She feels sick as she wipes the counter. Nausea took up residence within days of him being home, and however much she sprays, wipes, polishes, she can’t get rid of the smell in the kitchen.
“Slow down,” he says, “take deep breaths, relax.” They’d taught him all that, in there. She still can’t name the place where he’d been and a tsunami of shame overcomes her and washes her away from the friends they had, before. She is adrift and he is no lifeline.
He’s taken to walking round the grounds since he came home, makes her come too, and almost every day they spend an hour or two, making a new path as they tread the perimeter. Tall pines overshadow the north side of the property, and she shivers as they walk there. He knows that now, notices like he never would have done, and he makes sure to take her arm. Further on, they turn a corner and the view opens up in front of them, smooth green lawns with a covering of frost to the right, chilled brown fields to the left.
“It looks bigger now the fields are bare,” he says, “but I like it better in the spring. Won’t be long now before we start to see green again.”
She pokes at the frozen autumn leaves with her Hunters. At first she’d insisted on washing them after every walk until any trace of leaf and earth was gone and the boots were shop-fresh again, but he puts his hand on hers, warm flesh, stopping her turning the cold metal tap. “Come inside,” he says. “We can make hot chocolate. They’ll only get dirty again tomorrow.” So now, the boots are mud-caked in layers. She shudders as she put them on, but he is right, and his smile as she steps out in them makes it worthwhile.
It doesn’t stop her cleaning, though. Somehow she has to get rid of the stale smell in the kitchen. Something is rotting, she’s sure. She empties the fridge, wipes inside, uses bicarbonate of soda, and still the stench grabs at her throat. He pulls her away in the end. “It’s fine, there’s no smell,” he says, but that only makes her wonder if she is insane, or him. And she remembers clearing away the blood, the broken glass, and knows that back then it was him.
The house looks better now, she thinks as she carried the drinks tray through to the living room, places it on the table, adjusts it so the edges are parallel, each glass of G&T centred, each lemon slice the same. No scars visible here, and when he is dressed he looks fine too, as he sips his drink. She takes one mouthful, then, nauseated, leaves the rest.
In bed, each night, she steals glances as he strips his shirt off. He keeps his back to her, but there are mirrors all down the wall. Livid red lines down his stomach, his arms, reflect, stark against the white of his skin, the walls, the sheets, the curtains. No amount of cleaning will erase those lines, and he always turns off the light before climbing into bed and pulling her close.
She starts to decorate the Christmas tree, means to do it by herself, but he comes in as she is half way through. He picks up a bauble, sticks it on a branch, then grabs a strand of tinsel and wraps it round her. He pulls her to him, steals a kiss, and she finds a smile fighting its way out.
“Not there,” she says as she moves that first bauble, but he keeps putting them on, wrong on purpose, she thinks, and it looks so higgledy-piggledy that she giggles, and the giggle becomes a laugh and they both fall onto the sofa, surrounded by tinsel.
She leaves the tree like that: it isn’t magazine-feature perfect, like it had been in previous years, but perfect didn’t work, and she is ready to try something new.
She sips her Earl Grey, one thin slice of lemon, the only thing she wants to drink now. The early-morning smell of coffee leaves her nauseated, toast turns her stomach, and she reluctantly has to hand over cooking to him.
“I’ll clean the kitchen afterwards,” she says, drawn to the splashes on the chrome.
He frowns. “We should get you checked out. You can’t eat less, you’ll fade away.”
“I’m fine,” she says, and she focusses all her efforts on clearing her plate at dinner that night.
“It’s delicious,” she says, but the venison battles inside her stomach and she has to leave the room before dessert.
He still has to see the therapist every morning, and their days find some sort of routine. She sits and waits in on a bench, not far from the car park while he talks. When he’s done, he suggests coffee. Her stomach churns. “I can’t,” she says. He frowns, and she swallows down bile.
The second week, he asks again if she is okay. She turns away and says, “I’m fine.” She can’t tell him that the months in the hospital have changed nothing, not who he is, nor who she is, nor what cannot be. She can’t explain that every moment he isn’t alongside her she wonders whether she will find him again, guts exposed and veins spilt open. It is months since it happened.
“You don’t need to fret,” he says too often, while for her the spine of every day is worry.
They take the decorations down. She cleans. “It’s spring cleaning,” she says when he suggests she takes a break.
