The Trip I

The second and, most importantly, final time I stared death in the face occurred on the same trip.

You won’t be surprised to know that something that started off so badly, ended much worse. After my near miss on the plane, I spent the rest of the holiday light-headed. I felt like I had been dislodged from reality. Like, instead of being in Sweden, I was floating alongside myself, watching the spectacle. Which was ironic, since that’s what most people think dead people do. And now that I’m dead, I can say: we don’t. It’s a very dangerous way to spend your time.

Here’s an example of what I’m trying to explain: I remember being at a meal. There was so many of us on the trip. Too many of us for the restaurant. We’d split into fours to get everyone seated, and it immediately reminded me of primary school. So in my head, I named all the tables like they did at school. Red table, blue table, green. But instead, I used less abstract nouns. Dumb table, Obnoxious table, Unbelievably Vain table.

I was having fun with it. I even started laughing to myself. The only other person on my table also started laughing.

‘Why are you laughing?’ I asked.

‘I dunno. You’re laughing.’

‘You just laugh cos other people are laughing?’

‘I laugh cos sometimes I miss the joke. I don’t want to be rude. You know, cos I’m deaf in one ear.’

I did not know he was deaf in one ear. To be honest, that was the first time I had spoken to him throughout the trip. It had turned into one of those open-ended, tell-who-you-want, kind of things and before you knew it you were sharing a bed with someone’s cousin called Ben who you may have met once at a Graduation party or a Housewarming, but no one knows for sure.

For some reason, either the surprise of it or my own shame, I burst out laughing. I laughed so hard that everyone turned to look at me. And I couldn’t stop. At first, the guy opposite laughed with me but then he got really uncomfortable. He kept blinking his big blue eyes like he was trying not to cry and I thought at that moment he had never been, no- No one had ever been more awkward or more beautiful. And I wanted to tell him, but I couldn’t. I couldn’t stop laughing.

Eventually, the laughter subsided to tears. I wiped my eyes on the tablecloth and went back to studying the menu like nothing had happened. I felt eyes on me. Not just the eyes of the guy sitting opposite me, or the people I was with who were now rolling their eyes, or all the other patrons who were looking down their noses. It was my own eyes. I felt like I was standing over myself watching myself. And I didn’t find that funny at all.

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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.

 

Year Book

At some point, the most important thing was putting this book together. There were meeting, meetings upon meetings. Layouts. Representatives. And finally it fell in your lap. You had to get all the profiles, all the photos. On top of your GCSEs, on top of your applications.

And you loved it. Organising life, five years of your life, into a neat 100 page book was relaxing. Turned the chaos, and the confusion and the fear and the pain into something you could understand. One last thing to remember it all by. The girls you grew up with, fought with, envied, ridiculed. Laughed with, laughed at.

And 10 years on…you don’t recognise the faces.

And scarier still, you don’t recognise your own.

It’s almost as if, in making the book, you dumped all your memories in the pages and emptied out your brain. Or more, now that you’re away from it, out of that place where you perfected your shell, it seems like a dream. Did we wear those clothes everyday? Did we like it?

You look out of place in the photos. Uncomfortable. Your hair isn’t right, your uniform is too big. You move with such…shame and awkwardness. Like you’re in someone else’s house and you have to creep about so as not to disturb.

You wanted to be left alone. You wanted to be part of it but also away from it. You couldn’t handle it. Understand it. But you had to find a way to make it to the finish line.

So, you turned yourself down.

You turned yourself down, but not off. You’re right there, in all the pictures. Controlling it all. Monitoring it all. Recording it to analyse later.

But now it’s all gone. No. It’s in the book. No, the book is not the same. No, the book is better?

Isn’t it always?

You flick through the pages, a faint smile on your lips. A little unnerved by how distant it feels, a little relieved that it doesn’t mean as much to you anymore.

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 #4

Vivian

Vivian grew up in a home that was not hers. It was her aunt’s, and although the woman tried to make her feel included, there were always little reminders that she was not home. School projects, or whispers at church, her surname on a form – the occasional message from her dad. She could not shake the feeling that she was living amongst someone else’s brothers and sisters, hugging someone else’s mum and dad. Whenever there were photos she stood awkwardly to the side, out of respect to her aunt’s real family, and out of respect to her own unusual one.

What it had taught her, this non standard way of living, was that abstract nouns were exactly that; abstract. Fluid. Those seemingly colossal terms like Family and Home or Love or Life did not have to be so rigid. They could be anything, and anything could be moulded. Anything could be what you wanted it to be.

From an early age her life was ruled by that notion. It appeared for the first time in primary school, when she had taken some chalk into the playground to draw on the recreational wall. She drew stars, something that she had only just learnt to do, and she drew exactly 17. When the bell rang she put the chalk in her coat pocket and went back inside. The rest of the day passed as normal. At the end her Aunt came to pick her up and she had fish fingers for dinner.

The next day her aunt jolted her awake.

‘What’s this?’ she demanded. Vivian blinked drowsily.

‘What’s what?’ she replied.

‘This.’

Her aunt was holding the broken pieces of chalk from Vivian’s pocket in her palms. She must have forgotten to put them back, and by default brought them home.

‘Chalk.’ Vivian replied, unabashed.

‘Where did you get it from?’ Her aunt pressed. There was something in her tone that made Vivian a little scared, as though she had done something wrong. She clawed at the mattress beneath the covers.

‘School.’ She replied quietly.

‘You stole it from school?’

The words shocked both of them into silence. Vivian had never stolen anything in her life, and she definitely had not started stealing now.

‘So how did it get here?’ Her aunt asked, when Vivian shook her head.

‘I put in my pocket.’ Her voice cracked.

‘That,’ her aunt declared, ‘is stealing.’

‘But I didn’t’

‘You took something that didn’t belong to you. That is stealing.’

Her aunt was not interested in any more words. The evidence was there in red and green, making her palms dusty. Vivian had stolen the chalk; that was all.

That episode had taught Vivian that all that mattered was how something seemed. That was why she worked hard at school, kept a clean home, married a handsome man and took up yoga. Because as long as she seemed like a good person, she could get away with everything else.