Emergency Exit

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Emergency Exit

 

Up the stairs – ten, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty, sixty, Yes! Here it was. It was still here.

The private place of quietude. Of introversion. Of pleasant melancholy. Where one could be sane and get away with it. The thing was (he thought, as he listened to the far-off squealings of clarinets and saxophones several carpeted floors below him), if the place wasn’t here – had never been here – he would have gone off and found somewhere else which fit the bill, because it was important. Important, for the reason that it was profoundly un-important.

He wriggled his feet, and off slid his trainers. They were grey, pallid things, though they had formerly been white. He sat on his favourite chair in the Place; it was the only chair. It was high-backed, lime green… and it swivelled. As he thought, he swivelled, and as he swivelled he thought, frowning.

As a door on the same floor he was on swung open and a man, close yet out of sight, coughed, he thought: the place was unimportant to them. Them, you know, them. The guys his age who knew how to talk to girls. The girls his age who knew how to be a unit among units, fellow vessels of flesh and chatter. Them. For them, the place lacked panache and pizazz, it must, and anyhow it was sixty steps and six floors up so why (they might ask) would anyone make the journey in the first place? By themselves? Alone?

He knew why someone might make the journey because he himself made it frequently. As of yet, nobody else had, which was unfortunate. Expected, but unfortunate. Here were the hard facts: he didn’t enjoy school a bit. It wasn’t exactly a secret, because ‘it’ showed on his face. What was ‘it’? ‘It’ was anticipation. ‘It’ was, in its own delightful little way, fear. ‘It’ seemed to suggest ‘I don’t think you want to be friends with me. Don’t even come near me. If you don’t talk to me, I’m not going to talk to you, so that’s fine. No need to worry!’ All that, in one anticipative, fearful expression. That was the Way. But he knew that he would shuffle in every day and stick at it because it was important to.

Wasn’t it silly (he thought, swivelling), to avoid education? To deliberately refuse it in the belief it wasn’t meaningful in one’s life, not important? Well (he thought, swivelling and frowning), he had quite recently heard about something relevant: he had termed it The Case of the Snooker Player and his Stupid Brain. That would make for an interesting movie title, wouldn’t it?

What had happened was this: he’d read on BBC News that some snooker player had left school at sixteen. Left, because he’d known what he was going to be since he was four years old – a snooker player, and a really, really good one – and nobody (he had reasoned) needed a C grade in Maths to play really good snooker, and win money and trophies and whatever else came with Fame. This snooker player (he’d read on BBC News last year in February, or perhaps March), had left school with this overwhelming and admirable belief that he was going to make it big with snooker, and no education was needed. And what happened to this chap? He practiced, and he practiced, and he won money, and he held up trophies and smiled for the cameras, and he (presumably) got whatever else came with his Fame. The good stuff. All this, despite a lack of education! (Though it must be said that his vocabulary – oh! his vocabulary – in interviews was rather terribly limited.)

Conclusion: He must have been lucky. Lucky with a capital L. (Cliché phrase, the boy thought, swinging his legs.)

So, did he need education? Did he really need it? Couldn’t he be like that snooker player, and turn away from it altogether?

A quick thought, before he could quash it: You don’t know snooker. Well, true! He didn’t! He’d never even hit a ball with a cue, let alone pot one! But if he thought outside the box a little, did he have any comparable talent? One which burned within him, demanded to be given a voice, and let loose on an adoring fanbase? Well – aha! – no. He didn’t.

Therefore, education it was, and Q.E.D. the place was important, and he’d already spent ten minutes thinking about the topic, which happened to be the same stuff he thought about every time he came up here, which was pretty much every day, and by the way, what does Q.E.D. stand for?

The boy, fifteen years old, stopped swivelling and got up. He tried to stop thinking about stuff. Just… stuff. He sighed. Stuffing his hands in the pockets of his faded jeans, he listened to the clarinets and saxophones somewhere on the school’s ground floor, making sounds familiar and distant… but obnoxious. Their tinny voices shrilled up and up, through the various floors of stained carpet and lino, one, two, three, four, five, six, slipping into his ears and greeting the drums, murmuring like sirens, ‘You could be having fun right now, Mr. Lonely, but you aren’t, are you?’ He stared out of the window and tried to admire the view he’d already seen countless times. It was a nice view; great, even. The window was right at the top of the school building and embedded in the centre of a blue door marked EMERGENCY EXIT. It looked out on the centre of the city and beyond, an urban sprawl which, despite everything else, held an odd appeal for him.

As mentioned there was the centre itself: a large bustle of brick and glass and shoppers, a few isolated buildings dotted here and there on its outskirts. Beyond: the green countryside. Just a little glimpse, but tantalising. It was untouched, save for a few wind turbines, all in a row, and some rural cottages. These were tiny, and looked to the boy like crumbs which he could pick up and consume in mere seconds. He held up his thumb for a comparison; his thumbnail swallowed the cottages whole, as a star would dwarf a planet’s moons. There were fields of yellow and green, healthy and lush, packs of grazing mini-cows and, further on, a glimmer of a hill.

But.

For all this grandeur, the door marked EMERGENCY EXIT opened out on to something rather too plain: a balcony, all grey stone and steel railings. It connoted raindrops of a heavy and irritating nature, and a chill wind. There were a few pebbles lying around, waiting to trip the unwary traveller and send him or her flying over the railing, onto the streets below. To the boy they served no purpose; they were certainly not beautiful in any sense. It was of such a depressing nature that even the most joyful person’s ecstasy might leave the mortal world and dissipate into nothingness. In fact, it was so tremendously, spectacularly uninviting as a balcony that he’d never even been tempted to open the blue door and step outside. To feel the wind on his cheek, look over the edge; to watch the little people – the units – on the streets below.

An aberrant voice in his softly idling mind: You might think of suicide.

Yes (he thought, sighing, careful not to be heard), there was that possibility. He was young, only fifteen, but he kept his options open. Trust him to think of such an option. He was – what was it? – an existential boy. One who was a bit mopey. Really quite intelligent – his reports were favourable in that sense, hooray and all that – but distinctly mopey.

Hark: the Sun! Who could possibly be mopey on a late Spring day such as this one? It was a day of mirages, of heatwaves, of shimmers on tarmac, and glinting car roofs! Nothing was shadow, everything was open, bared to the elements, and suffused with glorious light! Surely the sun banished such thoughts and left them lying in ditches, in the darkest realms of 20th-century Glasgow, perhaps?

The boy’s eyes dropped from the sky and alighted on an impossibly distant car. It was red, and seemed small compared to the other cars beside it. Just a little. Perhaps it was a… Mini Cooper? Was that it? What make was it? He didn’t care. He hadn’t bothered to learn much of cars, which was just another point of difference between him and the Others. He could tell it was driving pretty fast, though he didn’t have to turn his head to follow it, not one jot. Just a flick of the eyes, barely perceptible, and he was following it. Keeping track. Feeling like a spy, operating with keen eyes behind windows.

It was almost fun.

Who was in that car? A family? Or someone alone as he was? Old? Young? The answers to these questions (he thought, with his hands jammed in his pockets) didn’t really matter. It was just interesting to… speculate.

As members of staff shuttled from office to office on the floors directly below him, the boy gazed almost apathetically over the ‘interesting’ contemporary buildings which had popped up in the last year or so, taking in their designs without a great measure of excitement. He held up a hand to shield his eyes after a glass building thoughtlessly reflected the Sun’s glare back at him. He looked at the people and the cars, travelling fast along what passed for the main road in the city centre. It was a big road, certainly. It reminded him of what he’d read about America (and he’d read quite a lot): apparently it was big roads, big people, and big pavements. No, sidewalks. They were called sidewalks, because you walked on the side. By God, it was like… New York. Los Angeles. Or Chicago! One of those big American cities, with glitz and glamour! If he just squinted…

As he looked at the Big Busy Road in the city centre from his high vantage point, strains of Copland’s Appalachian Spring (a record which his mother had enjoyed playing, for a time) floated up quite suddenly through the school floors to his ears, and he grinned. A Shaker melody. American spirit. Old Wild West, and rodeos, and barns. Boy, that sounded good. It was only one tinny clarinet playing on the ground floor, but he could pull the accompanying lines from his memory. He had an ear for music, he and his parents fancied; a younger version of himself had remarked upon hearing Haydn’s Trumpet Concerto ‘It’s beautiful!’. It didn’t mean he enjoyed music lessons, of course. The Copland seemed to complement the view in some profound way, though he knew he might never be able to articulate exactly what that way was, or why it was profound. Another reason to keep up English lessons, though the teacher is ridiculous. And that guy she always puts me next to in her ‘special seating plan’… yuck. Maybe she hates me. Well, I hate her.

He was getting distracted. ‘Shake the head, clear the mind’. Was that a phrase? He fancied he’d coined it, which induced a glow of pride somewhere within him. At least until he considered that it wasn’t exactly witty, funny, or even catchy.

Where was he? Oh, yes. America. In his thoughts, he was there, large as life and loving every second. Big, beautiful America, the land of freedom, and flags, and sidewalks. Oh, and the Statue of Liberty. And, eagles? Bald ones maybe?

Yeah.

It was at times like these that the boy reflected on his own, short life. He thought of when he had been a little boy, just a few years of age. Something terrible had happened, across the pond in America, and he simply hadn’t been able to understand it. He’d known someone had knocked over a building, and maybe a second one – but the rest had just been incoherent haze. Someone in his class had cried. That was clear in his mind because that someone had been a bully, and it had pleased him to see the kid sobbing openly. Where was his dignity, he thought? Where was his power? He remembered the teacher had hugged the bully, and some of his good thoughts had soured.

Fast-forward to the present. He knew the significance of such an event now. He was able to comprehend its impact, and able to place the bully’s tears in some sort of context (though he didn’t feel a jot of sympathy for him, even now). So: what did he think of it at the present moment? What impact did it make on him now, standing here as he was, watching people, cars, countryside? The answer to that question came easily, as he comprehended the sprawling view with a calm look: he thought it was terrible and misguided. He thought it showcased the absolute worst of human nature. He thought it amplified his awareness of mortality, and his awareness that death might strike one’s body and soul at any second it chose. These things were clear, and would remain so. They seemed rational, immovable.

Yet… the event had also been big and exciting. It was big and exciting, as he thought about it. Things like that, massive, grand things – they were dangerous, and shot straight through with boyish adrenaline. It was an event which had Changed the World, and it had been in Manhatten (may it be praised), one of the biggest bustles of all. Chock-full of skyscrapers, yellow taxis, and life. Teeming with it!

Yes, this was how he thought of it. It thrilled him, and whispered silky-smooth into his ear, telling of action, adventure, and how to live.

But (he thought, as he squinted at the big road, imagining himself speaking in a patented Hollywood American Accent), he was a small person, absolutely miniscule, in fact, and he most definitely wasn’t in America. Not even close. So what did this mean?

It meant that, for the time being, he’d just have to be content with reading about it in books, and watching it in films… at least, until he was older. Then, he’d travel.

But he knew what had to be done.

Education first.

Education first.

Like a mantra to repeat in a mirror: Education first.

He tore his eyes from the view, stepped back, and glanced up at the door. Stared at the words above it, frowning. EMERGENCY EXIT.

I wish it was an exit out of here, he thought, not without a hint of bitterness. I know I’m not in an emergency, but it would still be great – more than great – if it really was an exit.

He shuffled backwards and, toe-first, slid his feet into the two bellies of the worn trainers. Anticipating the school bell, and the end of the break. Thinking hard. Frowning; just a little.

He barely noticed that the clarinets, saxophones, and the Copland Shaker melody had stopped.

If the door really was an exit, I’d like it to open up on somewhere nice. I’d prefer it to be in America. Away from the balcony, grey even when the sun shines. And when I get there, I’d want to meet people my age who I get along with. Not boring people who feel like they have to talk All. The. Time. Who seem to have lots of friends. Instead, they’d be people like me. We’d talk about stuff, and stay up late. We’d have parents who’d actually let us do that. We’d have McDonald’s all the time – I’ve read that America’s got loads and loads of McDonald’s, but that could just be a stereotype because most of ’em are fat – but we wouldn’t get fat. Not me and my friends. We’ll be skinny our whole lives. Who’d want to be fat? You just die sooner, right?

The bell rung.

Who’d want to be stupid, as well? I’m not like that snooker player, not at all, because I’m actually going to learn. It’s just silly to miss school, I mean, I don’t like it, but I’m still here, and I’ll get clever because of it. Even if I can’t play snooker – or anything like it, yet – it doesn’t mean that I’m not as good a person as they are.

The bell was still ringing. The sound was getting louder as he trudged down the sixty steps which would take him to his lesson. Faintly, from the depths, he heard a teacher call. From the sounds of it, he was male, and unfamiliar. “Come on, kids, get to class! The bell’s ringing, let’s go, come on!”

The sign’s lying. It shouldn’t say EMERGENCY EXIT, it should say BORING BORING OF BORINGNESS because that’s what it is, it doesn’t go anywhere interesting, and it never will.

The male teacher was bellowing over the bell. It was still ringing. But the boy wasn’t listening. He’d slung the strap of his bag over one shoulder and was trying to hold himself a certain way. Stand a certain way. Walk down the steps in a certain way. Getting the look just right.

He knew, deep down, that he was trying to look cool. He’d sooner fling himself over the balcony’s hard, unforgiving railing than admit it to anyone, though.

Even though the door’s not an emergency exit – the sign’s lying – and the balcony will always be there, I’m still coming back up here, tomorrow, and the day after that. Until I make a friend, that is, but I haven’t made one so far, so I’ll probably keep coming back up here for a while. Even though it’s boring. When I get a friend, I’m never going back up.

But he knew better.

