Bon Appétit

The brown paper bag had been folded over twice, quite neatly – hemmed almost. Bethany stroked the smooth paper edges where the fold almost shone with tightness. Her finger tips tingled in exquisite anticipation but she squeezed the seal even more firmly together testing her will. The bag rested on her lap and its warmth invaded her loins insinuating into the taut nylon of her jogger bottoms. Bethany squirmed towards the slow spread of heat. She stole a glimpse down and saw the grease stain begin its remorseless progress; the fat on her sides and thighs quivered. Her fingers traced the seam, half prising the bag’s lips apart, exploring the crease, daring herself not to look. Fingers, moist with perspiration from excitement and heat, slowly turned first one and then the next fold. And as she knew it would with the opening exposed, the warm contents gave off their full aroma: a musky, meaty all-consuming waft of sweet grease and warm bun. She inhaled deeply and as she did a bead of saliva abseiled from the corner of her mouth into the bag.

Almost there, yet she still slowed her hand’s decent into the dark recess, fingers responding blindly to the warmth. There it was. She found then stroked the edge of the grease proof paper that enfolded the first of her cheese burgers. Grease from the meat or perhaps the cheese had seeped through the paper and she massaged its wonderful stickiness between her thumb and forefinger. Then, shaking and salivating, she pulled her hand from the bag and held her fingers just below her nose. Ever so gently she licked their tips.

Brian had been watching Bethany over his right shoulder for the past four minutes, transfixed. He felt like a voyeur: dirty but unable to look away. The huge woman seemed to fill the entire width of her hatchback. All space taken by Bethany James and the junk food wrappers and empty coffee cups wedged between the windscreen and the dashboard. He watched her suck her fingers before tearing his eyes away to the phone’s touch screen. He typed ‘Suspect still in the carpark’.

Bethany pulled out the first burger, ripped off the paper and in two bites she finished. She moaned as she felt the barely chewed burger slide down her gullet easing the ravenous craving torment that was her stomach. Within a minute she had finished all four burgers and hated herself for not ordering fries.

Near sated she adjusted the rear view mirror leaving another layer of greasy thumb prints on the glass. She considered her face. Bethany had once been pretty. Now she had become one of the fat androgynous whose life style and looks merge into the one pursuit: feeding. Only her eyes still held the promise of beauty, of a redemption. She noticed a streak of congealing orange cheese lodged in the corner of her mouth, whose end had become trapped in the fold between her chins. She pulled it free, slowly so as not to tear it. Its cooled texture was like spaghetti. Controlling the speed with practiced skill she sucked it into her mouth luxuriating in its smooth elasticity. She reached for the wipes under the armrest to remove the grease from her face. With the grease came the make-up and she stared at the suture marks along the top of her lip as if for the first time. Hurriedly she scrabbled for the touch up cream in her bag and then the lipstick deftly hiding the neat rows of white stitches that lined her mouth like a picket fence around a sink hole.

It was as she finished with the lipstick that she noticed the man in the car one row in front, slightly to her left. He was twisted in his seat staring at her. ‘Not very covert’, thought Bethany. But at least he was cute, if a little scrawny. Had he seen her scars? Not from over there. Her mother had promised her that blanket stitches were the best for the job and that the scars would be minimal. But like in so many other ways her mother had been wrong.

Bethany’s mother had been a seamstress making her living from an internet business of needlepoint artwork and in mending and adjusting clothing and curtains. She was very skilled but there had never been much money in it but it just about paid their bills. Anorexically thin, her mother’s real passion was cookery and having little appetite herself, she had fed her only child as a wren feeds a cuckoo. ‘Little Cuckoo’ was her name for Bethany. And Bethany had thrived.

Then came the forced diets, the gastric bands, the interminable interviews with social services and when Bethany could no longer walk to school, the unofficial home-schooling. The school, where Bethany had been happy, had called the police and interviews followed in which Bethany followed her mother’s scripts to the letter. But even so, in the car on the way home her mother would scream at her, ‘You humiliated me, today’ and punish her with strict diets or even stricter feeding. Even after Bethany had left home to work for an old school friend, paying minimal rent for a bedsit, the food parcels arrived every day, sometimes twice. So she had invited her mother to dinner.

