let you drag me down with you, Nigel. Not a chance in hell.’

And then Martin and Rebecca were in the hallway, standing in front of her. Martin ripped open the front door and stalked out onto the driveway. From somewhere in the darkness, the lights on his car flashed. Rebecca hovered for a second in front of the door, her lips quivering at the edges.

‘Did you bring your coat, Sharon?’ Justine asked. Rebecca made a shallow noise in the back of her throat and followed Martin out into the night.

*

There were very few instances over the course of Justine’s life when she hadn’t been to bed at the end of the day, not even for an hour. There was the night when she was fifteen and her brother Jonno had been caught up in an armed robbery. He was on the run and the police were stalking her street, waiting for him to come home. She waited up too, in her only pair of pyjamas. Justine and Dawn watched the television in the lounge, the cartoons nothing but blurry shapes and sounds, as their brother slipped between houses into the crenellations of the shadowy estate, finally captured in the haze of blue lights.

Then there was the night she’d given birth to Travis. He’d been a difficult baby. Perhaps she should have taken that as a sign. She’d screamed as he’d split her open and was then unable to make a noise for hours afterwards. She could only stand mutely by the window in her private room, watching the lights of the cars as they moved in and out of the parking spaces beneath her.

But they were the only times – she liked sleeping. After Martin and Rebecca left, however, the house groaned and ached and there she knew there was no way she could go to bed.

‘Can you not hear that?’ she asked Nigel.

‘What?’ he asked, eyes drooping, whisky glass resting on his paunch. He’d started in on the drinks cabinet immediately after dinner and, by ten, was in a stupor. He always had been able to sleep through anything anyway. When the children were small, it was always her that their cries woke, Nigel numb to the world on the other side of the bed, his body an immovable mountain.

With Nigel checked-out of consciousness, she set herself up in the study in front of the huge monitor of the desktop computer, a glass of rosé at her side – definitely her last for the night. She scrolled through her own Facebook feed, then logged into Chloe’s account – her passwords were all written in the back of the diary she kept in her bedside cabinet, silly girl – and scrolled though Chloe’s messages. She appeared to be currently obsessed with a young man called Jasper, whose profile pictures all showed him in nightclubs, pointing at the friend next to him. There were a lot of messages from Chloe to Jasper and not so many from Jasper to Chloe. Justine cringed as she stumbled across an animated gif sent from Chloe to Jasper earlier that evening, of a cartoon cheese beckoning seductively. There was no question that Chloe was doing the pursuing.

In Justine’s day, the girl waited to be pursued. She’d met Nigel in a crowded pub when she was out with her sisters and cousins. They only had one set of rollers and three lipsticks to share between the lot of them and so she remembered feeling pretty smug that evening as she’d managed to use both the rollers and a lipstick before they came out. Sure, one side of her head was curlier than the other, but that hadn’t put Nigel off when he’d accidentally jabbed her with his pool cue as she walked past on her way back from the ladies. He’d grinned at her and offered her a drink. She wasn’t related to him and he wasn’t from the Estate, which was enough.

Depressed, she logged out of Facebook. Travis didn’t have Facebook, said it was for ‘poofs’. She went onto YouTube, to find some Peter Rodriguez music to cheer herself up, and stumbled across some sort of remix, featuring a woman called Cardi B. Cardi B shouted over most of it, about ‘flexing on bitches as hard as I can’. Justine swayed in her wedges in the middle of the study as she swigged from her glass. She even did a few mariposa moves, imagining she was dancing with Mateo, her salsa instructor. She amused herself in this fashion until three in the morning, when there was the sound of glass shattering from downstairs.

She found Chloe in the kitchen, balancing on the heels of her stilettos as if they were stilts, in a pool of broken glass and red wine. Eyeliner and mascara were streaked down her face, her tongue so heavy in her mouth that, when she saw her mother come into the kitchen, she was unable even to apologise. She just stood there, clutch bag hanging limply from one arm, blinking in the harsh light of the kitchen spotlights.

