A Quiet Place

They were going to banish her from the city. That much she knew. As she stood in the docks, legs shaking, she made a mental note of all the things she would immediately miss. The smell of her neighbour’s barbecue. The sound of conversations as people passed her on her walk home from work. The soft fur of the cats that crossed her path. The sound of the bin lorries as they crunched up all the rubbish. The laughter of the school kids at break time.

Not family. Not friends. But the city. The life of the city, its heartbeat. The calming, constant pulse. People come and go but the city is always there, the city is what kept her there.

Every breath she took in as she waited for the verdict brought more memories. Playing on the estate when she was young- scrapped knees, screeching bike tires, mums yelling from the balcony at dinner time. Getting the bus home in her school uniform- unpressed pleats on rolled up skirts, collars popped for your pleasure, tinny music from old model mobile phones, the buzz of afternoon traffic. Getting lunch on a long work day- the impatient office workers, the tap of metal on ceramic, green trees, cigarette smoke, the clip clop of her heels on the paved stones.

All of it to go and be replaced with-

The judge cleared his throat.

‘May I say I something?’

The court room fell into a hush. The ghastly judge in his starched wig nodded slowly, rhythmically, like the chimes of Big Ben’s clock.

She gripped the edge of the dock to steady herself.

‘I know what you’re going to say. I know that you think I deserve it. There are a lot of people that agree with you and I know there isn’t anything I can say right now to change that. I’m not asking you to let me off. I’m asking you-‘

The words caught in her throat.

‘I’m just- I just want to say that I love my city. I love my city. I love the river that flows through it, the lines that run underneath it. The underground tunnels, the sewers, the disused dungeons- they’re all the same to me. All part of me and to push me out-

She pinched her nostrils together to stop herself bawling.

‘I left once. I went to a place that I thought would be the same because I didn’t realise how special, how strong this city’s current was in me. It stirs me, it moves me, it motivates me. Everything I do, everything I am and strive to be is because of this city. Is for this city and no one here can deny that or take that from me. I’ll be the same way anywhere as I am here so you’re not doing me any favours. Sure the sun will beam down on me, sure I’ll feel the grass between my toes. But you have to understand- if the sun isn’t shining on me here, if the grass didn’t spring up from this patch of ground then it will mean nothing to me. I am nothing without this city. Take me out and you may as well sentence me to death again. I will not survive.’

When she was finished, she bowed her head, exhausted. Tears streamed down her cheeks and pooled at the end of her round, youthful chin. The court room was in a reverent silence. One woman in a long black dress quietly gathered her things and walked out. A few others followed, less graceful, stumbling over their mates, trying to hide their faces.

‘My dear,’ The judge started after the door had slammed shut for the the last time. ‘That is why you must go.’

She closed her eyes, defeated, as the judge gave the sentence. One life in the flat plains. One life and then she could come back.

At the end, he asked her if she understood what he had said. She could barely nod. Her fingers dig into the dock and she wondered whether her hands might stay rooted even after they hauled her away.

One life. They said it so casually that you might be mistaken for thinking it was superficial. And maybe to someone else it would be. But she knew she didn’t have it in her. She’d tried that life before, you see. And she knew it would not end well. It would not end at all.

Advertisements

Earth

We were on the balcony. He was leaning on the flower box, distracted by the heat. His elbow slipped in, speckled his shirtsleeve with dirt. He brushed it off with his hands, and then the dirt was on his palms. He brushed his hands together and then the dirt was on his shoes. The whole thing was farcical and he had a silly grin on his face.

‘Smells like home.’ He said and his smile swept all the way up to the corners of his eyes.

He pushed his hands under my nose and I took a deep breath in.

It smelt like dirt.

When I smiled back, it barely reached my ears.

‘You should wash your hands,’ I said, turning away before he could see me wilt, ‘I don’t want any of that muck on my dress.’

They Came in Pairs

When I opened the door there was two of them. One of them I had never seen before, but the other I knew. Or had known once. He didn’t acknowledge me, his lips were downturned and his jaw was tense, as though he was scared that if he so much as smiled everyone would know what had passed between us. Know what I was, and what kind of man he really was beneath his uniform.

I wasn’t the only one getting a visit. I could see, over the wall, two men in the blue uniform were scoring a neighbour’s garden, while he stood in the doorway clenching and unclenching his fist. I kept looking over at him, as the two at my door rattled through their introduction. My eyes would move from The One I Did Not Know, to the chin of The One I Did Know, to the Neighbour’s fist. Clenching and unclenching. Everyone clenching and unclenching.

Are you following?

It was The One I Did Not Know who talked the most. His badge was bigger and shinier and reflected in his high, greasy forehead.

You want to see my tag.

Wrist first, then tag. If you’d be so kind. 

He smiled and I noticed his mouth was full of long thin teeth.

I stretched my left arm out and pulled up the sleeve of my jumper. The One I Did Not Know pulled out his handbook to work out what the symbols that snaked up my arm meant. So they were new to the job. There was nothing worse than dealing with a uniform wearing a baton that he hadn’t had a chance to use yet.