Slowly she had got herself together. Her obesity was checked; for nearly three weeks she had not put on any weight. Today’s visit to McDonalds was a celebration, a last hurrah and again she regretted the no fries. Now she could look forward to meagre rations for at least a couple of years, perhaps more. Unfortunately her mother’s well documented dysfunction would not help, but two years would be enough. Three healthy square meals a day, not a chance of treats or over or under feeding.

Time to go. Bethany pushed open the door slid the seat back to the limit and squeezed herself out using the steering wheel as a brace. The car next to her was too close and she had to side herself along generating static electricity in her joggers that rippled along the side of the shiny Audi like a body dropped into a pond. She opened the boot and lifted out her mother’s desiccated corpse, stick thin and light as small child. She carried her gently and waddled down the other side of the car. Then easily shifting her grip and holding her like a ventriloquist’s dummy, she waved her mother’s hand to the cute policeman in his car.


She heard him before she saw him. The open window on the landing allowed in the early summer birdsong together with the less melodic sounds of her husband’s harsh but controlled breathing and fast, heavy footfall as he sprinted the last twenty metres to the gate. Chest heaving, he came in to their enclosed back garden and bent to rest his hands above his knees. She watched him, stopping herself from knocking on the window. His post run fruit smoothie was ready for him but she looked at him instead, moving back a little form the glass. He sat down on the garden seat and faced the lawn, his back to her. She noticed the slightly thinning patch on his tanned scalp, the way his breathing made his shoulders tense and the slight perspiration on the back of his neck. He liked to keep himself in shape and pushed hard – this was no jog but a race against middle age. A race he’ll lose eventually, he had told her, but ‘not yet’. She smiled at his attitude to life and for the thousandth time thanked her stars for the strength that allowed her to try again. This time she had found a keeper.

A bird had landed at the base of the bird table, searching the flower bed for the seeds that had fallen like manna from above. Lucy made a mental note to replenish the feeders as she watched the sparrow, she thought it was, busily scavenge amongst the Ribes stems and the last of the bluebells so recently gone off. The bird seemed oblivious to John who now sat statue still watching it. His breathing already back to normal, the sweat drying on his neck he was, she noticed, absolutely motionless, intent on watching the bird’s foraging. Manly perhaps but quite an old softly when it came to wildlife. Later he’ll come in and look up the bird in one of his guides, even though he’ll already know what it was, and write in his precious journal he kept in his bedside drawer. He claimed he was not a ‘twitcher’ and hated clubs but he would often go off alone when the birding network reported a rare sighting. Sometimes Lucy would go with him; precious trips when he had taken her away to find some migrant or rare summer visitor.  For Lucy, the birds were irrelevant. It was the romantic hotel getaways she cherished.  On long walks out to the marshes in North Norfolk or along a coastal path in Dorset, with his second best binoculars beating with her heart against her chest, he showed her just as much attention as he gave the plovers and even the bitterns.

So unlike her hedonistic ex whose self-preening with expensive gels, cologne and moisturisers – bought because he was so worth it – drove her to distraction and loneliness. Jay wore bespoke clothes, never exercised and spoke loudly about himself and nothing. His self-obsession wore her down and she came to the realisation that she was just another label for him to show off and, as with all labels, there was a time to display and a time to discard.

The bird flew off and the tension broke like the baited arm on a trap. She saw his shoulders relax. Poor dear, all that concentration for a sparrow; although he had informed her recently that sparrows are nowhere near as common as they used to be. Something about intensive farming and pesticides.            

His sparrow had flown into the field maple that grew against the garden wall. Lucy watched him follow it there and smiled as he gently uncovered its nest like he was exploring a tomb. She read his lips as he counted and then carefully replaced the branch he’d moved aside. Five eggs or young. He looked pleased as he returns to the chair and again stills to catatonic immobility – waiting. The purposeful and deliberate care in his movements reminded her again how lucky she and her young daughter were. She looked again at his strong, content profile, so pleased to glean just a little more knowledge about even such a common bird. ‘There’s one for the book’ she intones in mock nerdiness.