“It’s a bit early for spring,” he says and persuades her out into the grounds to hunt for green shoots. They find one clump of snowdrops, tiny spikes forcing their way through chilled earth.
“See! It is spring,” she says, taking his hand. “I can spring clean.”
His face is serious as he asks, “Are you still feeling sick? Is there still a smell in the kitchen?”
She shudders, and nods.
“Will you see a doctor?”
Out there, where green shoots are growing, his hand warm in hers, she isn’t so afraid for him, but the nausea still roils in her belly.
“I don’t need to. He’ll only say I’m anxious.”
She is sick the next morning, and the one after that.
He doesn’t suggest coffee when he comes out from seeing the therapist that day. “I’ve made an appointment,” he says, phone in his hand, “Three o’clock today. Harley Street.”
She is silent, wanting to argue as she always does that waiting in a room full of sick people will make anyone sick, but in Harley Street there won’t be a room full of people, they won’t have to wait. He is serious about this appointment, and because he wants it like he hasn’t wanted anything since he came home, she goes.
The carpet is soft under her feet, her leather soled silver pumps let feel every undulation in the deep pile. It is so long since they have been to an appointment that is about her, not him, she doesn’t know what to do, to say, so she lets him say her name for her, lets him lead her to a chair.
“You look exhausted,” he says, then he is silent too.
There is a taste in her mouth, like something has died, and it has been like that for weeks now. She cleans her teeth as much as she cleans the house, but he hasn’t picked up on that. Silence fills the room, broken by the tap of long manicured nails on a keyboard. She can feel her eyelashes brush her cheeks as she blinks, feel the silk camisole against her back, the straps of her bra against her skin, her breasts soft, tender, somehow fuller, while her skirt feels a little low, too loose now.
“She’s been feeling sick for weeks,” he says when they see the doctor. “She’s hardly eating.”
“I’m fine,” comes out, but so quietly that even she struggles to hear it.
“I’ve put her through a lot this year,” he says.
The doctor probes her, takes blood, asks her to pee in a cup. She takes her time in the shiny stark white bathroom, doesn’t want to return to be examined, exposed. But in the toilet, hovering over the toilet as her thighs shake, hand between her legs, waiting to catch the urine, she wonders if he worries about her too when she leaves the room, so she pulls up her tights, screws the lid on the pot and returns.
“It won’t take a moment,” the doctor says. “I’ll have some tea brought through.”
“Earl Grey,” he says, “she drinks it with lemon.”
She wants to say I’m fine, I can speak for myself, but when the tray comes in she wants to check the cups are clean, doesn’t want to drink from a cup that has touched someone else’s lips, and maybe she isn’t fine.
“Have you been trying for a baby?” the doctor asks when the nurse returns with a sheaf of forms.
He is silent, this time, and she grips his hand.
“We can’t,” she says. “I can’t. That’s why …” She falters. Everything was perfect, they’d had money, time, a beautiful home, but he’d wanted the one thing she couldn’t give him.
“It’s fine,” he says, face turned to her, wrinkles round his eyes, grey hairs at his temples that hadn’t been there a year ago. “It can’t be helped. I’ve talked to the therapist about it. I’m fine. ” He turns to the doctor. “We’re fine.”
“You’re pregnant,” the doctor says.
Bile rises in her mouth. She swallows. “I can’t. They said … I can’t.”
The doctor holds out the form. “We can arrange a scan and see how far along you are.”
He’s looking at her again, the wrinkles round his eyes have changed shape. There’s an upturn to his his mouth and tears spark as he says, “A baby. Our baby”
She tries to smile back, but hairs rise on the nape of her neck. Discussion about antenatal vitamins passes over her as she thinks about the thing growing inside her.
When they return home she goes through to the gardens, and the snowdrops have come into bud.
Gone. Definitely gone. I ferret in my cupboard, find my bag, my money, my passport. Still there, just the phone. One careless moment. The door had been locked. Had it? I should have been more careful, should have had it with me. How? I was in the shower, only a moment. They didn’t get my passport. It was only a phone. Still. Violated. In my room. Not mine, not really, just for now, stupid hostel, should have had better locks. I shouldn’t have left my phone on the bed.
Downstairs, my words falter, my French never feels enough, my Arabic is almost non-existent, but he understands, nods, like it had happened many times before. He shoves a piece of paper across the counter to me.