“Bye bye,” he said, aloud but softly, not wanting anyone to hear. Like the Place, this utterance should be private, and personal, and his own. He trudged down the well-trodden stairs in silence, away from the Place, the private place of quietude, of introversion. Passing the second floor on his way down, strains of Copland came to him once more, now filtered through the oncoming wash of sound (stampeding children; it was obnoxious). The music was purely in his mind – nobody was playing any instruments. But he’d have to go down to the ground floor, mingling with the noise, and he’d enter the classroom, and it would be cast from his thoughts and replaced with the mindless drone of his education.

But for now, on the steps! A piano, leaping, bounding, joyful in dance and dialogue with spirited strings! Copland! Da-da-daa, da-da-daa, da-da-da-da-da-da-daa! Music, imbued with the energy of America, the American spirit! Didn’t it just fit with the glinting, multi-coloured view from the sixth floor (though he couldn’t explain how they fit so well, like adjacent pieces in a jigsaw)? The jubilant Sun, with its intensely focused light, coming hard and fast on surfaces of glass and metal! On car roofs, on buildings! Forming bright pinpricks of sheer light, reflected in his fifteen-year-old retinas; a spark of something, kindling inside of him! Adventure? A naïve sense of freedom, of misplaced patriotism, for a country not his own?

As he finished his trudge down the stairs from his high place of solitude to the lessons down below, joining the stampede to lessons, he grimaced. And, as he grimaced, he thought about things. Things American.

Any day now, I’m going to have an Emergency, and I’ll want an Exit. I’ll run up those sixty steps, to the Place, and, if that door isn’t a real exit, then… I’ll stare at the big road again, and think. Or I’ll stare at the countryside. America’s got countryside, too, hasn’t it? Lots and lots of it. Must have, it’s a big place. Do more people live in cities, or countryside? I wonder if America has got wind turbines, and people my age who aren’t total losers, and no boring balconies, and doors marked EMERGENCY EXIT where I can hang out in case I need another Exit, and, oh, skyscrapers, there’s loads of them, I’ve seen pictures. Not like here where it’s boring, and – I wonder if I can have a weapon like in a video game? You get a gun, right? And, oh I might even be able to do education without having to go to school! And I wonder if…

3,400 words

10 pages (350 words/page)

Sheffield, UK, 18th – 19th October 2014

Rev. 31st December 2014

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I Have Many Eyes

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“I Have Many Eyes” is a conversation – all 2,513 words of the story serve the purpose of dialogue. I wrote it to introduce a character who was conceived for “The Human Vessel”, but who turned out to be a little unwieldy (and totally outlandish) for that particular story. He deserved a story of his – or their – own, so here it is.

The original title was “Conversation”, but that was boring, so I changed it to something a little more… Ellison.

 

I Have Many Eyes

 

Would you like to know who I am?

Yes, please.

I am not constrained to answer the question, you understand? It is my choice, and my choice alone, to answer it!

I understand.

Repeat it back to me, please.

It’s your choice. You haven’t been forced.

Do not use contractions, I beg you!

You have not been forced. It is your choice to answer.

Correct. I shall now endeavour to reveal to you the exact nature of my identity. Are you still present?

Yes.

Can you hear each and every word I communicate?

Yes. Yes.

Very well then. I would tell you to remain where you are, but that is not at all necessary. In fact, we both know by now that it is impossible for you not to remain exactly in place.

I am – of course – an elderly citizen of Earth. Born in its twenty-first century, I will surely die in its twenty-second. I have little family, and those who are left have no desire to look upon me with anything but scorn. Why is this? There are unfortunately at least five reasons, all of which you, my young friend, shall already have ascertained. But the few remaining members of my family do not concern us. They are far from here, and we are far from them.

Where is here?

Patience. I understand how you teem with questions, and it is commendable that you do not overwhelm my mind with the sheer weight of them. But – restrain your tongue further, lest I become wayward in my speech.

Now, I am a lover of almost all things Victorian. Late, specifically. You will observe my black frock coat, made popular over three hundred years ago, if you can believe it. You will note my right hand, which slips in the pocket and fetches a watch and fob at regular intervals. The sleek top hat, which complements my cravat tremendously. The silk vest, underneath it all; the centrepiece. The pinstripe trousers. And my leather spats. Do these rare items impress you?

Do not answer. I must not be interrupted. Where was I? Ah – I was in a shop when it happened. An antique shop, with a few wonderfully colourful snow globes. I recall they were mostly white – but on the inside, you understand. I had turned to the shopkeeper, fully prepared to begin speechifying on the beauty of his snow globes, when there was a flash of blue which obscured his face. The blue was a sort of sea-colour, I think it was, yes. It arrived as silent as the grave, it gave no noise; yet it obscured everything. Everything, I say! The shopkeeper, his shop, the outside world, gone, in a blue flash. Instantly I knew the scope of its power, and I shielded my eyes, desperate to keep my sight. Then I felt a “whisking” sensation… as if I had been placed in a bowl and set upon by a person with a whisk, a mother of the salt, perhaps. I felt ravaged, and no doubt you felt the same, when it happened. Then, after that…

But you know as well as I do what happened next. We are here now, and here is what you asked about. Cutting to the quick, I perceive that this is a place of which I know nothing. I apologise, but it is what it is. Events are as they are, so to say. I cannot discern an object with which I am familiar; I cannot hear a sound which pleases me, only a dim hum of a subterranean nature; and there is no smell about my person whatsoever, save the dust on my clothes. Only a dampness, a transcendent fog, clouds the senses. My thoughts, my nose, my ears, eyes, and throat… how about yourself, young one?

Come now, I am feeling lenient at this time. There is no need for-

I have… become something. What am I?

As in, Animal, Vegetable, or Mineral? Do not have me guess!

Please, I… I don’t think I’m human any more.

Your intuition is as good as mine, my lad. What I am wondering about most of all in this instant is whether any Victorian men – bona fide Victorians, mark you, not those as I am, merely a worshipper at the shrine of good fashion and taste sadly outdated, though it would be jolly for one of those to pop up too – were also “transmitted” as we were. The mind reels with the possibilities of this strange fiction!

Do you mind if I take a walk? Oh, I almost forget – it is impossible for you not to remain. Very well; come along.

Help…

**

Have you seen my top hat, lad?

I can’t see anything. Can’t you realise that?

That seems a shame. Perhaps I left the hat behind. I thought I must have, at first, but my mind nags at me so. Ah well, chin up, cover up the table legs, what ho! And please keep your impatience – and contractions – at bay, young un, or I shall be forced against my wish to “think” at you again.

 Please, no more.

Rest easy. I have no desire at this time to expend energy on punishment. I sense you are a good boy at heart, besides.

Am I still a boy?

Why would you not still be one? People do not, as a rule, simply alter their being to exist in a different form (without, I suppose, permission expressly given), and given that, in the present circumstances, I cannot make out anything at all, I am loathe to jump to any conclusions which I cannot verify with my own inimitable eye. Therefore, to myself you are indeed a boy. There seems, however, to be no father for you. Shall I, then, act as one? What say you?

My legs… I think I have a great many of them. And they feel… funny.

How do you mean? I hope you are not playing tricks on your new father, and an old man to boot!

No, no! I tell the truth, that I feel funny. Look for me. Am I near you?

If you please: am I near you, father.

I do not know where my father is, but I know that you are not him. Please, look for me.

I shall spare you punishment for your insolence, my boy, but just this once. If you wish me to reach out and attempt contact with your person, I am afraid I have to inform you that all I have come into contact with since we arrived here is thin air.

There is only air? What are we standing on?

Well, who knows, my boy? Not I, and if I were a less modest man I might take not a little delight in going on to say that that rather means something, though it is to be noted that that something is only a little–…

Please, stop talking on! I have more questions!

What is that you say?

I have more questions, I must know more!

You dare to interrupt me, and rudely? Is that it?

…No! I do not!

Yes, I rather believe you do!

No, no, I do not! I revoke it!!

I am afraid I must quickly insist on another session of “think”. It is a man’s duty, discipline. He must teach the wayward boy, and with haste! Molto bene!

No, no, no, no, please, I am sorry for being rude, no, please!!

Into the breach once again, my dear friend! En guard!

**

I should rather enjoy the company of a mirror. Sometimes I scratch at my cheeks, and find strange things there. Things that bristle, and protrude from the skin, and possess fine, coarse hair of their own.

Is it facial hair… father?

Before I respond, do you promise to behave?

Yes, I promise.

I would hate to “think” at you again, young friend and surrogate son. It has made me feel rather tired. I shall answer: it is most decidedly not facial hair. I am elderly, and know my own face, something which you shall also, in time.

If I still have a face.

I am sure you do. I see now that a mirror would also be most useful to you as well. It would tell you if you possess a face still, and it would tell me what the bristly things on my cheeks are.

Do the bristly things… move?

Aye, they twitch. The things being on my skin, I even sense one of them wriggling from time to time. It has taken hours – at least, I think it has been hours in this place – but at last I am now aware of them, and take note of their movements. I am fairly sure that the vigour with which they move correlates to the intensity of my thought – this I have observed, though only on a limited number of occasions. But, we both know that old chestnut: correlation does not imply causation. No, suh, indeed it does not. What did I say, boy?

Correlation does not… does not imply…

Causation.

Causation.

Correct. It is best to remember it. You never know when a debate on something or other may call for it to be shouted from the rooftops. Even now, as we – or I, anyhow – walk in this strange cloudscape in which I find myself, I imagine that the phrase is being used, somewhere, to contribute a splash of cool rationality to the murk of mundane… something or other. Tell me, boy, what is the opposite of rationality?

I’ve… I mean, I have… realised something. I am young. Whatever I am, I am still young.

So you do not know the opposite… the antonym… of rationality?

Oh. I would guess… unrationality.

I suppose that will do for now. See, when the innocent imagination of a child – that be you, though that is just by the by – twines with an adult’s cool intelligence – that of myself – results fairly inspired may follow. Though I now fancy that the correct word is, instead, “irrationality”. Speak it?

Irrationality.

Good lad.

**

Well, you seem to be saying very little. I hope you took no offense to the punishment I gave earlier. It was necessary, you understand. Do you understand this, my son? My dear son, my only son – it was necessary!

**

…and, furthermore, I have a bone to pick with all those who call me “prudish” as if it is the most terrible word known to mankind. Prudish? I thank you, kind sir, for inferring that my taste is certainly superior when–…

I know what I am, now.

…in the indisputable, that is to say, infallible notion of that precise indication of taste, I do not think so, I do not think it is valid. But, then again, what would I know, being a mere purveyor of traditional Victorian–…

I can feel my legs, the texture of my skin. My eyes do not work – my many eyes – but I think I know what I am now. I am not a boy. Those days are long behind me. And my family, and friends.

But I don’t want to think about them. I want to forget them. This man makes it difficult, though. He thinks he is my father, now. Or thought he did. He doesn’t know I’m here.

…then I say to them, Good Day! And it is not enough, no sir! These hounds, to wit, these ignoramuses of the highest order, believe it is their moral duty – their duty! – to act in the manner which they have shown me, often time and blessed time again, and I ask you whether my behaviour must always remain so impeccable when challenged in this way! It is a sad day, when these watery-eyed, pompous–…

I can use contractions now, since he isn’t listening. In fact, I can always use them now, because I can control his brain. His whole brain. I couldn’t before, but now I can. I could paralyse him, if I wanted.

I know now where I am, too. I can’t see, but I can sense it keenly. I can sense many things. I feel like power is all around me. Sitting there, waiting for me to use it. But I don’t think there’s anything out there for me to use it on. Only this idiot, staggering about in the fog, convinced he’s the cleverest man in the world. Well, we aren’t on the world, not any more. We’re somewhere else, wherever that is. A place that’s always been here – again, wherever “here” is.

What am I? Simple. I am a tarantula. An arachnid, eight-legged, invertebrate. An arthropod, joint-legged, hairy. I have many eyes, but I cannot see out of any of them. I must be blind; my eyes must be milky white. Thinking of what I look like, what I feel like, makes me want to shudder. I remember reading about tarantulas when I was a boy. I still am, in a way, but not in body. Never again in body. Only in mind. Each of my eight legs are sticking out of the man’s cheeks. Most of them, anyway. One of my front legs didn’t get through, and it’s still curled in at the base of his brain. Anyway, I know now that they’re the bristling things he said he could feel earlier. I can move them consciously now – I give them a wriggle from time to time, to see if he notices. I feel his skin move, start to itch, and I sense that power about me, waiting.

I wonder how the man looks, to someone on the outside. If I had to guess, then… a nightmare. A nightmare from a cheesy horror movie.

Ha.

I don’t know what happened exactly, when we were both – how did he put it – “transmitted” by that blue flash of light. Did it matter that he was in a musty antiques shop, looking at snow globes, while I was walking to school? Is there a connection between the two activities? Doesn’t seem to be. So, why are we here? Do we have to do anything now that we’re here? Probably not, I think. I think we were brought here by accident, and now we have to starve in this fog, on another world. An empty world. Should this make me sad? I don’t think so. I’m a spider, and I can control someone’s brain. Haha! Oh! I’m a naughty, controlling spider, yes!

Woo! Woo! Woo!

I’m moving my legs now, really wriggling them hard, and… oh, I can touch his eyes if I stretch round his face! Woo! Woo! Woo! Haha! He doesn’t know it, but his cheeks are dripping with blood and hair and it’s all my fault! Woo, woo! If I can slip a leg past his blabbing lips, I might be able to touch his stupid tongue! Woo! Woo! Woooo! I’m a spider! I’m a spider! I have many eyes, and I cannot seeeee!! I’m a spider, and I know it! Hahahaha!! Woo, woo, woo, WOOOOOOOOOO!!!!

2,513 words

8 pages (350 words/page)

Sheffield, UK, 29th – 30th September 2014

The Walkers

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Time to revisit – for a short time, at least – the strange, archaic world of the Village on the Field.

