Halloween Special!

In the spirit of Halloween, and because I haven’t posted yet this week, I’ve decided to post a short story I wrote about a group of friends who find themselves in the a little house in the middle of nowhere. I posted a snippet a few weeks back, of a scene that happens much later, but here is the original story. Enjoy!
***

Retreat

Ed finally pinned Deb to the ground. In her remaining seconds, Deb paused her intelligible screams to retaliate spectacularly; she gobbed in his face. Ed however, remained completely in the zone. He didn’t even flinch; he refused to be distracted from his task. Doggedly, he locked Deb’s flailing arms and pressed the t-shirt over her face. She fought obstinately to the last, covering his arms in scratches and bruises and tearing an earlobe as she dragged his hoop earring through it. But in the end, as with the rest, her muffled screams faded to a desperate whimper, her violent squirming collapsed into a pathetic wriggle, and glancing at the house one last time, she eventually lay motionless. The words ‘Free Tibet’ spread across the fabric that spilled out of her mouth.

We watched all of this from the window. It was far too hot to go outside and say goodbye to her properly. All week we’d been hounded by this relentless, unnatural heat. It had kept us trapped indoors, grouped around fans and windows, desperate for a whisper of a breeze to calm the fever. Everything was so laboured, such an effort. Even now, gathered in the living room to observe the spectacle, Alex, Ben, Christy and I could barely concentrate.  We just waited. Waited for the sky to break. Waited for the temperature to fall. Waited for Ed to finish with Deb so we could have some dinner.

 

*

 

We decided to take a trip to the South Downs at the end of term.  It was the beginning of one of those lengthy summers, the kind that drags on so relentlessly that the only thing you can do to puncture the already crippling boredom is run away. So we packed our bags and headed to the countryside, where the weather was supposed to be invigorating and you could lose yourself in the charm of a pastoral scene.

We rented a cottage; a quaint little thing made up of red bricks, wooden beams, vast French windows and a small paved patio. It was surrounded by rolling fields, trees in bloom, a blank sheet of sky and complete seclusion. On one side the sea cut us off from all existence, and on the other the last glimpses of civilisation were scattered across the horizon. It was paradise; vivid and pleasing, and true. Everything was constantly shrouded in sunlight, as if adorned with a golden halo; the reeds beside the duck pond, the simple view of the afternoon, the insects buzzing around our ears. Everything.  For a second, it even framed the people.

For a second, I must stress.

For the second in particular when we first stepped over the threshold, and savoured the crisp air, and drank in the picturesque view. Yes, we would be just fine here, we thought collectively. We repeated this mantra to ourselves, as we brushed aside our niggling issues and roasted meat on a barbeque; as we dispelled the gossip and went for a refreshing swim; as we shut out the uneasiness and lay beneath the stars. Everything would be just fine.

 If the words ‘just’ and ‘fine’ were enough to plaster over the cracks in our group. 

All the cracks. All the rifts in this house. All the spats that would arise during our two week stay in the blistering sun. Not even in three bedrooms, 2 bathrooms and a never ending field could we live without the wall paper peeling, revealing the truth. It got too hot. The four of us sharing one room became implausible, an outrage, a personal affront. In this fervour, once strained favours were revoked, manners were brushed aside; simply ignoring our issues was no longer a feasible option. We needed a solution to this solstice, to this endless heat wave.

I was the first to stumble across one.

To say I snapped would be too severe. To say that somewhere in my brain, a screw had come loose, or the cogs were out of sync, or a chemical imbalance had taken place and triggered a totally unprecedented reaction would be missing the point entirely. There was no sudden change; the ill feeling had always been there.  I finally noticed it here; that the elephant in the room was really Godzilla, and the lull that was always at the edges of our conversations was actually an oppressive silence, and the nagging feeling that I couldn’t quite shake was specifically Fran and her stream of meaningless questions. So really, I didn’t snap; I just finally woke up. I woke up and smelt the coffee, the offensive stench of ignorance, and baseness, and desperation that wafted over from her general direction.