Yet John was no nerd. No, she knew nerds. Lucy had swung pendulum like from the moronic, superficial Jay to the geekish Robin, a ‘scientist’. She had later found out that he was actually a laboratory technician whose worktime manipulation of variables were not the only experimentation he enjoyed. For a time his monotone recitation of remorseless factoids and cold and deliberate investigation of physical pain – giving not receiving, of course – had defined her life. Their relationship had lasted for what seemed an incomprehensibly long time. Her best friends could not understand the type of fear that kept Lucy rooted to the spot unable to move, terrified that she might give her position away; like the avocets John had told her about, that feign severe hurt so that the predator chases them and not their young. Not Tilly. Lucy winced and shuddered at the memories and put her hand out to the window sill that ran the length of the landing. Lucy hadn’t had to feign severe hurt. But that was years ago and this is now and she forces herself to leave the dark realm of old fear and pain, returning to the light of her husband’s patient vigil.

The sparrow had just then moved into John’s long morning shadow and taken a seed from no more than an inch in front of his left trainer. That’s trust.

A child needs a nest with two to tend it and now she had met and married a man who led by self-reliant example and in whom, like the sparrow she could trust. They had created this refuge with its rich rugs, warm curtains and more scatter cushions than they needed. Their home was bright and yet cosy and she felt safer than she’d ever felt.

And yet they had nearly not been married. When she’d first heard the rumours she had immediately believed them, trained to expect the worse for herself and it had taken time to listen to the other side and much longer to believe it. Her friends, protective of their friend who had proved time and again that she could not choose a good man, warned her of what they’ve heard; tales of deceit and of a psychotic coldness.  These venomous rumours sprang from a past wife and told of how he’d lost custody of his children, of restraining orders and dropped charges. In the end she’d confronted him, mere weeks before their marriage, and he’d gently explained. He’d been ruthlessly hen pecked, then bullied and to his shame physically abused by his wife. When he finally reacted, just once, she had told the police and in the ensuing court case he had been found not guilty of assault but a restraining order had been granted and the accusations stuck.  He had been the victim he assured her. She couldn’t imagine what it must have cost him to be blamed for the breakup or for his marriage and for his own children to believe him a danger.

But in time she had believed him and now she would help heal him as he had healed her. She had not just given herself to him, but her child too. This gorgeous house had become a safe haven for all three of them.

He took a real interest in her life – even asked her friends, ‘What are you lot clucking about today?‘ He’d smile at them and he really wanted to know, his curiosity unfeigned and like no man she had ever known, he actually listened to the answers and in fact demanded them.

Peering out through the sash window’s lace, Lucy wondered how he keeps so still? He seemed so relaxed that only by staring could she see that he wasn’t simply dead (too much manly exercise would do that to you). The thought made her stifle a giggle and she moved back from the window. He tensed – almost like he knew she was there and looked up, head turning like a hawk. She waited and didn’t dare breathe. How silly of her; she should have waved, blown him a kiss, beckoned him upstairs; he was clearly recovered from the run and his shirt was clinging close to his broad shoulders and there was plenty of time before she had to leave for work.

Instead she hid.

When Lucy edged again to the window he was again sentinel still looking at the bird,  which was clinging vainly from the feeder.

The bird alighted near his feet. There was an understanding there. Animals sense the goodness in people. She wondered why he wouldn’t allow them to have a pet, Tilly had wanted a dog all her life. But still the wild birds loved him. The sparrow hopped closer to him and busily turned over leaf litter and pecked not inches from his feet. Oblivious.

A breeze bent the mimosa towards her and Lucy shuddered and looked again at her husband who was staring at sparrow. She realised for the bird it was just as if John was not there. There was no trust to give here, no more than to give trust to the flag stones or the fence or the rockery. The man was merely a cold shape, a piece of weathered garden feature.

Lightning fast, John stamped his foot down on the bird. A clawed leg twitched and blood oozed from the side of the vibram sole of his running shoe.  He kept his foot there.

Silence within and without. It was as if the garden had died five months early. The shock created a void inside the house, a void filled only by the sound of the blood coursing through Lucy’s ears and with it the sound of muted bird song.

When the fog cleared she could hear the sound of the hose from the garden. Somehow she had ended up crouched under the window sill, pressed against the wall. She couldn’t look out again but withdrew, lost in the implications of what she had witnessed. But his journal? He loves birds, he sketches them, plots their position on the map in his study, photographs them…

Willing herself to move, Lucy half crawled then stumbled numbly from the landing, the Persian rug coarse sand between her toes, the cold boards sapping her strength. In their bedroom she took the worn journal from his bedside drawer. Perched on the edge of the bed, she leafed through the pages and witnessed the extent of her husband’s successes. So much death. Each tick, a life scrubbed out, dates and times documented in fastidious detail.