**

The Walkers

(Shot story supplement to the novella ‘The Village in the Field’)

[A preliminary note from the author:

I understand many think me mad, for believing in the Village and its humble village-folk, who searched for answers upon the Field. I, too, wonder whether I am truly sane. But since the events of last year – in which I forged a momentary telepathic link with a young, disfigured girl named ‘Five’, an elusive figure who I have since searched for in vain – I have become increasingly convinced that these people are, in fact, real. I believe also that Five and I are the only two people on Earth who know about them, and their search for life on the ‘outside’. As such, I feel that their stories need telling. If you think of the following tale as the rambling of a madman, you do so at your own loss. Their situation, indeed their entire ‘world’, is fascinating in that, in one sense, it is open and free – featuring as it does bright sun and clear blue skies, with humble huts and soft grass to live by – yet at the same time it is a cage for the people, a place of absolute crushing isolation, where the very existence of the people and their homes on the Field is an enigma; and they know all this very well! This, though there are, physically speaking, no walls to block and hold them, nor authorities to arrest them. Nor, shockingly, a single prejudice to overcome (an unfathomable goal for our own society?). Therefore, they are Free, but lonely – “Frei aber einsam”, as Germans on Earth might say. This, unfortunately, might act as the perpetual motto of the village-folk.

If the reader asks why I specify that the Germans are on Earth, well. I do not mean to imply that there exists an improbable group of Germans on, say, the moon, or inside a pod on the surface of our Sun (though, as yet, such a group could not be totally disproved by a scientist of any stripe, and those wishing to believe in their existence could not see their beliefs dispelled). Rather, I happen to feel, as does the young Five, that the Village and its Field may have its being outside our world – outside our reality.

This is often the point at which the few who I tell all this to begin to think me completely mad (one could say, ‘mad as a walker’, a phrase of significance to he or her who read this tale and the novella alluded to below the title). The reader – yes, I am able to hear you, even taking into consideration the gulf of time and space which separates us – may accuse me of reading too much bad science-fiction; of maybe indulging in too many illegal substances to be legal, of living with too many cats alone, etcetera and so on. I admit the last, yes. I, however, resent the others. This is not something I fashioned on a whim; it is simply what I know to be true. In that crossing of my mind with that of Five, dear reader, I knew, and I knew completely.

But I had better hasten on, and provide a little background for this tale, lest the reader’s eyes start to glaze and their belly begins to rumble. Already this note has exceeded half the length of the tale below – the latter may even be called a ‘local description’, with fabled interjections from members of the village-folk, as imagined by myself.

Now, it is unfortunate for the ancients who govern the village – the Elders – that many of their subjects, the village-folk, felt and probably still feel resistance to their claim of ‘apparent wisdom’ and ‘superior intellect’. A few of the stories (among many) which are shared by such people concern those who travelled beyond the village and into the Field, in search of life ‘outside’. What follows is my paraphrase of the typical ‘Walker’ story – an account of how these searchers, ordinarily sane and healthy, become ‘walkers’ to be pitied – and an example of a tale which I believe was told, in hushed tones, inside of many a village hut. It would have been told at night for an enriched atmosphere. Always it was a safe (though necessarily short) distance from the wizened ears of their Elders.

I have written this as if it were spoken by a member of the village. As such, informal language is used. Reading it myself I imagine it as read by a man who used to be a friend to me, but who I have not seen for many moons now. He has walked his own Field, so to speak.

But enough of me and my supposed madness. Let the little ‘local description’ commence.]

**

All right [said the storyteller in the hut]. Imagine a long stretch of grass, going on forever. Of course, you won’t know anything about that, now, will you?

It’s the middle of the day, and the Sun is shining on the grass. It’s big, and bright. Imagine how, in the distance, it’s all shimmery. You think there’s water where there isn’t any, and you can feel the sweat just pouring off of you – no matter how many times you wipe the beads from your eyes they just keep rolling down your forehead and getting in.

Anyway, you’ve been on the grass, and under the Sun, for a while. It’s because you’ve been looking for – well, we all known what you’d be looking for, right? Life. Answers. A place where there aren’t soft blades of grass under your feet – things like that. And you’re lost. You’ve been lost for many suns and moons now, and you don’t know where the village is, you don’t know where you started, so you just keep on going – under that Sun, on that long, long stretch of grass.

Touch your clothing now. Go on, have a feel. It might be soft and dry on your skin now, but at that moment out on the Field, it’s hot. Hot, and saggy with moisture – your own sweat. The worst thing is that you’re used to it. It’s become part of you, and you’ve stopped thinking about how nice it would be to have soft, dry clothes again. You’re passed that point. You used up your spare clothing several suns ago, and now the stuff you’ve got on is starting to smell… but you figure you’ll get used to that as well.

So you trudge on through the grassy plain, under the big yellow sun and the clear blue sky, which you might have found beautiful before but now seems to mock you, remind you that you’re in a cage of green, yellow, and blue. Does it provide clouds, to keep the heat and light away? No. It never has, and it never will. It’s just you, the Sun, and all that green grass. There isn’t any hope for you. You’re beginning to finally believe that. You know what happens to those who get lost in the Field. Most of you have seen what happened to my father, when he came back to us. I used to love him, and he used to love me. Not anymore. I don’t think he knows who I am. He can’t stroke me like he used to, either – no fingers. Just keeps me awake at night, making noise. You’ll have the same story, I bet. There’s even one yowling right now if you listen close. And if you don’t have the same story, I’m glad for you, because those who get lost on the Field – well, when the blessed day comes that you see them again, you’ll end up never wanting to see them again.

**

“Are the walkers… insane?” interrupts a pale-faced villager. The storyteller looks at him. Silence falls in the hut; a pause, in which the villager looks about himself, swallows, and continues.

“I don’t know…” he murmured, scratching his shoulder, “Do they… have souls?”

Murmurs inside the hut. The storyteller frowns.

“I think,” he says, ever so slowly, “that they… are like animals. Primitive, living on instinct. They know hunger, but they are not, I think, creatures of altruism. They live for themselves.”

A question, from the back of the hut: ‘What are… animals?’

More murmuring from the crowd. Still frowning, the storyteller tells him that he does not know; that the word came to him, and he thought it apt. The woman who asked the question falls silent. Out of the murmurs come words of encouragement. They implore the storyteller to continue.

Dutifully, he opens his mouth to speak.

**

There comes a certain point for everyone who walks the Field. All who return to the village have passed this point, and that point (as you know) is the separation between sanity and insanity…

You haven’t eaten for a while, and the grass is starting to look like the only thing left to eat. You grab a handful from the earth and begin to chew. After a while, you start to get those green stains round your mouth – the stains all walkers come back bearing. You tell yourself desperately that you have those stains round your mouth, yes, but there is a vital difference between you and a walker, and that difference is that you are, unlike them, completely sane. You are sweltering, barely clothed, without food and drink, tired, and beginning to feel terribly lonely – unless you took a friend and he is still with you, alive – but you refuse to accept the idea that you may be losing your mind. It is everybody’s greatest fear, is it not? Becoming insane, only a shadow of the person who you thought you were before? Reaching the point where you cannot remember your own name, or the name of your father, or son?

It is at this point that you look at your arm, or your leg, and think: That looks tasty. I don’t need it to survive. But I need to eat something, besides grass. I need meat. You brush the idea aside, scoffing at it. You’d never eat yourself, it was unthinkable. But if you have a friend with you… I need not speak further. On all occasions in which a walker is seen to return to the village, insane and alone, without the company he set off with… the blood on his hands, on the scraps of his clothes, behind him, staining the grass… it is not always his own. I think we can imagine whose it might be, and why it was spilt out on the Field.

This is because in danger there is almost always this thought in our minds: Better another than yourself. Better him, or her, than me.

Even those you love are not exempt from these terrible implications.

**

‘Stop, stop!’ cries the mother of one of the attending children. ‘Don’t go on, please, you’re scaring the young ones! We came for nice stories, not this filth!’ Disgust and fear are written clearly on the lines of her face. She takes her child by the shoulders. ‘How can you say such things?’

‘It’s village life, miss. It’s the truth.’

Curious, her child asks a question. ‘In the story, could I find someone if I looked for a long time?’

Her mother rebukes her, but the storyteller answers.

‘Probably not,’ he says, ‘but no-one could know that, little girl.’

The child’s face falls. Meekly, she says ‘I hope I could.’ The mother’s grip on her tightens. The storyteller looks down at the child, whose head is facing down to the grass.

‘Don’t go searching for any answers. Not when you’re young, OK?’

The girl promises, and she’s led by her mother out of the hut and into the night, where the moon shines and adds silver to the dark blue of the sky above them, and the green of the grass beneath. As they walk from the hut, their bare feet make soft padding noises. As they grow fainter the storyteller turns back to his listeners and, speaking softly and with love, he tells of how his father used to be before he went into the Field; how he had told his son how his heart yearned for an answer to their existence. His voice is hushed, but all who are present hang on to his every word. After he is finished, the next storyteller comes into the middle of the hut floor, and begins telling of the Blue-Silver-and-Green Man1.

1A figure who, in their tales, I believe to be their equivalent of our Bogeyman. From my telepathic link with Five, I was able to discern that to say that she was quite afraid of him would be a gross understatement.

2,114 words

7 pages (350 words/page)

Sheffield, UK, 20th – 23rd September 2014

Viewpoint and Tense

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Viewpoint and Tense

(A writing exercise from p.92 of “Write a Novel and Get It Published”)

 

Change both the viewpoint and tense of a passage from some novel or other (I’ve taken the following from p.660 of Stephen King’s book ‘Insomnia’ [1994]):

Ralph lunged after her – no thought, just instinct – and Lois seized him by the back of his belt. ‘Better not go out there, Ralph. You’re a man, and they might think-’

‘Hello, Ralph! Hello, Lois!’

They both turned toward this new voice. Ralph recognised it at once, and he felt both surprised and not surprised. Standing beyond the clotheslines with their freight of flaming sheets and garments, wearing a pair of faded flannel pants and an old pair of Converse high-tops which had been mended with electrician’s tape, was Dorrance Marstellar. His hair, as fine as Natalie’s (but white instead of auburn), blew about his head in the October wind which combed the top of the hill. As usual, he had a book in one hand.

‘Come on, you two,’ he said, waving to them and smiling. ‘Hurry up and hurry along. There’s not much time.’

 **

[Let’s start with changing the viewpoint, from Third Person to First Person, or ‘Intense’. Past tense remains unchanged. Simples!]

Third Person to First Person (i.e. First Person Past Tense)

I lunged after her – no thought, just instinct – and Lois seized me by the back of my belt. ‘Better not go out there, Ralph. You’re a man, and they might think-’

‘Hello, Ralph! Hello, Lois!’

We both turned toward this new voice. I recognized it at once, and felt both surprised and not surprised. Standing beyond the clotheslines with their freight of flaming sheets and garments, wearing a pair of faded flannel pants and an old pair of Converse high-tops which had been mended with electrician’s tape, was Dorrance Marstellar. His hair, as fine as Natalie’s (but white instead of auburn), blew about his head in the October wind which combed the top of the hill. As usual, he had a book in one hand.

‘Come on, you two,’ he said, waving to us and smiling. ‘Hurry up and hurry along. There’s not much time.’

**

[Change the Tense from Past to Present and we’re there.]

Third Person Past to First Person Present

I lunge after her – no thought, just instinct – and Lois seizes me by the back of my belt. ‘Better not go out there, Ralph. You’re a man, and they might think-’

‘Hello, Ralph! Hello, Lois!’

We both turn toward this new voice. I recognize it at once, and feel both surprised and not surprised. Standing beyond the clotheslines with their freight of flaming sheets and garments, wearing a pair of faded flannel pants and an old pair of Converse high-tops which have been mended with electrician’s tape, is Dorrance Marstellar. His hair, as fine as Natalie’s (but white instead of auburn), blows about his head in the October wind which is combing the top of the hill. As usual, he has a book in one hand.

‘Come on, you two,’ he says, waving to us and smiling. ‘Hurry up and hurry along. There’s not much time.’

**

[That was quick. Let’s try Second Person because it’s a rare literary device to see, outside Choose Your Own Adventure-type books which, by the way, I very much enjoyed when I was younger.]

Third Person Past to Second Person Present

You lunge after her – no thought, just instinct – and Lois seizes you by the back of your belt. ‘Better not go out there, Ralph. You’re a man, and they might think-’

‘Hello, Ralph! Hello, Lois!’

You both turn toward this new voice. You recognize it at once, and feel both surprised and not surprised. Standing beyond the clotheslines with their freight of flaming sheets and garments, wearing a pair of faded flannel pants and an old pair of Converse high-tops which have been mended with electrician’s tape, is Dorrance Marstellar. His hair, as fine as Natalie’s (but white instead of auburn), blows about his head in the October wind which is combing the top of the hill. As usual, he has a book in one hand.

‘Come on, you two,’ he says, waving to both of you and smiling. ‘Hurry up and hurry along. There’s not much time.’

**

[And, for no reason at all, let’s have the original extract in Present Tense.]

Past Tense to Present Tense (i.e. Third Person Present Tense)

Ralph lunges after her – no thought, just instinct – and Lois seizes him by the back of his belt. ‘Better not go out there, Ralph. You’re a man, and they might think-’

‘Hello, Ralph! Hello, Lois!’

They both turn toward this new voice. Ralph recognises it at once, and he feels both surprised and not surprised. Standing beyond the clotheslines with their freight of flaming sheets and garments, wearing a pair of faded flannel pants and an old pair of Converse high-tops which have been mended with electrician’s tape, is Dorrance Marstellar. His hair, as fine as Natalie’s (but white instead of auburn), blows about his head in the October wind which is combing the top of the hill. As usual, he has a book in one hand.

‘Come on, you two,’ he says, waving to them and smiling. ‘Hurry up and hurry along. There’s not much time.’

—–

Feel free to make comparisons between these versions and King’s original and decide one of these versions was better. Imho, I totally improved on the original.

Guinness of the Graveyard

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This story is based on a guinea pig I used to have. He was called Guinness, and he died.

**

Guinness of the Graveyard

 

Letters, carved on mottled stone. Flowers on the ground, wilting. A wooden grave marker, jutting from soil and marked with shaky lettering.