Justin moved her to the sofa and, once Chloe was safely horizontal, cleaned up the wine and glass. A bag of oven chips was open on the counter, now semi-defrosted and useless. Chloe’s culinary skills knew no bounds. Justine made her a peanut butter and jam sandwich, the way she always had when the kids were little, but by the time she brought it over to the sofa, Chloe was fast asleep. A string of drool stretched from Chloe’s mouth onto the upholstery. Tomorrow’s problem. Justine fetched a throw from the lounge and draped it over her daughter, before turning out the light.

She went outside, even though it was freezing, and sat by the pool. The goosebumps on her arm were sharp and painful but still she stayed there, shivering in the darkness. She’d brought a bottle out with her and poured herself another glass – this really was her last. She’d always said she wasn’t going to be her mother, awake all night, a cigarette burning through the hours as her children cavorted in the estate around her, stealing, robbing, stabbing and spitting. But look at her how.  Was that why her mother had up and left for the US? Because she was sick of the cold?

*

There was no doubt that she was over the limit but, at seven-thirty in the morning, she was pulling out of the driveway onto the main road in her little bug, her face scrubbed clean, hair pulled back into a clip. She was absolutely fine – kept pushing her Tom Ford glasses up on the bridge of her nose to tell remind herself so. She’d avoided Nigel – he’d been in the shower when she’d left – and Chloe was still asleep on the sofa, so she hadn’t had to answer any questions about where she was going.

Dawn still lived on the Estate, trapped in the labyrinth of red brick and spray paint. As she pulled into the first grim street, rolling the car over a speed bump, Justine remembered how slowly you had to drive in this place, as if something was pulling you back, weighing you down. A group of young men, faces shadowy under their hoods, turned to watch as she passed and she locked the car doors.

It was eerily quiet before an Alsatian launched itself at its garden gate, howling, jerking backwards when strangled mid-air by the chain attached to its collar. One of the youths yelled at it and Justine accelerated, lurching over the next speed-bump.

Justine was last here for the christening of one of Dawn’s many children. Was it Ashton or Ashley? That was getting on for four years ago now, just after their mother left for the US. Justine had come on her own – Nigel had been outraged at the very idea of eating Iceland sausage-rolls in Dawn’s tiny kitchen and making small talk with whichever tattooed bruiser she’d taken up with that week. Justine hadn’t much fancied it herself but did feel a sense of duty to Dawn, in whom she saw herself, the other Justine, the one that hadn’t been skewered by Nigel’s cue. And anyway, she’d didn’t have to eat anything. She could just chug a cup of weak tea and leave.

Since that day, when Dawn hadn’t seemed all that pleased to see her and hadn’t even offered her a plate for the miserable-looking buffet – ‘You’re always on some kind of diet, so what’s the point?’ – their communication had been terse and infrequent. She assumed she still lived at the same house, number nine, and left the engine idling for a couple of minutes as she stared at the chipped front door. Curtains twitched around her. One neighbour, a man in a string vest, came and stood outside his house with his arms folded, watching her with narrowed eyes. On the fence that skimmed the perimeter of his yard, a handwritten sign read: ‘Shut the fucking gate’. Justine killed the engine and got out, closing the door as quietly as possible.

It was only in the few seconds after she rang the bell, waiting for an answer, that she realised how early it was. It was eight o’clock in the morning on a Wednesday. But surely the children would need to go to school? Dawn would be awake, wouldn’t she?

The man was still watching her. A flash of hot panic set her backing away from the doorstep, fleeing back to her car, but then the door snapped open and she was trapped on the path, quaking in her wedge heels.

Dawn was fatter, sadder. She was wearing a faded Minnie Mouse dressing gown and her fluffy, over-dyed hair hung in strings over her eyes. She squinted into the daylight like a mole and, seeing Justine, opened her mouth in loose incomprehension.

‘You didn’t get my text?’ Justine said, shifting her weight, suddenly ashamed of her neat, coral-coloured toenails.