“Allez au poste de police.”
He turned back to the computer, job done.
I gather myself, my bag across my front, passport, money all tucked away. This time. I check for my phone, even though I know it’s gone, then set off. I pull my coat closer as I get on the train, fix my gaze on the white walls, blue metal work, white and brick houses, which soon give way to the long rail road across the salt lake. The chimneys are still spewing out smoke, a constant in every journey I make to the city. As we pull into Tunis Marin I glimpse the usual flock of greying winter flamingos.
I should never have chosen that hostel, cheaper in some sprawling suburb. I’m too white, too tall, too ginger, too obviously a target even amongst all the other transients who stay there. It’s got better the longer I’ve stayed, better, not never good. I’m never relaxed on the way to work, and when I find somewhere else to stay … I’ll try harder, ask the other teachers at the language school. Someone must know of a place where a single woman could …but maybe that’s it, maybe I’ll never feel safe here.
As I stride through the crowds on their way to work I glance down at the paper, damp from my hand.
“Want carpet? Come and see Berber carpet exhibition, last day today.”
I don’t make eye contact, “Non,” shake my head, move on, navigate the maze. I know where to go now, which route through the medina for bread, for juice, how to avoid the stench and slaughter of the meat market. I thought I could find a way to avoid the touts too, but now I know that will never happen as long as I am who I am.
The police station is dusty, crowded. Security checks, carried out by an imposing man, almost my height, make me feel like the thief. The constant presence of machine guns exposes something in me. The policewoman who deals with me is beautiful, serene in the chaos. I can explain the theft, drag the right words to the surface, jumble them together. She shakes her head, her English better than my French as she says, “You won’t get it back.”
We fill in the forms, I leave, carry on my way to school. There’s a phone there, I can make a call, see if my insurance will cover it. Something in me bucks against this futile act, wishes for enough money that it didn’t matter, that I didn’t need to negotiate with insurers, stay in the crappy hostel, work in a country where freedom is growing, yet I have less freedom than I’ve ever known.
I pause at the gate of the school, wave of voices from the open windows draw me in. I’m late, my class is waiting. Habib meets my eye, nods, opens the gate. I stand there, and for a moment I’ve walked on, packed my bags, … but I know the wrangles involved in leaving the country. I exhale, turn, and walk through the gate.
It’s only three days later when I hear. Arnaud is always the first with the gossip, his words spilling in French and English, we’re used to that strange polyglot in the staffroom here.
“Suicide Bomber” comes out clearly amongst the muddle. Three policemen, dead. “She went in to report a stolen wallet, but she had a bomb under her coat.”
And I wonder how she got in, why she did it, what balanced the sacrifice? I remember the faces of the policemen, the impassive man who did the security check, the beautiful woman, her face sombre and resigned as she dealt with my report, the shorter man, a little stout, who held the door for me on the way out. And that evening, I stay on at the school and use the internet to look at the price of a ticket home.
At the same time, however, I'm drafting a term paper, writing for Nano, and putting together a PhD proposal. Don't hold your breath ... just trying to do a couple of hundred words a day for the fic because I like it and it's fun, and I always need more fun!
Splinters needled at his palms, his knees. One foot on the floor, he levered himself upright and staggered forwards. He grasped the doorframe and stood, wavering for a moment before lurching on into the kitchenette. He wrenched open the fridge door, seized the carton of juice and slugged it back.
Droplets ran down his cheeks, and he drank more, kept drinking until bubbles and gurgles exposed the end of the carton. He threw it down on the counter. It bounced, hit the floor, and he followed its motion until he was slumped, bare arsed, skin on dirty lino, face to face with the cracked melamine of the cupboard door. The stench of his sweat mingled with stale alcohol rose from his skin, and the always present reek of frying from the cheap bar below.
It couldn’t get much worse, he thought. He was too old, too British, too white, to be naked in a one room apartment in Mexico. He couldn’t take the heat, the booze, the bugs, the dogs. Not now. Perhaps not then. He knew they were coming for him, Jesus and the rest of the Sureños, and laughter dragged itself from his mouth. He was going to be crucified by Jesus. Crucified, shot, stabbed, garrotted, 50 ways to kill your … his long supressed inner English professor battled to the surface, and he retched, part digested juice spurting across the floor. He pulled himself back to standing, and for a moment felt goosebumps rise on his skin, something else long forgotten during the months on the run across the southern hemisphere. Cheap countries, cheap plane tickets, no questions asked, his tweed jackets and brogues had been discarded long ago.