These things, Thomas thought, he would never live to forget.

**

The funeral for Thomas’s pet guinea pig Guinness was over in less than five minutes. As the mumbling attendants, mostly close family members, left by the angular steel gates which opened on the graveyard (beyond which lay the little patch of greenery where Guinness had been buried), Thomas’s mother addressed him properly for the first time that day. Before the funeral, she had not dared broach the topic of his recently deceased pet.

‘Thomas?’

‘Yes?’

‘Thomas…’ She faltered, considering her words carefully. ‘We’ve had him quite a long time, haven’t we?’

He looked up at her. ‘Yes.’ This was the truth. He couldn’t remember a time before Guinness, with his black sheen of fur and his small, scrabbling claws which he himself had clipped now and then. He still had a tiny scar on his right index finger from the last clipping he had administered to Guinness, shortly before he… died.

‘Thomas, despite that time when… that time when he-’

‘Peed on your tax return?’ Thomas suggested.

‘Oh,’ she said with a gentle laugh, ‘I forgot about that. He did, didn’t he?’

‘And there was that time when…’

Thomas stopped. His mother was smiling curiously.

‘Though he could be a cheeky pet,’ she said, ‘I’ll definitely miss him. I suppose you will too, more than anyone. He was mostly your pet, wasn’t he?’

‘Yep,’ he said with a sigh. She ruffled his hair, and together they turned towards the site of Guinness’s burial, barely visible beyond the graveyard. They stared in that direction for a few seconds.

‘Poor, poor Guinness,’ Thomas said.

His mother burst into tears.

**

‘…think we should get a new pet. Maybe another guinea pig, a different colour. Or a rabbit. Would you like that?

‘Hmm?’

The day after the funeral, a sunny Saturday, saw Thomas unenthused, pale, and (strangely, it seemed to his mother) a touch reflective. He had spent much of the day in his room, allocating a lot of time to doing nothing in particular. The curtains were drawn as if the bright early afternoon sunlight streaming in through the window had to him been a personal affront.

Now his mother was talking loudly from the bathroom. It lay just around the corner of his room, on the same floor. He wished she would stop talking; a headache was developing.

“I said,” she repeated, “we should get a new pet. It doesn’t need to be another guinea pig, you know, if you feel that… well, a rabbit, or, I’m not sure, but… I’m sure that if you were nice to it, nice to the new pet, it would be just as good as Gui-…”

From under the bedcovers: “Mum, shut up!”

A pause from the bathroom. She had always known this day would come: her son, becoming a teenager. She put down the shampoo bottle she was holding, stepped to his door, and popped her head round.

“I hope,” she said truculently, “that you use nicer language the next time you want your poor mother to stop rambling on. Thomas?”

The pillow rumbled.

“Thomas, please. What’s up?”

Later, long after Thomas had refused to answer his mother’s questions and she had gone downstairs, shaking her head, to do the washing up – though it was his turn – the bedcovers shifted to one side and her sweating young son sat up. He knew exactly what troubled him. He knew exactly what it was that had prompted the rattling of the proverbial chains in his mind. The clamouring for attention, the creepy sounds and images which saw him pale as a little ghost on this bright early afternoon.

He also knew it was time to head outside.

**

“Where you off to, Thomas?”

It wasn’t his mother who spoke to him as he strode with grave purpose to the front gate of his house; it was a little girl. Her name was Katie, and she was the neighbour’s daughter. She was picking petals off the flowers in their garden, occasionally turning to see if her mother (inside the house, reading a paperback romance novel) could see her.

“Not now, Katie,” Thomas said. “I have to meet my fears.”

Katie’s face brightened in a rictus of innocent joy. “Can I come?”

“Meeting fears is what grownups do, not little girls. I have to go by myself.”

Instantly, her face fell. Her fingers kept their picking of the flowers as she retorted.

“You’re not a grownup.”

“I will be, soon. Catch you later?”

At these words the joyous rictus returned.

“Catch me now! Weeeeeeeeeee!”

Shouting as she went, Katie rushed to her own front gate, dropping her handful of petals to the grass, and clambered over it, giggling. As soon as her feet touched the concrete pavement, she took off down the street in a random direction, veering onto the empty road.

“Fine, Katie, you can come!” Thomas called. “Watch out for cars!”

“I am, silly!” she shouted. “Why aren’t you running? I’m running!”

Thomas smiled.

“I can run faster!” he shouted.

The reply came back fast.

“No, you can’t!”

His smile turned into a grin, and he ran after her. Shortly they were chasing each other, half on the road and half off it, laughing underneath the glare of the afternoon sun. This activity lasted well over half an hour, though it only took the first five minutes of it to put the graveyard – and Guinness – safely out of Thomas’s mind. The only interruption of their play came when Katie’s mother, book in hand, stood in the doorway and called for her to keep off the road. Her advice was quickly discarded as soon as she left – fortunately, there were to be no cars on their street that afternoon, and Thomas and Katie’s play continued unimpeded.

As the sun slowly wheeled across the sky, the children’s shadows grew longer and less sharply defined. Their chasing led to other, quieter activities – at the moment Thomas’s watch struck three o’clock, they were sitting in Katie’s garden, playing Rock, Paper, Scissors.

It was Katie’s turn.

“Rock… Paper… Scissors! I win!” she cried. “Rock beats Paper, I win!”

Thomas grimaced.

“I keep losing. Are you cheating, Katie?”

“I never cheat. Boys are the ones who cheat. I’m a good little girl.”

She stuck her tongue out, and Thomas smiled wearily. The last couple of hours had been fun for him, but now… now something had started to churn in his mind. Something not as fun or innocent as playing on the street. He was going to do something… was going to go somewhere, perhaps…

Before he had gotten distracted.

In a quiet voice unbecoming of him, Thomas asked Katie a question.

“Katie, was I going to do something?”

Katie looked at him with big eyes, still shining after her big ‘Rock beats Paper’ victory. His voice seemed a little disconcerting to her.

“What?”

He stood up.

“I was going to do something before I saw you,” he said. “Um…”

“Um…” she echoed. She stared up at him. He was frowning in a rather grownup manner. It was like the look her mother had on her face when Katie hadn’t finished all the food on her plate.

After a second or two, a period during which each child had frowned and concentrated as deeply as they could manage, Katie’s face cleared. There was a note of pride in her voice when she spoke.

“I remember. You were going to meet something. Don’t you remember?”

“Don’t you mean meet someone? Not something?”

“Nuh-uh. I don’t think so, anyway. You said… you were going to meet… ‘Ears’.”

“Ears?”

From her mouth it had come out ‘Ee-yuz’. He closed his eyes and tried to think. He didn’t know anybody with the name ‘Ears’… but apparently, according to Katie, it wasn’t a name. It was something, something that obviously wasn’t literally ‘Ears’ because that would be ridiculous. What rhymed with Ears? Piers? Fierce, almost? Dears, Beers, Years, Rears… it was time, he thought with a flash of inspiration, to give the problem a go with the tried-and-tested ‘Alphabet Treatment’. With haste he began the process which would take him to the answer… whatever it was. Beginning with the letter ‘A’, he thought:

Aears, Beers, Ceers, Dears, Ears, Fears…

‘Fears’. A light bulb clicked in his mind. Fears, yes. That rang a bell. He was going to meet his Fears. Of course. He had made that comment to Katie, prior to joining her in playing.

Suddenly he felt disgusted with himself. Instead of going off to do grownup business – meeting his fears – he had acted like a child and given in to the naïve joys of playtime.

“Are you OK, Thomas?” Katie asked. Thomas shook himself and opened his eyes.

“Yeah, I’m fine. I’ll be off.”

“To meet Ears?”

“Yes, Katie. But it’s Fears, not Ears.”

“Ears?”

“No, fears.”

It was her turn to frown.

“Things you’re afraid of?”

“Kind of. Yeah. Katie, do you remember… Guinness?”

At the beloved guinea pig’s name, Thomas felt a flutter inside of him, deep within his stomach. A dreadful picture arose in his mind: Guinness, dirty and with untrimmed claws, clawing to get out of his little coffin. He was making that sound he made when he had been thirsty and Thomas had forgotten to fill the water bottle; he was whimpering.

Katie’s voice floated in as if from a distance, interrupting the sequence.

“Yeah, I remember him. He’s dead, isn’t he?”

Dead. Dead. Guinness is dead. The words rang in his skull, and he thought bitterly: I’ve watched too many dumb horror movies.

“Yes,” he found himself saying, “Guinness is dead. Want to come to the graveyard?”

“The graveyard?”

“Yes.”

Katie pouted, and picked another petal off a flower.

“I thought you were going to go without anyone else.”

“You can come. If you want to.”

She smiled, dropped the denuded flower, and took his hand. Thomas looked down at their linked hands in surprise, then up to her excited, reddened face. She met his gaze and assumed a mock-serious expression.

“Thomas,” she said grandly, “let’s go to the graveyard and meet… Fears.”

As they walked along the street in the direction of the village graveyard, Thomas’s watch glinted in the lazy mid-afternoon light. It was 3:10pm.

**

Twenty minutes later, Thomas’s mother was standing in the doorway, arms folded, looking up and down the street. Her expression was blank, almost unreadable… but in it there was a spark of concern, and it was for her son, whom she had last been seen twenty minutes ago. He could, she thought, have gone with Katie to buy a few sweets – it wasn’t inconceivable that they could at this moment have just chosen a few of their favourites (his was the omnipresent green pack of Peppermint Softmints to the right of the counter). Alternatively, they could have ran up the street and round the corner, out of sight. In any case she hoped they had not gone too far – it was winter, and the sun went down within the hour. And you never knew who walked the streets in the dark.

She looked at her watch, only half-readable in the diminishing sunlight, sighed, and went back into the house. The door shut behind her.

**

Between the gravestones, in an alley of half-light, half-dark, Thomas and Katie walked. Of the places they were near, the sweet shop was not among them. Many of the stones they passed were mottled or askew; they looked as if they might crumble at the touch. Many others were fresh and new, presumably for the recently deceased. On all of them were inscribed dates, and, about the dates, messages of hope. Thomas looked straight ahead and shivered; he didn’t know how Katie was feeling, but in his mind a reel of horror movies was playing, over and over again. In this reel, hands thrust from soil, axes fell on heads, and some B-movie character by the name of Mrs. Craney perpetually contorted her leathery lips to reveal her teeth. Each tooth was stained with red. It was stupid, to be thinking of such things in a graveyard, the graveyard, he was indeed very much aware of the fact… but he was most definitely thinking of them nevertheless. And he was thinking of Guinness, too – it was impossible not to think of his poor pet, trapped underneath the earth as he was, in a little box. Lying there, under the ground – or not.

“Where’s Guinness?”

Thomas’s heart sank at the sound of her voice; it was pathetic, trembling. The tone of her reply communicated fear, plain as the shrinking daylight on her face, her confidence and previous bravado of youth clearly vanishing with each second that passed, giving way to the shadows, allowing them entry into her body. Each thrusting gravestone cast one of its own, still and black. Katie tightened her grip on Thomas’s hand. Her face was all eyes.

Thomas looked down at her.

“He’s just over there,” he said. “In that little patch of green. See?”

He pointed ahead, and, sure enough, Katie saw it; if she squinted in the growing dark, that was. It was only a very little patch, with room for a few grave markers, no more. One of those, she guessed, would be for Guinness’s grave.

She stopped suddenly, clutching his hand. Thomas stopped beside her.

“Can we go back now?”

A cool breeze shifted the leaves about their feet – as it had in many of Thomas’s dreams – in response.

He tried to sound braver than he felt.

“Can’t you wait until we’ve seen his grave?”

“I need the toilet.”

Thomas knew this wasn’t the real reason she wanted to turn back – although it might well be true.

“Are you sure?”

“Mm-hmm.”

They stood there, holding hands amid the gravestones. The wind grew still, and all was quiet. They were the only ones in the graveyard.

“Well,” Thomas said, trying to lighten the mood, “do you remember that Guinness peed on you once?”

Katie looked down at the nearest grave and put her thumb at the corner of her mouth, ready to pop it in when the moment demanded it.

“He did?” she whispered.

“Yep. I laughed, and you laughed too because you didn’t know what was going on, but your mum was kind of angry.”

“Because he’d messed up my skirt?”

“Yeah.”

They were quiet for a few seconds. Stillness lay all around them. Beyond them, only a short distance away, lay Guinness’s wooden grave marker, marked with Thomas’s own writing. They were almost close enough to see what it read.

R.I.P. GUINESS, 8 yrs old.

he was the best pet ever

The stillness was soon broken by Katie. She was looking at her feet and making a strange noise. Thomas bent down to see her expression – he felt, horribly, that she was crying, and that it would be his fault – but the corners of her mouth were turned upwards. The sound coming out of her was laughter, and it was strange because the setting for such a noise felt so wrong. Graveyards were ordinarily for funerals, and at funerals nobody ever laughed, unless the person eulogising had related some funny anecdote about the person who had just died. But here Katie was, giggling away. The laughter sounded a little high-pitched, but otherwise healthy.

“Guinness was naughty, wasn’t he?” she said, still laughing. Thomas smiled in relief, feeling just a little confused at the turn of events.  The graveyard, meanwhile, had lost much of its eerie hold on the children for the time being.

Katie let go of Thomas’s hand and stepped forwards, still chuckling a little.

“Poor, poor Guinness,” she said, unknowingly echoing Thomas’s exact sentiment on the day of the funeral. “I don’t think you die for being naughty, do you Thomas?”

Thomas said nothing. His smile, temporarily borne out of relief and confusion, had died away. He was staring at the little grave marker ahead with a far-off look in his eyes.

“Thomas?” Katie said, turning back to look at him. “Do you know if you die just for being naughty, I said?”

He suddenly stepped forwards, taking Katie’s hand, ignoring the question.

“Come on,” he said. Suddenly he seemed to be full of action. “Let’s dig up his grave.”