Dawn blinked. ‘I changed my number,’ she said. A child appeared under her arm, dressed in half a school uniform. Justine smiled at it weakly.

‘Mum changed her number too,’ she said. ‘I tried to leave her a message.’

Dawn wrinkled her nose. ‘Mum’s dead,’ she said.

‘Oh,’ said Justine. She knew she should ask how it happened and when, but this seemed as though it was the end of a conversation, not the opening of a new one. ‘Right.’

‘What do you want, Justine?’ Dawn said, crossing her arms to mirror the man still standing on the other side of the road. The child blinked up at Justine, began to pick its nose. ‘Never thought you’d be caught dead back here.’

‘Travis is missing,’ said Justine, who detected that the time for bullshit was long past. ‘I wondered if you’d seen him.’

‘Yeah I saw him,’ Dawn said and Justine had to hold a hand to her chest, to steady her heart. ‘Couple nights back. He came to ask if he could stay here for a bit, until things died down.’

‘What things?’

‘You know. Things.’ They both knew what kind of things.

‘What did you say?’

‘I told him to fuck off.’ And then Dawn expanded in the doorway, smiling as she swelled. She was still smiling when she said, ‘Don’t want any of your type round here.’

Justine opened her mouth and closed it again. Travis was in trouble and, because of Dawn, was on his own. Or was it because of Dawn? Was it not because of Justine herself, because she didn’t eat semi-defrosted sausage rolls at the christening of – Ashton, Ashley? Because she’d tried to shed this place, her own past, from her body. Peel it off like a snakeskin.

It didn’t matter, there was nothing left to say. Justine managed to totter back to the car and, as she unlocked the door, caught sight of her pedicure. She wouldn’t wear that colour again.

*

The drive home took her past the police station and she swerved suddenly into the carpark. She was beeped by a woman in a Citroen, with a baby on board sign hanging in the rear window. Fuck off, bitch. No one cares about your offspring.

The reception area was full of posters about binge-drinking and reminders about staying safe online. Justine pretended to read them, one hand holding her phone to her chest, the other in the back pocket of her jeans, clutching onto her buttock, pinching it for no good reason. After a while, a young woman in uniform came up to her and asked if there was anything she could do to help.

Justine stared at her face – it took a few seconds to focus. ‘No,’ she said. ‘There isn’t.’

She got back in the car and drove home. The pavlova had been left out all night and was wilting on the dining table. The strawberries and cranberries had all run, leaving a huge pile of bloody meringue and cream. She could almost hear it breathing and she knew what it was waiting for. She sat down, in Nigel’s place at the head of the table, grabbed a spoon.

She was still there when Simon Withers came to the house an hour later, but by then most of the pavlova was gone. He found her at the table, mouth sticky with meringue, her cream blouse stained red.

‘Is Nigel in?’ Simon asked. When Justine didn’t answer, he went on: ‘I wanted to tell him I’m not up to it. I don’t think there’s any more I can do.’

Justine looked up, mouth covered in cream, and tilted her head to one side, frowning, as if listening to the death throes of a small, pathetic animal.

‘I think,’ Simon said. ‘I’m out of my depth.’ Travis had now been gone at least ninety-two hours. Wherever he was, Simon wasn’t going to bring him back.

Justine picked up her spoon, scooped up a weeping strawberry. ‘Yes,’ she said. ‘You are out of your depth, Simon.’ She brought the spoon to her mouth and Simon glanced away, the colour high in his cheeks. ‘If I were you,’ Justine went on, mouth full. ‘I’d get out before you drown.’

About the author of this post

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.

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As elegant as a violin

violin

but suddenly it would come over her, If he were here with me now what would he say? – some days, some sights bringing him back to her calmly, without the old bitterness; which perhaps was the reward of having cared for people;

-Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway

The first time I met Leo was one year ago, on an oddly warm night of October.

