Age is a Number

Two hours, seventeen minutes, nine seconds left to go, according to the ugly green numbers on my wrist. Why she couldn’t have bought me a normal, wind- up watch for Christmas I don’t know. Can I make the walk today? The weather’s holding up for now but the sky in the distance looks heavy, I could always take the umbrella from out the back; I’ll bring it back tomorrow. I probably should take it, just in case. I want to take the bus if I’m being honest but then I know she’ll ask, ask if I took the bus but then if it does rain she’ll know anyway if I’ve walked. The umbrella might keep my top half dry but my trousers will be all wet and she’ll scold, she’ll say ‘why didn’t you take the bus?’ She’ll say that but she’ll think you silly old fool. What she can’t seem to understand is I’ve got two perfectly good legs, I can walk, so why would I take the bus? This damn knee if it wasn’t for the knee I wouldn’t think twice about walking but now it’s not only my back but my knee as well, and what must I look like perched on this stool like some decrepit old man. I can stand, I would stand if it wasn’t for the damn knee and when it comes to working in this grocery store eight hours a day I’ve got no other choice. ‘Here you go, Dennis love,’ said the manager when she handed me the stool, ‘rest that knee of yours now,’ and it killed me to take the stool, just like it kills me to let her talk to me like that but I have no option in either case.

 

There’s been a racket going on for the last ten minutes. It’s that young boy over there, he’s making all sorts of noise picking things up, moving them to the wrong place. Apples in with oranges, lettuces and cabbages all mixed up. Put the melon down, I’d say to him, no means no and that would be the end of that but the old fella he’s with can’t barely control that walking stick let alone the kid. God knows I’d be telling him if he was one of mine, making all that noise and what’s that he’s saying now? This damn hearing it’s getting worse but I won’t be telling anyone that, I’m not having anyone think I need some hearing aid, I’m not sticking some thing in my ear for everyone to see might as well walk with a walking stick like the old fella and there’s no chance of that now, no. What would she think of that? She thinks already that I need to take buses and wear big coats like I’m her dad and an old dad for that well I’m not, not that it matters anyway. I’ve seen how she looks at me when she doesn’t know I’m watching. She probably thinks I’m blind as well as deaf and incapable of walking to work well I won’t have it, age is just a number is what she used to say. I used to think she was convincing me but now I see she was trying to convince herself, not that easy though now the years have ticked by and there’s her all pretty still, despite the odd wrinkle, and I see that she’s bothered although she promised she never would be. Well, my fault really. I should have seen through it, I should have known that one day she’d see me not for me but for my age, but I won’t have it. I won’t let her be right, this damn knee and back I’ll fight past it if it’s the last thing I do, I’m not some old man like that old fella over there look at him all bent over on the walking stick and that kid’s still causing a scene, still grabbing this and that while the old fella’s telling him put it down, put it down, at least that’s what I think he’s saying anyway. He’s coming over now, puts the basket on the counter, shakes his head. ‘Mr…’ he says, straining his eyes, trying to read my name tag he is, well if his eyesights failing that ain’t my problem. He’ll just have to do with not knowing my name. Mr Peters, but that’s my business not his. The kids at the back of the shop now laughing his head off while the old fella just shakes his head at me, he’s talking to me, he’s saying ‘kids these days won’t listen, not like the old days, not like when we were kids, eh?’ Not like when we were kids? Silly old fella talking to me like I’m the same as him.

 

The rain didn’t hold up, went and forgot the umbrella as well, didn’t I. I can’t get that noisy kid out of my head. More I try more I think about it, more I see him. Can just picture him now…

 

 

                                                                             *

 

 

‘Bernie!’ Sshh ma, I think, I wish she would stop calling me, it’s early yet the moon’s only peeking above the chimneys over there and the sky’s still navy blue, not black so I ain’t going inside yet, Ma. I’m spying on Alice, my friend from school, like a soldier. Me and Alice were born two days apart, Ma says we’re like two peas in a pod which makes no sense because neither of us look like peas and even though my house is small it’s bigger than a pod. If I had a gun and Alice and her family were Germans I’d go bang bang bang I’d get them all and they wouldn’t get me not like they got my dad, I’m too quick I’d hide behind things like I am now. I can see her through the gaps in this bush, can see right into her window she’s in the kitchen and she looks lovely, there’s a red, spotty bow in her hair it’s holding up all the yellow strands; maybe I could get her a bow like that after the war, a purple one, Alice loves purple she’s told me so, ‘purple’s my favourite colour,’ she said and I teased her said purple’s a silly girl’s colour but I was only joking, I like purple really just wouldn’t want to tell anyone that. I aim my gun at a bird sat on the roof, bang!  I wish it was a gun and not really just a stick I snapped off the bush but one day I’ll have a real gun, I’ll be a solider one day.