“What? Grave? For… for Guinness?”

“Yeah. I think he’s still alive.”

It was Katie’s turn to say nothing. She merely jogged with him to the grave, taking three steps for each two of his. All laughter, short-lived as it had been, now lay dead among the gravestones, and doubt crept within her and told her to turn back, run back home – but as they approached the wooden marker, and got to their knees beside it, and started to dig at the wet earth, it was too late for that doubt to make itself known.

Thomas’s watch caught the last of the sunlight as he, and eventually Katie, dug at the moistened earth. It was 3:50pm.

**

“Katie? Katie, where are you?”

Katie’s mother was standing in the garden, calling. Her paperback lay propped open inside the house.

“Katie, tea in an hour! Your favourite, spaghetti! Katie?”

Nothing from the street. A chill wind played with her hair and, shivering, she crossed her arms and readied herself to shout again.

“Katie! Katie! Come back inside right now, please! Katie!”

The door to Thomas’s house opened and his mother came out.

“Jan? Isn’t Katie coming either?”

Jan turned around to face her neighbour. Thomas’s mother was immediately struck by the worry in her eyes. She stepped closer.

“Jan, Thomas isn’t anywhere to be seen, either. They’ve probably gone off together… probably to buy sweets from the local shop.”

“But they shouldn’t have been gone this long, Clare. Katie knows better than to be outside when it’s getting dark. I haven’t had to tell her for a while now.”

Jan turned back to the empty street and shouted up the left side.

“Katie!”

She turned to the right.

Katie!

Pause. The wind sighed.

“If,” she said through clenched teeth, “that girl is deliberately hiding from me…”

“I’m sure she isn’t, Jan, and I’m sure she isn’t far, either,” Clare soothed. “Whatever they’re doing, Thomas will be taking good care of her. They’re probably having a good time right now. They’ll be back soon.”

“What time is it?”

Clare squinted at her watch, illuminated only by the light coming from her house.

“Four o’clock.”

“What time is it exactly, Clare?”

Clare glanced down at her wrist again.

“Er, quarter past four.”

“I wish I could just call her on some mobile,” said Jan bitterly. “There’s no way of making contact.”

“Thomas has left his at the house,” Clare said. “But I’m not going to go out and search for them. Not yet.”

“But what if they’re in trouble?” Jan turned her wide, beseeching eyes on her neighbour. “What if they’ve been… I don’t know, what if…”

“Jan, ‘what if’ nothing. Just wait another half hour, and give them a little credit. I’m sure they’re buying sweets at the local shop, anyway.”

Jan turned away, annoyed.

“Keep telling yourself that, Clare. I’m going to have a look for Katie. I would get her dad to do it as well, but he’s not here. He’s working late.”

“On a Saturday?”

“You know how these accountancy jobs are. Pays well, but the hours are just… well. I’m off. Did Thomas tell you anything?”

“About where he went? Um… I’m not sure. He just seemed a little… peculiar today. As if Guinness’s death had… got to him somehow.”

“Guinness?” Jan’s eyes narrowed. “Your pet, who ruined my daughter’s outfit for fancy dress?”

Clare’s eyes flashed protectively.

“That was a long time ago, Jan. Guinness didn’t mean it. Thomas really loved him, I think. His death…”

“Is he buried in the graveyard? Or did you bury him out back?”

Before Clare answered, she paused, thinking back to the night before; the night after the funeral. She recalled that on the way to the bathroom she had passed the entrance to Thomas’s room, and at that moment she had heard something. A few sounds, emerging from the darkness of his room. They were coming from Thomas, and they appeared to be the utterances of someone caught in the tight grip of a nightmare. After a few seconds she could discern the meaning of the sounds. They were words… and they were being repeated again and again.

“Well?” Jan asked impatiently, intruding on the recollection. “Is he in the graveyard, or is he buried out back?”

Clare spoke as if in a trance.

“Guinness… Graveyard.”

Jan stared at her, thinking.

“They were the words Thomas was saying when he was having a nightmare last night,” Clare said. “Guinness and Graveyard. Yes… that was what he said.”

Jan gave her a final look, nodded, and strode to the front gate, passing several denuded flowers on the way, and handfuls of petals.

Clare watched her go and spoke faintly.

“Are you… are you going…”

“Yes, I’m going to that bloody graveyard,” Jan snapped. “Where else?”

Clare fell silent, wringing her hands, standing there in the yard in front of the house. Her mind was a blur, and it took her a full two minutes to snap into action. Locking the door, she hurried out of her yard and after the little jogging figure of Jan at the end of the street, some way ahead.

**

It was done. Thomas and Katie flexed their tired, dirty fingers, rubbed the dirt off onto their clothes, and looked down at the little box they had unearthed which housed the stiff body of the deceased guinea pig (that Guinness was indeed inside it they knew to be a fact – the box had weighed enough to satisfy them that he was in there). As Thomas gazed at its yellow lid, he thought of the last 24 hours – and in them, all the times when he had imagined Guinness scratching at the lid from inside, and possibly escaping. He thought of how nightmarish last night had been, and how pale he’d been the following morning. Yet, caught in these negative thoughts came memories of years ago, like gleaming fish in a large net – the day that Thomas’s family purchased Guinness at the local pet store, for example. The day he had learnt to clip Guinness’s claws for the first time. The day the beloved guinea pig had ruined Katie’s skirt and his mother’s tax return. The first time he had seen and felt the smooth warmth of his black, glossy fur. The sound Guinness made when he wanted something, or was scared. The way he waddled about in his cage, trampling on straw and sawdust, drinking noisily from his water bottle, and chewing on lettuce and the thick pellets sold to them by the pet store. The way he almost worked out the trick that Thomas wanted to teach him – and then went straight for the reward, a stick of lettuce, without so much as a bye-or-leave.

That was how Thomas wanted to remember Guinness – as a good and faithful pet, by whose side he had grown up in recent memory. But recent events seemed to render that almost impossible. He would have to try hard to forget all those negative associations with Guinness’s death. And that included the reel of dumb horror movies (not to mention Mrs. Craney’s leathery lips).

Meanwhile, Katie looked at the box, and all she could think of was how cold Guinness must be feeling after being buried under all that cold, damp earth. That, and the words poor, poor Guinness.

“Well,” Thomas said uncertainly, “shall we… you know… open it?”

Katie prodded it with the toe of her shoe.

“Will Guinness be… dee-sent?”

Thomas stared at her.

“Do you mean ‘decent’?”

“I mean…” Katie flapped her dirty hands. Tears sprung to her eyes. “Will he look nice?”

Thomas pondered this. Guinness had had nobody to maintain his appearance in that little box of his. That, he thought, was a reasonable assumption to make. It was therefore likely that he would not ‘look nice’ – at least, not like he used to.

“I don’t know,” Thomas said at last. “I’ll look first, and then if he looks OK then you can too.”

“OK.”

Katie turned round meekly, alternately twisting her hands together and bunching a fist to wipe at the tears threatening to spill down her cheeks. She couldn’t remember much of Guinness at all, not when he was alive, but in her mind he was a kind and gentle creature. Beautiful, too, all shiny and black. She didn’t want that thought sullied by seeing him not looking as nice as he could. As he should. What if she looked at him, and didn’t want to stroke him? What if his fur felt wrong? That would be awful, she thought. That would definitely make me cry, definitely, definitely.

“Katie?”

She turned back round despite herself. His voice had trembled, and it wasn’t like Thomas to speak with a trembling voice. Maybe… Guinness didn’t look nice after all.

“What is it?” she said quietly. Thomas looked round at her. She could see that his bottom lip was trembling.

“Guinness,” he said simply, and burst into tears. Katie stared at him with very wide eyes. She was partly fascinated, watching his tears, and partly shocked at his outburst – but mostly she just became very sad as well, and burst into noisy tears right alongside him.

A voice reached across the graveyard.

“Katie? Katie, is that you? Katie!!

Jan had arrived at the graveyard, a little tired but otherwise spirited, and could hear sobbing. She ran through the open steel gate with eyes as wide as her daughter’s had been and made a beeline for Guinness’s grave.

“I’m coming Katie, baby, just hold on! Mummy’s on her way!”

The words came in a breathless shout. Clare, meanwhile, was far behind her; she had seen much fitter days than these.

Neither of the children heard Jan’s cry. They simply stayed where they were, Thomas squatting over the coffin, Katie standing just beside him, both overcome with sadness and shock… and, in Thomas’s case, deep loss.

As Jan reached the children (recoiling a little at the damp, musty smell of decay which surrounded them), Clare puffed up to the entrance, red in the face.

“Thomas!” she gasped. “Thomas, are you there?”

At Jan’s touch, and at his mother’s cry, Thomas stopped crying, though tears still rolled down his rosy cheeks.

“Mum!”

Blindly, Thomas stumbled over to his mother, who enfolded him in a warm embrace. Her legs were tired, but her arms felt as if they could hug him for an eternity. Tightly, she held him.

Jan, meanwhile, was squatting next to Katie. She had put the lid back on Guinness’s coffin, and had hurriedly slid it back into the grave.

“Katie, there’s no need to cry. Mummy’s here, OK? Everything’s fine.”

Katie’s tears began to subside. Through them she sniffled one word over and over again.

“Guinness, Guinness, Guinness…”

“There, there, he’s safely back where he belongs, Katie,” her mother soothed, “he’s back in his bed, he’s sleeping now, you don’t want to wake him up with all these tears, it’s alright now…”

“Guinness… Guinness…”

Clare and Thomas shuffled as one over to Jan and Katie. Clare, a little less hardy than Jan, had misted up a little herself. She was mumbling to Thomas about how she had him safe and sound, how nothing could hurt him, how glad she was that she had found him, and if Thomas was not so distraught he might have been a little embarrassed, maybe even very embarrassed – even though none of his friends were there, except Katie and she was little, and she was crying as well.

After a moment, stillness – and darkness – reigned over the graveyard once more. It was, after all, the natural state of things. The children had stopped making noise and the parents had stopped trying to comfort them. Instead, mother hugged daughter and mother hugged son, and both children hugged right back, and Guinness lay in his little box in his grave, all alone, smelling of damp soil and not looking or smelling quite as nice as Katie had imagined.

It was 4:45pm, though if Thomas had chanced to glance at his watch he wouldn’t have been able to make out the numbers – not simply because darkness had fallen, but for his veil of tears.

**

Red around the eyes and tired but nevertheless in good health, Thomas, clad in pyjamas with his mucky clothes in the wash, sat with the other three around the dining room table of their house, cradling a cup of hot chocolate between his hands. The mothers, each holding a cup of tea, were discussing (in hushed tones, though there was little reason for it) Sunday plans and activities for each of their families. One of the more important tasks – re-burying Guinness, whose box was currently open to the elements and burglars – was not discussed, but between the mothers there was a shared understanding that it had to be done.

But Thomas wasn’t listening to them. And, looking across the table at his fellow hot chocolate drinker Katie, it was apparent to him that she wasn’t listening either.

He reached across the table and prodded her hand. No response. She only sat there, a little girl in pyjamas staring into space, and looking a little tired after the day’s exertions. He couldn’t blame her. It had been one full of exercise and tears; a day both physically and mentally draining.

The mums finished up their quiet chatting. Jan took Katie by the hand.

“I’m always happy to see you, Thomas,” she said, “and I hope you take care of yourself. Goodnight, Thomas. Goodnight, Clare.”

“Night, Jan,” Clare said, watching as Katie slid listlessly off the chair and followed her mother out the door. Soon, she thought, Katie will be in bed, and then she’ll sleep it off. Hopefully. With any luck, Thomas might as well… though I have my doubts. Poor, poor Thomas.

Jan shut the door behind them, and Thomas and his mother, for the first time since early afternoon (which seemed so long ago), had the house to themselves. She inspected him over her cup of tea.

“You haven’t drank anything, Thomas. Is it too hot?”

“Don’t want it,” he mumbled. Without a word, Clare took it away into the kitchen.

“Want me to fix you anything before bed?” she called. She received no response. Biting her lip for a moment, Clare rinsed out the cup and set it to dry. It was time for her to be a Mother, consoling an inconsolable Son – moreover, one who was just entering the touchy times of puberty and teenager-hood.

She crossed over to the table, pulled up the chair Katie had occupied briefly, and sat down.

“Thomas, do you want to talk about today?” she asked hopefully. No answer, as expected. Just a tired, moody, red-eyed expression, facing to the table.

“Well,” she murmured, “we don’t need to get another pet, if you don’t want one.”

“I don’t want another pet, ever again. Ever, OK?” he snapped, and Clare seized her chance to have the Conversation.

“Wasn’t Guinness good enough, Thomas?” she rushed out.

Thomas paused briefly to register the question, then snapped again.

“Well, yeah, he was a cool pet, but now he’s dead, and he smells.”

“What did he smell of?”

The heat that was building in Thomas’s face quickly subsided. His shoulders, set to Tense, now slumped. His voice lost its brief flash of energy.

“Wet stuff. Like… how that milk was when I left it overnight, and it got warm. Dirt, too. It made me want to puke. Yeah. I don’t want to think about it.”

Clare nodded briskly.

“I know the smell you mean. It was lingering around you and Katie back…. there. In the graveyard.”

Thomas shuddered but gave no response. Clare watched him calmly.

“Do you want to go to bed, Thomas?” she asked.

He stared at his hands. His voice was terribly quiet.

“Why did he have to die?” he muttered.

Clare maintained a blank expression.

“Everyone has to die at some point. Remember Granddad? Guinness was just the same.”

“Yeah, but did he have to look so bad after he’d died?”

“Guinness? Well, the earth he was buried under was probably…”

Abruptly: “Can we talk about something else, Mum?”

Pause. “Like what, Thomas?”

“Like… I don’t know…”

“What about Katie? She’s been through a lot today, just like you.”

A pause, longer this time. Then:

“Katie was braver than I was. In the graveyard. She laughed when I told her that Guinness peed on her skirt once, and her mum got angry.”

