Bracelet

He bought me a bracelet.

I looked at it. Lying in the box, glittering. Fancy, like. Expensive.

I looked at it and then I looked at him. He was looking at the bracelet, but his face was all red and he kept blinking like there was something in his eye.

I knew I had to say something but I didn’t know what to say. My hands were shaking and I thought that if I opened my mouth I might let out a sob, so I just started nodding.

So then, he started nodding.

And we both stood there nodding like that explained everything that was threatening to spill out of us and fill the room and drown us.

Nodding like two people who had just agreed on a very good deal. My heart in exchange for his.

Nodding and blinking and shaking and twinkling. Never saying any words.

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They Came in Pairs II

The Uniforms asked for a table to work at, so we made our way, in a slow procession, to the kitchen. I wondered if the bare walls and minimal furniture would seem suspicious to them, given my ‘unique position’. It would have seemed suspicious to me.


According to whispers, a lot of people sold up before they disappeared, or joined the resistance or whatever else the whispers called it. They would write long, winding letters, ceremoniously pay off debts, delete profiles, close accounts, return all their library books. According to whispers, it was all so romantic, so noble. Only the brave would have the willpower to kiss their children one last time. To give their lovers long, lingering looks that could turn ‘bereft’ into ‘proud’.

But I know those whispers are not true. People would just walk out of the door and not come back. Leave a lot of things behind and not come back. Leave everything behind; their family, their friends, their jobs, their soon to be spouses and not come back.


In the kitchen, The One I Did Not Know set himself up at the table, pulling out tools for my submission from his many pockets as I sat opposite, waiting to be probed. The One I Did Know stood behind him at the counter. This did not seem like protocol. Granted every spot check I’d had in the past was in the company of others, but we would be expected to stand while the Uniforms examined us.  I didn’t believe he was doing it to be vigilant. I could tell from the way he would not meet my eyes that he was nervous. Or was it shame? He must have met a lot of old friends along his travels. How many had he sent in for ‘rehabilitation’? It had to be shame he was feeling. To stand in a spot you’d stood in so many times before, laughed and joked before, but now as a bagman could only fill you with shame. But was it the shame of his past or shis present?

The One I Did Not Know produced a cotton swab from his pocket.

Open up.

Aren’t you supposed to ask me if I consent to you taking a DNA sample?

Well, really. I thought we were past all that.

Past the law?

The One I Did Not Know smiled a tight smile. The One I Did Know shook his head quickly.

When you invited us in, I took that as a willingness to be compliant. Don’t ruin it now.

I didn’t say I wasn’t going to do it, I’m just saying, why not do it properly?

You a stickler for rules?

As he asked he leaned in, his head cocked to the side.

When they involve me.

I like that. 

He took hold of my chin and tilted it towards him.

I bet you run a very tight ship around here.

Behind him, The One I Knew braced, and I knew it was because The One I Did Not Know was not talking about my home.


For the longest time, I had no idea what was happening. I’d been there that night, I’d seen him, I’d spoken to him, but none of it made sense. I went over it and over it in my head.

He said he was going on a work trip. Last minute. Had to leave right away.

I knew something was off, given the way he was packing.  He was usually so careful. Even when he was stressed, he had this level-headed control about him- It was one of the things I loved about him. But that night, he rushed from room to room, tucking things under his arm, such random things too. He picked up the first bag he saw, an old laundry bag we had from when the washing machine broke down and we had to ferry our dirty clothes up and down the high street. It was covered in dust and one of the arms was torn. He didn’t even notice, just shoved his things inside.

And there was nothing I could do. He said he had to go, and I trusted him. I had no reason not to trust him. So I just stood aside and watched him.

When are you going to be back?

I don’t know. Could be a couple of days, could be more. 

He turned to me then. Looked me right in the eyes.

I’ll call you. 

Call me. Call me? We never called each other. We’d never left each other’s side long enough to warrant a call. Even when he was at work we were constantly in contact. One time, he forgot his keys and I was asleep so I didn’t hear him knocking. Instead of calling me, he climbed next door’s fence and broke a window.

It was all so wrong but I just didn’t think- I had no reason to think he wouldn’t come back.

I had no idea everything he’d told me about himself up until that point was a lie.