‘Bernie Peter Banks! Where are you?’ Go away, ma! I want to keep watching Alice, she’s eating her tea now I wish I could see what she’s eating, I could see if I had binoculars. That’s it, I need binoculars, I know there’s a pair in the special box that Ma keeps by her bed but they were my dad’s and she’d give me one hell of a slap if I took them and she found out, but think how closely I could see Alice then. I bet that food tastes good and the fire’s going too, the orange flames are spitting and giving her kitchen a cosy look and making the shadows out here even darker. It will be warm inside and Ma will have tea on by now but the problem is once I go in I won’t be going out again tonight, that’s for sure.

 

 

                                                                           *

 

 

‘Don’t start, Maggie. I fancied a walk.’

‘Dennis! Look how wet you are, what were you thinking I’ve told you before…’ and she keeps talking something about buses and colds and muddy footsteps but I ain’t listening, told her before I ain’t gonna listen when she talks to me like that so a nice warm cup of tea it is. I’ve been thinking of that cup of tea all the way home so I’m gonna walk straight past her into the kitchen and make myself one. Time was when I’d get in and she’d stick the kettle on second she heard the door, but she stopped doing that around about the same time she started talking to me like an old cripple. I ain’t gonna have it.

‘Dennis! You just walked past me like you didn’t see me!’ Kettle on, mug out the cupboard, where’s she gone and put those teabags now? I swear she’s hiding them from me, why move teabags from cupboard to cupboard? Bet she’s trying to convince me I’m mad as well as everything else now well I’m not and I’ll show her, she might be younger than me but my mind is saner than hers and I know that for a fact.

‘Dennis! Why won’t you listen to a word I say?’ There’s the damn teabags, hidden in some tin now, are they.

‘You know what, I give up. I’ve had enough, and I mean it this time.’ Kettles boiled, door slams, and silence. Finally.

 

 

                                                                          *

 

 

The calm is unnerving. The clouds are still, they’ve paused in their tracks in shapes and forms that look like dragons chasing squashed figures and my feet are silent upon the street; even the breeze cooling my neck blows with an unusual reserve. The quiet appears new to me yet I can’t remember a different time. Somewhere in the back of my mind is a noise, an anguish, been there for a long time now but I am trapped by the feeling and cannot relate them to any event. Maybe that’s because there was no event, I’m walking the same street I always do, I’m going to go and get a coffee from the little red cafe on the corner, sit by the window and watch nothing pass outside like I do every day. I wonder if Margaret will be there, she’s been there three days this week, if she’s there I hope she speaks to me again and I hope I don’t stutter this time. She’s so young, and beautiful, and she reminds me of someone. I thought of the name Alice when I first saw her, couldn’t tell you why, though. I hope she doesn’t notice the grey stubble in my shaven beard that caught my attention with a blow when I looked in the mirror this morning. When she spoke to me she talked to my eyes, didn’t look once at the scar or my old clothes and I think I really like her. What’s she going to want with me though? Mustn’t get carried away with myself, she’s fifteen years my junior at least and so beautiful but there was something in the way she looked, I knew it somewhere despite the noise and anguish which I wish would shift; even when she asked my name there was an anxiety and I was ashamed to realise I didn’t  know, gave her an answer that I’m not sure of myself; a name came from somewhere, Michael Bernard Denning I said but the truth is I think I made it up. January fourteenth 1947 reads the date on the Daily Herald where not a single newspaper on the stand moves in the breeze, yet I feel like every day is January fourteenth 1947. There never was another time.

 

 

 

                                                               

 

*

 

 

‘Let me out, ma!’

He’s at it again. Eyes fixed on the patio door, hands gripped to the arm- chair rests, shirt buttons straining over his belly as his breathing quickens. I’ve not seen him blink in the last few minutes, I don’t know what he’s staring at but I know it’s not our garden. The lovely garden with its tomato plants and the little pond he dug, this living room with the patterned Oriental rug that my daughter Alice brought us as a gift from India, our two bedroom, semi-detached, red brick house paid for by my inheritance and his savings, none of it is really ours. It’s mine, but these days he sees nothing but his past. He looks straight past the furniture we chose together, the gold carriage clock I gave him for our anniversary, the photographs of us, my late parents, my two daughters and son and my seven grandchildren; he has no photographs, when I asked why he shrugged and said ‘where’s the need? I don’t need a picture to remember.’ He looks straight past me, he walks less and less through the rooms that I had re- painted and wallpapered in what I see now was a vain attempt to create something that’s ours, and now he rarely moves from that chair. The chair was one of the few things he brought with him when we moved here. The horrible, faded pink, shallow armchair that’s got to be at least twenty years old. It was the day that he turned the armchair from the fireplace to face the window that I knew I’d lost him.

‘There ain’t gonna be any more bombs today, ma, now let me outside!’

I can’t listen any longer. I move towards him with two mugs of tea in my hands. Whether he’s happy with the two sugars I’ve given him today or not I’ll have to wait and see. Some days he likes one sugar in his tea, sometimes two with no milk, sometimes milk and no sugar, sometimes no milk or sugar at all. It’s a small thing but it can be the hardest part, everyone should know how their partner takes their tea, but then I don’t have only one partner; I have three or four. He doesn’t know who he is any more. I put the tea on the mantelpiece and place my hand on his shoulder. ‘Francis, I’ve made you some tea, love.’ It takes a while but eventually he turns to me, slowly, then he smiles.  His large, grey eyes are clear, his smile creases his old face further but it’s him, I think, it’s Francis’ smile. I will him to speak.