“She got very angry. Jan’s an odd one – you never know what mood she’ll be in from one day to the next. In that case, the skirt was for a fancy dress party, thrown by the kindergarten teachers. It had been a bit expensive, and that had been when… well, they hadn’t been doing so well money-wise.”

“Are they better off now?”

“A little bit. We… I mean, I… don’t mention the ‘m-word’ to them much nowadays.”

“Did Dad? Did he mention the m-word to them back then?”

Clare stared into space for a few seconds. Thomas looked down and stared at his hands in silence. The kitchen clock chimed six in the afternoon, making them both jump a little. Clare smiled tentatively, reached over tentatively, and tousled his hair. Thomas let this gesture of affection run its course. He suddenly didn’t feel like rebelling against ‘Mummy’ gestures. Not for this evening.

“Mum?”

“Mm-hmm?”

“Can we get rid of the cage?”

Clare sighed.

“If you’re sure you don’t want-”

“I’m sure.”

“In that case, fine. I’ll do something with it tomorrow.”

“When tomorrow?”

“I don’t know. Sometime, OK?” Clare realised she had raised her voice a notch. Just a little, but it needed to be rectified quickly. She adopted a gentler tone. One she hoped befitted a mother set to console her son.

“Sorry, Thomas. Today was trying for all of us.”

Thomas smiled ruefully. This was a welcome surprise.

“I guess you had to go find us,” he said.

“It was mostly Jan, actually. She figured out where you two might have gone off to, and I just followed. It almost killed me, all that running I did.”

She smiled, expecting him to give her one in return. But Thomas only gazed down at his hands, his humour gone. Clare studied him quickly, attempting to discern the new thing that had bothered him… and then mentally kicked herself.

I’m an idiot. Don’t mention the word ‘killed’ again. Please. Or mention ‘death’ and ‘guinea pig’ in the same sentence.

She reached over and took his hands. Again, Thomas let her. He wasn’t in the mood for rebellion.

“Cheer up. You know what your Dad would say, right?”

“No. I was too young.”

“Oh.”

Clare thought to herself.

“Well,” she said, “what he would say if he were here, well, he’d say, ‘Life is a river – just follow its course, even its bends, and it’ll take you where you want to go’.”

“That’s a stupid saying.”

“Thomas!”

But he was smiling, there was that much. It wasn’t a cynical or malevolent smile, either – it was his rueful smile from a moment ago. In it she could read that Thomas fully acknowledged he had done something just a little naughty. Smiles like those were what convinced Clare that she had done a fair job in raising a kid almost single-handedly. Thomas, she thought, was turning out just fine – although let’s see how it is when he’s fourteen, or fifteen, or seventeen. Let’s just see how it is.

But right now Thomas was twelve, and he was smiling, and they were safely past the trying events of the day. They were home, and that was what mattered.

She got up, put a hand on his shoulder, and said “I’m off to read a paperback romance Jan lent me. Then I’m going to bed. Are you sure you don’t want anything for an early supper?”

Thomas looked up at her. His face fell… and then he began to whimper. The whimper quickly turned into sniffling, and then tears were springing to his eyes, and then he was sobbing all over again. Alarmed, Clare set down her cup of tea and held him in her arms. This wasn’t supposed to happen, she thought wildly. Was it?

“Mum, I miss Guinness already,” he sobbed through a thick shield of tears. “I miss Dad and I miss Granddad and I miss Guinness and he’s dead!! He’s dead and he smells so baaad…!”

“I’m here, shhhhh…” Clare whispered, rocking him back and forth. Violent sobs ripped out of him as every negative feeling he had ever felt, in addition to new ones, coalesced in his body. Everyone he had ever lost in his young life, all the stress of the day, the knowledge of mortality and death – the real knowledge of death, not just people’s heads splattering on horror movies – and the horrible, nasty dark graveyard with all the stones and the little box which contained Guinness, who had looked so…

Thomas cried and cried for what felt like ages.

“I don’t want to die, Mummy, I don’t want to die,” he was saying, but the words were all garbled and nothing was coming out, just a hoarse sound of desperation that she could hear but not understand, and in response his mother cuddled him fiercely as if he were a wailing baby, regressed to an age in single digits, new to the big world in all of its cruelty, with a nappy…

And a dummy. Thomas missed the dummy he used to have until he was eight years old, at which point he was told that he wasn’t the right age to have a dummy, and he had thrown such a tantrum because he had wanted that dummy now…

After five long, long minutes, Thomas’s cries subsided. Clare stood there, still rocking as she had done for the last five minutes, still holding her only child.

“There, there, there…” she murmured, “there, there… there… there…”

And it was over.

It was over.

Finally, it was over.

Still holding Thomas in her arms, Clare began to take him upstairs. He had to walk since he was too heavy for her to carry now, but it was managed. She took him into his room, and laid him on the bed. Without looking back – for fear that if she did she might never leave his side – she walked to the door, shut it, and went to her own room. She shut the curtains and changed into nightwear. She hoped Jan wasn’t going through the same situation with Katie. She wondered how Jan would deal with Katie in such a situation. She decided that she’d heard nothing from their house, so everything there was probably fine, and she slipped into the double bed alone. She knew she would be awake a long time into the evening, and then into the night, thinking about her son, his guinea pig, her husband, her father, Jan, Katie, money, graveyards, death, mortality, teenagers, motherhood, loss, heaven, hell, inevitability, life lessons, happiness, sadness, accountancy, and cups of tea, all the long dark while.

Then, unconsciously and without ceremony, she fell into slumber, a deep sleep; it was a sleep so deep that she missed Thomas going to the bathroom, and she missed the fact that he made no sound as he slept, and that he did not toss and turn beneath his bedcovers. When she finally awoke from her deep sleep, she remembered no dream.

6,669 words

20 pages (350 words/page)

Sheffield, UK, conceived in July 2014 and (mostly) birthed in September

A Noiseless Place

Standard

This post is under “Exercises” as well as “Short Fiction” because the story originated as an 800-word exercise in describing an unfamiliar setting. The premise of the story is therefore quite well-worn and like an old friend (wake up in a strange room, don’t know where you are or how you got there, try to escape), but I think I’ve done OK by it. See what you think.

A Noiseless Place

  I woke up and gave the darkness about me a bug-eyed stare. It seemed I’d dozed off in a strange room. It came as a shock. I mean, I’d never seen it before. I’d never before sniffed the musty brown carpet I was lying on, or laid on these particular floorboards. Before I woke up, the small window high above me, right up near the ceiling, would have been as unfamiliar to me as exercise.

I looked down. I was wearing a vest. It felt heavy, like it’d been soaked in slime and left to dry. It felt unpleasant – stuck to my skin – but I kept it on. I was transfixed by another peculiar fashion choice. Instead of trousers, there were – oh, my – tiny shorts. They sparkled in the moonlight, and also looked a little damp as well. They weren’t my style, and as I looked down at my legs I grimaced. I’d always preferred to keep my legs covered. I knew as well as anyone how fat and hairy they were, like hobbit legs with knobbly middles, but long.

I decided to keep the shorts on anyway. To get them off I’d probably have to slice through them with a pair of scissors, and I had more pressing issues besides.

Like where the hell I’d just woken up.

Coming in through the window slats and pooling on my face was a single beam of serene moonlight. A beautiful thing. I squinted against it for a moment, looked away, let my eyes adjust. Peered around. I thought the room felt like it could be quite small, same size as a child’s bedroom sort of thing, but without the comfortable atmosphere, or the toys.

It might have been without anything until I heard the noise. A distinct sound, from the corner. A slither.

Something had slithered in the corner, and, after giving utterance, lain quiet once more among the shadows.

I tensed up and waited, watching, giving the source of the noise some time to do something else. Show if it was friendly, perhaps. It didn’t move. Minutes passed, during which the corner, shrouded in shadow, was as before. Dead.

After a wary look, I moved on. Those of you who watch movies – the scary ones, where things go bump in the night – know that was probably a mistake. I do, too, now. At that point, however, nothing could have scared me; I was just too bemused.

Bemused in a soaked shirt and tiny shorts that sparkled.

I opened my mouth and tried to speak. Nothing. No sound came out, not even a croak, so I closed it and didn’t bother opening it again. I wasn’t worried, just – you got it – bemused. I moved on from that as well.

I lifted my head from the carpet and promptly came to what proponents of Zen Buddhism might call a ‘profound moment of realisation’.

Let me set this up.

My memory was pretty hazy at this point – I was ‘living in the moment’. I wasn’t trying to recall anything in particular, not at this point. But now something had settled on me, something that had not been with me for years, and just like that it had made me uneasy.

From the little of my wits which remained, I gathered that I was a construction worker by day, devourer of television by night. You know how it goes. When I leave my bulldozers, cranes, and steel beams for the day, punch my ticket and head on home to binge on ads for Weight Watchers and Gillette Razors (‘For Men’) while chowing on TV dinners, I go from one setting to another. The public to the private. The formal to the informal. The work to the chilled-out evening. (It would be more chilled-out if I had someone to spend it with, but that’s another story.) On the whole, as pastimes go they’re utterly different, correct? Nope.

There’s a big connection, and that’s noise.

My whole day, every waking hour (and often in dreams as well), is filled with noise. The alarm clock beeps, my head fills with noise. I shower, dress, brush my teeth, get the keys, run outside, start the car, and blast some AC/DC. At work, I operate some metal and talk with a few of my colleagues. We keep the radio on. When I’m done and I head home, the TV comes on and belches program after program in my direction. When I finally turn it off and go to bed, there’s some technological wonder buzzing away and, in its own way, lulling me to soft sleep.

Rinse and repeat, you’ve got a life. A noisy one.

In that moment, then – that realisation in that strange room – I felt something alien, and it was absolute silence. Oh my God, it felt so strange. Unsettling. It felt unreal, like I had been dropped unceremoniously on some distant planet in which nothing made a peep or a wink and the only sound came from you, the vessel of sanity in an empty sea. When you’ve lived a life like I have and find yourself in a place where all you can hear is your own heavy breathing – as I did now – you end up getting the hell out of there, and quickly.

Trust me.

And this was bad, because I was alone. (Well… almost alone.) No cars with honking horns on the streets outside the window (I normally didn’t like those things but now I wanted, no, craved for one to show up and honk, honk in the night without abandon). No people outside, just walking about and talking to their friends. Nothing from the corner, slithering away. Not for the moment. It wasn’t a noise I wanted to hear – it didn’t sound human – but at least it was a noise which might have broken this spell of nothingness.

Absolute silence. Nothing but me, the shadows where no moonlight dared to touch, and my heavy breathing.

My crummy breathing. It sounded a little hoarse. Maybe I’d sucked up too much of the room’s dust when I was out on the carpet. That can’t have been healthy… but, then again, what else was new? I was your basic slob.

Chiming with my unsettled state, one of my hands started feeling strange. Just strange. It took a second or two to identify it as my left. My dominant hand, believe it or not. I sighed and let my head fall forward so I could see it.

A single cut, on the thumb. I briefly held it to the moonlight. It looked pretty deep. Obviously I had no idea how it had gotten there. Or when. Or how. ‘Questions in the dark.’ Sorry, sorry – riddles. Riddles in the dark. That’s a Tolkien reference, for all those too cool for Schiphol.

I let my head hang back. My thumb was throbbing, gently. Perhaps the nagging pain focused my mind a little, because I could smell something. An aroma of some kind. I sniffed, inspired. There was definitely something in the air, and it wasn’t just musty old carpet.

I turned my head and sniffed some more. I was still propped up on my elbows by the moonlight but I didn’t feel the need to get up. Not just yet. Deep inhalation followed deep inhalation and the smell began to gain some definition. I could tell it was a strong smell because even in this room it was pungent. Was it onions? Was somebody making a meal? My large belly let out a plaintive rumble and I rubbed it, stupidly hoping someone was going to open the door and treat me to the perfect TV dinner – the ones which got me through episodes of Zoey 101 and reruns of What’s New, Scooby Doo? (Don’t judge me, I watched whatever I landed on.) Of course, that wasn’t going to happen. I probably wasn’t going to get even a substandard TV dinner. But I had hope. There was a tingle in my heart which I knew signified exactly that (or the beginning of a massive heart attack, but, by an admittedly narrow margin, that wasn’t quite as likely). I struggled to my feet, praying the tiny shorts would hold together and not split open, falling to the floor in tatters and revealing a little more of me than I’d like.

Lucky for me, they could stretch a fair way.

Telling myself to keep calm – I was actually surprising myself with my own serenity, so telling myself this was more a formality than a necessity – I looked for the way out. Giving time for my eyes to adjust I stepped slowly towards the door (which I knew the rough location of because I didn’t think anybody was attempting communication through the window, sadly for me, leaving the door as the sole object beyond which the smell truly originated). I also looked for the light switch which would banish all the pesky darkness. I hoped the thing in the corner would leave me alone until I could actually make things out alright. I looked, for a full minute I looked, and then they appeared, out of the gloom. My heart leapt at the sight of them.

The outline of a door. Beside it, a light switch. Yep, they were there, at ten o’clock relative to my position. Ready to be used.

In my gut, butterflies fluttered with feathery anticipation. As I stepped toward them I became aware of the sweat sheet on my brow.

Its name, now, was Relief: I was going to escape this place of grave, grave silence. The moonlight, the shadows, above all the anonymous slithers; these things were almost of the past. Or so I hoped. After all, if I was about to escape – and I was now optimistic that it was possible – then I would never see them again and I could begin to try to forget this brief but unsavoury experience. I would still dream about it, of course, there would be no escape from that… but in the physical world, I would be free. Out of the shadows, and into the light.

One could have that faith, then.

As I got closer, the door and light switch became clearer. They stood out in the darkness like ghosts, mirages perhaps, designed to raise the hopes of the room’s prisoner – a construction worker, say – and then bring them down with an almighty crash when he or she realises they aren’t there after all, not really. They might only have had their existence in my addled thoughts, seeking escape, hallucinating the means by which escape could be enacted.