It was the most rational thing that I had done since we arrived at the cottage. In the clearest state of mind, I picked up that loose paving stone, (which, more importantly, wasn’t mentioned in the holiday brochure when it should have been), and bashed Fran in the head with it. Repeatedly. In fact, in time to Camille Saint-Saëns’ Danse Macabre that had been playing in my head all week.  As her blood gushed out of the wound and tarnished the perfect turf a rich red, the composition struck me and I spent the rest of the afternoon working on my art project. Oh, and apologising for the paving stone which everyone was adamant would come out of our deposit.

 

*

 

After taking a moment to admire his handiwork, Ed grabbed a towel from the clothes line and sauntered back inside, wiping off the mixture of sweat and saliva that was dripping from his brows. His face was red, his ear was bleeding, and his white shirt was almost transparent with sweat.

‘Jesus Christ, it’s hot!’ he said, fanning himself with the towel, ‘You’d think the sun was about to supernova or something!’

 We all looked up at the sky. It was a battered and bruised shade of purple. Swollen clouds tenuously harboured a storm that would eventually dispel all this searing heat. But presently it refused to break, and instead the heavens teased us as we waited impatiently.

‘I think I might jump in the shower,’ Ed suggested.

‘Don’t bother,’ Ben said, miserably propping up his head in his palms, ‘there’s no cold water.’

‘Really? Shit. I need to get the smell of Deb off my skin,’ Ed groaned, grimacing in disgust, ‘It’s bad enough that I can’t get rid of her voice. It’s still grating on my ear drums.’

Suddenly, he placed his hands on his hips and pushed his chest out, prancing around the room in an impromptu impression of her.

‘Blah blah blah, bleeding heart liberal. Blah blah blah, freedom of incredibly loud speech.’

‘She was pretty loud,’ Alex agreed, as she laughed at Ed’s imitation.

‘Pretty loud? Diabolically loud. SHE ALWAYS TALKED AT THIS DECIBEL, NO MATTER WHAT TONE OF VOICE SHE WAS USING,’ he shouted, matching Deb’s usual volume.

‘She probably couldn’t hear herself over all her bullshit’

‘Even if she couldn’t,’ Ed said, finally flopping down on the couch, ‘the rest of the British Isles could.’

For a moment he was quiet, as if he was running through all his memories of her.  Then he concluded, ‘Fucking Deb.’

Fucking Deb indeed. I don’t know how, but she had managed to be such a bad combination of ignorant and aggressive, that despite the fact she was constantly spouting uniformed drivel, no one was brave enough to contest her claims. She’d only made it this far because she’d been careful with choosing who to rant at. It was either Ben, because he was so docile; Fran, because she was equally unintelligent; or Gabe, because he was too impolite to really pay attention to her. But with Fran removed from the equation, Gabe following blindly after her (he’d tried to avenge his fallen lover, so Alex had strangled him with his own neck tie), and Ben growing increasingly impatient, she’d tried her luck with Ed. Now we’d have to try and fit her in the same plot as her previous targets.

‘We’ll have to bury her,’ I proposed.

‘Yeah, I’ll move her in a bit,’ Ed mumbled, patting his stomach, ‘Is anyone else really hungry?’

 ‘I’m starving,’ Ben grumbled.

‘Shall I go and put some pasta on?’

‘Brilliant idea.’

‘Yeah,’ Alex confirmed. Then, as an afterthought she added, ‘Christie, why don’t you help him?’

I’d almost forgotten about Christie. Up until this point, she had been unusually quiet, perched in the wicker chair with her little legs tucked under her. While the pair were clashing in the garden, she’d been trying to read an old copy of Oedipus Rex. But in the heat, she was reading a page every ten minutes, and every so often her eyes would flick up to check the progress. Poor Christie. She was too delicate for this place. She’d hidden in the living room when I dealt Fran that final blow, and wretched when she saw Gabe’s eyes bulge as Alex tightened her grip. No doubt she would need to lie down soon. Poor, pure Christie.

 ‘Christie?’ Alex pressed. Christie was not distracted by her book this time; she was fixed instead on the towel Ed had just used, that now lay on the floor. She glanced up, once she felt us all staring, and looked from Ed to Alex. One was smiling cheerfully, the other shrewdly.

