Generation Lotus

Dragonfly Tea ran a short story competition for young writers in 2017. I submitted two pieces. One was shortlisted and, to my (delighted) surprise, was later announced as the winning piece for my age group.

Below is the winning piece (I still get the happy-fluttering-warbles bubbling up inside when I say that), and you can check out Dragonfly Tea in the link. I can also recommend their Oolong tea.

 

Generation Lotus

Winter again.

I perch on the stone back of the dragon-shaped garden bench, surrounded by snow. Blankets, layers of wools and silks, are tied around me, wrapped tightly as bandages and shedding fine dustings of snow at my trembles and twitches. My feet have been left bare and are submerged in white.

The skin on my legs has turned faintly purple, the colour of lavender that has been pressed, dried and forgotten. I shuffle my feet, noticing just how numb they are, how they feel bloated, awkward like fists. Folding myself over I reach down through the snow and place my fingertips on the skin of my feet, finding the chill twinned to the freezing bite of the powder that surrounds them.

Summer, spring and autumn move like generations, each one the off-spring of the last but never identical to what came before. Yet winter returns every year like an old acquaintance, never having changed. And it is with winter I share my most important memories. The birth of my grandchildren, Father’s death, the birth of my own children, marriage.

And the day I became the lotus.

*

Mother was strange, all those years ago, as the city was drawn away from autumn’s quivering hands, rattled by gales of wind, and passed to winter’s rigid grasp. The face of the woman who bore me is long ago smudged by memory, yet her mouth I’ll always know. It is my mouth, vibrant in colour like the flushed skin of a pomegranate and elegantly curved like a bow. That mouth had elongated to smiles many times during that long ago winter. My lotus winter.

“Zhi, you will dance as Yao-Niang is said to have danced on the lotus. You will become the lotus as she did.”

When I was five I hardly comprehended much of what happened around me; I only heard mother telling me how beautiful I would become without knowing what beauty was. Yao-Niang was the Emperor’s lover, and everyone that I knew in my tiny, child’s world adored her. The lotus was the flower that, in warmer weather, glided across the surface of our garden pond, petals rounded by the bud and pointing outwards, ending in the tips of blades. These things I knew but did not understand.

My fifth year was the first time I witnessed a true snowfall. Before I had only seen flakes shedding from the clouds, vanishing as soon as they kissed the ground. Heavy snowfalls muffled the sounds of the city. All went hushed, like the inside of a temple, every sound becoming a whisper of itself. Awakening to this strange silence I got up and rushed to the decking outside, shrieking and babbling at the sight of the vast blanket of snow that had crept upon us overnight. Beyond the walls of our garden I could hardly see a thing. I imagined the entirety of Nantang being dusted white by the snowfall, like a lady’s face after she has finished putting on her make-up, fields and cities as overtaken by the winter as our garden was.

I jumped off the decking, plunging my feet straight into the snow, and then my hands, gathering up the dainty crystals in huge clumps, ravenous to hold more. All too soon I was lifted out of the snow and carried back inside, my carer scolding me the entire way to my bedroom. Lu gasped at the blue tint spreading across my feet and my wet clothes, hissing and tutting. The ice melting in my clenched fists, escaping and trailing a tiny river along the dark wooden floor, was more important to me back then.
I was dried and re-clothed, Lu muttering through it all. During this particularly chilly winter my feet and the tips of my fingers were constantly numb. Winter sucked the warmth from them like leeches sucked blood from sick people. The numbing only hurt when it disappeared.

Mother saw me as Lu was bundling my icy feet in thick socks and rubbing them with her hands, warmth and pain wrestled back into my senses. However the sight of mother always brought a smile from me.

“Mother! Snow is outside!”

Her lips were pressed severely together, the mouth a straight, unreadable line. She clucked and said to Lu,

“It is better if they are numb. Leave them bare.”

Hesitantly, but ever obedient to her mistress, Lu set my feet free of the wrappings. I was instructed to stay indoors so I spent the morning poking my head out of the shutters to gaze longingly at the landscape of our garden, the feeling in my feet fading away again. But I did not disobey mother. My toes could have crusted over with ice and I would never have sought to warm them as long as she wanted them bare and numb.

When the sun was at its highest Lu came to find me, telling me that my mother wished to see me. Eagerly, I took her hand and was led to the sitting room. Our house was decorated with artwork grand and numerous enough to rival the Emperor. Father loved art and mother said she did. I liked the people in the paintings, especially the women with their flat, clear faces that reminded me of the moon. Father appreciated the dragons the most. They were arched like cats, bodies as supple as the cloth they were depicted on. He said they were symbols of honour, which must always be upheld. I thought the dragons were the scariest but dared not say that to father.

In the sitting room there were many dragons on the walls, watching everything, perhaps making sure our family stayed respectable. Lu brought me to the table where father and mother were knelt opposite a man. He turned, looked at me. A thin row of black hair made an inky line just above his upper lip, running to the corners of his mouth and down to his chin.

Father introduced him to me as a doctor, and me to him as ‘the patient’. I was not sick and wished to tell them so, but I had long ago been instructed to douse my voice unless it was requested. The doctor never spoke to me, only with father and sometimes to mother. Their voices were soft and I thought about the snow, muffling everything. Winter was an old soul, demanding a quiet audience to its presence. It put our senses to sleep and drew the nights in quickly.

“It is better if you are not present,” I heard the doctor say. Interested, I followed his steady eyes to my mother’s, noticing the way her mouth hardened. I recognised it as the way I formed sturdy barriers across my own mouth when I desperately wanted to speak.

“The procedure is absolutely safe,” the doctor continued to explain, “But there is little to be done for the pain during it.”

Mother met my gaze. Through lips as solid as cage bars she told me to go with the doctor and to do as he said. Without hesitation I obeyed, Father leading the doctor out of the room and me following behind them both. Mother stayed at the table.