I didn’t like the way The One I Did Not Know gripped my jaw. I didn’t like the way he lingered with the cotton swab. I didn’t like how far into my mouth he reached with it. I didn’t like the way he stared into my eyes as he did it. I didn’t like the way The One I Did Know was shifting about from one leg to the other like he was standing on hot coals. Like he had something he wanted to say or do, but couldn’t. And I did not like the fact that I was alone with these men and they had all the power.

I could feel all the hairs on my body rise. This was not the time or the place, but when you feel threatened your body reacts involuntarily. They call it fight or flight. And my body fought in a way that made me a threat, that earned me the tags that broadcast to the world that I was not like everyone else. If this was a test then I was about to fail it.

I tried my best to stay calm. Tried to remember all the letters of the greek alphabet, to tap out the national anthem in morse code with my feet. I clenched my fists, digging my nails into my palms and tried to focus on-

Oh, of course.

Now it made sense.

The Neighbour. Why I was so focussed on the Neighbour.

The Neighbour was-

Holy shit, who was he?

 


I called him every day that week. No answer.

After that, I called his mum. She had no idea where he was.

After that, I called his workplace. No one knew what I was talking about. Worse still they didn’t know who I was talking about.

After that everything merged into one long, terrible blur. I know that I called him a lot. I know that I cried a lot. I know that his sisters came round. I know that his mother asked for the engagement ring back. I know that, all the while, The Neighbour would come out into his garden and smoke a cigarette at the same time I would go outside to smoke a cigarette. Every day, without fail, we would stand facing each other, without saying a word.

By the time I started looking through his stuff, I wasn’t upset anymore. I was angry. I know that when I’m angry, I give off pulses. People like me, it’s how we can sense each other, warn each other before we snap.

So while all of that was happening, while I tore through folders, and spent hours trying to guess passwords, and searched name after name, The Neighbour knew what I was. He was spying on me. He had ratted me out.


Almost done here. Just need to make sure you don’t have any illegal devices in the house. Do you have anything to declare?

No.

Well then, this should be nice and quick.

It was the way he said it. It was the way he smiled. I’d been in situations like this before, situations where something was going on that I was somehow not a part of but also the main event for. The One I Did Not know stood up and stretched.

Care to show me around?

It’s not a big place, I’m sure the two of you can figure it out.

But it’d be quicker if you came with me. Make sure I can get into everything.

I looked at The One I Did Know. He swallowed but didn’t say anything, wouldn’t look at me. I’d seen him like this once before. When he’d stood on the steps of my parent’s house and told me that his mum had died, and he didn’t have any shoes on. I knew I was going to have to go with the other one. And I knew if he tried anything, I would have to defend myself. I unclenched my fist.

Fine.

Lovely.

 

I drew back my chair slowly.

I really don’t suggest we split up.

The One I Did Know spat it out as though he were yelling after someone who was about to go over a cliff. It wasn’t clear which one of us he was warning, though. His partner turned around, a little irritated.

Why not?

Well, she- Have you checked her clearance level?

Are you worried I won’t be able to take her? I’ve had worse.

We have to check it. It’s protocol. I can’t risk her- can’t risk you getting into danger.

His eyes darted between us. He was stalling.

Make it quick.

The One I Did Not Know stood over me while we waited, looking me up and down. The One I Did Know fumbled with his scanner. His partner grew impatient.

What’s taking so long?

It’s not working.

What do you mean?

The Scanner. Hold on. Maybe if I change the batteries.

His hands were shaking. It should have made me feel better that he was trying to help, but it didn’t. Seeing how nervous he was, how angry his partner was getting, was only making me feel worse. I didn’t want to give anything away, but behind my eyes, my head was swimming and I could feel myself slipping out of control.

I’ll do it. 

The One I Did Not Know pulled his scanner out of his pocket and started fiddling with the buttons. He was distracted and if I was going to act, now would be a good time. I glanced at the One I Did Know. Beads of sweat sat on his brows. He couldn’t save me. But I knew he wouldn’t stand in my way either. I parted my lips, about to pour poison in his partner’s ears, when the doorbell rang.

It scared me.

I’ll get it.

It came out in a whisper as I rushed out of the room.

I flung open the door, ready to run into the street.

But I wouldn’t get that far.

It was The Neighbour.

And he held a finger to his lips.

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.

434

You wait for your number to be called. In your hand, you grasp a withering white scrap. You don’t know how long you’ve been here, but you do know there were faces here that came before you, and many faces after.

You wait.

There is one window in the room. It opens out onto a brick wall. Earlier you are sure you saw a head bob into a view. A plume of smoke strokes the window frame. Just by watching you can taste it. You blow warm air out of your mouth and it floats in front of you before it dissipates.