He longed for a shower, or maybe a bath, a long, deep, luxurious bath. He wanted to be somewhere cold, damp, grey, where you could come in from outdoors to a glowing fire, tea and crumpets, then retreat to a steamy bathroom and soak, reading a good book until the water went cold. Somewhere, he knew it had never really been like that, but hell, he could edit his memories if he wanted, especially if they were about to be cut short.
No shower, no bath, he filled a bucket with water from the single tap and poured it over himself, the floor, the spreading lake of piss and puke. He didn’t give a fuck if it dripped through the ceiling. Part of him wanted to stay, to wait for the inevitable and say, ‘Kill me now’, but the death drive wasn’t strong enough to combat his innate desire to live. He tugged on a pair of grubby chinos, a once white shirt and battered leather sandals. Picking up a back pack, stolen from a tourist who looked enough like him to confuse things for a while, he climbed out of the window, slid down the tin roof and dropped the last few feet onto the ground. A glance around, and he was in the old truck, hot-wiring it, checking the fuel gauge, foot down, head for the border. Another border, any border.
One day he’d stop running, but not today.
It’s perfect, she says, as she stands outside, keys in hand. The house has classic proportions, a pillar either side of the front door, well groomed box trees, a semi-circular drive. It is perfect, or very nearly perfect, she thinks as she notices the leaves on the lawn, swirling in the first autumn winds.
She walks closer, raises her hand to insert the key. The door is perfect, anyway, a matt grey finish, framed in white, exactly as she’d specified. No chips. No scratches. She looks at the edge of the brushed chrome lock more closely. She can see a scratch where someone else has put their key in, a clumsy, hurried builder perhaps. That can go on the snagging list that extends to three pages.
Inside the rectangular hall, the smell of new paint reassures her. She is careful to wipe her feet, it would be a shame to get dirt on the ethically sourced coir mat, but more of a shame to damage the perfect lines of the oak floor. She slips off her shoes and pushes one French-manicured finger against the shoe rack door. That fits perfectly, works perfectly, as the soft touch open and close mechanism glides, offering her a pair of soft cream leather pumps. Indoor shoes.
Everyone should have indoor shoes and she wonders for a moment whether she should get a set in every size, in case of visitors. Because there will be people coming inside, and she shivers. Perfect. This house is perfect, with large reception rooms, plenty of spare bedrooms, perfect for visitors yet still she doesn’t want anyone else here. Perhaps another few days and she can think about … She shivers again.
She should slip her coat off now, coming into the house that’s what you do, but the house is cold, she’s cold, so she goes to the kitchen. It is easy to turn the heating on, harder to fill the kettle because that makes splashes, and she has to wipe them up, and the counters show where she’s wiped so she polishes them again while the kettle boiled, soft pink microfiber cloth, only for polishing the counters. And it’s easy to get into the rhythm of polishing, following the long lines of the black marble counters, and she startles when the kettle clicks off.
Earl grey, lemon, no milk. She wipes the cup before she pours, wipes the square chrome tea caddy, wipes the teapot, wipes the kettle. Perfect again. The aroma is nothing like the stink of the tea from that machine, at that place, or the cup the nurses brewed for you, it’s from the staff room, love, they mean to be kind.
She sits at the glass table, and runs a nail along the scratch. She should have replaced it really, nothing to remind her of … She doesn’t know why she kept it, everything else is new. She puts her cup on the place where the scratch is deepest. It’s a good thing it’s glass, so easy to clean. Really hot water, some bleach, and you can’t tell that there was blood. Maybe she needs one of those ultraviolet lights, like on the crime show, so she could see if the blood really is gone.
She looks at the walls. Matt White. They’d stripped everything out. She stayed in a hotel near the hospital while the builders were in, making choices, visiting every day, without getting too close. Even in hard hat and overalls she had to shower when she left, shower before she made her other daily visit. She felt dirty after that too, but in a different way. Wash your hands, it says on the way in, and she wonders whether the visitors would object if she offered hand sanitiser in her own hall. Stop the spread of infection. A shudder. Thousands, no millions of tiny germs spread on her skin, his skin, on the kind-meaning hand of the nurse, of the doctor, and did gloves really act as a barrier, how did you know if the gloves were clean too?