‘Sure,’ she replied, eventually.

They left the living room. Alex got up from the arm chair she had been inattentively occupying and went to turn the fan up. But it was already at full blast. She shook her head at the lethargy of it all, and remained there, waiting for some sort of draft to cool her down. The fan just continued to provide its unimpressive wheeze, barely rippling her chiffon blouse.

‘I wonder who’s next,’ she said to herself.  She had her back to us, but we could just make out the reflection of her tired eyes in the window.

‘Next?’ Ben asked, puzzled.

‘Well, obviously. This isn’t the final group. It’s an odd number and odd numbers never work out.’

‘And you know Ed,’ I chipped in, ‘He’s so temperamental. I’d hate to be the next person to annoy him.’

‘Regardless of his mood swings, it won’t be me,’ Alex said, self-assured, as she dragged herself back to the couch.

‘I make sure he’s up for breakfast.’

‘Then it won’t be me,’ I said, smiling smugly, ‘because I look after him when he’s ill.’

‘And it won’t be me,’ Ben added triumphantly, ‘because I always pay for the cab when we go out.’

‘So the real question is how long does Christie have?’

‘No, the real question is,’ Alex replied, stretching, ‘garlic bread or dough balls?’

‘Dough balls would be amazing right now.’ Ben moaned.

‘Right now? It would be amazing all of the time!’

Lost in our fantasy of food, we didn’t acknowledge the clattering and clamouring in the kitchen until it ended with a resonant thud. We stopped talking then, listening intently as the kitchen door slammed, looking at each other in bemusement.

‘Well, that was quick,’ Ben called to Ed, ‘What did she do, put too much salt in the water?’

There was no reply, except the sound of feet shuffling along the corridor. The living room door slowly opened, as someone backed inside, dragging something heavy with them. We turned to greet Ed with mock reproachful glares.

But he was not alive to see them. Christie, hair out of place and arms sopping up to the elbow, dragged his lifeless body into the room, wheezing from the effort. His sodden head dripped a watery trail along the wooden beams and the printed carpets. Mentally I calculated the blow to our deposit, as we all looked on in either surprise or intrigue or complacence. It was hard to tell in the silence.

‘What?’ Christie puffed, acknowledging us finally as she caught her breath, ‘I told him a million times not to leave the towels on the floor.’

We reacted accordingly. Alex got up and poured herself a drink from the water jug. She winced as the lukewarm refreshment did the opposite of its purpose, and then sank back into her seat. I looked at Ed; a pool of ruddy water was collecting around his disfigured ear and beginning to stain the carpet. Another fifty pounds off the deposit, I thought. Bloody hell. Ben was now upright; his usually nonchalant eyes were fixed on the open door, as if he expected another person to come through it. His jaws were tense as he considered, no doubt, the rumbling in his stomach and why it still hadn’t been satiated.

‘Shall we order takeaway?’ Christie asked, sitting down and returning to her book.

‘It’s just that, I made quite a bit of mess in the kitchen. It’ll be a miracle if I can clean it all up.’

‘Good plan,’ Alex said, lazily cradling her drink. I nodded in agreement.

‘What do you think, Ben?’ Christie asked.

Her question drew him out of his thoughts. Turning to her, Ben looked at Christie dead on.

‘Oh. Yeah, Chinese,’ he replied, ‘I’d kill for some prawn crackers right now.’

 

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Musing Mondays #7

Some Written – I

She’s one of those people that you know. Growing up, her mum was down trodden and vocal about it. No weeping softly into her marigolds and then tucking her daughter into bed with a smile. The mother was a ‘heroine of a tragedy’ type, not quite ‘woe is me’ or ‘me miser’, but she would over react if a hair was out of place and then proceeds to explain why it was all the father’s fault.

To be fair, her dad was no better, disappearing like that. He made the perfect scapegoat; a perfect example of the horror show that she now insists is Love. He moved by the sea and invited her down with a postcard. Years have passed, but it is still with bitterness that she reads his emails, the joint signature of the new mister and mistress conjures memories of ‘lost’ birthday parcels.

