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.

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To wrap up the year…

A friend of mine asked me on a whim if I could write something for four girls, where everyone had a distinct voice an could be made on a nonexistent budget. After two years, four drafts and two edits, it’s finally done. I’ve learnt a lot from it and since it, but nothing beats the feeling of knowing you helped make something. I’m proud. Check it out!

In My Dreams, We’re Still Screaming and Running Through the Yard

‘I’ve got light up trainers, do you wanna see them?”

She stood before me with her hands in her shorts’ pockets, her scabby elbows pointing out in right angles. The light summer breeze was rippling the Barbie t-shirt that she always wore, and flicking blond curls around her forehead. We must have been about 8 years old; yes, I distinctly remember a wad of Pokemon cards that kept falling out of my dungaree pockets. There were still wooden park benches on the green behind my block of flats and my grass stained Nikes hadn’t lost their peeling pink ticks yet.

When she spoke, I was completely dumbstruck. I repeated the words again slowly in my head: light up trainers. I still couldn’t believe it. Those shoes only existed on television, in the musical breaks between Fun House and Hey Arnold, my mother had said. If Alison owned a pair of these fabled shoes, then her parents must have performed some kind of incredible feat. Pulled them straight out of the television, or something. Because at 8 years old, I struggled to believe my mother could possibly ever lie to me. If she said those trainers were hard to get, then they were hard to get and Alison’s mum must have suffered very greatly to get them. So I definitely wanted to see them. I wanted to see them and touch them and smell them and then share the odyssey that these shoes had encouraged with my mother, in the hopes that she would also sacrifice her well-being to acquire them for me. Especially now that the likes of Alison had a pair. It’s odd actually, to think I had no concept of deception when I was younger, but knew exactly how pride worked.

‘Yeah, alright,’ I said eventually, still trying to process the information as Alison bounded back up the stairs of the tower block she lived in towards her flat. She slammed the landing door so fiercely in her excitement that she made me jump in mine. After a brief pause, and an exasperated warning from her mother, the sound of thudding footsteps echoed in the stairwell. She was so eager that she was jumping down whole flights of stairs. But not just jumping, flashing too, with dazzling pink lights where her heels had once been.

When she reached me, she began parading up and down, an ecstatic smile on her chubby, childish face. She pointed to the white trainers as she did so, to the floral accents, the neon Velcro straps, and of course the magic lights that twinkled on and off in time with her footsteps. It was as though I had stepped into the advert, and she was selling the shoes to me. Soon I was convinced that I needed a pair, watching her marching up and down, beaming with her large green eyes and toothy grin.

“They’re the best, aren’t they?” she exclaimed, jumping up and down and making her tight ringlets bob along with her.

“My dad got them for me when he went on holiday; he’s the best!”

Ah. So that explained it, to me anyway. They were foreign. Foreign was a place like Narnia, a place where anything could happen. Of course she’d got her shoes from foreign. I’d call my dad as soon as I got home and ask for a pair from his new home in foreign.

We raced around the green as she showed me all the things her shoes could do that basic, substandard trainers could not; illuminating a cartwheel, for example, so that when she spun around she glowed like a Catherine Wheel. Or brightening up a dance routine so that no one’s eyes were on the mediocre choreography; or dazzling the rope turners when she jumped so that she never got caught in the death trap of double dutch.

Finally, when she had exhausted these pursuits, we flopped down on the grass, staring up at the sky and searching for the sun that was warming our damp skin.

“You know what,” she said in her dream like, distracted, 8 year old way, “you can borrow my shoes whenever you want. Because you’re my friend. My bestest friend in the whole world, and we can share my shoes forever!”

She took them off then, and let me try them on. I remember being so happy. Almost a bit light headed with it. Not just because I had the best shoes I’d ever worn on my tiny prepubescent feet, but because I genuinely believed her. All we needed to be happy was each other and one pair of mega special trainers. We were about to embark on a multitude of adventures. There was scaffolding that had just gone up on the other side of the estate. We’d be flashing all over that soon. Bright eyed and young and overwhelmingly optimistic.


 

I saw her the other day pushing a pram along the pavement. I’d say I was surprised but it was bound to happen; none of my friends from home ever really moved away, we just never stayed in contact. I’d like to blame the pair of trainers for dividing us, but it was probably the pride. There is only so long that someone can put up with being put down. When I saw her, she looked old. Really old. Not just in a ‘it’s been 12 years so I’ve grown taller’ way, but in a life way. Her shoulders were hunched like they had carried a heavy load for a long time; her eyes were downcast like they had seen some trying times. Her curls were straggly, she was uncomfortably thin. The sort of things you can imagine when someone mentions the phrase ‘shell of a former self’. I barely recognized her, and she didn’t recognise me at all. Just swept past in that obnoxious teen mum way, face contorted into a grimace, bomber jacket flapping in the wind. The child wrestled with the safety grips of the chair.  I couldn’t really see, but I got the impression that she didn’t have those blinking trainers anymore.

 

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.’