We were taken to a room I had seldom seen as it was a place for the servants. I was instructed to sit on a prepared mat while the doctor stood and father left us. The mat was next to the wall which I leant back against as I waited, beginning to shiver in the chill air. There was a fervent longing in me that mother would come to find me, but of course that never happened. I sat still and furtively watched the doctor as he brushed the pads of his fingers over his beard. The long sleeves of his beige robe floated about him, reminding me of bird wings, like the crane I sometimes saw by our garden pond, standing among the lotuses.

Bowls with thick veils of steam puffing from their surfaces were brought to us by the servants and set on the floor. Kneeling on another mat, the doctor took one of my bare feet and gently lowered it into a bowl. It was warm and the liquid looked dark. He held it there for only a little time, rubbing and massaging the skin. I tried not to shuffle and was determined not to speak. My foot was lifted out of the bowl and it came away red.
When I saw it I thought that the skin had fallen away, like meat from a bone, and that the blood was entirely my own. Gasps and the beginning splutters of tears gurgled in my throat.

“Not to fear,” the doctor told me, using a damp rag to wipe away the red, revealing that the skin of my foot was still there. I caught the scent of metal, like the way my palms would smell after holding a coin between them. I swallowed, looking around for a familiar face. Only an old servant was present. She kept her eyes down.

The doctor cut away at my toenails, trimming them so far down that I wondered if he was going to begin hacking away at the tips of my toes next. Meanwhile the old servant dipped bandages into the bowl of red water which I was increasingly surer was blood. Lifting them out, she slid the material between her index and middle finger to coax away the excess liquid, bleeding them. The cold was beginning to numb my feet again as the doctor finished trimming my toenails.

With firm hands he took hold of my foot and pressed the heel of his palm against my toes. He pushed, curling them inwards towards my sole, further and further. I looked at his face, wondering why he was doing all this, wondering why he had not yet stopped pushing down my toes. The doctor paused for the briefest moment, quietly telling me to look away, to look at the servant instead.

I did.

And he kept pushing.

*

Snapping has me looking up, searching for the source. Crystals of snow fall from where they have collected on my robes. My hand is cold and wet from where I have been gripping the stone dragon’s muzzle. There, from near the house I see him approaching, another stick buried under the snow snapping as he steps on it.

“Mother, you should come inside.”

I remain where I am, and simply ask:

“Mei?”

“The doctor says she is fine. He gave her willow bark for the pain.”

Momentarily my lips harden, barricading my tongue in my head, before I say,

“She will marry well. I have no doubt she will grow up to be the most eligible girl in the city.”

He nods absently, the way one nods when confirming something well-known. There is nothing solemn nor sunny in his expression; for him this is but another day. Never will he see the unwrapping and re-wrapping of the bandages on my granddaughter’s feet. Perhaps, before she marries, he will finally look and see that his daughter walks on lotus petals: rounded at the heel, with the toes ending in the tips of blades.

I take up my cane and rise from the bench as slowly as I know I must, the simple movements requiring as much care and skill as an artist takes in the trace of his brush. He waits patiently, ready to take my arm. I walk with him back to the house, catching glimpses of my own lotus-toed feet with every beautifully numb step.

The Tower of Silence

With help from ‘The Student Wordsmith’, and the three words of inspiration they gave to me: ‘Sound and Silence’. Please check out their website and what they do here.

The Tower of Silence

The desert is no place to live. I don’t know how things are in the rest of the world now, but here it feels like everything is starving. Baba’s told me that after my eldest brother died, the one I never met, he thought nothing so bad could ever happen to him again. Whether his grief was a punishment from someone divine or just bad luck Baba could not be sure; he was only certain whatever it was must have used up all the sorrow intended for him when he lost a child. He thought the bad things must eventually stop, or come infrequently like the rain.

Baba says he now knows that there’s no limit to bad things. They’ll come if they please. And come they did, taking three more from our family. I think that’s why Baba tries not to love the rest of us too much.

Most of us spend our days out of the house doing work and odd jobs anyway, so our distance helps him with that. I can’t say I like the work I do, but because I’ve taken this job lots of other people can do things they like. Someone has to do this. And there is a fascinating history behind my job, with many years of culture and mystery to learn.

For the longest time no one did this job and it has just recently been revived. A lot of old ways have come back since the atrocities happened. Maybe we brought back the past so we wouldn’t see too much of the present.

The body I’m carrying on the palanquin has not so long been only a body. It’s still warm, especially with how the sun scorches everything down here. The palanquin has no roof or walls, only a base with two poles framing its two longest sides, a little like the stretcher I once saw the doctor use when my younger sister became ill and had to be taken away. We cannot use stretchers because it is too easy for the body to touch us. Elevated as it is on the palanquin it does no harm.

Three others shoulder the three remaining ends of the poles and together we hold it steady, our paces synchronising to sluggish procession. One more person drifts ahead of us, leading us in a weaving path around steep sand dunes and guiding the way to the Tower.

The Tower is a squat structure. Some sand dunes stand taller than it does, hiding it behind them like a shameful secret. It was built centuries ago and has hardly been cared for, but since there is no sign of collapse the Tower of Silence, after years of retirement, has been put back to work.

I often wonder what the Tower looks like from above, from a bird’s perspective. There are plenty of birds that circle around the Tower, ready to grab a chunk of the freshly dead body we lay on the Tower’s roof. How strange it must be to look down and see that you are being watched by the dead.

The roof is made up of three concentric circles. We used to adhere to tradition and place only children in the innermost ring, women in the middle and the men on the outermost circle. Tradition is for times of luxury and we’ve had to abandon it. Lately we’ve been squashing everyone in, forcing them like mismatched puzzle pieces, their limbs overlapping and their chests flush against someone else’s in a morbid intimacy. It is wrong, but it is better we do that than let the corpses rot the world with their impurity. They must be eaten by the birds and decomposed under the sun, and only when they are clean can we bury them. I suppose that’s why the world became so rotten, since no one took the dead to the Tower for so long.