She cocks her head to the light, predatory footfall on the stairs.

On the Verge

Michael pulled up outside his childhood home and had just reached the other side of the car before his mother had closed her gate and turned towards him. He pecked her on the proffered cheek and opened the rear door, waited as she fastened her seat belt, closed the door gently and returned to his seat. Perfect start.

‘Where to today, Mum?’

‘A351 about 3 miles this side of Swanage, dear.’

His mother had never learned to drive but a lifetime telling her husband where to go and what to do had given her the patter of a rally car navigator.

He looked at her in his review mirror as they travelled along Scarwood Road, a road that never seemed to change no matter how many people moved out and in. Always the same type of people with the same stuff, same cars, same lives.

‘Eyes on the road, dear.’

She had been looking out of her side window, he’d seen the powder above her lip, the profiled hairs catching the light like old snow on a glacier; and yet she had known he was looking at her.

‘Yes, Mum.’

This had been how every Sunday had been for the last two years, since she had been alone.  Michael had adopted the routine as his way of dealing with missing his father. 8.00 am he’d pick up his mother who would be waiting and she would tell him where to drive. This week not too far; about a 30 minute round trip along roads he had explored on his bike, with his mates as a boy, and roads he driven with dad as he was taught to drive. Familiar, and as he pulled onto the A351, he wondered at how far from his roots he had not come.  He also thought, that he’d got way with the it this time, but no.

‘Are you seeing anyone, Michael? Time is slipping away and if you are to have a family, you at least should be looking for a nice, young woman.’

‘No, Mum, I’m not dating at the moment.’

‘You do like girls don’t you, Michael? I know the world is very odd today but you are alright aren’t you? None of those queer lifestyle choices, I hope?’

Michael ignored the question. Old ground. ‘We’re nearly there, Mum.’

Now as he approached the place she had asked him to find, he wanted to ask like he always wanted to ask, ‘what do you do, mum?’ and ‘why these places?’ But he remembered her response to the first and only time he had asked these questions.

‘Michael, if my simple requests are too much to ask, in future, I’ll call a taxi. A taxi driver would not ask so many questions.’

So instead all he said was, ‘About here, Mum? There’s a layby just ahead on the left.’

‘No, it’s the other side of the road I need, Michael. See the oak standing by itself in the field, quite near the verge?’

Michael saw the oak; an old one, stag headed and solitary with a massive trunk about 6 feet across.

‘Bit tricky, Mum the road bends sharply just before it on that side. I’ll get as close as I can but the verge doesn’t look hard enough to park on’.

‘Just get me as close as you can, dear. I’ve brought my sensible shoes so I’ll be ok walking a few yards on the grass.’

The thought of his mother in anything other than sensible shoes made him smile.

As if in answer to his unspoken thought, his mother went on, ‘It’s not like I go anywhere anymore to own a fancy pair of shoes. Not even when your father was still alive.’

And there is was, like every Sunday, the reference to Dad. The disappointment with his dad.

It took a while for Michael to find a safe place to u turn and drive past the tree after the bend.  A little way past the tree there was a farmer’s track with a gate and enough room to park.

‘Are you sure this is OK, mum? It’s got to be 150 yards to the tree? Can I come with you?’

‘No. You know that Michael – I have to do this alone. I won’t be long.’

And before Michael could get up to help, his mother had slammed the car door and begun to walk back along the verge to the tree. He watched her, exasperated but also impressed that woman in her early seventies could stride so confidently along an uneven verge whilst being buffeted by the backdraft from the string of lorries that seemed to have been waiting for her.

Through the rear mirror he saw her walk a few paces into the field where the oak brooded. Then she just stopped and stood staring at the tree, just like at all the other roadside locations he had taken her in all weathers on Sundays. She stood as still as the objects she stared at.

‘Reach out and touch it… now’, Michael whispered aloud.

And as he said the words his mother reached out a hand and stroked the bark of the tree and then in a move new to Michael, she reached up and followed the irregular line of the two lowest branches with her right hand, as if conducting an invisible orchestra.