‘Margaret, you’re looking lovely. I was hoping you’d show.’ He says, finally. The sharp pang never gets easier. ‘How are you today, my darling?’

I rub his shoulder, keep a straight face. An expression I’ve practised. ‘No love, it’s Milly. Remember?’

‘You do look lovely, Margaret.’ His hand reaches towards mine. The fingers that rest on my knuckles are warm, and chubby, and I remind myself that it is still him, the same fingers I’ve held many times. Margaret. His ex-wife. They divorced ten years ago for a reason that I’ve never known. My husband died, nearly fifty years we were married. Then I met Francis in a little coffee shop just outside town, and that was it. I’ll not leave him, no matter how hard it gets.

‘It’s Milly, Francis. Please try, love.’

His eyes shrink as he glances down. He looks away, removes his hand. ‘Francis?’ he mutters, ‘no, no.’ Some days he’s Dennis, others he’s Bernie. He’s even been Michael once or twice. He increasingly knows me as Margaret, I’m rarely Milly to him. Time is the enemy, he gets worse as the days roll by, and I yearn for time to stop, just for a little while. Alice called round the other week and Francis insisted that wasn’t her name; Alice was dead, died in the war, he said, ‘who are you claiming to be my Alice?’ 

 

Francis settles back in the chair and looks again towards the window. ‘Looks like rain,’ he says. His thinning hair points in all directions, curls at his ears. I’ll need to trim it for him later.

 

Too Many Colours

 

I met Maria in university. She was studying film, I was studying history. We met when I was a ‘lad’ and she was bewildered yet struck by me, I guess. I remember the mornings, light- headed, dry mouthed mornings when I would lead whichever girl it was that time to the door, kiss her goodbye on the cheek, of course, avoiding breaths stale with sleep and alcohol, and return to my room. I would pass the kitchen, and every time Maria would be there, early bird that she is, sat at the table eating muesli and scrambled eggs, a combination that I couldn’t understand then and still fail to fathom now. I’d glance in the kitchen doorway, nod hello, but her eyes would already be looking. Her small, white, flawless face saying far more than her mouth ever did. Her lips always had the appearance of lipstick, which she never wore, her dark brown hair swept across her forehead and the hill of her cheek as though it were moulded to never move out of place.  Maria is European, she was born in Sweden but moved with her parents to England when she was a toddler. Despite her perfectly spoken English she retains a curious foreignness that reveals itself in moments like these; quiet mornings alone where the light has barely risen yet she sits fully dressed, listening to the smallest sounds, a fly hitting a window or the lone drip of a tap, watching for the flutter of a stray scrap of paper indicating an opening door. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want to know her thoughts. I think the same could be said for everyone in our block of halls. I often wanted to ask her, but that would have meant intruding on the silence emanating from her sleek body when the growing dawn appeared to belong to no-one but Maria. Instead, I would return to my room and bury myself under the nest of covers until my former state returned and the nausea and fogginess felt a few hours before were as forgotten as the majority of the night itself.

 

 

As the months rolled on Maria became a constant presence, even when she wasn’t  around. It was something new to me, to find myself thinking of her smile, her smell. There were times when I’d hear voices in the corridor and would think of an excuse to leave my room in the hope of it being her. I started to get up early to join her at the kitchen table, I began drinking coffee despite hating the bitter taste simply because she offered to make me one. She drank black coffee with no sugar which I never understood any more than the eggs and muesli. Those mornings were never long enough. It turned out that when Maria trusted you enough to start speaking she would never stop, it was as if she was in command of time; the hours waited on her every movement, her soft fingers brushing against my wrist, her voice that retained the innocence of a child, the wonder of freedom first experienced. Maria loved to walk, would reel off the reasons why maple leaves turn a scarlet red, why swallows fly low in cold air as we walked in autumn through parks where trees resembled a child’s finger painting, imprinted against a mellow sky were blotches of rusty bronze and pumpkin orange that I never would have noticed until Maria took my hand and pointed out ‘that’s an oak, that’s a birch, did you ever think it was possible to see so many different shades of yellow?’ She couldn’t wait for winter when the leaves would have crumbled to the earth in the shadow of the bare trees that once housed them, leaning skeletons that in Maria’s eyes were frozen reminders of the strength of nature, bent forms trapped by their roots and at the constant mercy of seasons taking turns to batter and burn and snow upon them. We would walk and walk, and Maria would speak, while I would follow, caring not for the beauty of the surroundings she so admired but for the consuming, addictive beauty of Maria herself. Never again did I have a one night stand.