The party was in a small semi-detached house in the suburbs, not far from the train station. The small living room was already overcrowded when I arrived, and smelled strongly of smoke and beer, like every self-respecting student house during a party. There were two threadbare black sofas, a coffee table covered in half-empty plastic cups, and not a single face I recognised. In the middle of a dimly lit kitchen, a wooden dining table had been turned into a beer-pong table. At the back there was also a tiny, untidy garden, where a few people went to get fresh air or, mostly, to vomit.

He, curly-haired and not much taller than me, looked even more out of place than me, wearing a perfectly ironed shirt and a forced smile.

I had an assignment about Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis to write, and wasn’t even thinking about stepping outside my room until the end of term.

‘There’s no way you are going to miss this party,’ said Marta, blonde-haired and three years older than me, whilst the two of us squeezed in the back of a taxi.

‘I don’t even know these people.’ I tried to discourage her, despite knowing it was too late.

She pretended not to hear me, ‘we’re going to 4 Wells Terrace,’ she told the driver instead.

As I predicted, I didn’t know anyone, even though we were all students from the same year. The curly-haired boy was constantly and annoyingly waving at whoever entered the front door. His housemates – two look-alike Spanish girls and a skinny Greek boy – had arranged the party. I remember that all of them came up to me and introduced themselves as hosts, while he looked as if he wanted to be anywhere but in his own house.

‘So, Sofia, right? I’m Paula. Feel free to have beer,’ said one of the two Spanish girls, ‘and ignore Leo, he’s a bit moody tonight,’ she nodded in his direction.

‘Yeah, a beer sounds fine, thanks,’ I said and smiled, even if I hate beer and I’ve barely drunk one in my whole life.

The first thing Leo said to me during that party was so irrelevant that I don’t even remember what it was. Maybe he said he liked my dress, or I asked where the toilet was. I guess it is normal, when you have shared so many great and so many awful moments with someone, not to remember the first thing they said to you. Certainly, at one point he said to me: ‘Guess who’s going to clean up this mess? Yeah, me.’

I spent the whole night leaning against the wall of his kitchen, which was too small to contain all of us and the beer-pong table, and then Leo’s eyes, a surprisingly weird mixture of green and blue, exploring my face.

*

‘Look,’ he whispered to me one morning, in the silence of the library. He put two tickets on my desk, forcing me to look up from the book I was reading. ‘It’s a quartet. Two violins, a viola and a cello. Tonight, 7:30.’

The classical music concert was held in a bright and spacious hall, in a Georgian spa town, where the two of us went by bus on a rainy evening.

The music was filling up the hall, and I was trying so hard to push away any thought, to focus on every note of the music, to black my mind out. No matter how hard I tried, I could only feel his elbow against mine. Leo was sitting next to me, eyes closed, deeply lost in those abstract sounds, and in that actual moment I did not even exist for him: what only existed was himself and the music.

He had been studying violin since when he was a kid, fair-haired and red-cheeked, revealed by some old pictures. He then became an adolescent completely different from the others, completely devoted to his violin and little else. He always had very few friends, very little time for himself or for anyone else. I envied him for this special and visceral relationship with his musical instrument,  which had always been far more than only an object for him. That violin, its strings and its tapered handle, meant ambition and success, fear of failure, and will to reach the top.

Despite having always loved classical music, I have always been bad at playing any instrument, to the point that it became ridiculous. After a few disastrous piano lessons with a private teacher, a broken guitar and a pair of mental break-downs, I gave up and decided that I would always love the music that other people would play for me. My affection for that kind of music was something I deeply nurtured, by myself and for myself only, too afraid to fail to even commit myself to it. That exclusive relationship with an instrument was something I wanted desperately, but could never reach. For me, that night, during that concert, Leo was himself like a violin: as beautiful, as elegant as a musical instrument, and equally painfully unreachable. I was sitting next to him, closer to him than ever, his elbow against mine, but he could not see me or even hear me, over the sound of music. And ironically enough, no other situation we lived could better sum up our entire story.

After the concert we ran under the rain and got on the bus back home. I put my head on his shoulder, we stayed silent for a while. The bus was empty, I closed my eyes and listened to the sound of the rain on the windows.