No one speaks as we walk through the desert. It’s not because we are unfriendly with each other, but because our mouths dry out faster if we open them. There’s so little sound. I strain to hear something. Sandals whispering over sand like the breeze, the tock-tock of my half-empty costrel against my thigh. I find it relaxing until I begin to feel like I haven’t noticed that something is wrong, that something is missing. When something disappears I either notice right away, or I spend the whole day circling my own head trying to find what isn’t there. What could it be?

“It’s too quiet.”

Baaz, who carries the pole adjacent to me, helping me lift the rear of the palanquin, looks to me for agreement. He is my senior by many years and might have to stop working soon. Hidden underneath his loose grey robe are limbs as thin as bird bones.

“I was thinking the same,” I whisper back. In this silence there’s no need to be any louder.

“It’s always quiet when we do this,” Antaira grunts from in front of me. She is around my age, but her physique is built stronger than mine. I think she grew tall and healthy because she had no siblings to be fed alongside her. Everyone in my family is thin, but Baba always seemed to have books to spare when he couldn’t give us food. Knowledge is a different type of food, Baba used to say. I was always still hungry.

“Different kind of quiet today.”

No one answers me.

The way is lonely. Our village lies far behind us and the small oasis that grows around the Tower does not spread far. I look to the west, where there is nothing but the sweeping desert. Every now and again I think about the other places beyond this arid country and whether they are all gone now. I’ve seen pictures of them in my books. All of my books are old, made before the bad things rained down to prove that they have no compunction, that bad things can keep coming and coming.

I like to imagine the places I’ve read about: how it could feel to be embraced by a forest, or how the air could be a kaleidoscope of smells in a city. How would these places sound? In the current silence it’s tricky to conjure invented noise in my head. Baba was told by his Baba that the far-away cities were so full of sound that they became polluted with it, toxic to the mind. I don’t understand how that could be possible, unless everyone was screaming all the time.

After weaving around the next dune it comes into sight. The not-so-aptly named Tower of Silence. Although today the name seems a perfect fit.

The Tower’s stone walls become more visible as we move closer, past the snatches of green, although all of the plants look a little greyer since our last visit a few days ago. From under my feet I feel more than hear the paspalum grass, once supple, now brittle, crackling under my sandals. My hood is swept from my brow by a rogue gust of wind that rattles the oasis before abruptly leaving us, everything going still. With my ears uncovered the sound of nothing is more piercing.

We pass spiny bushes and Antaira at last acknowledges:

“It is a different quiet.”

The Tower has an archway, unprotected and open to all. There is nothing here that would attract a thief and the wild dogs died out years ago. We go inside. Heat lingers in the air, stealing my breath and making sweat gather on my brow. A drop slips from my temple and I hear it pat as it hits a patch of sand.

An inner staircase lines the wall in a gradual slope. Baaz and I lift the palanquin a little higher as we ascend to keep it balanced. The body is lighter than some of the others I’ve carried. I saw her being wrapped up in the cloth, almost too small for it, like a bird smothered in a bedsheet.

Our sandals chafe and clap against the stone. Baaz and I are forced to halt just shy of reaching the top of the stairs. Everyone in front of us has stopped walking and we awkwardly keep the palanquin held aloft, arms aching. From up ahead I hear Ikramah, the man who leads us, murmur,

“I don’t understand.”

Is he talking with someone? I feel Baaz’s strength waning as his arms quiver. I inch forwards to force the others to keep going and let us get level.

“Where did they go?” Antaira asks disbelievingly.

“The bodies?”

We climb the last few steps and reach the roof. I see that the bodies are all still here. It takes me a few breaths to realise what has disappeared.

“The birds…”

Usually upon our arrival the roof is filled with birds, most notably wakes of pale-cloaked vultures, all hacking away at the corpses. No birds are on the roof today. I look up, squinting in the light. They are not even in the sky, circling as they sometimes do.

I stop seeing and start listening, start thinking that all along the journey I have been listening for them. The silence of the desert can be vast, but there has always been the cries of the birds. At the Tower of Silence their voices were always here. The vultures would squabble and the smaller birds would screech and croak.

We shuffle across the roof. I notice the body that we last brought here is still largely intact, bearing none of the post-mortem gashes or missing fingers that tells us the birds have fed well. As if nothing is wrong, as if nothing has changed, we put down the palanquin and pull her corpse from the sheet, packing her in with the other bodies as gently as we can. None of us know what else to do. Our foreheads are uniformly creased and each of our mouths sear a firm closed line. Whatever the vanishing of the birds means, it is for certain a bad thing.

“Perhaps they will return,” Baaz says. From his flat inflection I think he too knows that the bad things aren’t bound by a code, and they will come again.

There is no more we can do. We carry the palanquin back down the stairs, out of the Tower and make the trek back to the village. The silence was weighty before, and now it is crushing us.

I think about all that noise pollution in the distant cities that may not still be there, and wonder if silence is on the other side of the same perishing world.

A Meticulous Murder

A Meticulous Murder

David Bader had never regretted switching his job to full-time murder. He didn’t relish the work, or salivate over it while he was in the shower. Like a sociable man finds peace in his humble career of a waiter, David Bader found his own satisfaction in causing another’s death.

He was one of the best in his line of work and much sought after. Along with the perks that brought, like being able to charge a higher price for his prime services, came downsides such as the good number of people who very much wanted his hands in cuffs and his face exposed. If he was caught they would take a brutal mug-shot and broadcast his name on every available channel; television, internet, radio and newspaper. David had yet to suffer these consequences and hoped he would never need to. The world was never kind to those it deemed a murderer.

It was a Tuesday, unusually cold for October, and David’s current client let him into her house. She was a young woman with a face made of peculiarities. Her lips were a tad too big for her face, her nose inclined a little to the left as if moved by a breeze, and her eyes were too full of iris. They made her pretty in an intriguing sort of way.