 

 

*

 

 

When university ended I moved to central London and Jack went to America to study for a Masters at California State University. ‘Listen, Maria,’ he said. ‘It’s only for a year. I’ll be back at Christmas and you can come and visit any time. I love you.’ I didn’t want him to go, when summer came and the reality of living in another country hit Jack didn’t want to go either, but he’d talked about wanting to study in America since I’d known him. I’d helped him apply, feigned happiness when he was accepted. It’s only for a year, I reminded myself. I never expected to fall in love with Jack. I believed I’d never fall in love with anyone, and not because I was fearful of anyone ever wanting someone who’s hair could be longer, who’s lips could be fuller, or who’s indifference to people was often mistaken for arrogance, it was because I’d convinced myself I never wanted to. I’ve always been wary of the emotional strain caused by allowing someone else to have an impact, to affect a decision that otherwise may have been obvious. I saw it with my parents. My Daddy held my mother in such high regard that the discovery of her sleeping with a work colleague knocked him to a place he never thought possible, where even waking up became a struggle in itself and the air surrounding him grew thick with the lies, deceit, and his own regret. I saw how his life for the past thirty years had become not only his but my mother’s also; she was a constant shadow in his view, his blood warmed with her touch, her words, to the extent where he imagined the warmth halting without her and chose to forgive. I remember what my mother said to me, ‘there’s a very thin line between right and wrong, Maria. If you’re not careful the two can get blurred.’ I disagreed with her, and knew that I’d  be careful, that the distinction for me would always be clear and that my time would be spent doing everything I could to do whatever I wanted. I wanted to be a film director.

 

Jack looked at me the same way my Daddy looked at my mother. As frustrating as it was, and as hard as I tried, to detach myself from any emotional connection proved too difficult. It scares me to let people know what I’m feeling, but the ease I feel when I’m in Jack’s company replaces my habit of over thinking to the point where I analyse every thought. He never used to say much, would just listen to me, accept whatever I said and reply with an honesty that came naturally to him. As our time together increased he began to reveal himself more, his cheeks turned pink when he told me how he takes dog biscuits when he goes to the City for the dogs he passes at the feet of beggars, I’ve seen his ability to read past a straight face and understand when there’s something not being said, when he speaks of his family he smiles. I know Jack now like he was a part of myself. He is, in a way. The one thing I’d never expected to happen has, despite my determination to avoid any involvement. We’ve been together nearly two years. I was disappointed with myself when he first moved away; I woke up at three thirty am every day for a week missing the smell of my apple scented shampoo on his hair as he slept with his nose buried in my neck and his half hearted snore that soothed me to sleep. He always uses my shampoo and shower gel, even my shaming foam, I’ve never seen him buy his own. Just like my Daddy with my mother, it seemed that every thought was geared towards Jack, and for the first time I was beginning to understand the tug that refused to let her go. We’ve been living away from each other for four months, in two weeks he’ll be back for Christmas. The days I’m not with Jack I spend wishing I was. Still, I love London, and I’ve seen Jack watching me with a look that tells me he’ll never want anyone else no matter where in the world he is.

 

 

                                                                  *

 

 

I’m sat staring at the trees. I couldn’t tell you which ones they are. The branches are thick with leaves, green leaves, and I’m struggling to find another shade like Maria would. It’s a lovely day, the grass is dry, fried from the sun which even directly under I can’t get warm. The air is so still that the corners of the letter at my feet don’t even flicker. A part of me wishes it would blow away. It’s a letter from Maria, she speaks of how each day every thing she does is with me in mind, for us, and our future. She says how she misses me with a physical pain, and the weight on my chest grows. She talks of Christmas, but I don’t want to go home. I watch some Collie dogs play with each other in the distance, and I wish life was as simple. It’s not simple, it’s fucking hard. I came here to try and remember. Maria loves parks, and I love parks when I’m with her. But now, looking at the trails leading off into woodland, similar paths to the ones I’ve walked with Maria hundreds of times, the memory no longer belongs to only me and her. I’ve walked through parks with Maria, and I’ve walked through parks with Sophie. Thinking of the two of them in the same sentence reminds me that I deserve neither, but the pull that’s been tearing me in half for the last two months remains equally strong between them and I have no idea how to cut either one. Call it naivety, or a youthful belief in a current happiness lasting, but the times spent with Maria convinced me that the connection experienced in those moments would never be matched. I believed that wouldn’t change, and the hardest thing is that for Maria it hasn’t.

 

 

The two Collies have run off, in opposite directions, towards the whistle of their respective owners. My phone starts to ring. ‘Sophie’ flashes on the screen, my eyes glance to Maria’s signed name on the bottom of the letter. I can’t bring myself to answer. I can’t appreciate anything around me, not the cloudless sky or the lake in the distance laced with silver in the light. I’m jealous of the serene expressions of the dog walkers as they pass, moving with a calm that suggests no trace of anxiety. Touching my skin the warm air turns cold as it senses my guilt. Sophie tries to ring again, and I feel an urge to hear her voice. Somehow  guilt disappears when I’m around Sophie, her constant grin, her light hearted attitude that presents itself whenever a need for laughter arises is infectious, has led me to yearn for her presence despite every voice inside me telling me I shouldn’t. Trouble is I hear those voices less and less. My neck itches. I shut my eyes in an attempt to rationalise the situation. I’ve never felt such a cloud of confusion and no matter what I do now someone who I love is going to get hurt. I never thought I’d be that person, and I’m struggling to pinpoint when it was that I changed.