‘Can you hear it?’ I asked him, my eyes still closed.

‘What?’ I could feel his breath on my cheek.

‘The rain is playing for us now,’ I replied, and even if it sounds silly now, in that moment, after the concert, everything I could hear was musical.

‘Thank you for coming with me,’ he said.

*

The first time Leo played his violin for me I was sitting on his bed, cross-legged and completely speechless. Like everything that mattered in our relationship, that moment came unexpectedly. It happened by chance, with a fluidity and an astounding perfection that I have only experienced when with him.

We were having dinner at his place, the kitchen was untidy even if he used to do everything he could to keep it clean. It was me who cooked that time, because he used to say that pasta with carbonara sauce tasted different when I cooked it. I have always believed that care is what makes the difference: if made with care, everything tastes better. And every time I made pasta for both of us, I found myself putting as much care as I could into it.

‘It’s really easy! I only need two eggs and parmesan… and black pepper,’ I told him, opening his fridge as if it was my own. ‘Oh! And of course, pancetta.’

‘Can I do anything to help?’ he asked, standing in the doorframe of the kitchen, his left shoulder leaning against the jamb.

‘No, I’m happy to do it, and you can learn from a real expert,’ I replied, the pinch of pride in my voice made him laugh. He came closer and watched me carefully breaking two eggs on the edge of a bowl, and then mixing the two yolks and only one egg-white. I then added just the right quantity of parmesan and a sprinkle of black pepper powder.

‘Is that it?’

‘Almost, it’s not difficult, is it? Can you pour the boiling water from the kettle into that pan, please? We need to boil the pasta now,’ I said and opened the pack of pancetta to cook it in a frying pan, with a tiny bit of olive oil.

We ate facing each other, both perched on the stools in front of the kitchen counter, my pasta getting cold on the plate because I had too many things to tell him to stop and eat my portion.  After two or three ‘It’s getting cold! Why don’t you eat it, for God’s sake?’ he gave up and ate his share, listening to my random comments.

‘I can’t believe they’re actually planning to host another party here!’

Leo shrugged his shoulders the way he always did when he wasn’t feeling like talking.

‘Do you remember Halloween? I basically followed you around this house with a bin bag for the whole night,’ I continued, in the attempt of provoking some kind or reaction from him. ‘For the whole night.’

‘I know,’ he replied, still chewing his pasta. ‘Not the best party of my life, to be honest.’

‘And your Greek housemate is still smoking weed in his room, isn’t he? It smells disgusting,’ I said and then ate the first bite of pasta since we sat for dinner, while his plate was already empty. I finally started eating my cold pasta, whilst he talked about the new melody he was learning for a concert with the orchestra.

‘Do you think about something when you play?’ I asked, we were now standing in front of the kitchen sink, doing the washing up together.

‘Other than the musical notes themselves, do you mean?’ Leo looked up from the pan he was scrubbing, white soap bubbles on his hands.

‘Yes. Do you imagine something? Like, I don’t know, fields, mountains… or the sea,’ I said, because to me classical music had always felt as infinite, as mysterious as the sea.

He didn’t answer straight away. I kept washing the plates and the forks in the warm water, his face looked lost in far thoughts. ‘I only think about the music’ he finally said, ‘there’s only the music … and the pressure of doing the best I can.’

The house I visited for the first time during our first party now looked like a whole different place, weirdly silent and tranquil. I had been in his room only once or twice before then: it was on the second floor, small and bare, a single wide window just above his double bed, which was often left open. It smelled like fresh air and his cologne. The view from up there was ordinary and grey, on a busy road, and the noise of traffic jams could easily wake you up early in the morning. The view from that window is printed in my memory so clearly, so fiercely, and it provokes, every time I think about it, a profound sense of calm, of shelter.