So with that as a foundation, she embarked on a love of her own. She is afraid to admit, even now, how much she wanted it to right those past wrongs. How much she wanted someone reliable, honest, not at all like the fellow sixth former she eventually chose.

It will not surprise you to hear that he failed to break the cycle of men behaving badly. He was, after all, 16. He was, after all, new to the game. He was, after all, flawed – as people are wont to be. But you won’t hear a smidgen of sympathy from her. He broke her heart! He cheated on her with her best friend! It was unforgivable! Notice the emphasis on him? Well, obviously it was his fault. The friend was powerless to his boyish charms. He had been disloyal, just like her father. That’s how men work, she came to believe, and she wants you to believe. That is how all men work, and all women live at the mercy of these tyrants, even if they send him a message that reads ‘im horny lol’.

I know what you’re thinking: so what’s new? Tell us something we haven’t heard before. Boo hoo hoo. But what you have to understand is that she is from a small town. And small towns are notorious for housing people with skewed perspectives. In her sleepy town, I can only imagine, it’s easy to be a phoenix. Amongst the rows and rows of semi detached houses and nuclear families. Five door hatchbacks lined up neatly. A domestic animal of some kind, but usually a cat or a dog because no one wants to rock the boat. All she’d have to do is cough at the wrong time and that would be the topic of conversation for the foreseeable future. No doubt the house at the end of the street, with the single mum and the prodigal son, and the daughter whose feminism was becoming militant was treated like enemy barracks.

She played in the street on her own then. On the horizon she could see the outline of a city life – the north I’m familiar with, the Arctic Monkeys, modern kind of North England. It was close. The urban, working class, industrial revolution based history vibes float towards her. She becomes obsessed with the idea of the wider world, while never really venturing there. She doesn’t have to. She totally gets it. Her small scale worries are similar to that occurring in a cities underbelly, right? She’s amped up now, like she personally fought a war, or faced discrimination, or stood at the picket line demanding equality. If anyone asks, she’ll say she’s from that city, born and bred. But it’s not hard to tell it’s not true; if she was from the city, she wouldn’t make her daddy issues her defining feature.  She’d know she’s no phoenix. That she has to join the back of the queue.

Musings Monday #6

The Glass House.

‘Now, Izora, can you start from the beginning?’

The police had chosen the Art department’s office as their pseudo-interrogation room. It was an appropriate choice. The room was not easily accessible because of the automatic lock on the door, the windows were blacked out because it often doubled as a darkroom. There were minimal light fixtures, so the detectives could provide their own intense white lamp of judgement. The room was both practical and atmospheric. If they could not get the children to talk by traditional means, the hint of TV dramatics would hopefully separate the false from the innocent.

The lamp was Iz’s favourite part of the set design. She could not look directly at it, and she assumed even if she had slept the night before she still would not have been able to. The white light seemed to consume the whole room, it was in the corner of her eye wherever she looked. She had to squint to make out the detectives, and kept rubbing her darting eyes. Through her discomfort, she could still appreciate that it was a clever prop. It showed the police everything they needed to see. That she was hiding something. Or that she had a lot of essays due. Or that it was hay fever season.

‘Start from the beginning of the year?’ she asked. She was not being pedantic for pedantry’s sake. She just wanted to be as cooperative as was necessary. Unlike most of the students who had been, or were about to be, interviewed, she really respected the police’s effort in this investigation. Teenagers were dying all the time in the capital. It would have been easier to put Charlie’s death down to gang violence and move on. But Chelsea and Westminster police seemed invested in this case. Perhaps because Charlie went to a good school, or came from a decent home. Or maybe because the amount of odd details made it harder to shove this case underneath the solved pile. Either way, she hoped they would gain something from these interviews. If not the truth then at least a better interviewing technique.

‘From when you found Charles’s body.’ The male detective clarified.

Iz gulped.

‘We were…walking home from school…’

Despite her aforementioned respect for the police’s efforts, Is was going to lie to them. All the students would. Because the truth, they had been told, was a cluttered and complicated business.