 

 

 

                                                                   *

 

 

He’s not answering the phone. I don’t know where he is, I haven’t heard from him today and I’ve grown so used to saying good morning to him that the absence of his voice is far more apparent than it should be. Perhaps he’s thinking of Maria, and the idea hurts. There’s no reason why he shouldn’t be, and I know that, but in the couple of months I’ve known Jack each day has formed a memory that would otherwise have been left in the pile of insignificant hours passed had it been me and someone else. I knew he had a girlfriend from the start. Maria Markusson. I can never bring myself to say her name out loud, as if acknowledging her gives the name a life, brings her into my world where so far I’ve avoided, or at least tried to, the fact that she does exist. She lives in a different country, I couldn’t tell you what she’s like, whether she drinks whole milk or half fat, whether she enjoys her work or hates going in, and when it comes to the similarities that bind two people I tell myself that whatever factors brought her and Jack together are insignificant in comparison to the connection we share. I see her only as a picture, a fleeting fragment of Jack’s life which he loved, as much as I hate to admit, but which is in the past now. I know, in reality, she’s not the past. I don’t know if she ever will be. I know that I have no right to feel anything for Jack, or that whatever morals prevent people from acting on instinct in these circumstances appear to be absent. Does that make me a bad person? Is it not just life? Everything is a web of complications, things aren’t black and white, they are a crazy, confusing whirlwind of colour. Scarlet, yellow, plum, lime, warm pink; lust, happiness, guilt, envy and the moment when you realise love. Emotions and morals twisted together in a knot that can’t be undone without a string being torn apart. Jack Cole, Maria Markusson, Sophie Young. Three of us, with only space for two.

The Lesson

Some would say they are beautiful. When lit by the sun each feather is its own, unique, a collection of whiskers hovering and gold in the light. Softer than the kiss of snowfall and large enough to hold a sleeping child. In dusky daytime the wings move from golden to a rusty red and at night they take on an amethyst glow. Wings. I can see why some say they are beautiful, to me they are ugly. If I could say one thing I’ve learnt from life I would say that power, and man’s hungry desire for it, is one of its greatest downfalls. It was power I was after when I made the wish, power that brought me to the ground years later. Weary and desperate but still greedy, and my heart torn in two between the hunger to be looked at in adoration and the voice calling from depths somewhere to let it go and return to who I was. Who I was I don’t know if I want to remember. I was ugly, a different ugly to the wings. With them it runs deeper, I feel their hold and know it won’t let go. They crave the limelight and sat high upon my back they are not only taller than myself but stronger and I stoop beneath the weight of their lust. I was physically ugly, deformed, I still am, only my face is no longer noticed. It’s a contorted face; the nose is obtrusive and sits too low above a cracked mouth, lips too thin to hide the few teeth left that poke like broken china from the gaping hole through which I scarcely speak. I’ve not seen my eyes for many years, during rare glances in a mirror I could not avoid I never looked at my eyes, averting their gaze somewhere else, the stray hairs like weeds scattered across my cheeks, the bony jut of chin.

You got beautiful eyes. Just like your Pappa’s. Darker than the soul of the devil but beautiful none the less.

Grandma Pop would tell me as she took my face in her hands when I was still young but old enough to know that there must be a reason why the other children never came close.

 

Before school my appearance never mattered. I lived an ignorant ten years or so where I missed my father but my mother loved me and that was enough. My father was killed by men with power when I was five years and three months old. Grandma Pop told me he had flown away.

Your Pappa’s gone to a better place, lad. He got tired so you know what he did? He grew a pair of wings, wings like an eagle. You see, when you can fly you can do anything, go anywhere, escape if you need to. Freedom, and that’s something your Pappa never had before. With wings he was strong, and that’s why he left.

From then on I wanted wings. At first it was a slight fascination, the smallest sparrow could rest upon a shaky branch near where I played and I would notice. Be drawn, not to the bird itself, its beady eyes darting with nerves, but the wings. As delicate as they were they had the strength to lift the sparrow and carry it away, and it was gone, as though it had never been in the first place. When I got older, friends that I once rode bikes with every Sunday afternoon began to ride alone. The boy next door who I looked for insects with began to stare, lost interest in the number of spiders we could find and gained interest in me. Wondered why my face was different. Why my back was bent and why my hands were frozen like claws. My mother would stand by the school gates and listen to whispers of  ‘have you seen the strangelooking boy? What kind of disfigurement is that?’and try not to look affected as I ran alongside the other children towards her scuffing dust with my feet. When I realised, when I looked in the mirror and for the first time in my life saw what other people saw, that’s when I really wanted wings.

