28.08 VI

I was nervous. I typed my password into my computer. Wrong, apparently, and a few too many times because I got locked out.

Of course.

I turned her, breathing out as if the computer was the one that had fucked up, ready to make a speech about ‘bloody technology’ even though the colour had drained from my face and I still for the life of me couldn’t remember my damn password. But she didn’t seem to notice. She had her own speech prepared and the error message wasn’t going to phase her.

‘I’ve come into some property-‘ She soldiered on.

‘If you could give me a minute-‘

‘No, you should hear this first.’

She pulled one of her rings off her index finger and started playing with it.

‘I just need a little help clearing it out.’

I didn’t know what to do while I waited, so I humored her. Or more, she was talking and there was no way I could cut her off. Or more still, she wanted to talk and I couldn’t help but listen.

‘I don’t have a lot of time.’

‘Is it big?’ I found myself asking.

‘More winding.’ She replied.

‘What is it? A house?’

‘Something like that.’

‘What’s in it?’

‘Old things.’

‘And it’s yours?’

For a second a smirk took over her face. It was playful and also sneering. The first of many images that would come to plague our relationship came into my mind. I could see, clear as day, the two of us in a dark room. I could hear our deep slow breaths. Mine getting more and more desperate as she put her hands around my throat and squeezed.

‘It will be, if I can get the money.’

She put the ring back on and straightened up. As if she had been where I had just been, in the place in my head, and now she was gathering herself, pulling herself back from a very tense and precarious edge.

‘Do you think I can get it?’

If it was up to me she could have all of it. My mind, my body, my blood. My life.

‘How much do you need?’

‘A grand more.’ She said. Like she was asking for the world.

‘Let’s see’ I said, like a man in a position to give it to her.

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28.08 V

I know she could see the many post-it notes littering my desk, stuck to any surface in reach, turning my computer screen into a live action Connect Four. I know she could see the unreadable scrawl that denoted the tasks I had ahead, appointments to remember, thoughts to keep to myself. I know she could see the marker stains on the mouse pad where I had slipped off the paper in my haste, trying to get it all out before it turned into an indiscernible congealed mass of deeds and desires. I bet she could hear my boss’s pointed tone in the scribbled out, scrunched up discarded scraps. Especially the ones that missed the bin.

For the first time ever I was aware of just how many clues of my incompetence I left stuck around the place and how little I had cared that anyone saw how badly I managed my life.

Until now.

Now I felt exposed, like I’d been caught with my trousers round my ankles, shoving my dick in a birthday cake. And I felt unsure, like I didn’t know whether to explain or pretend like it wasn’t happening. So I just started moving stuff around, getting frosting everywhere, my belt tinkling as the brass clasp knocked against my chair leg.

28.08 IV

‘Sane.’ She said eventually.

The pause made the word flop awkwardly into the space between us, like a fish reluctantly flailing, kidding itself it could survive in the barrel of the boat.

But then she smiled and I found myself looking up at her face.

Her lips were full and dark, curved into a pleasant smile that gently flickered at the corners of her eyes. It was obvious that the smile was forced but I didn’t mind. I appreciated the effort. I found her determination charming.

Her eyes were simple. Big with short lashes, the dark iris slipped into the pitch black pupil without any notice. She blinked like camera shutters flicking open and closed as she scanned the room, scanned me. It was brief but deliberate and I knew she was seeing more than I meant to show her.

28.08 II

‘I’m good for it.’

That’s how she started the meeting. After we had shaken hands and I had wiped my palms on my trousers discreetly, she launched straight in. She had a low and drawly voice and the words rolled right out of her mouth and onto the table. I could almost see them: small, black and bold with a large full stop spinning like a coin before it fell flat.

I blinked a few times, watching the full stop I had imagined, wondering what she was talking about. What was she good for? What wasn’t she good for? What did it have to do with me?

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 dug 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.

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.