“You are far too young to be nostalgic for anything!” exclaims Arati , and everyone laughs except Siri, who she’s addressing. Siri’s the youngest of us, fifty-eight, a juvenile in this damn place. In good health, she wouldn’t be here. The rest of us, of course, our families need a few hours a week respite from. If only we could have a few hours respite from ourselves, heh! “Tricycles,” murmurs Siri, “bottled milk”, but no-one but me’s listening, our own answers already said.
The afternoon is still and warm, turmeric sunshine staining our faces, stretching our shadows across the (barely) living area. Arati sighs, content to have stirred the group’s amusement, her own the loudest. Scrabble tiles click against their board. “No, no, Sonny” says Mr Agarwal, playing, “’Discombobulated’ is spelled with a C, not a K.” Plastic tiles click away. Beyond his giant head, someone I can’t quite see raises a scrawny arm, waves for tea.
I sit side-on to the windows, watching Siri from the corner of my eye, lost, I hope, against the light behind me. I knew her as a young woman. Knew the scent of the back of her neck, where her hair fell damply. Knew the incline of her firm round thigh, long before her family found her a husband. I don’t think she remembers this, or me. She worked in my factory. She was a good machinist. Lifetimes ago.
She’s been coming here for the last five Wednesdays. Her daughter drops her off, points to her watch, taps the glass under her mother’s nose, Siri’s face as blank as the surface of my Assam. As warm. Right now, she’s playing with a pastry, pulling it apart, puts a little to her mouth. “It is called a croissant”, I mutter. A daring reaching out. “It comes from France.” “It comes from Tesco!” calls Agarwal. Siri looks between the two of us, then at neither of us. But I think she seems more eager as her fingers return to the plate.
I watch her eat, and drop buttery flakes down her front. Don’t rush back, daughters, I pray to whoever. Leave us both here a little longer today, please.
The shadows drag across the walls.
If someone handed you a matchbox with their phalanx bones inside, and referred to it with a shy smile on handing it over as ‘Toe of Toe Hall’, you’d be charmed, wouldn’t you? You wouldn’t yell out to a cafeteria full of teenagers “He’s giving me his boner!” You wouldn’t join in the laughter pouring down like pig’s blood.
I had my first body parts removed at the age of six. Airborne Foot versus Metal Bed Railing. Several bones in the second toe on my right foot didn’t make it. The doctor at the hospital took one look and said “amputation”, right in front of me. I got to take the removed sections home, as a bribe to stop me screaming.
For years, I kept them in an empty matchbox, which I dubbed Toe Hall. Push open the drawer: Toe of Toe Hall. My parents laughed at that every time.
And they bought me a new bed.
Sixteen-year-old girls apparently don’t like receiving body parts. Personally, I thought it a sweet idea, that I was offering something of myself. I wasn’t good at small talk.
Daphne was in my tutor group. We were in the same room for roll call every morning, five days a week. It wasn’t as though I were a total stranger. It’s not as though I necessarily expected her to display my toe bones against her own skin, in the warm, scented hollow of her suprasternal notch, say. She could have kept the box on her bedside table. I didn’t include instructions.
I tossed the box in the trash as I ran out of the building.
Doubled over. Stepping gingerly through the nettles and the low-lying gun smoke. A chill on the morning, dew darkening the shin-high leaves, the bark. Straightening up, arching back, pressing knuckles into flannelled kidneys. A sharp crack and a scarlet, jellied sneeze splashes the nettles.
Don’t lose a contact lens in the forest during hunting season.
is now up at Stories For Homes
My aforementioned flash is now up at Entropy Mag
Hope you enjoy it!
This story was featured in Issue 5 of The Lonely Crowd but I think enough time’s passed to share it here now.
“Long ago, it was, government creeping in through every crack like fog at night. While most were fast asleep, this woman boiled her blood to fight authority…”
“What’s ’at?” calls a voice at the back. Daft face, sweet as sherbet, easily found in a room full of rolling eyes. Someone else slaps their forehead and the sound crosses the hall.