 

It grew into a desperation. Few people spoke to me, a simple walk down a busy street would result in glances and hand gestures, accusing, as if I was committing a crime by being there, as though the world shouldn’t be faced with my flaws. ‘Don’t look, come away. No, you can’t touch,’ the parents said. ‘But why?’ the children replied, unsure. Then surer, as they grew, that the words spoken by those with influence were words to be trusted. ‘Hide,’ the children whispered to each other, a cruel combination of fear and amusement. ‘Hide.’ They hid, and so did I. I hid behind the memory of innocence, behind the strong, rooted words of Grandma Pop and behind the dream of escape. For a while that was my focus, but the problem with time when there is little other than thoughts to fill the day is its sheer endlessness. And the days grew longer, when my mother became distant, and Grandma Pop went away, to the same place as my father I could only assume now that her confident words were absent.

 

There was nothing specific that caused the change. I simply woke one morning, and the light outside was different somehow. The usually drawn curtains had been left open, and for once I stepped with bare feet onto wooden flooring and felt the sharp nudge of cold. The cold followed, clinging to the hairs static upon my skin, as I walked to the window and noticed the webs of condensation branched along the edges of the clear glass. That morning I looked, and saw the sun, still low and far away but stretching bleak yellow arms across the land before me. I saw the wooden fence: tired, cracked posts curling around straw coloured grass and empty flowerbeds. Dried, grey mud. A wheelbarrow on its side, broken, cold handles once warmed by my mother’s grip. I saw the little white shed, walls flaking, padlock rusted. The stone path snaking to the garden gate, its iron frame bound by weeds. That was the view I’d known, had yet to see past, empty and forgotten, lit by a weary dawn. But now I also saw something else. Past the gate the light had a brightness, there were shadows in the distance but they were not dark or fearful, and  the air was inviting. I was drawn.

 

So I went. I left behind the rooms full of lifeless clutter, the layers of dust clothing furniture, lamps, ornaments of frozen figures with vacant smiles. And I left my mother, sat in the same place as she did every day, rocking upon a chair that refused to move with her, eyes fixed on the photographs lining the stone mantelpiece. Photographs showing scenes and people who have now ceased to exist. In those tired eyes I saw my mother would never let go. She’d become accustomed to the shelter of the walls surrounding her, switched off from the discriminations that swarmed like mosquitoes on the rare occasion she ventured out. She was trapped within the memories that I had started to hide behind, and in that moment I knew that if I didn’t leave they would soon snare me also. I did not say goodbye, an unacknowledged kiss on top of her head where thinning strands of hair stuck to the wet of my lips seemed enough. There was no backward glance as I pulled the heavy wooden door shut and took tentative steps towards the gate. I unlocked the gate and heard it clang behind me. My footsteps gathered pace and courage as I walked. I did not look at the ground as I usually did, easier than looking up due to the stoop in my back; as I gained speed I looked ahead, my back easing itself upright. I passed the neighbouring houses looming like gravestones. The further I went the stronger I felt, and the images of my mother, of laughing children, even of my father and Grandma Pop began to fade. I walked along a dusty road and knew I was becoming taller than the mighty oaks scattered across the fields on either side. My clawed hands were loosening and my feet moving faster, and faster, until the hedges lining the roads blurred like moving trains.

When you can fly you can do anything, go anywhere, escape if you need to.

Grandma Pop’s words circled me like wind as my feet left the ground, becoming a faint whistle as I left that life behind.

 

To forget is not an easy task, but a possible one. For me to forget meant to become someone new. I could no longer tell you how I used to be. I remember actions, places, events. I can remember people if I try but to think of those who once meant something is a dangerous path down which I choose not to venture. But when it comes to who I was back then, how I felt, the values belonging to every individual whether moral or not, there is nothing now, crushed by a weight which I placed  myself. I could not tell you how I would have reacted to an injured dog, to a homeless figure pleading for change. Whether I shed many tears and how often I laughed, if I ever sung in private or told stories to myself as I waited for sleep at night. I only know who I became. An injured dog would probably receive a kick, a homeless voice would sail past my ear without the slightest turn of my head even if my pockets were full of gold. For that way was easier. For years I flew, my wings pounding against anything that stood in my way. The air resounding with my laughter at the ugly, the poor, the desperate, the unfortunate souls that I had now risen above.

 

Looking back I realise I thought I was in control, but now, my bones frail and my spine crushed, I know that the weaker my body becomes the mightier the wings grow. They suck strength from the glory like an adored creature. At the sight of money they quiver, confronted with weakness they groan. I believed that it was I who grinned at the crowds  kneeling before me, at the riches hung around my neck. What I thrived most upon, the thing that made the wings reach a new height each time, was the children whose unblinking eyes would stare, not in shock, or disgust, but bewilderment. They muttered the word ‘Angel’ and were quiet, still in my presence. The wings flourished with a pride that I also felt at first but after time I could only regard their reaction with indifference. It was not I who had gained respect but the phenomenon upon my back. The wings led the way. And I came to wonder what it was that I had set out to find. Nothing was enough.