David asked to be shown to the bathroom, telling her it had been a long drive. He was directed to a white and blue tiled room. A morbid décor of bottled pills lined the shelves below the mirror, all in varying stages of increasing emptiness. He relieved his protesting bladder and washed his hands in the sink, afterwards wiping down everything he touched with a dust cloth. Back in the living room the woman was sat rigidly on the sofa, looking at her hands clasped in her lap.

Opening up his work case David began to meticulously order his instruments. At a furtive glance around the room he counted at least three Bachelors certificates hung on the walls, all in the name of Lisa Tyndall.

“Is that it?” she asked, nodding at the three syringes David held delicately in his slender hands.

“Once I put the solutions in and set up the IVs, yes, this is it.”

David took a good look at Miss Tyndall’s pallid face, seeing her pupils blown wide to the limbus. They’d talked through the procedure beforehand, gone over every detail and several hundred ‘are you sure’s?’ David cleared his throat and said seriously, “Miss Tyndall, I need you to confirm that you are one-hundred percent certain that this is what you want. I am willing to refund you if you’ve changed your mind.”

He could practically see the thoughts tumbling in her head; grand questions about the life beyond, knowing there was no going back and a mental checklist that everything was taken care of. Once a patient had postponed David’s services at the last minute, suddenly remembering that he owned a cat and wanting to find a home for it before leaving this world.

“I’m sure. It’s either this or die suffocating on my own vomit,” she spat.

It wasn’t a fun part of the job, seeing the broken people that couldn’t be fixed, only thrown away.

“Very well. Have you left anything in the house that could be traced back to me? You haven’t left my name or number written anywhere, even in the bin?” Miss Tyndall handed him a couple of scraps of paper.

“I thought I should let you dispose of them.”

He still intended to make a sweep of the house, just to be safe, but nodded his thanks and pocketed them nonetheless. David set up the IVs and readied the drugs. Miss Tyndall was looking as sorry as a flightless bird, already half-dead.

“I am ready to begin,” he announced. “If there is any business you have left unfinished, it is, in the truest sense of the phrase, now or never.”

Miss Tyndall paused, but shook her head.

“No, I’m done.”

“Last words?” David asked her somewhat wryly as she laid down on the sofa. She gave a little huff of amusement as he swabbed the inside of her arm.

“Life’s a bitch,” she muttered half-heartedly.

He returned the smile, inserted the needle.

“And then you die.”

The Sinister Art of Anatomy

My submitted piece for the Modern Fiction module, which was also published in the Brunel Creative Writing Anthology.

 

The Sinister Art of Anatomy

Her pupils, like two black holes, seemed to absorb everything in her proximity. Even the navy blue dress she wore lost some of its light to those eyes, the material’s colour darkening to something more sable. It snaked around her figure, squeezing her breasts, gripping her waist, suffocating, like a boa-constrictor. She stood tall despite the clutch of her clothes, her right leg stretching out through the slit of the dress, inky silk spilling either side of her thigh.

Below the knee, he opened her up.

Rosy muscle sheathed around creamy bone, a miniscule layer of yellowish fat embracing the tendons. Campbell pressed himself in closely towards her, back curved and aching, as he trimmed away the skin down to her ankle. He stepped back to regard her again, the painting having made an evolutionary leap with the forbidden ingredients of her anatomy displayed so brazenly. Campbell thought she was even more beautiful this way.

This woman was not the first to undergo this procedure. He had dissected the torsos of men wrought in oils, lifting away the armour of their muscles with the stroke of his brush. He had lacerated women, transforming the unbroken smoothness of their necks to the segmented structure of their spinal cords. Every organ, bone and artery was formed with textbook accuracy. In fact, if anyone were so inclined, they could use Campbell’s paintings in lieu of a medical textbook. His works were perfectly, factually magnificent.

And yet Peter Campbell had no line of medical students outside his door hoping for a commission. No buyers interested in purchasing from him. No letters. Silence.

Around three months ago Campbell had been described, in one of the most influential magazines for the arts, as ‘The Artisan Butcher’. He might not have minded if this were in ARTnews’ ‘Upcoming Talents’ section. However, he had found himself and an image of one of his paintings at the back of the magazine, squashed under the title ‘BIZARRE AND BARBAROUS’. He could not recall the article without also inviting a grimace to his face.

‘Peter Campbell’s art undeniably does not lack for skill, but the openly barbaric nature of his works is unsettling, and some would claim the reveal of a person’s innermost substance signifies almost as an expression of rape.’

His reputation was torn apart, tatters of his creative dignity left barely clinging onto him. The article, pandemic-like, had spread across the U.S., the critics and connoisseurs of paintings shying away from Campbell and his art as if he actually were infectious. His work was dismissed as nothing less than the incarnations of an innermost depravity.

‘Expression of rape!’ Campbell scowled to himself, looking over his latest creation again. There was no violence to her, no gory leakage of her innards or pained rictus in her expression. It was a literal look at the person inside: what truly dwelt under the skin. And had he not done the same to the men in his art? To animals? Did ARTnews think his ‘expression of rape’ stretched to bestiality? Campbell pushed the thoughts to a dustier corner of his mind, where they would undoubtedly spread their negativity, rotting whatever else was sheltering there.

As the sun collapsed, falling under the horizon, Campbell finished the painting. He decided to show off the anatomy of the woman’s chest too, painting the pink, spongy lungs and the encircled claws of her first two rib bones over her previous coat of skin. His style was old-fashioned, still-life as seen by the human eye. The new-fangled Pop Art movement ill-suited Campbell. What benefit could there be to make a woman in one less dimension, to fill her with a single shade when there were so many she could be adorned with?