‘Sometimes the truth can do more harm than a lie.’ Their Head of Year had said in that morning’s assembly, ‘Since none of you were involved in Charlie’s death, it would be a waste of time to tell the police your various stories.  From what we’ve gathered these are the facts. Stick to them. There’s no need to cloud your statements with personal accounts.’

This was the result of the school’s private investigation. Or as Is would put it later, its private ambush. For what she met when it was her turn to hand in her statement, was a panel of senior management, stony faced, hands tightly folded. There was one chair set out for her, which she took with trepidation. Her form tutor explained that the school had been informed by an anonymous source that she, Izora Adjei, specifically knew something about the disappearance of Charlie Verbenne. It was not long before she began to recount in a flurry what she knew. How she had heard whispers while waiting in line for a Drama lesson. How someone had messaged Bill the address. How he, alex and herself had gone to the abandoned office building after school. How the whole class was there; Ghettos, chavs, art kids, everyone. They had all gathered to marvel at the partially covered, decomposing dead body. How they had all been stunned when weeks later it was revealed to be the body of Charlie Verbenne. How she was ashamed that she had gone, that she had not told a teacher. How the body smelt so strong she had buried her face in Bill’s blazer, and how she hoped this mistake would not hamper her future university applications.

There was a long silence when she was done, and this allowed her to mop her face. She was told she could leave and muttered an apology.  It was over.

But then the police had started hanging around the bus stops near the school. Then 10G were ordered to a private assembly and told to keep quiet. And now Iz was rattling off a much shorter, much less detailed tale to the police. All the time wincing under the bright white light.

Musing Mondays #5

Vanbrugh Chronicles.

After a day of staring at his desk, Max finally returned to his apartment. Arriving at the listed building was always a moment of brief relief. He would often get lost in the pomp and show of the architecture, the doorman’s little bow as Max crossed the threshold. Inside, the tiled floor, in its neo classical mosaic style, made his steps ring and the sound rose up the high walls to the delicately carved friezes. Max would look up at the stone figures as he waited for the lift, and remember his school days – running his hands over Latin inscriptions, walking through ruins of an old amphitheatre. The lift would always open just as he saw his sister running up the steps to the Parthenon ahead of him. She turned and smiled and then faded into the wood panels as he reached his floor.

The building really was beautiful, and as Max walked along the carpeted corridor in silence, his steps muffled by the clean damask pattern and the rest of the world held in suspension by the glass window, he thought of how its beauty would never be fully realised. This building, and other buildings like it, was a relic of a lifestyle in decline. In a few years there would be no one, or no one truly appreciative, to witness its hidden finery. It was beautiful because it was exclusive, but that didn’t fit the London it belonged to anymore. The city was a spiralling hub of treasures, and unless Aberfeldy House opened its doors to the future, it would collapse just like the rest, just like the ancient empire that Max loved so much.

He took his family as an example of the buildings inevitable doom. They had been the first to move in, the odd but happy family. Then slowly the gifts of London had picked them off. His father had found woman to call home. Something that usually his mother would have shrugged this off. But they were splashed across every tabloid, and soon people were not sure if Mrs Vanbrugh or the young career girl was the mistress.

It was very simply done. Mrs Vanbrugh decided to redecorate the apartment. Afterwards, when everything was rearranged, Mr Vanbrugh’s things were never unpacked. One day Max saw his father carrying a box of glassware down the corridor. That was the last time he saw him in the building.

Then Anastasia left for university. Max stood at the door as she packed her Goyard trunk and tired to reassure him

‘This will be good for us.’ She said, ‘we’ll have more stories to tell.’

He walked away without saying goodbye. Apparently she cried in the lift down to the car. Max could only say apparently, as she had never come home again.

Then Lois went to find her birth parents. When she made the announcement, the dinner table was silent. The chandelier had a single faulty bulb that coincidently died at the same time.

After that their mother was broken. She eventually walked out too with the rest of the money, leaving Max alone, in Aberfeldy House. As he turned the doorknob to his apartment, and entered another evening of lying on a makeshift futon and staring at the stucco ceiling, he thought about the beautiful façade on the outside of the building, and similarly of his own.