 

Now I can only crawl. My back buckled as my legs gave way. I spend my days fighting against the wings to stay out of sight. My fingernails have become dark and cracked as I scrape my way through dust. At night I curl against the withered bark of trees and create forms out of misted clouds edging their way across a blackened sky. In the daytime I avoid the people who come to admire, keeping my eyes to the ground, enclosed in the shell that the wings have become. I hear voices but no words. See the shadows of figures cast upon the dry land and feel no desire to view their source. One morning before the sun had fully risen, I was awakened by a rustling that was different to the sounds of the hurried footsteps that flocked to the wings. I opened my eyes and looked up. Towards me walked a girl. She stopped when she reached me and sat down, crossing her legs. Her lips were silent and her eyes wide and dark, and fixed on mine. It was then that Grandma Pop’s words sprung from a place I had believed I had forgotten.

You got beautiful eyes. Just like your Pappa’s. Darker than the soul of the devil but beautiful none the less.

The faded memory jolted me. The girl leant forward then, and spoke. ‘What’s your name?’ she asked.

I hung my head with a shame I had never experienced before as it struck me that I did not know.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Archaeologist

I’m running so fast, past flashes of purple bluebells peeking their heads up out of yellow rapeseed stalks. Branches reach out and tickle my legs. I snap off one of the stalks and start pulling off the flowers at the top before the wind steals them out of my fingers and carries them away.

‘Come on Joe, catch up, try and find me!’ I shout, and my voice rises above the stalks and becomes a whistle just like the wind. I’m out of breath, so I sit down on a soft patch of grass and look up. The grass stalks are big, bigger than me, bigger than my brother Joe. I think they might even be bigger than my mum and dad. A butterfly dances in front of my eyes and I hold out both of my hands to catch it but it skips away. Clouds nudge their way across the edges of the sky and the sun sits like a bright torch in the middle. It’s starting to hurt my face. I kick my sandals off and lie down, rolling on my stomach so the sun stays out of my eyes. There’s loads of ants rushing around, I wonder if they are playing chase as well. The grass is starting to feel itchy, I reach down and scratch the bit of my leg just below the knee. I’m bored of waiting now. I can’t tell how long I’ve been here, if I could see a clock I bet the hands would have moved past lots of numbers.

‘Joe,’ this time I shout as loud as I can. ‘Joe!’ I can’t hear him, just insect sounds, buzzing and humming. Maybe I should go and find him. Sitting up I slip my sandals back on and I stand up and start walking. Wait, I’m not sure this is the right way. I turn around and go the other way, I can’t tell, everything looks the same. My palms and feet are all clammy.

‘Joe!’ I don’t know which way to go. The sun is really hurting my face, I poke at my cheeks and they feel hot, like they’re burning. The tops of my arms are all pink and speckled and I want a drink. I liked the yellow rapeseed but now they’re making me angry. They flutter in the breeze, shaking their heads at me. I wish they would go away so I can see which way I’m supposed to go.

 

My mum sat me down once and told me what to do if I ever get lost. Trouble is, I don’t remember what she said. I was watching the TV at the same time and Jungle Run was on. I’ve always wanted to go on Jungle Run, I think I’d be really good at it. I like exploring, my

 

dad is something called an Archaeologist, he gets to travel to all these different places around the world digging up things and he says that when I’m bigger he’ll take me with him sometime. I wish I was bigger now. There’s not much you can do when you’re seven. I’m not big enough to go on Jungle Run either, Joe is but he says it’s just a stupid kids programme. It’s not stupid, one day I’m going to go on Jungle Run and when I’m older I’m going to be an Archaeologist like my dad. He says he’s found all sorts of things, fossils and ancient remains and things that give us an idea into how people used to live. I’m going to travel the world and make discoveries. My name is Kimmy Taylor, and I’m going to be known everywhere as the best explorer there ever was.

 

My head feels fuzzy now and I’m getting sleepy. I’ve been wandering around for a long time, picking bluebells and sticking them in my hair but they keep falling out. I wish I could remember what I’m supposed to do if I get lost. Wait, why am I getting scared? I can find my way home, I go exploring all the time and I’ve always found my way home before. I close my eyes and start to spin around on the spot, as fast as I can, with my finger pointing out. Spinning makes my head feel even fuzzier. I keep going, around and around, until it feels like my feet aren’t touching the floor any more and it’s the wind that’s keeping me going. I always wonder how little birds aren’t blown away when there’s a bad storm going on, like a spider caught in water running towards a plughole. I spin until I start to wobble and my belly feels a bit sick. When I’ve stopped wobbling I open my eyes and see where my finger is pointed. That’s the way I’m going to go. I stand up straight and march forwards, stomping my feet to try and wake myself up a bit. I hum as I walk, I’m not sure what song it is but it makes me think of home, I think it’s one that Joe likes to play. Hmm, it’s strange that I’m humming one of Joe’s songs, normally I hate his music, he always plays it too loud and makes the whole house thump.

 

‘Ow!’ I’ve hit my toe on a large rock, I wasn’t looking where I was going. I screw my face up and clench my fists against the pain. Then I realise, if I climb up onto the rock I’ll be able to see above the grass stalks and see which way home is. Maybe I’ll even be able to see Joe. He must be out there somewhere, I know he wouldn’t have left me. The rock is rough and I scrape my knee against the side as I climb up. I stand on tiptoes and look around.