While the canvas dried Campbell cleaned his brushes. He simply dropped them into the cart where he kept his tools, allowing them to mingle however they wished. Four pots, previously separating brushes by their size and purpose, were empty. Globules of dried paint, dark pinks and whites and some green, stuck to the lids of the paint pots and handles of the brushes as if they had grown fungi. Campbell could clearly remember how the mess had gotten to be there, seeing in his mind’s eye how the brushes, tips heavy with paint, bounced and spun across the cart’s compartment as he had thrown them down in a rage.

When his latest work had dried Campbell would take her from the easel and settle her with the others. A congregation of painted men, women and animals, all with patches of them missing, had invaded and colonised what was once his living room, lounging across his fraying sofa and loitering against the flaking walls. Campbell had closed the blinds to keep them out of the light, although that did not stop the feel of their eyes on him whenever he introduced another to their dismal horde.

For now there was little to keep him occupied.

Campbell picked up the bottle of whisky, finding it where it had been granted permanent residence on the desk in his workshop. He felt a slight grease around the neck of the bottle where he must have been holding it the night before. Falling into the wooden chair, he encouraged the amber liquid to visit him again, welcoming it with gratified gasps as he competently slicked it down. On his eighth drag his throat constricted.

He heard her moving.

His palate was afire when he finally swallowed, a taste of dread following the whisky. Campbell set the bottle down and tried to work his way to his bedroom. He swayed, feeling like a blade of grass caught in an unpredictable wind that would suddenly gust up, battering him into the walls and doorways. The shoes she had left in the hallway made a minefield of his path as he tried not to crush the assortment of high-heels.

When he passed the stairs he saw her standing at the top, statuesque.

“Good evening Peter,” she said brightly.

Campbell felt only a numb nervousness as he stared up at her. She had dolled up for going out. Her dress was as red as poppies, and the belt cinched the material at her waist while the hem blossomed at her knees.

“You look beautiful,” he told her, slurring the u’s and feeling the organs inside of him all askew and a-jumble. Campbell imagined capturing his own anatomy, pictured his engorged heart, his brain drowned in golden whisky, and his knotted stomach. He wondered if it would be bad practice to paint the butterflies he felt in his stomach.

“You’re sweet,” she beamed, delicately pricking the ‘t’. The material of her dress sighed as she brushed her hands across it. Campbell staggered out of the way to let her descend the staircase. Her movements seemed so solid to the artist after all the time he had spent with his painted creations, the slaps of her bare feet on the wooden stairs and the scrape of her nails on the bannister asserting that this woman was real. “You won’t have to put up with me being here much longer,” she said as she stepped into a pair of black shoes. “The repairs on my house should be finished by next week. But thank you for letting me stay for as long as I have.” The end of the woman’s blonde fringe skittered across her cheeks. Campbell could smell her perfume, tangy like fruit.

“Your cheekbones are so lovely.”

“Oh, uh, thank you,” she tumbled the words out, the heels of her shoes stuttering as she made for the front door. The sound stopped abruptly when her eyes snapped across the hall to something behind Campbell, her pupils gaping and her hand flying to cover her mouth in shock. Campbell turned to look. The door to his workshop, usually shut, was bared open.

In the lurid evening light he could see far into the room. Staring serenely back at them, still lofted on the easel, was the painted likeness of Campbell’s temporary resident. He looked away from the painting and back at the real woman, whose expression was far from calm. Her blue eyes were narrowed, lip curling in disgust.

A fire leapt up in Campbell’s gut. He felt the whisky drain from his head and pour through to his burning stomach, dousing the butterflies. Their wings shriveled and disappeared as they caught the heat.

“I made you beautiful!” Campbell attempted a placating tone but his internal blaze spat all the way up to his tongue. He reached out to snag the woman’s wrist and, as if burnt, she whipped her hand away from his fingers as soon as they stroked her skin.

“Don’t touch me!”

At the outburst they both stood still, as still as the paintings.

“I would never hurt you,” Campbell murmured. The fire in his stomach had reduced to a simmer. “I painted her – you – to be beautiful. Every layer of you is beautiful, don’t you see that?” He tried to advance on the woman but lost his balance, having to take hold of the bannister.

“That is not beauty. That is only a, a…a desire to control!” she finished triumphantly, pointing at Campbell. “You want to control, to have your way, and the people you paint are the only ones who don’t talk back.”

Campbell struggled to sort through the onslaught and form a response.

“You’re wrong, that’s not what I do,” he managed. “No one understands, no one even tries to!” He took a step towards her. “It’s about what we can’t see in others, what’s under the skin – layers!” As he spoke Campbell could see he was not reaching her. She had wrapped an arm over her chest, covering the area where the painted version of her was stripped to the bone.

“What’s beautiful about dissection? What are people supposed to think when you paint pain and tell them it is beauty?”

She began backing away towards the door, keeping her eyes on Campbell, like a wary animal anticipating an attack. He made one last attempt to latch onto her, almost toppling over but succeeding at last.

He yanked her to himself, her shoes squealing against the wooden floor. Campbell had both hands on her upper arms. He felt her muscle, her fat, nearly oblivious to the woman’s nails digging into the skin on his own arms. She threatened to scream if he didn’t let go. Her face was rippled in distress, mouth drawn wide, teeth bared.

Dipping his head down, Campbell kissed her. The only thing he could think was how he wanted to feel her teeth against his tongue. He had hardly begun to appreciate the intimacy when the woman swung her arm up in a vicious arc, wrist and palm clapping across his face. Campbell’s control was broken, and she hastily backed up as Campbell drunkenly pondered the pain in his cheek.

“You-you animal!”

The woman pressed herself against the front door. They both listened to a car rumble close and the engine cut out.

“Please, please understand,” Campbell beseeched, sobering somewhat, “I did it because I see the beauty underneath you, you are so beautiful underneath and I want to understand it – you. I am an artist and you are my art.”

The woman shook her head.

“My cousin told me you were strange before I moved in, but not…not this. I will be gone in a week. If you do – do that – again, I’ll scream and tell everyone you tried to kill me.”