‘I bought you a book,’ I said in one breath, my back leaning against the wall and my legs crossed, I was sitting on his bed. Leo did not look surprised at all, he must have known exactly what that meant. Books were for me what his violin was for him. I had spent nearly two hours in the bookshop, trying to make up my mind, to decide which book I really wanted him to read. In the end, I went for the first one I had  looked at, when I walked in the shop. I chose The Solitude of Prime Numbers: the story of two best friends that never found the courage to tell each other they were in love. The main protagonist, an aspirant mathematician, beautiful, shy and socially awkward, reminded me of him.

Whilst he unwrapped my present, his violin had been on his desk the whole time. I thought it looked strangely lifeless when not in his hands. He must have noticed that I kept looking at it with curiosity, because he said ‘do you want to hear the piece I’m playing with the orchestra on Saturday?’

He did not even wait for an answer. Before I even realised it, Leo was standing in front of me, the instrument on his left shoulder, his right hand holding the bow. The room echoed from the very first note, while I did not know exactly what to look at; whether at his beautiful and deeply focused facial expression, or at his hands on the violin. What he was doing was more intimate than anything else he could have done for me: he was establishing a connection that has never ended.

I do not remember the melody. I do not even remember what I thought about it or what I said when he finished. The only sound I remember is the sound of his breath, how he held it and then released it, in order to follow the tempo. Hold and release, hold and release, that was the intimate melody Leo played for me only.

*

Spring came, warm and unexpected, and we were laying on a field, one of the few green spaces in town. I was supposed to go to a lecture, when Leo called me saying that it was too sunny to stay inside. ‘Also,’ he added, ‘hurry up because I need to tell you exciting news!’. One hour later, I was on the bus on the way to the park, where he met me with a striped blanket and a warm smile. A chilly wind was ruffling my hair, as can happen only in a fresh afternoon of March.

‘So, tell me all the amazing news!’ I encouraged him as soon as we sat down on the blanket. He laid next to me, facing the sky.

‘I got a summer internship in Venice! Isn’t that insane?’

‘You got it!’ I hugged him, he wrapped his right arm around me. I smelled his familiar odour on his jumper.

‘It’s crazy how fast this year is going,’ I said at last. My jacket rolled under my head to make an impromptu pillow, the sun on my face and Leo’s eyes so close that I could not see anything else, I felt like I had suddenly woken up after a hibernation.

‘It is. But I’m excited to see my school mates again for spring break.’ He told me about his friends, how he knew most of them from elementary school, how they had some kind of tradition of spending New Year’s Eve together, how they went on holiday in Greece the summer before.

‘So this guy, Nick, is your best friend, right?’ my head was now placed on his chest and he was playing with my hair, I enjoyed the light touch of his fingertips.

‘Yes, but I don’t think he’ll be there during spring break. Things are complicated with his girlfriend. She lives in another city, you know…’ I noticed indecision in his voice.

‘What do you mean?’ I asked.

‘I mean that things are often complicated when you’re with someone.’

‘Are they? I don’t get your point.’ I moved so I could look at his face, he stopped playing with my hair.

‘It feels like they only have each other, nothing else exists, do you get what I mean?’ Leo said, and I thought it was a beautiful thing to say. But for some reason his voice tone didn’t match the words he was saying.

‘Isn’t that beautiful, though?’ I answered, ‘I mean, having such a relationship with someone.’

‘I guess. I don’t know, I’ve never been in a proper relationship.’ He didn’t look at me in the eyes.

‘Because you didn’t want one?’ I asked, almost without thinking. I regretted it right afterwards.

‘Because I feel that my freedom is more important.’ He sounded serious, his gaze was lost in the blue sky above us, so I looked up as well, trying to see what he was looking at.

‘But being in a relationship doesn’t mean you can’t be free.’ I sat up, his eyes followed me, he could see my silhouette against the clear, bright sky. My words slipped out of my mouth so easily: ‘I feel I know a lot about you. But still, there’s something I don’t get. You do not entirely open up to me.’

He looked at me through his dark sunglasses and waited, then I heard again his luminous laughter. ‘I think it is because I am not prepared. I am not ready for –’ he opened his arms, as to include the two of us, the blanket, the sun and the astonishing spontaneity of it all, ‘ – this’. I lay down next to him, silent: all I could see was the blue of the sky above us. We stayed on that blanket until the sun went down and we started feeling cold.