The One I Did Know cracked momentarily. I could almost see the cogs turning as his eyes drifted from my wrist to my hand. I wasn’t wearing my engagement ring anymore. And if I wasn’t wearing that then-

Like I said, it was momentary. His eyes went from my wrist to my hands to my eyes and then to the wall behind me so quickly, I don’t think he even realised he’d done it. I only noticed because moments like this always pass by slower for me. You have to be slow and careful. One mistake and-

Well. It seems we’re going to have to come inside.

I blinked slowly as he closed his handbook.

We believe you may be at risk of radicalization, given your…unique position. May we?

I don’t really have a choice, do I?

Of course, you do. We could either do this the easy way or-

He smiled again and I could see that his thin teeth stretched on infinitely.

The longer way.

He didn’t elaborate. He didn’t need to. We all know what the long way is. I glanced at the neighbour one last time. He was staring right back me. I stepped aside as he began to mouth something to me. But The One I Know closed the door before I could catch the rest of it.

That Time Again

‘Well, Meg. It’s that time again.’

Fred stands on the door step, puffing on the last of cigarette. Meg holds the door open, waiting for him to finish. The sky is bloctchy, black and brown. The streetlights make Fred’s shadow look like a heaving black blob.

‘You’re letting all the warmth out.’ She shivers. Fred tosses his stub into the bush and crosses the threshold. He wipes his feet slowly and deliberately on the doormat. Meg cannot watch him any longer and heads into the kitchen, exasperated.

The remnants of the pasta bake, which she had just warmed up before he arrived, are now cold. She picks at the pasta shapes with her fork. When he comes in, he pulls out the chair, scraping it along the tiled floor, and starts to take his coat off.

‘No.’ Meg says, ‘You’re not going to be here for that long.’

‘Well, I gotta count the money, don’t I?’ He asks, leaning heavily on the chair.

He’d put on weight. No, muscle. He had always flourished as a bachelor. Underneath his coat he wore a nice suit. Zara Men maybe. TM Lewin?

Fred produces a money clip from the breast pocket of his suit. It  barely contains the thick wad of cash between its teeth. Fred waves it with a smile. Meg barely blink.

‘900 for rent.’ She rattles off,  ‘160 for school dinners. Lex needs a new PE Kit. That’ll be 50. Rowan’s going on holiday with Godmother and he’s going to need spending money.’

‘How much?’

‘Another 50.’

‘Let’s call it 100.’

He counts out the notes, licking his fingers, desperately trying to not to cackle with glee. Meg doesn’t watch the money the way he watches the money. She watches him. How different his very features seems. His soft smiling eyes are mean. Greedy. Lost.

‘What about you?’ He says, sliding the pile of money towards her. ‘You wanna do something? Your hair looks like it needs some love.’

‘I can look after myself, thanks.’

‘Doesn’t look like it.’

‘Well, whatever it looks like, I don’t need anything from you.’

She stands up and chucks the pasta bake in the bin.

‘Maybe not money…’ He says, quietly. When Meg doesn’t turn around, he gets up, joins her at the sink.

‘When was the last time you-‘

He places a hand gently on her shoulder, moves it slowly down her back. Meg suddenly turns around, the fork from the pasta bake hovers dangerously close to Fred’s Adam’s Apple.

‘Take your hands off me.’

He backs away.

‘Relax-‘

‘You think you can come in here, waving your blood money at me and what? Get back in this house?’

‘Megan-‘

‘Do you even care about your kids? Because you never ask about them. You’ve been here for half an hour and you haven’t mentioned them once.’

‘Of course-‘

‘Go home, Freddy. You’ve done your song and dance and now I’d like you to leave.’

‘Megan-‘

‘Now.’

Fred picks up his coat, defeated.

‘I really-‘

‘Out.’

He throws his coat on and leaves. The money on the table flies about in the gust.

 

Not in this timeline

When I finally got out, the world was…It wasn’t the same. Everything was painfully dull. After you watch so many people die, it’s hard to be focused on washing dishes, or brushing your hair. The world is flat and heavy but I feel lighter. Like something otherworldly, floating through it. I have no roots any more, nothing grounding me. Everything I was before, everything I became has been erased. And the weirdest part is, I have no desire to start again. I’m spent. I’ve had enough of trying. I just exist now. Living my life on mute. So when it finally comes time to take me out, I’ll have nothing to miss.

When I meet people their mouths move but I can’t hear anything. When I’m working, I turn the keys and I stack the shelves and I walk up and down with my clipboard, but my mind is elsewhere. I just do what I’m told and live in my head.

I can’t really describe it. This french guy who fixes the vans told me about the idea of multiple timelines. I think that’s close to it. In my head, there are many timelines and I can tune into whichever one I want. There’s this one, where I’m siting in a four by four room with no furniture, smoking cigarette after cigarette until I fall asleep. And there’s another one, where I’m living in a log cabin. Or another, where I have a dog.