She completed her journey to leave Campbell’s house, stomping outside. The door banged shut.

For some time Campbell lingered in the hallway, thinking about the kiss. He remembered enjoying it, but already it was faded in memory. How exactly had her teeth felt? Eventually he stumbled back to his workshop. The woman on the easel drank in the scene as Campbell returned to the chair and took up the whisky.

“Don’t look at me.”

The painted woman could not turn her eyes away. Twisting in his seat, Campbell took another look at her. He assured himself that she was still beautiful this way, that there was no real pain she could feel, and so it did not matter if Campbell felt a pressure in his stomach when he looked at her organs. Anatomy was art.

 

Cat Tales

‘A long time ago, when life was tolerable, almost good, he had two cats that kept him company. How old was he? Seven? Eight? Before his father began to question the worth of his existence. Back then, presumably, he was cute, almost as cute as the tabbies. He never knew what happened to them but they disappeared, both of them, all of a sudden, and he was left only with an inconsolable sadness.’

Almost a year ago, I read the above excerpt for the first time and wondered what the hell I was going to do with it.

It is a snippet from Curtis Bausse‘s novel One Green Bottleand it was also the prompt for the author’s first Book a Break Short Story Competition. Curtis was very flexible with the guidelines, encouraging writers to use the prompt as they saw fit, whether it be as a loose starting point or the anchoring substance of their story.

I likely read that excerpt over fifty times when thinking of something to write and during the writing process. There was so much to pick out from just those seven sentences, but the focus was always on the cats. I ended up sticking quite close to the prompt and just about got my entry submitted before time was up.

A few weeks later the winning entry and runner-up were announced, and I was honestly flabbergasted to see that I had come runner-up. If I remember correctly, I was stuck in a loop of saying ‘Oh-my-God’ to myself and re-checking Curtis’ blog in case I had imagined it all.

There were many competently written and imaginative entries, and so, after some months of revisions and proof-reading, 21 short stories that were submitted to the competition have been compiled and are ready for reading in Cat Tales. To have my piece published among other works from writers like myself who are just starting out and writers who are experienced in their craft is truly wonderful – about as wonderful as the feelings of a cat sleeping in your lap, if you want a simile.

Speaking of cats, your mind can be at ease if you buy and read Cat Tales, as the money earned from the anthology goes not to us writers but to two charities, Cats Protection and Against Malaria Foundation.

Cat Tales is available in print and as an ebook on Amazon. There are a range of writing styles and themes in this anthology, stories that are dark and stories that are wild, cats that were always there and cats that perhaps never were.

So, I am published and contributing to two good causes! And it began with seven sentences, which for me have been a lesson in not putting yourself down. Curtis himself expressed surprise over the number of entries to the competition, expecting maybe around 10 entries but receiving 75! And as for myself, I had hardly expected to be noticed let alone awarded runner-up.

I would finally like to express my thanks to Curtis Bausse for running this competition and for heading the production and publication process of the anthology, to Atthys Gage who read and judged all the competition entries and to all the writers who submitted and contributed to the anthology.

Happy reading!

cat-tales

 

 

 

 

 

The Skeleton

Foreword

This is something I wrote over a year ago for coursework submission, and it ended up getting selected for publication in an anthology my university publishes every year. I feel like my writing has matured since then but it’s something I can’t let go of, because this is the first piece I saw in print.

The Skeleton

I went home after a year of travelling. It was always in the back of my mind that things wouldn’t be quite as I left them whenever I returned to my family home. Suza always liked to keep changing things. She might have repainted the kitchen, or switched it out of its previous code of organisation and reinstated entirely new rules of what-belongs-where. And people tend not to stay the same.

The entire journey home I had been thinking about the phone call. Until then I’d managed to push it to the back of my mind. There was a chance nothing would come of it. I had fervently tried to recall the feel of being caught under a thumb to distract myself and to lessen the shock of the return.

For the first time that year I fumbled for the house key on my key ring. The door still made the swish it always did on the door mat, but the door was a different colour now. Red seemed an odd choice. Eye-catching.

“Hullo!” I called experimentally. No one answered, although that didn’t mean no one was home. I decided to make a tour of the house to see if I was truly alone or if a headphone user had missed my greeting. First I poked my head into an empty and reorganised kitchen. Nothing had been repainted but some coloured utensils and wall hangings had begun to cover the room’s monochromatic skin. And again it was the red. Next was the living room, a likely location for my sister to have curled up in if she was home.

Instead I found the skeleton.

Its body drooled languidly across the sofa, hard bones somehow poised so it gave off an impression of soft laziness. Large blank eyes acknowledged me and held not even a trace of abashed apology for its morbid presence. In fact it gave so little indication of something here being wrong that I began to believe that there was nothing out of place.

“Hullo,” I said again, hollowly. “I’m back.” Looking the skeleton over wasn’t pleasant: the twig fingers at the end of branch arms, the great teeth that reared in a constant rictus. And the legs! Like the wooden framework of a building, meant to hide underneath, out of sight, they were casually propped up on a footstool for all to see. I did not know what else to say so backed out of the room and went upstairs, feeling a little like I’d just ridden on a Cage Ride. As I unpacked I calmed down, focused on organising my things, and definitely did not think about what was sitting downstairs. I pottered about my room, fastidiously wiping away flecks of dust and lulled myself into thinking other insignificant chores required my immediate action.

When at long last Suza came home she didn’t mention the skeleton and neither did I. It still sat among us in the living room, clenching its teeth in a quiet chuckle every now and again while Suza and I caught up. I quickly learned that we didn’t talk about the skeleton. All my efforts to carefully bring it to the forefront of our attention were without success. And I didn’t think I could just talk to the skeleton about being a skeleton. Everything was ludicrously normal; Suza trimming her polished fingernails as the television chattered at us to stave off the quiet.