The door, light switch, or both could merely be the product of a troubled brain – though in the darkness and gloom they seemed so real.

Thinking of this, my hope faltered, just a little. I thought to my beloved TV and tried to think of a situation similar to this one that I might have seen on a random show or otherwise, in case it would help me to think decisively (not to say sensibly).

Nothing came, so I moved on.

I inched toward them – my saviours. The floorboards made muffled creaking noises as my bulk pressed down on them. I was leaving the beam of moonlight behind, for which I was sorry. I was, a little; it was a friendly beam.

But it had associations. Bad ones. I had to forget it, too, along with everything else in the room. Nothing else would do.

When I was two feet from them, some part of my body yelped. It was the lower part of my body; around my legs. I gave a soundless cry and fell to the floor. From the sound the floorboards gave when I reached them (WHAP), I hit it hard.

It was my right foot. Ankle, in fact. It was complaining, and making a lot of noise.

I propped myself up on my elbows as before, shifted to get a good look at what now felt horribly like an open wound, and saw another deep cut which had announced itself like a drunk with an ill temper. It ran across my ankle, which now throbbed like hell, taking over from my thumb in grand style. There was a streak of dark red forking from the cut. Congealed blood. The whole thing grinned up at me, an unsettled, malevolent thing which creeped me out and initiated an involuntary full-body shiver – though the night was far from cold. Under ordinary circumstances, I didn’t mind the sight of blood. I wasn’t a big fan of it being here, however, right this moment, where too many things were mysterious.

Who, or what, had cut me? On both my thumb and my ankle? I had no idea. Had I done something to provoke them, or had they just lashed out? I clearly hadn’t just slipped on a banana skin. Did the cuts mean I had been – and could still be – in danger?

Infuriatingly I knew no answers. (Although, as to ‘when’ I had been cut, it must have been in the last day or so. Recently. The last twenty-four hours, give or take a few. I might have been more specific if I’d watched House, or Bones, but I hadn’t. Sucks.)

Feeling desperate all of a sudden (about time, too), I got up, wincing loudly yet failing to produce any sort of sound (my attitude towards my non-functional vocal cords now more worried than puzzled), and hopped on over to the door, belly flopping. With each hop my right ankle burned; the wound was freshening up. Soon there’d be more blood, and this time it would be of a red much brighter than the congealed grin which stuck there now.

I got to the door and leaned against the wall, panting. I had just shifted a lot of body weight. One of the downsides of spending every evening stretched out on the sofa and soaking up whatever the TV deigns to show you is gaining weight that you don’t really want. Interesting, how that works.

I flipped the switch. The room – inconceivably – stayed dark. Calmly, sure it would work, I turned it on and off again a few more times. Click. Click. Click. Click. Click. I glared at it and thought, I should probably give it time. It might not have been used for weeks. Months, even. So I flicked it (Click) to the ON position and waited.

No response, even after I’d given it ten seconds. My hand wavered there indecisively. I felt a sudden urge to wipe my eyes, but I held firm.

Click. Click.

I was back to flicking the switch. I couldn’t help it.

Click. Click. Click.

Click-click. Click-click-click. Click-click-click-click-click-click.

I finally gave up, frustrated, holding my injured leg with my free hand and cursing in silence. I hadn’t before considered the possibility that the light switch might’ve been a dud. Somehow, it had eluded me.

It wasn’t my lucky night. Not at all.

Reaching across with the same hand I used for the light switch, I leant for the door. Took the doorknob, gritted my teeth, smelt the pungent, onion-y smell, turned it forty degrees…

And yanked.

The door rattled… and stayed.

My brow furrowed and I tugged at the doorknob again. The door shook but stayed where it was. I waited a moment in which dignity seemed to seep out of me in fumes, then stood on my good leg, took the doorknob with both hands, turned, and tugged as hard as I could.

The door rattled and shook and rattled and shook and rattled and shook. And like a stubborn tooth, it stayed.

Locked. It was locked.

Bloody hell.

Damn it.

Well, what had I expected? To open it and waltz through? To dine with my host, the owner of those onions, then bid him a cheery farewell? The idea was laughable. Why had I assumed it wouldn’t be locked, why had I thought that? Was my brain so addled, now?

I sighed as if the weight of the world was on my shoulders. This was a situation inconvenient at best, and I didn’t want it to go on another second longer. Something had to happen soon. It better had.

And it did. It started with the thing in the corner.

It had shifted again. I’d barely detected it, but once it registered with me I whipped round, eyes like saucers and ankle screaming with the wind of my thoughts. Scanning the corner for movement. A sign of life in the shadows. Willing the thing I knew to be there to make itself known. As I took my slow, laboured breaths, staring at the corner, the silence bore down on me, thick and alien. It had thoroughly gotten to me, this noiseless place, during our brief and ill-met acquaintance. Its shadows gave me no answers, no clues. I wasn’t going to approach that corner, not now or in a thousand years, so what the hell was I going to do next? Attempt to break the door down? Impossible. It had no window that I could see, and I was in no condition to make any meaningful attempt in breaking it down by ramming it with my shoulder. If I tried that I’d probably put my shoulder out for days.

‘Ramming’ wasn’t something I was built for.

I needed to think. Sort things out. Against my better judgement I closed my eyes. I needed to try to remember everything that had happened earlier, and I meant everything. To get all the facts. To work out some sort of solution. Everything felt wrong, of course. I had been misplaced. Was I near my home, my place of work? Was I even in the same city? Beat me.

All I knew was that I was in a strange room, I was bleeding and in pain, I was wearing a soaked vest and tiny shorts that sparkled and I was scared stiff. I could admit that now.

Oh, and I had only moonlight and the silence of the damned for company, unless you counted whatever was making that shifting noise, and I most certainly did.

I cursed again, mouthing fiercely into thin air. Could you blame me?

Another sound, striking up from somewhere close by, stopped me dead. My ears pricked up. The butterflies in my gut started up again. Where had it come from? The corner? No, not this time; this time it was something beyond the door which had made it. The metallic rattle, and a squeak; sonically, a familiar combination. A doorknob, turning, and a door opening.

Had that been the sound? Could the sound have been made not by something but someone? Could it be? Could someone have heard the noise I made trying to get the door open, and come to help me out? It was possible, wasn’t it?

The thought leapt like a fish in my mind, glinting, full of promise. It spurred me into a frenzy that I had never before experienced, though I have felt it many times hence.

I seized the moment and hammered on the door with all my force. I opened my mouth and tried to call out. I really tried, I swear; honest to God, I gave it everything. For what must have been half a minute or so I leant against the door, pounding out a desperate, primal rhythm with two hard fists and trying to push sound up through my throat and out of my mouth.

To my credit, I made a hoarse squeaking noise, twice.

“BullSHIT,” I croaked, but the sound I made wasn’t even that. It was pathetic, that was the truth; I was pathetic. I stopped hitting the door and just stood there, wavering. There was only silence, now. Nothing from beyond the door, nothing from inside the room. It was just me, the goddamn slithery thing in the corner, and the tears in my eyes. No-one had come to help, as I had hoped. The sound from earlier? Probably imagined.

Perhaps the noises never even existed, whispered a needling voice. It was a corner of my brain, voicing my very worst fear.

It’s what you had wanted to hear, yes? And it’s what you DID hear. Your mind conjured it up, like a cheap trick. That was all. That’s what happened.

You’re going MAD. You’re allowing your mind to unravel and run free.

It was useless. The whole thing was useless. My vocal cords were shot.  That frightened me now. Them being shot to pieces frightened the heck out of me, because it implied something, them being like that – had I screamed them out, was that it? Had I screamed so hard, and for so long, that they were for now completely useless? Or had someone done something to me, operated on me in some way? Had they done that before making those damn cuts? I didn’t know, and I felt as if I should. After all, it had happened to me in the last twenty-four hours, and I hadn’t been drunk on vodka cocktails (no hangover, no tell-tale smell on me) – not that I usually was, of course, but still; it was important that I had been clean sober.

It meant I didn’t have an easy excuse to give myself to draw blame from my own actions. To lessen the self-guilt that coursed through my veins, provoked by everything that must had led to my current predicament.

It wasn’t just my shot vocal cords fuelling these thoughts, of course. There were also the clothes. The soaked vest, the tiny shorts. No, the sparkly tiny shorts. Was I someone’s fetish? It sure fit, didn’t it? Someone who had a fetish for fat, hairy men, with cuts on their thumb and ankle and a bad case of the blues. Keeping me captive, against my will.

Maybe, maybe not. In my heart, though, I was drawing some unsavoury conclusions, and I thought they’d probably be true.

And if so, I’d have to escape.

I waited by the door for a second or two, swaying, holding my injured leg with both hands. In my state of panic, indecision, and utter helplessness, I looked at the carpet and thought about food. Simple, beautiful food, my long lost friend.

I thought about when I’d last eaten. My stomach wasn’t yet growling, but it would soon have to. It was a big stomach, used to being fed. I think it was hankering for a couple of cheeseburgers, more than anything. There probably weren’t many cheeseburgers in the joint, all things considered, so it would have to-

That smell floated in again. That pungent, onion-y smell, scent, aroma, sizzle-y thing. It was closer now, stronger than ever… and it was mixed with several herbs. Parsley and basil, perhaps. Cumin, cinnamon.

I’d started watering at the mouth and I hadn’t realised it. I stared blankly at nothing in particular, slack-jawed.

Sausages, onions, chips, bacon. Ice-cream, jelly, doughnuts. Vodka cocktails, by my side, in front of the beloved television box, on hand to wash down a pack of crackers. A couple of juicy, fat cheeseburgers, garnished with extra mayonnaise and tomato sauce.

My stomach rumbled, a ball of thunder below my skin.

What I’d have given for those exact things. Oh, what I’d have given. I would have murdered for those things – my stomach would have forced my hand and I would have been helpless to resist.

I was about to contemplate a chocolate cake infused with the indelible Belgian magic (oh yum) when something slammed into the door, breaking my glorious chain of food-related thoughts and scaring me half to death. I jolted and immediately fell to the floor (WHAP again), howling noiselessly in pain. Taking care to keep my right leg still I backed away, eyes transfixed on the doorknob which was now rattling away in an all-too-familiar manner.

Something is happening, I thought, and a cold sweat broke out all over me. Someone’s out there, and they’ve got a key.

And, randomly: They’ve got an onion.

I had no idea whether the person beyond the door was friendly or not. It could have been anyone. It could have been someone here to help (one could dream). One could have that faith. But I believed differently, then. God help me, I believed differently.

My body tingled, waiting. Goose bumps on every inch of my arms. I waited for the doorknob to stop rattling and for the door to swing open. I, a pasty, floor-bound fat figure in a vest and shorts and nothing else but his skin. Strewn halfway between the rattling door and the one, serene beam of moonlight, pouring in through the high window and pooling on the musty carpet which stretched from corner to corner of the room. A shivering, sweating figure with wide eyes and hairy legs, cutting a glance to the corner where the slithery thing was making fresh noise, angry noise.

That’s what I must have looked like, to an observer, if he or she had cared to be there. I know it to be true; the experience was so surreal, I actually saw myself as it was happening, from the outside. It sounds peculiar but that’s what happened.

After an age, the doorknob stopped rattling. It was enough to distract me from the noises in the corner. My throat clicked as I swung to look at the door, open-mouthed with blank and foodless thoughts (well, maybe there were a few onions).

The door swung open without a sound. Just like that, it was open.

Thus began the silence.

The shape in the door came towards me, quiet as the grave. It filled the room. The pain in my ankle momentarily forgotten, I squinted up at the shadow figure now halfway across the room, and fast bearing down. I willed my eyes to see their face but saw nothing. Nothing but shadow. Their face was shielded to me, black and totally without expression. I felt dread. The figure seemed large. Silent, yes, but large, and strong. Built like the Hulk. I knew I wouldn’t be strong enough to defend myself if things turned physical (I was convinced I was more fat than muscle) and I inwardly cursed myself. I didn’t mince words – in one’s own mind, you don’t need to.

I noticed, even as I cursed myself, that the door had been left open. What I saw in the space behind it – what I saw so briefly – filled me with despair.

It was darkness, plain and simple. Even beyond the door, there was no light. Even at the end of the tunnel, at the end of all things, at the end of life itself? There is no light. That was the message I took, from that black sight. And still take, every day.

I turned my gaze from the darkened corridor beyond to the face of the advancing figure. As he approached – I knew it was a ‘he’ because no woman could be as hulking as he was, or hairless on the head – something leapt from the corner, something unformed, indistinct

(what the hell IS that thing??)

and black. Very black. Before I could get a proper look at it, however, my own blackness took me in and the world disappeared.

Oh, that blackness. It roared in my ears, it roared in my mouth, it shook my teeth in their gums. It roared through my body, my blood; my veins, nerves, and vessels; my very bones from my skull to the little toe; it roared behind my aching eyes where I could not reach, in my aching belly; in the throbs of my sliced thumb and ankle and in all my limbs and extremities; and, then…

Then, I was out.

Once again, I was out.

God help me, I was out again.

4,641 words

14 pages (350 words/page)

Sheffield, UK

Sep. 2014, rev. January 2015

Teacher, Teacher!

Standard

Originally an exercise in contrasting viewpoints, this particular viewpoint – of a young teacher – developed into its own thing.

**

Teacher, Teacher!

 

Relax, she thought, just relax, you can do this. Remember yesterday? Today’s going to be just like that. Just like that, okay?

Julia Lauren, the young woman striding down one of the high school’s many corridors towards her first English class of the term with what she thought – hoped – looked like fierce purpose, was dismayed to find there was a thick mass of nerves inside of her, and they weren’t sitting still.

This moment is what you’ve been waiting for, girl! Get through that door and into that classroom!