 

The sun has fallen down in the sky, it’s not as hot as it was and has changed colour, instead of being a bright yellow, too bright to look at, now it’s a deep orange and the sky beneath is striped with pink and purple, like it’s been painted. The edges of the clouds have been dipped in red and they don’t even look like clouds any more, the longer I look at them the more they turn into different shapes. The one straight ahead looks like a dinosaur, it has a long curly tail and its jaws are wide open. I hoped that being high up I’d be able to see the way out, but it still looks the same, everywhere I look I see the grass stalks and  purple bluebells, all lined up and standing straight like soldiers. In the distance I can see darkened, bushy trees, a wooden fence between them and the field. I remember running through the trees to get here, and climbing over the fence, I didn’t even look back, I was too happy that Joe couldn’t catch me. But the trees and the fence circle the entire field, I still don’t know which way to go. Why didn’t Joe catch up with me?

 

My palms feel clammy again, I’m trying to be brave like a grown up but my eyes keep filling up like I’m going to cry. I’m not going to let myself cry, explorers don’t cry. My belly is hurting now and making noises. This morning I had hash browns with ketchup for breakfast. I love ketchup, sometimes when no-one’s looking I’ll squirt loads out of the bottle and eat it on it’s own with a spoon. Is it dinner time yet? It must be, the sun is nearly gone now.  I sit down on the rock and kick my feet against the side.  This is the only rock I’ve seen in this field, it must be a special one. I look down at my feet, all dusty with dirt underneath the nails. I bet mum will make me go in the bath when I get home. Everywhere is so quiet, I can’t even hear the wind making the grass rustle any more. I jump as I hear a loud squawk and look up to see a bird fly up out of the grass and race away above me. The bird is huge, with large wings spread out like Aladdin’s magic carpet. It continues to squawk, loudly, urgently, like it’s running away from something, then in a flash it’s gone. I swiftly turn my head as I hear a crunch somewhere behind me, like a twig being snapped. It sounds quite far away. Is it another bird?

 

Rubbing my eyes they feel moist. I’ve started crying without realising it. I lean forwards, resting my elbows on my thighs and cupping my chin in my hands when something catches my eye. Poking out from under the rock is something that looks like a bit of

 

material. I jump down and look closer. The material is frayed and muddy, but beneath the dirt it’s bright pink with yellow dots. I try to pull it out from under the rock but it’s stuck. Looking at the rock I know I’ll never be able to move it on my own, but I try anyway. It doesn’t budge. Then I have an idea, I can dig under the rock like the Archaeologist’s do. My dad would be proud of me if I find anything valuable, and I really like the pink colour. I kneel on the grass and start digging, using my hands and a stone that I found lying next to the rock. The mud is really soft so I find that I don’t need the stone. I keep digging, the hole growing bigger quickly. Soon I’m able to pull the material out easily. I hear another crunch echo from the grass in the distance, it sounds a bit closer now. ‘Stupid birds,’ I mutter out loud. I try to wipe some of the mud off the material with the palm of my hand. I shake it out and hold it up. I smile as I see that it’s a skirt, and a really pretty one, it looks like it could fit me if I clean it up but when I turn it around my smile turns into a frown as I notice a large rip down the back. If there was a skirt hidden under the rock maybe there’s something else, something not ripped. I continue digging, faster now.

 

My hands are black and so are my knees, I’m definitely going to have to go in the bath tonight. I’ve been digging for a while and I haven’t found anything else. I’m not going to give up though, dad says that sometimes they have to dig really deep until they find something, and I want to take him home something that isn’t ripped. I lie down on the ground so I’m in a comfier position and keep digging, pulling at strands of grass and loose stones as I go. I’m getting frustrated, the sky has turned to a bluey grey, and it’s getting colder, I have goose bumps all up my arms. Soon the moon and stars will be out. Then, I see something. At first it looks like another stone, lodged between the dirt, but when I try to move it it won’t shift easily like the others, and it’s a funny shaped stone, long and thin unlike the round ones. I think I’ve found something, I start scraping at the mud around  the funny stone, and find another one, and then another, they don’t look like stones any more, I don’t know what they are. I keep scraping at the mud, for some reason I feel my heart beating faster than normal. As the dirt falls away I think I know what it is, it looks like a hand, a small one, it must be a doll!  It’s a big doll, all my dolls at home have tiny hands, but this one is about the same size as mine. I need to keep digging, it might have been buried for hundreds of years, my nana has a really old doll and she says it’s worth lots of

 

money. I can see the hand clearly now, and a wrist, but then I need to stop. I move away quickly, coughing, I have never smelt anything like it, why does the doll smell so bad? I’m backing away from the hole with my hands covering my nose when I stop. I can hear the crunching again, but this time it’s a lot louder, and the grass is rustling, like someone walking through, has someone found me? Maybe now I can go home!

‘Hello there,’ says a friendly voice. Grinning, I turn around.