*

The first and last time I got drunk was because of Leo. We were out celebrating the birthday of Rose, my Portuguese friend, in an busy pub, of which I do not even remember the name. I only remember it had a terrace, from which, on clear nights, you could see the stars. At midnight she blew the candles on her cake, and we drank champagne. Neither Leo or I could really tolerate alcohol. After a few rounds of a drinking game that involved us drinking straight vodka or answering embarrassing questions, all our inhibitions were gone. All the walls I hadn’t been able to overcome broke down. All I wanted was knowing what he felt. All I wanted to know was if he could feel my elbow against his during that concert. If he could see the care I put in preparing pasta for him. If he understood that freedom is also choosing to share your life with someone else.

I kissed Leo on the lips out on that terrace, in front of the stars, the wind blowing through my hair. He kissed me back, he tasted like the champagne we drank together. It was a pure, chaste kiss, the only one we have ever shared.

That night, we slept in the same bed. I fell asleep as soon as my head touched the pillow, his left arm, where his violin usually rested, now around my shoulders. I, even if for one night only, took the place of his violin. I felt, even if for one night only, as important, as beautiful, as elegant as a violin.

The sounds of the traffic out of the window woke me up a few minutes past 7 a.m., my head spinning around and my stomach upset. Flashbacks of the night before, of the candles, of the music, of Leo’s hand in my hand, of us on the bus back to his flat, came to me and made me feel nauseous.

I remember him saying ‘please, come home with me, I need you to come with me,’ and then his arm around my waist and his eyes deeper than the sea, and his voice louder than any music he had ever played for me.

‘But if you come with me, promise me you won’t expect anything,’ he continued, and I promised myself I would enjoy the moment, without thinking about anything else.

When the morning came, I felt emptier and more confused than ever before. Leo was still asleep next to me, covered in white sheets, looking peaceful, helpless, oblivious. He had long, fair eyelashes. His blonde hair was messy on his forehead.  I kissed his naked shoulder but he didn’t wake up.

*

When I went to Venice, it was summer, thirty-nine degrees Celsius, and Leo was at the station, waiting for me to get off the train. We spent forty-seven hours together in Venice: I believe I’ve counted them to make them seem more real.

We sat on the steps of a bridge and ate Chinese food from a take-away bag. Leo ate his and my portion too, I was busy enough telling him how much I loved the city and pointing out tourist attractions on a map to have a single bite of food.

‘It’s so busy today! Is every day like this?’ I felt naïve, as if I was seeing the world for the first time. From the bridge, I observed the boats and the gondolas full of tourists in the canal, and people walking on the fondamenta – Leo taught me that was the name of the streets in Venice – or sitting at tiny tables in front of the many bars, drinking orange Spritz.

‘It is, and it’s exhausting, especially when it’s hot like today. But, you’ll see, at night Venice is even more beautiful,’ he answered.

‘Is it even possible?’ I handed him my take-away bag.

‘Are you sure you don’t want to eat more?’

‘I am, go on.’

‘I like it better at night. All the bars close and all the one-day tourists go back to the mainland. It becomes empty, noiseless,’ he said and finished my food. I looked again at the map and tried to figure out how to reach Piazza San Marco from where we were.     He convinced me to go on a ride on a gondola, his hand sustaining me whilst we boarded the wobbly boat. The sun was slowly going down and the canals reflected the shades of orange and pink like I had only seen in paintings.

At night we wandered around the city, the damp air smelled like sea-salt and  algae and I could not feel my feet anymore, but I did not care. I could have walked until sunrise. Leo was right. When night comes the city becomes silent, it looks almost abandoned, unreal, like the deserted setting of a noir film. I was out of breath. The only thing I could hear was the echo of our footsteps and of our laughter, and the occasional sound of a lonely boat in the canal. The only relief for my sunburnt cheeks was the fresh, salty air of the night. When we felt tired, we sat down on the ground, which was still warm from the hot day which had just finished, and watched the reflections of the lights in the water, without saying a word. Venice was all for us that night.