She sips the tea. This mug is clean. Bone china. She always soaks the dishes, and when it is just her it is easy. It will be better now she can sleep at the house again. It will be better as long as there are no visitors. It will be better until he comes home. Bile rises in her mouth and she tried to settle herself with another sip.
He will come home and she wants him to, and she can’t bear to imagine him here again. They talk about it, with him, without him. First, a visit. They will see how he reacts. Then maybe a weekend. Then every weekend, and she digs her nails in as she thinks about his presence. Perhaps if she takes him clean clothes, ones that haven’t been in the hospital for months, ones that haven’t gone through some communal laundry with everyone else’s, ones that she has washed herself. She thinks of the soft grey joggers and cream cashmere jumper still hanging in his wardrobe.
She didn’t ask them to redecorate the bedroom, but she had cleaned it, cleaned it until she was sore, and the mirrors shone, and every item had been dry cleaned, and it was all in bags. He won’t find anything amiss when he comes back, when he goes upstairs, their room is just the same, because it happened down here, and she thinks again of the ultraviolet light. Where there any traces of blood still, even after the walls have been re-plastered, the floors re-laid? Will he be able to tell?
She had explained to him about the new kitchen, but she doesn’t know if he took it in. He just sat there, but that was at the start. He is better now, he responds when she speaks, but she hadn’t mentioned the kitchen again, nor the lounge. She stood up and put her cup in the sink, ran the tap until the water was scalding, added bleach. It could soak.
She thinks about sitting in the lounge, reading a magazine, until it is time to visit. The new Elle thumped through the door this morning and it is sitting on the new wooden coffee table, perfectly aligned to the table edge, which is perfectly aligned to the rug that sits square in the centre of the big, light room. She stands at the door to the lounge, grips the white door frame, but she can’t go in, can’t sit there, hasn’t sat there since, since he …
He’d started in the kitchen, taken a knife to his arms, sat at the table, stabbing, slashing, but that wasn’t enough and he’d walked, run, stumbled into the lounge, and at some point he’d fallen onto the coffee table, knife still in hand, and she couldn’t get rid of the image, blood crimson on the cream carpet. Redecorating should have solved that, the new carpet is beige, not cream, the table wood not glass, but she can still see the giant shard of glass penetrating his gut, as blood streams from his arms, and she turns away.
Standing at the hall window she looks out on the lawn, stretching out until it reaches their woodland, trees thinning until they become farmed fields. The gardener would be coming later, restoring perfection to the soft green lawn. It’s everything, this house, she has everything that money can buy now. And he’ll grow to appreciate that again, won’t he?
The clock chimes in the hall. In another house she can climb into the BMW, set the satnav for the hospital, and visit him. She doesn’t want to go, knows she should. He’s not allowed out, not yet, and she should bring in something from outside. But she stays at the window because she can’t face the florist, because she’d have to speak to them, and if they ask, ‘Is it a gift?’, she’ll feel like they know, and what does she bring him anyway, when he’s shown that he thinks the life they had together, however perfect, is worth nothing, when he says it’s not how he thought life would be, that no amount of luxury and leisure can replace the tiredness that comes from graft, and that no amount of money, no possessions can replace, for him, a messy family home, bursting with the children she can’t have.
She breathes in deeply, and runs her fingers down the hand woven damask curtains, dyed to match the rugs on the beautiful oak floor. She keeps on looking out at the fields, and for a moment she wonders why she’s still wearing the coral cashmere angora mix coat, and she isn’t crying, because how can you cry when everything is perfect?
“It’s not the words, Bill, it’s the pictures. Picture sells a thousand words. No one buys the fucking paper now anyway. It’s all about clicks and shares. Citizen journalists. Anyone can take a photo on their iPhone and it’s in the Mail. You get writing the subhead and be glad you’ve got a job.”
Do you know the feeling of vibration, shaking the floor, when the washing machine is on? Imagine that, a million times over, the whole building pulsating, from concrete floor to corrugated ceiling. That’s what it’s like when the printing machines are on, and they’re always on, and the sound courses through my skull, my spine, right down to my toes. There’s a back-up generator, the news must get out, and I’m used to it now, the spin and the rattle and the crunch and the click, the beat as familiar as that of my own heart.