“Government. ’Nother word for. Like police. Like org’nised crime. Anyway, this woman slapped government’s hands whenever she caught ’em robbing us, and they were always robbing us. ‘Don’t ever forget!’ she’d tell them. ‘You’re jus’ our hired help!’ And she’d chew their fists ’til she was spitting out teeth. She once blew a loose tooth straight through three government, bam bam bam, holes in their chests so big the wind was playin’ ’em like a whistle. Another time, she took a whole field to keep it safe from stealing, pulled it clean off the earth like a table cloth, folded it up, stuck it under her shirt. Government was furious, couldn’t work out where it’d gone. She’d left a trail of earth crumbs, too, but she went back in the dead of night and buried those in the ground… That field’s one of those right outside, only no-one’s sure which. And did I tell you about the time she marched right up to government’s house with a sloshing can of petrol in each hand?”
There’s a change in the charge of the room. It’s a good bit, this. Everyone loves this bit! What the hell happens in this bit? Pouring sweat, I fall out through a side door and into the night, where the Devil’s waiting in the shape of a goose.
“You’ve forgotten what comes next, haven’t you?” says the Devil, and we both laugh, me with my hands around his long neck and him sounding like a goose being strangled. “Rubbish stories!” he laughs through my fingers. “None of ’em believe…” I bung his head under my armpit.
The night tar black past the light spilling out the door. The noise inside roars to the high pointy wooden ceiling and all the way down again. Fling my hair out my face, I’m back in for more. A few running about the back plant their cheeks on their bench when they see me on stage again. My lips and tongue clack – “Do you remember? Ladies and gentlemen. Do you remember?!” I can’t remember. The Devil’s leaning in through the window, laughing, laughing, beak wide apart, neck rolling in waves. I lose my thread.
“A, B, C, D…” I’m awful at names.
“She!” shout the pews.
“She! Yes. She said, ‘I need help with this, I can’t beat them all alone’, so she set fire to the sea to raise an alarm. The whole English Channel, whoosh, up in flame, night clouds orange, red and yellow with it. ‘That’ll get help’, she said. ‘They’ll see this for sure’. Only problem was, other countries had government too and no-one came. The fire washed out and the sky went dark and no-one came.”
The sweat’s on me again, like spit on a tooth. They’re booing. My telling’s poor tonight. They’ve heard it better before and they’re restless, feet scraping and stamping on the floorboards, so I stop, though I’ve not left them anywhere good to go away on. I wave ‘em away. They pile out the front and I’m off out the side. I need a splash of moon on my skin while the night’s still fresh. Grab some air into my lungs. Goose at my side, we away from the village as fast as old muscles’ll do.
After a spell, I kick my heels against the path to try raising sparks, amuse the Devil who’s awful quiet, but I only drag up dust, roll the odd stone. I don’t mind the dark. I’ve known this land for decades. Where the shade’ll pool in daytime, how deep, at what hours. I used to wobble up here on my bike before any of that lot behind were even born, my wife walking in front. We’d stop by this paddock here to feed sugar lumps over the fence and laugh at the slobber sliding down our finger.
“What you blubbing for?” asks the Devil, having a go at my ankle with his beak. I chase him, he runs, our larks stopping my foolery. I lose his darting among other shapes out here but when I tire of this and move on, he’s back at my side.
The path ‘comes a bridge now, over the motorway. We stop partway over, same as always. My wife and I would lean right over, hands on the railing, to see the roofs disappearing under. The bridge’d tremble when lorries slammed past, push and pulling the air. Our tops’d fly up off our bodies. Now it’s dark and still as the rest of everywhere tonight. Weeds down there where traffic used to be, stretched far as the eye can see, both ways. I used to tell about my wife losing a fight and being stuck in a cannon, shot through the air to the horizon there, but I know that’s not what happened. I’d have begged to get shot out the cannon after her, annoyed ’em so much they’d have done it gladly.
Blank on what the point of that story was now! I turn to ask the Devil but he’s off, flap, flappin’ down the black path to the even blacker trees. I’m thinking, ‘how slow!’ Thinking, ‘he looks heavy’. I don’t even notice who steps out to stab me. They breathe into my face. Their breath stinks, wet on my face. “Government!” they spit. And shove me over the railing.