But this inner voice of hers – confident and assured – reflected nothing of how she really felt: petrified. She knew the truth very well: that she had already passed the door to the classroom three times, had already walked round the network of corridors on the third floor enough so as to lose track of which green-walled corridor was which (and then she’d pass the door again; each time, a fresh burst of panic surfaced near her gut). She was already ten minutes late to the lesson, but she was not able to complete the simple act of turning the knob and pushing. It was frustrating her, yet she felt helpless.

What was it her supervisor had said?

Everyone feels scared of their first class. I did, hon. Actually, I still get a tingle from time to time, doing these sessions. But you know what they say.

“You get over it,” she murmured, and then she saw the door again. She must have orbited the floor yet another time. She stopped walking, and stood there in the corridor. She felt dangerously close to crying, and this sparked a little anger in her – a paltry flash amid the tight, suffocating ball of nerves, but it was something to work with nonetheless.

Don’t you dare cry, Julia. Don’t you dare!

She wanted to get herself worked up now. It seemed like the only option if she was to take positive action in this increasingly sorry situation. She began swinging her arms irritably, without thought to how she might look to a stray pupil, late to class.

Are you afraid of these kids? Have you forgotten yesterday? The kids listened, they respected me, they learnt something, and didn’t you feel good after-

The thought crunched to a dead stop. Something was wrong with the picture. The students beyond the classroom door were not like those kids, each of whom had been good as gold, eager to please; just model students. These kids were making noise. Quite a bit of it. Why wouldn’t they be?

Their teacher – a certain Miss Julia Lauren – was ten minutes late. They might as well enjoy themselves.

Plus, they were totally unlike the kids yesterday in that the latter group had consisted of her two nephews.

Thus deflated, she sighed and went in to her first teaching job of the term.

Chaos. Pandemonium. It was her worst nightmare come true.

Half the chairs were on their sides, their black metal legs pointing accusingly. YOU DID THIS! they shouted at her. The students who had overturned them were laughing uproariously, punching each other on the shoulder and initiating rough scuffles in which they slammed their bodies into the work tables. One girl squatted in the corner, crying, the make-up around her eyes running down her cheeks. Most of them had discarded their school ties. A few of those had also discarded their jumpers, and were standing or running about in their school shirts with the top two buttons undone.

She stood in the entrance, lost for words. She tried to speak, to shout, to yell – Everybody Sit The Hell Down Right This Instant! was as good as anything else – but nothing came out. It seemed she was invisible to the rabble before her.

A paper plane darted from the back of the classroom and flew to the front, where it crashed into the whiteboard. Dumbly, she watched the crumpled thing fall to the floor, then looked back up at the board. On it there was an unfinished game of Hangman. Next to it, unsurprisingly, a rather rude drawing. The anatomy was broadly accurate.

She found she was able to speak… almost.

“!!!”

A single glottal stop left her mouth. She was dimly aware her face was turning a bright red. Like a tomato.

One of the students, a blonde-haired girl, suddenly noticed her. To her credit, she immediately began to make herself look more presentable. She nudged another girl and pointed at her (which made Julia feel even more incompetent – she, the teacher, was just standing there in the doorway, with the door still open). The other girl took one disdainful look, opened her mouth, and yelled at the top of her lungs: “TEACHEEEEEER!!

That yell, Julia thought, was far louder than anything I could have done… short of crashing some enormous cymbals together. I still get embarrassed when I have to shout. She almost seemed to enjoy it.

Their faces turned and their eyes stared. Many were red with excitement, a few even dazed. The racket dimmed and stopped. All of them were now looking at her – she could feel their eyes probing her face and body. There might have been a couple of guilty expressions. There might not.

She cleared her throat and, turning, shut the door. The corner of her mouth trembled with anticipation as she walked to the front of the classroom. There was silence, yes, but on the faces of the students there was… amusement? Not on all of them; on others there was disdain. On yet others – only a few – there was relief.

Thank goodness for that.

She broke the silence.

“Can you get the classroom back in shape, please?” she said. She was blushing because a few of the boys were clearly ‘checking her out’. “I know I’m a bit late, so we should start as soon…”

“What’s your name, Miss?” said a boy with dreadlocks with what seemed to be genuine curiosity.

“Oh, sorry.” Why are you apologising to him? Why the hell are you apologising?

“I’ll just write it on the board,” she said. “Pick up your chairs, please, we have to start the lesson.”

Please pick up the chairs. I don’t know what I would do if you don’t.

But she heard some scraping from the corner of the classroom; the girl with make-up running down her cheeks was shifting a couple of chairs and placing them beside the desk nearest her. She sat on one of them primly and crossed her arms. She glared around her as if she was owed obedience – perhaps, Julia thought, she was. Who knew what went on before she had finally entered the classroom? The events which had led to her make-up running had, of course, gone unseen. In any case the others started to put things right, and before long the classroom was in acceptable shape. Julia breathed outwards and, after hastily rubbing out the game of Hangman and the drawing beside it, began to write her name on the whiteboard with the felt pen. The ink was red. No blood shall be spilt today… hopefully.

MISS LAUREN, it read.

“Lauren? That’s your name?” asked the dreadlocks.

“That’s my surname, not my first name.”

Ohhh. Uh, I meant your first name,” he said. “What’s your first name?”

Julia felt herself blushing again, and she was ashamed of herself. Move on, quick.

“Now, I know English isn’t…” She thought quickly. Endear yourself to them.

“…isn’t the sexiest subject in the world to most of you, though it is to me…”

Good one, Miss Lauren. Now tell them exactly how sexy it is.

As she opened her mouth, the boy interrupted. He was smiling.

“I know what the sexiest subject to me is, though.”

Oh Julia, what have you done?

“Excuse me, that isn’t appropriate.” She was trying her hardest to snap with authority. To her the words sounded false – like a young parrot, reciting what it’s been taught. “When I’m talking, you should be quiet. That goes for everyone! Understand?”

A murmur. The boy looked amused but kept his silence.

“Alright.” Julia gave up trying to identify with the students. She was the teacher, in control. “Does everybody have a textbook?”

And so the lesson went on for the next fifty minutes. Surprisingly it all – mostly – went as planned. She knew what she had to teach them, and she actually got through most of it, despite the fact several of them had had to share a textbook between them – as a scenario this was expected, but an argument had broken out over who was to share with whom. Eventually that was sorted out. No desks were knocked over; nobody else had enquired of her a first name; nobody had had to have special help, which had been a concern of hers. If she had to rank her first performance, it would garner a solid B. Very good, will do better next time. Of course, ‘next time’ was after break time, at which point she had another class. No rest for the weary. Better get used to it. You knew it was coming.

Finally, the bell rang and class was over. Textbooks were shut with a snap; expressions of boredom and befuddlement became eager and enthused. Bags were swung on shoulders, chair legs scraped on the floor, and one by one they left the classroom, chattering and pulling out snacks.

After a tense morning, Julia was weary but pleased, and slightly confused at the quick change of mood the students had exhibited at the start of the lesson. At first they had seemed hostile, set to disrupt… then the lesson had commenced with few problems. They had sat behind their desks and concentrated.

This was confusing, yes, but pleasing.

Only one more obstacle to a successful first class remained: the boy with dreadlocks. He was lingering by the door with a serious look on his face.

Julia approached him with a faint smile.

“Yes?”

“Miss Lauren, I just want to apologise for my behaviour. You know, earlier?”

“I know what you mean. Thanks for the apology.”

“I hope you have a successful career, Miss Lauren.”

She was touched. “Thanks, I hope I will too.”

He turned away, smiling, and stopped in the entrance. He turned back philosophically.

“Miss Lauren, I do believe this is the first step on an amazing journey. Don’t get me wrong, there will always be moments in which you will doubt yourself; your gift for teaching, your will to persevere despite all the tedium of paperwork, even your friendships. There will be bad days, grey days, when children snigger behind your back, deliberately cause trouble, and refuse to hand their homework in on time. Those darker moments will be a part of your journey… of anyone’s journey, really, if we speak broadly for a second…”

“We do.”

“… but there is always a light at the end of the tunnel. Always, Julia, and how is this possible? What is the light, you ask?”

“I ask, I ask,” she mumbled.

“The light! O, the light is the children! They are your craft, little vessels to be filled! They are the pupils by which your eyes see and understand, forgive the pun! Your journey of significance through the wandering and vast annals of budding scholarship will be almost celestial in its burning for completeness, and you will guide and know the members of the human race who shall inherit the mantle we leave behind. They shall be the light of the world for an entire generation, and they shall produce the next generation to come, and to come, and to come, until the end of time itself!”

Julia was nodding sagely. Her eyes willed him to go on.

“It will be a dark day when there are no more of your kind: the teachers, the selfless purveyors of truth. For it is them – yes, including you, Julia – who, despite those moments of darkness, will rise up, rise up, can I get a hallelujah?”

“Hallelujah.”

“Will rise up and say, NO! I will not be affected! Get thee behind me, dark day, and I shall see the light! That is what you will say, what you must always say, in order that your life remains well worth living. On a personal level, Julia, let it be known that you make your mother, your family, and your friends proud at this moment. Cherish that pride in yourself, and know that it is there! In this profession, you will meet many people. Some of them will be your enemies, but forget about those few people because most of them will be your friends. Good friends, Julia!”

A tear slipped down her cheek.

“One of them,” he said, “Oh my dear Julia, one of them…”

He took a moment to wipe a Tear from his cheek, then continued.

“…one of them will be the man of your dreams.”

She squeaked. “Oh really? You mean it?”

“I mean it.”

She clapped her hands and jumped up and down, her face shining.

“Now I must leave you, my dear.”

She stopped jumping in his presence.

“But… I have so much to learn.” She looked at him with wide eyes. She beheld his face, that which possessed infinite wisdom, kindness, and knowledge. His eyes met hers, and she was filled with gladness and awe; she had become beautiful in the light of their purity.

He spoke. His voice was gentle, soothing, deep, and profound – it was the Earth, the Universe, and that of whatever lay beyond, the Untold realm.

“You must learn these things for yourself, Julia. It is best. After all, if I tell you what I know, your head will explode with what I have to say.”

Julia nodded soberly. She knew it to be true.

“Will I see you again?” she asked. She found herself trembling a little. He smiled – she could not read it. The smile was enigmatic, yes, but pleasingly so.

“In time. Outside it. Who knows?”

“Don’t you know if we meet again?”

“Of course I do, Julia Lauren. I am being… mysterious.”

“Oh. Can you stay a little?”

“I’m sorry. Even outside time, I have an appointment to keep. A woman named Mrs. Esmerelda Craney wants my attention.”

“What was her name again?”

“Esmerelda Craney. C-R-A-… I’ll write it down.”

He pointed a Finger at the board, and lo the letters didst form.

C-R-A-N-E-Y. Julia glanced at the Letters and nodded.

“I guess I’ll be seeing you.”

“Nice try, my dear. I refuse to answer.”

And with that, he turned to go. Julia frowned. She had wanted to ask him something.

As soon as he had left her sight, she remembered. Breathing hard, she rounded the corner, the words on her lips… but he was gone. The corridor was empty.

Julia sighed. The question she had wanted to ask – how silly it now seemed that he was gone – was ‘Do you want to go out with me?’ It was worth a shot, all things considered. Even he might have been the man of her dreams. But it was not to be. He had an appointment to keep, and he was true to his Word.

She turned back, resting a hand on the doorknob, and gazed at the deserted classroom. How quiet it seemed now – how empty. The distant sound of playing children floated through the window. It was a happy noise. It was one she imagined she would soon come to know well. She stepped over to the window with a thought to briefly watching the activities outside – perhaps it would bring back some of her memories from the playground – but then she noticed the board. More to the point, she noticed the letters on the board. The six that had spelt the word ‘Craney’ were now gone. They had been replaced with a single word, three letters long.

Y-E-S.

She stared at it for a moment, then understood. She smiled.

“A date it is, then.”

A faint ringing disturbed the tranquillity of her thoughts, and she frowned. She didn’t like the noise very much – it didn’t seem friendly. What was making it? She crossed to the door and looked out into the corridor. The sound wasn’t growing any closer… but, at the same time, it wasn’t any less near. It sounded strangely familiar… it wasn’t a ringing after all. It was a… beeping. Yes, a beeping. It sounded like: Beep, Beep, Beep, Beep, BEEP, BEEP, BEEP, BEEP, BEEP, BEEP, BEEP-

 

-BEEP, BEEP, BEEP, BEEP, BEEP

Julia Lauren thrashed around with her hand, groping for the off switch on her alarm. She found it and gave a wild push. The beeping stopped. She raised her groggy head from the pillow and stared at the red numbers. Seven a.m.: the start of a new day. A surprisingly early start. What day was it? She thought hard.

Yesterday was Sunday. That’s when my supervisor told me how everybody felt scared of their first class. But, she said, you know what they say.

“You get over it,” she murmured. Actually, that seemed wrong to her. She doubted that you simply ‘got over it’; you probably spent more time learning how to cope with negative emotions such as fear, uncertainty, or doubt.

Together, she noted, they spelled ‘F.U.D.’

“Fud,” she said, and giggled stupidly. I’ve just woken up. Give me some slack.

So, she thought, if yesterday was Sunday then today must be Monday. What’s happening today?

Suddenly, she realised what the day held in store… and let out a long, deep groan into the darkness of her room. The red numbers of the alarm clock twinkled merrily.

It was the first day of her new teaching job. She was to arrive at the local school in half-an-hour, make final preparations, and teach her first English class at nine. It was all yet to happen, apparently, but she felt as if it had already happened. Why did she feel that way?

Then the dream came back to her. Slowly, it came. She finally reached the end of it – where she had snagged a date with a celestial entity – and let out another groan.

“You’ve got to be kidding me.” With a sigh and a shake of her head she got up, opened the curtains to let in some of the grey morning light, ran a hand through her bed hair, pulled on some socks to warm her feet, and thumped down to the kitchen to make herself breakfast, thinking sour thoughts along the way – many of them directed at one thing. Rather, one person, and that was a certain Mrs. Esmerelda Craney.

3,113 words

9 pages (350 words/page)

29th – 31st August 2014

Sheffield, UK