After forty-six hours, Leo took me to the train station. The city was bursting again and the magic was over. I kissed him goodbye in front of the train, touching his lips briefly, because I knew he would have not kissed me back. I have learnt that goodbyes are always bitter-sweet.

*

Leo called me on the phone one evening. I was busy so I did not answer. It was October once again. He called me twice. I picked it up the third time, it must be something important, I thought.

‘Hi Sofia,’ he said. He was crying on the other side of the phone. ‘I have to tell you something, can you talk?’

I closed the book I was reading and told him that, yes, I could talk. I had missed him. I just can’t help it, when I hear someone I love crying, I start crying as well. Some call it empathy. I guess it’s never comforting for the other person, I get puffy eyes and I’m not good at giving advice, so I’m not sure I’m really empathetic.

‘Tell me,’ I said, a first teardrop on my cheek.

‘Sorry for not being in touch.’

‘That’s alright Leo, we are both busy,’ I said, even though I’ve always thought that it’s the most pathetic excuse ever invented.

‘I should have called you.’

I remained silent, trying not to give away the fact that I was crying too.

‘Do you remember?’ he asked, ‘Do you remember that we kissed and then you slept next to me and –’

‘I do, of course I do. And?’ I pressed my phone closer to my ear.

‘– And nothing happened. We just slept. And do you remember Venice?’

‘I do remember Venice.’

‘Let me speak, please, it’s hard.’

‘I am just answering your questions.’

‘Just listen, ok? Don’t answer. Nothing happened, even though I love you, and I know that what we have is unique, and you are the only one who understands, and I’ve tried, I swear I’ve tried.’

‘But?’

‘But it didn’t work. It didn’t work. It will never work. I have tried. I can’t give you what you want.’

*

Leo told me he liked a boy during high school. He was a class-mate, had beautiful, intense brown eyes and never knew about this. No one knew, because Leo had always been too afraid to reveal it to anybody. Despite having known it since forever, it was then that it became reality. He told me he tried to date girls, because after all, they seemed fine. It seemed easier. In the last year of high school, he went out to a club with his mates and kissed a girl he had never seen before, because the other boys were doing the same. He felt guilty for months.

Leo told me how he had never properly dated neither a girl or a boy, because he was too scared. He was not ready. ‘My dad could have a stroke if I told him, I think,’ he sighed, then waited for few seconds. I realised I was holding my breath. I thought about his dad, he had a white beard and worked as a dentist. I also thought about his mum. I had met her once, she had offered me coffee and asked me about my degree. She looked a lot like him, same green eyes, same passion for classical music. ‘But I have told my mum. She asked if it’s only a moment. She hopes it will pass.’

Leo told me how he thought I was the right person, the only one who could finally help him through this. ‘I tried,’ he said ‘because if I could decide who to love, it would have been you.’ I was listening, silently crying, ignoring his do you remembers and do you understands, as they evidently were rhetorical questions. ‘If I could decide who to love, it would have been anyone but you,’ I thought, but did not say a word.

I cried a lot. But I did not cry out of pain or despair.

‘Why are you crying? Did you expect this?’ Leo asked after a brief silence. ‘Say something.’

‘I am so glad,’ I said at last. I watched my own reflection in the mirror and I dried the black teardrops of mascara on my cheeks with the sleeve of the jumper I was wearing. ‘I’m so glad I met you.’

‘You know there’s nothing wrong with you,’ he continued.

‘I know,’ I replied.

That evening, Leo called me on the phone and we were both broken, rifted, cracked. But they say that a crack is where the light comes in.

 

About the author

foto anthology .jpeg

Anna Maria Colivicchi was born and raised in Rome. After a BA in Italian Literature, she is now pursuing a Master’s in Writing at the University of Warwick. In her writing, she seeks the extraordinary in the ordinary, focusing on the details of everyday life.

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.

 

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

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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.