My favourite is the one where V and I- I suppose actually we have normal names in that timeline, names like Ben and Rebecca – but we make it. We meet for the first time somewhere normal, at work or at church maybe. We fall in love in a romantic way. Candlelit dinners and picnics and holidays and smiles. We get married, we buy a house. We have arguments, sure, but they’re about such inconsequential things, like what colour to paint the hall or where to host the wedding reception, that they’re more fun than destructive. We get pregnant. Have a child. Have four. We’ve got photos on the walls. Family videos. Tricycles are lined up next to bicycles int he garden. Little clothes hand on the washing line. When we go out we walk hand in hand, kids running ahead.

It is the best part of my day, visiting that timeline. It’s always warm in the house. It smells like pastry. There’s always chatter, always giggling and excited exclamations. As I walk into the living room, someone runs up to me. The youngest, maybe. She has my eyes, and V’s smile. When I hold her, she smells like baby powder and biscuits. She clings to me and I choke up. She’s lost her first tooth, she tells me. Asks me if I’ll stay up and make sure the tooth fairy knows where to find it. Eventually she falls asleep on my lap, and V is beside me on the couch, and we’re just watching TV. It’s getting quiet now. Calm. I carry her up to bed. Swap her tooth for a two pound coin.

Then we’re finally alone. I play those scenes out slowly. They’re part foreign, part memory. I tell I love her over and over. Sometimes she says something back, sometimes she just looks at me. It doesn’t matter. She’s here. She’s here with me. We are wrapped around each other. She’s so soft and warm and mine. Mine, mine, all these things are mine. And no one can get to them. Not even me.

I would never be sick there. I would never be high. Never think about my adopted father, or my dead brother, or all the shit and piss and pain and blood I’ve seen. I’d never wake up in the night screaming. Never hurt anyone. Never leave V.

I’d just enjoy it.

Really, finally, enjoy being alive.

The nights are the hardest

I have nightmares. Or at least, I call them nightmares. They don’t necessarily happen at night, or even when I am asleep. But they keep happening.

She’s at my dinner table. She’s washing dishes at my sink.

There was a point where I didn’t recognise her anymore. And rather than watch her drift away, I chose to leave. I believe some people are capable of holding onto something until it turns to dust in front of them. I cannot imagine ever holding her in my arms and seeing nothing in her eyes.

She’s behind the counter at the supermarket. She’s a nurse on the cancer ward.

At first, she would hold onto me so tightly that when they prized her away, she’d take my sleeve with her. My hair. One time, my skin.

She’s wiping down the table next to me. She’s giggling into a phone.

When she came back, she tore at the scar. Punishment for letting her go. Her rage was just as intense as her sadness, and though she was making my suffer, I knew that she was suffering too.

She’s pushing a child in a pram. She’s ringing the bell on her bike.

To have that go away. To disappear completely. To see that bright spark turn to a dim flicker, a shadow of itself-

She’s pouring over my hand. She’s slamming the door in my face.

I packed a bag and left. She didn’t come after me. I thought it would be easy. Easier.

But I keep having these nightmares.

I’m driving back to my house. She’s in the middle of the street. I know she’s not real so I keep driving. But she doesn’t move. Just looks at me. Looks so sad. So I stop the car. I get out. She’s covered in flowers. As I approach her, she falls back. Lies prone, flowered arms crossed over her chest. I kneel over her. I see that she’s not sad. She’s dead. Her black eyes are grey. Staring.

The flowers are wreathes around her naked, decomposing body. Her stomach is bloating, bloating- the skin splits. 

Fingers reach out. An arm. I recognise a scar that stretches from the elbow to the wrist.

I’m climbing out of her. A version of me that I do not want, cannot meet right now. 

I run back to car. It won’t start. He’s ambling towards me, damp. Naked. 

I slam my head against the window. Over and over until my surroundings fragment, fall apart. When I am back in this time, this world, blood drips from a cut on my forehead.

I wonder if she still suffers like I suffer.

Twin Bed

We can put some pillows down the middle. 

We can put some pillows in the middle and maybe top and tail?

We can top and tail and wear all our clothes. 

Or, let’s not sleep at all. 

I have some spreadsheets to check, you must have spreadsheets to check. 

We can work all night. 

All night. 

Then we won’t miss the plane. 

We might be groggy but we won’t have-

I’m not saying we would without all that, but I don’t want you to feel-

I’m not trying to say you have no self control, I just-

Am I over thinking this?

I’m being patronising, am I?

You think I think I’m god’s gift?

I’m just trying to help you! You’re the one either the reputation. You’re the one everyone gossips about chasing married men!

I’m sorry. 

I shouldn’t have- I don’t think that of you. 

I really am just trying to help you. 

Here, take my card. Get a second room. 

Or I’ll go, how about that?

I don’t want to cause any trouble and I don’t-

If I’m being honest, it would be me. 

It would be me. 

I’m not- I sympathise with-

No, I didn’t say you were pathetic. I just mean that I get lonely too!

I get lonely too. 

I understand why escaping from that for one night would seem worth…

I’m sorry. 

Forget I said anything. 

I’m going to the bar. Maybe we can just sleep in shifts.