You wait.

There is one set of double doors in the room. They swing open with great ease but creak closed. Slowly the wedge of blue light they let in thins to a straight blue line. Pointing straight at you, maybe.

You cross your legs as you wait.

No one is really moving. Stiff backs and even stiffer faces. Fixed smiles, slicked back hair. But the eyes. Their eyes are darting about in their skulls. Scanning. Checking. Watching each other.

You do it too, as you wait.

Watch their hands. Watch the paper tremble. Watch the numbers as they slide and smear. Who’s next really? And does it even matter? They come out and get you when it’s time. Blink and you’ll miss it.

You think you’re still waiting. But when you look down you’re not in the waiting room. You’re strapped to the bed and the only thing you see is the blue light. Not a slither but a blinding sheet of blue.

The last thing you feel is the slip of paper crumbling between your fingers. The last thing you smell is the sweet smell of burning flesh. The last thing you hear, as that sense fades away with the rest-

‘434 is ready. Prepare the host.’

Persy: Drapes

The thing about Aiden is- he always gets what he wants and he gets it by doing nothing. Honestly. One time we had a decade-long argument about the drapes in the front room. He insisted they were peach. I said they were salmon. He said it probably didn’t matter anyway, but he was sure that I was wrong. So I said-

‘If it doesn’t matter, then why bring it up?’

‘I don’t know, Persy.’ He replied, ‘I just thought you cared about that stuff.’

I should probably provide some context. Our living room, at the time, had a colour scheme which had been mostly informed by the drapes.  The drapes had come from the old house, a house that had never needed drapes but was filled to the brim with them. At one point, we had drapes disguised as throws, as rugs, as table cloths. Drapes on drapes on drapes, even. It had been a little joke of ours since our old, old house had been so- I suppose desolate is the only nice way to describe it- that we had made a pact to go ridiculously over the top decorating the next one.

There were many houses between that house and the very last one. And by then the drapes had completely lost their jovial, light-hearted warmth. They were instead a reminder of a place that we were both slowly realising we could never go back to. They went up with no joy. They filled the room with no love. We never walked past it and prodded the other, saying-

‘Drapes on drapes on drapes, eh?’

We just didn’t talk about it.

Didn’t talk to each other at all. Aiden had work. I had work. We had split the domestic duties so that he got the kids and I got the house and there was no overlap. No reason to interject while the other was sinking further and further into the empty nothingness of modern day life.

Until the drapes.

I can’t remember what he opened with. or how he closed. I just couldn’t get the thought that all my work had come to nothing. That something was wrong in our showroom home. It was my job. It was one of my only jobs. And somehow, without me realising, it had changed colour with no warning and no prompting. Or had it?

If I had been looking at it objectively, and I can never look anything objectively when Aiden is around, I would have been able to decipher his coded message. For clearly, what he had wanted to say was-

‘I can’t bear to look at those drapes every day, Persy. I can’t comprehend how much has changed since we lived in Florence, and Marrakech, and Constantinople and Carthage. I know in the beginning it was bad, sitting on uncomfortable stone thrones, sleeping on a wooden bed that was too small. Your mother would visit and make you cry. You couldn’t get anything to grow down in Hades. But somehow, now, I think it was good. Am I crazy, or do you see it too? We thought we had nothing, but, in fact, we had everything. We had each other. We sacrificed so much to have the chance to grow together and it seems growing has actually torn us apart. Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if I’d never taken you with me all those years ago.’

Something like that.

But Gods forbid he actually say it. Actually do something.

So he left the thought with me. Left it to me to destroy what was left of our marriage. Because I heard a different message in the following silence. I heard-

‘Take it down and start again.’

And I knew the minute it settled in my head that I could not start again. Not again. Couldn’t repeat the pause and reset combination again. I was spent. I was overdrawn.

There comes a time in every 2000 year old’s life when she must make peace with the fact that some things, some obstacles are insurmountable. That patience and love and understanding are not a fountain, but a well and the well will run dry if you dip in too much and too often. Being married to a man who is scared of his own voice is a sure fire way to turn that well into a cavernous abyss. And the abyss will start within you and then move between you. And then swallow one of you whole.

Aiden got what he wanted. I took the drapes down. I took the drapes with me, and I left. For good. The thing about me is- I never get what I want. But I’m very good at tricking myself into thinking I do.

 

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.