Meanwhile I was trying to sort out my own feelings about being at home again, which had gotten worse with the skeleton’s unexpected appearance. There was tension surrounding it, the kind that is infectious and made me want to curl my toes. Again I thought about the phone call.

 

 

The skeleton began to edge its way into my life until it was hardly something to notice. It was always there, and not seeing it would have been the stranger thing after just a week of being home. That isn’t to say that I became entirely comfortable with the presence of the skeleton. Like a spider dangling out of reach in the corner of a room I got used to it, but I didn’t have to like it.

Something Suza and I could agree on was that sharing words with the bundle of bones was quite the mental workout. What did you say to such a thing? Would it be offended if I spoke of food, or that I was trying to lose some weight? Even looking at the skeleton was difficult. My attempts at polite glances were always more of snatched glares. Those big vacant eyes were always so hard to judge, and the rigid body itself too much of a distraction to think at all about its body language. Exhaustion followed any conversation with it, accompanied by a little bloom of relief when I realised that I no longer had to speak to it.

I wondered: just how long had Suza been living with the skeleton? There was always a stiffness in her posture that never used to be there during her sacrosanct ‘quiet time’ in the evenings. Asking her that question, or in fact any question, is simple in theory. In practice, it is like looking over a cliff edge with only half a chance that there is a rope attached to your ankle.

So I took to eavesdropping. The house I’d grown up in lent itself well to this unsavoury business. I often claimed that the walls were made of paper, given how easily noise carried between them, and shutting the front door could send tremors throughout the rest of the house.

Most conversations I overheard between Suza and the skeleton reminded me of a particular event in music class many years ago. I’d seen a school-owned guitar propped against a desk and, like most children, couldn’t resist rolling my fingertips across the strings one by one. E, A, D, G, B, and SNAP.

The sixth E string had broken at my gentle pull, for being wound too tightly, as tight as the tuning peg would allow. No doubt someone had thought this rather amusing as they twisted on the peg over and over again, stretching the poor string like a maniacal torturer in charge of the rack. I knew that it hadn’t been my fault that the string broke; I hadn’t known that it had been wound too tight. But I still felt I should have noticed.

Conversations between Suza and the skeleton were just like that guitar string. As indelicate as the two of them were they would never be able to see when the other was wound too tight. And the gentlest tug, the smallest comment or misworded sentence, would cause the other to snap.

Every argument took place in the kitchen, which suited me well from my eavesdropping nest at the top of the stairs. Both the skeleton’s glum murmurs and Suza’s fierce demands carried nicely up there. Sometimes it sounded like the skeleton would cry. Could the skeleton still cry, or had it lost that along with almost every other thing that made up a healthy human being? I tried to imagine the skeleton shedding tears and thought it would be a disaster for it to lose anything more.

Regardless, there was no opportunity for me to see if it was actually making those wretched sobbing sounds. At the barest hint of my presence conversation and arguments alike would cease. I never really argued with Suza anymore, and couldn’t remember the last time my sister and I had a proper fight, not matter how much she used to try to instigate them. She hadn’t done that once since I’d come back.

 

 

The first time Suza and I had a meaningful conversation was exactly three weeks and two days since I had been home. By then life had smoothed out into the vapid monotony that is so comforting yet so stifling.

While travelling I had become accustomed to a life of spontaneity, as contradictory as that may be. My routine had been the security of knowing that there was no routine. In Suza’s domain there were rules and schedules. Bedtimes and mealtimes, times for play, times for cleaning, time devoted to family and time devoted to ourselves. At first I had laid in bed at the designated bedtime, staring at the ceiling and telling myself that I would surely be mad after three months of this. But I’d lived like this before. So amongst the suffocating, squishy re-established routine I no longer felt so much turmoil at the incoming bedtime of a decadent nine-thirty.

The skeleton often left us earlier, retiring around eight o’clock and unfailingly remerging every morning before I did. I had mused to myself that some monsters liked to plague the night, but it seemed the skeleton was a daytime phantom. And far worse was the apparition that roamed the daylight.

So it was just me and Suza that evening. I lazily read a magazine, ignoring the clicks and snaps from the other sofa as Suza tended to her fingernails. And then out of nowhere:

“You know about what’s been happening with Bernie?” Of course I did. I thought about mentioning the phone call, but decided against it. “Sometimes I think I might burst into tears over it,” Suza continued, eyes flicking between the television and the bulbous right thumb she was sawing away at with a file, “But I don’t. She wouldn’t appreciate that.” I made a small noise of agreement before venturing to ask:

“Is she getting worse?”

Suza shrugged.

“It’s hard to tell.” Part of me was very eager to keep this conversation going, I wanted to talk about my sister, yet a different part told me not to push this issue. Besides, Suza never took well to having her flaws pointed out. “I think you should talk to her,” Suza said. A strangled noise came from me that time. The thought of talking to my sister made large bubbles of anxiety pile up in my stomach all at once.

“I don’t know whether she’ll want to talk to me…” I mumbled, the nervous feelings inflating. Suza didn’t say anything more, resting her head back on the sofa, face drooping like melting wax in her daily struggle to remain awake in the evenings. It was probably for this reason that Suza and I didn’t have stimulating conversations very often. It was far easier to watch the television.

 

 

During my last month at home the skeleton decided to talk to me. We were both sat in the living room, steadfastly ignoring each other as usual, when the skeleton directly faced me and said, “We should talk.”

I let out a stupid giggle. “Sorry, that just sounded funny,” I remember admitting. “It’s like something out of a video game. The characters come up to you and say they want to talk. Does anybody really start a conversation like that?”

The skeleton only looked at me with tired incomprehension.

“Sorry,” I said again, “What do you want to talk about?”

The skeleton paused, looking conspiratorially around the room as if anticipating Suza to be hiding behind one of the house plants. She had gone out that evening, leaving the skeleton and I to each other’s dismal company.