And like coming to shore after a sea voyage, missing the sway, they say, it don’t feel right when there’s no vibration, no clacks and whirs, and that’s something I never thought would happen.
They said they could see it coming. I didn’t. Sure, things changed. They stopped charging for the Standard, had to after all those free papers took off. But it was still papers, wasn’t it? More of them, if you judged by the tube at the end of the day. Someone should have done something. I mean, what about the jobs? There were hundreds of us, even with the move to Wapping. Thousands if you counted the men selling papers all across town. Papers needed people, people would always need papers, or that’s what I thought.
The building sounds lost now, or maybe I’m lost without the noise, unused to hearing my footsteps echo, and it wasn’t just machines, there was always a shout going up, people coming in, vast reams of paper being delivered, processed, printed, chopped, folded, and taken away again by the fork lift truck. It’s all gone, now, and next week I’ll be gone too. We don’t need a caretaker for an empty building, they said. Don’t take care of it, no-one needs it, it’s all about cutting costs. I sit half way up the metal staircase, watching the machines lying still, and feel my heart thump in my chest.
The news will still get out. No early morning paper boy, it seeps now, rather than thuds. It’s a silent swipe, and you’ll see what someone else has read, and follow the story, click and share, but then it’s time for a quick game of Candy Crush and what Gina did last night and you’ve gone again.
The news will still get out, but you can select what you want. No need to plough through grim items about Gaza, economic analysis of the cost of going into Syria, of bombing Iraq. Deselect, it’s gone, and all you see is cats stuck in blinds, news of the bake off, and is it really news if Diana did, or didn’t take Ian’s ice-cream from the freezer?
You choose what you consume. Don’t get indigestion.
‘Swan holds up traffic’
“Look, Mum, its wings are as wide as that lorry.” Click, click, share.
“Bet it caused a real traffic jam.”
“Can you imagine picking up a swan, isn't she brave? I wouldn’t want to work for the RSPCA.”
“No swans here, anyway, and who’d stop for a seagull?”
“Well they can fly, they wouldn’t need picking up.”
“Can’t swans fly?”
It’s thrashing in her arms, strength enough to break a bone she’s heard, but she’s not scared, it’s her job. She grips more tightly, too tightly, and the swan goes limp.
Sound poem images are from Macchina tipografica (Printing Press) by Giacomo Balla
Snow-bright in the sunshine, I can see it from a few hundred yards away. And, keep your eyes on the road, I start looking for her mate.
Slowly she stands, unbothered by the cars passing, inches away. She unfolds her wings, stretches, pushes down against the air and takes flight.
Beat, beat. Each stroke raises her higher.
Beat, beat. Higher, and closer to the traffic.
The huge bird, wingspan seeming as wide as the car, is flying at the big green truck in front. She has to be high enough, she must. My stomach clenches and I grip the steering wheel.
Another beat, then another. Time slows even though we’re doing sixty, and my vision fills with white on green.
A gust of air, some slipstream surge, and she skims over the truck.
I release my grip, then tighten again as I see the low stone bridge. The truck, the swan, the stone, sandwich together, and all I can do is watch and wait for an explosion of feathers, a thud.
The swan is buffeted by curls of air, compressed and swirling under the arch of the bridge. She swerves, hits the trailer, and ricochets towards me. On the tarmac now, she falters, flapping again, no lift. I push my foot down hard on the brake, and wait for impact.
Somehow she rises. Wings power and she curves across both lanes of traffic. White light glows between the ribs of her feathers. She soars over the fence, circles the field, then she’s gone. Maybe she’s finding her mate, but I’m left, sweat damp between my hands and the faux leather wheel.
My heart thumps still as we pass Settle, and somewhere a feather touches the asphalt.
I seem to have managed to get enough writing in to scrape through June and completed my 1_million_words bingo card, so here's a little celebration -
No mission too difficult
Characters: Danny Williams, Steve McGarrett,Grace Williams
Steve meets a challenge face on.
Categories: Gen M/M
Something is growing for Steve and Danny
Yellow Brick Road Revelation
Characters: Chin Ho Kelly Danny Williams Kono Kalakaua Grace Williams
Danny lets his inner feelings show