“I haven’t really talked about this with anyone before. Not on a personal level,” the skeleton said, angling itself so its whole body was turned towards me instead of the television. It crossed its legs and I tried not to observe the hardness of them, painfully aware of the brutally diminished softness of human fat and muscle. I turned the volume down on the television, but not off, wanting to feel like there was someone else in the room. “I’m guessing – well, I don’t know – how much do you know about what’s going on?”

The vagueness of that question was dangerous, leaving me to decide what it was talking about. I didn’t say anything for a moment, wondering if there was a right or wrong answer.

“I don’t think I know, um, everything. But I, er, know about-” I faltered, wondering if it was okay to say the word. I puzzled over it for a second too long before succumbing, finding the word too much for me. “About the, ah, weight issue.” I could have laughed at myself as I stumbled around the words, tripping over nouns and falling into hesitations. It was a little off-putting when I only got a laconic,

“I see,” from the skeleton. “How long have you known?”

The phone call resurfaced in my mind. I didn’t even consider whether I should tell the skeleton about it. I just did.

“Since I got home. But I knew something was wrong since last Christmas. Suza phoned me…” I trailed off. Suza had told me that phone call was in confidence. That was the reason I had never asked about it before coming back home.

“I didn’t know about that. What did she say?” The skeleton asked, resting a sharp jaw on a precariously brittle hand.

I sighed, knowing I had to finish the story now.

“She told me you were ill, but she wouldn’t tell me what was wrong,” I admitted.

The skeleton pondered this before managing a severe grin.

“It was what you’re looking at right now.”

I didn’t like that grin. I didn’t know it. My sister had never had such a nasty smile.

“Bernie, you know you can talk to me? Anytime, about anything?” I asked quietly. Words that sounded so pretty and so sweet, and indeed they flaked as easily as pastry.

“Yeah, I know.”

 

 

The time came for me to leave home again. I hugged the skeleton goodbye, cradling it delicately in my arms, somewhere between holding a baby and embracing an old crone, afraid you’ll hurt them if you grip too tightly.

There was something terribly wrong about leaving the skeleton behind, like walking away from a crippled animal knowing it was going to die unless you interfered. I can’t now remember how the skeleton looked as I left. What is clear in memory is the large thumb resting on its hard shoulder. As I drove away I could have sworn I felt the press of that same thumb lifting off of me.

The American Pancake Dream

Foreword:

Shortlisted for the 2016 Hillingdon Literary Festival Anthology ‘Writing Local, Thinking Global’. This is a story about goals, relationships and pancakes.

The American Pancake Dream

Sunday morning. It had to be a Sunday morning. Are those not the doziest mornings, when people don’t want to unravel themselves from the kindred bond they have formed with their mattress overnight? You disliked getting up most mornings, so I was sure that Sunday morning, when the world would suck its thumb, would be the morning I would make you pancakes.

It’s a daydream I’ve had a thousand times, with hardly any deviation to its plot or screenplay. So whenever I thought about the time I would make you pancakes I imagined it happening on a Sunday morning.

We would be in a quiet house somewhere – not one we’d ever actually lived in. I suppose the room was never integral to this dream, but the room I pictured was always whitewashed, like those rooms you see in television adverts. The ones with the matching furniture that is elegantly simple, that people who saw our bedroom would like without thinking we’d tried too hard. We’d be sleeping in this room, on a bed with white sheets, and the sky outside the curtains would be bashfully sunny, so as not to completely awake you. I’m not sure why, but I shied away from the idea of you being completely awake.

A Sunday morning would likely mean no work and sleeping in. Myself, I’ve always disliked sleeping in. Mostly because I cannot do it. Like a doll I would remain by your side until your need of having a grip on me waned and I would slip out of bed, of sleep’s physical trappings. My movement might not have caused you to stir, but I liked to imagine that on this Sunday morning you would shuffle and open your eyes, seeing that I had gotten up. It just seemed so much better, somehow authentic, if I did not have to shake you awake so that you could hear me ask:

“Would you like me to make you pancakes?” Your attention would snag on the word ‘pancakes’ and I’d wait for you to gather you thoughts, untwining the hairband on my wrist and catching it in my hair – still long in this scenario. I’d remind you that I would make them from scratch, and not some dirt-dry ready mixture. Things made from nothing are usually so much better.

Finally your sleep-addled mind would decide exactly how happy you were with the prospect of pancakes.

“That sounds nice,” you’d say, voice still gagged from slumber.

You didn’t have the choice of denying them in this scenario. I would offer pancakes and you would always want them, with the predictive formula usually reserved for things less human.

“English or American?”

Just as your eyelids would have been drooping to reacquaint themselves with their lower half they’d break open. You’d stare in wonder at the creature before you who had both the knowledge and the will to make you either of two nationalities of pancakes from scratch.

In a slightly befuddled tone, as if you were expecting me to have been leading you on, you’d ask for American. Always American. Because that is the recipe that requires more time, more ingredients, and is altogether more impressive. I have always enjoyed making American pancakes, and have never thought of it particularly as a chore. But to you it would have seemed like such a bother, like I’d stepped far out of my way to make them just because, and only because, you had asked for them.

You would begin to close your eyes again as I walked to the bedroom door, but before I opened it I would ask, with the perfect measure of easy nonchalance,

“Would you like chocolate chips in them?”

I enjoyed pondering the exact expression your face would morph to in that moment; a disbelieving slackened jaw, the barest touch of your mouth quirking to a smile. That was the culmination of my imaginings. The idea that you would not want chocolate chips was simply an undiscovered thought in this dream.

When I wanted this to happen I still don’t know. It would be after this moment that I would know we had succeeded in our relationship, that we were the paragon of couples, the incarnation of modern romance. Like the white picket fence people used to picture lining their gardens, I’d picture offering you American Pancakes, knowing that on the day these things became corporeal I’d finally be able to think to myself: I’ve made it.

My imaginings halted in the same place. There never was an afterward, because I was so caught up in the thought of making you pancakes that I forgot all about actually making them.