What would the people driving by be thinking about this strange old lady dressed like she walked out of the 50s, in that tweed suit and wearing that oversized moon broach, waving her arms about at the side of the road? He cringed and sank a little deeper into his chair. Adjusting the mirror, Michael could tell she was doing the chant thing. Always the chant thing: nodding her head a she stroked the tree.  He was too far away to read her lips but he was closer last week and he had seen some of the words she mouthed: ‘Bring them here’, seemed to be the phrase repeated most.

Of course stroking trees was a little odd but lots of people like hugging them. But it was the other things she stroked, the telegraph poles, the church walls and the post boxes that was truly odd. Early onset Alzheimer’s? But in all other ways she was sharp as knife.

‘Well, that didn’t take me long now did it?’

‘No, Mum. You were very quick.’ Michael winced, he hadn’t controlled his tone.

‘You don’t approve of our little drives, do you Michael?’

‘It’s not for me to approve or disapprove, Mum.’

‘Em. And yet you do. If you’d prefer it, I can take a taxi in future?’

‘No, Mum. I love our drives; It’s just that don’t understand what you do. It seems a little bizarre, that’s all.’ He knew that he’d crossed one of her lines the moment he’d said it. No response but the car seemed to get colder.

He tried to break the tension. ‘Did you mention on the phone that you need to buy some sausages on the way back?’

Silence and then, ‘Yes, my butchers let me down again. Seems I can’t trust anyone anymore. But I can do very well without them.’

The rest of the journey home took place in silence and it would be over two weeks before she phoned him again.

Michael woke up gripping the duvet, soaked from the sweat of his night terrors; same terror most nights. His dad’s cadaverous mass lying still with only the susurration of his shallow breathing to hint at life. Then his eyes open, empty sockets but staring nevertheless accusingly at Michael. And then the words, always the same, always spat with an energy that belied the skeletal frame, ‘You left me like this. You left me with her.’

‘Just a dream.’

Michael swung his feet out of bed and repeated his mantra, ‘Just a dream.’

His father had always had a final plan. That if he got seriously ill, he meant terminally ill, he would, before it was too late, ‘do something about it’. He’d loved hill walking and had told Michael in a light tone that he’d found the perfect place. He’d made Michael promise that he’d drive him up to Glen Affric in the Highlands of Scotland where he’d walk away alone until he could walk no-more. And there die. He’d even left a large sum in his will for the Scottish Mountain Rescue who would be called to search for him and retrieve the body.

That was the plan and he had only told his son, his only child; told him gripping his arm, with a warning: ‘Don’t tell your mother’.

In the end when it was clear his father’s illness was not going into remission like it did the first time, his father had told him it was time. He’d even packed a picnic for the drive like he had when Michael was a child. Michael had refused to drive his father to Scotland.

Later that night, when they’d returned from the police station, his mother had told him that his father, devastated by Michael’s betrayal had taken the car and it was during his own attempt to drive to Scotland that he had crashed and had died watching the paramedics try to revive the little girl his car had pinned to a tree.

By the next Sunday she had still not called and his mother’s silence was beginning to feel like a punishment. His sleep was wracked by even more intense dreams and the sounds of sirens infected his nightmares; the ones outside – so many – merging in his nightmares with the wails that accompanied his father to hospital so many times in the months before he died. The next morning the local news had reported another road death only half a mile from Michael’s house. A local shopkeeper, apparently.

All the next week his mother hadn’t picked up when he called, nor had she replied to his messages. He would have walked the five minutes to his mother’s house but was unsure of his welcome and so it was with obvious relief in his voice that Michael answered when his mother rang him the next Saturday. He hadn’t decided how he felt on finally hearing her clipped instructions before his own voice confirmed that he would pick up his mother the next day ‘at 8am sharp’ to take her to another location.

The morning was cold and the rain heavy sky seemed to press the car into the wet road as he drove again along the damp, grey and featureless of Scarwood Road.

‘Where to today, Mum?’

‘Just head for the centre of town, please.’

Well, she was being frosty but he’d known her frostier.  Perhaps she’s forgiven him.

Michael noticed the butchers was closed with a large wreath on the door and realised that the dead shopkeeper from the news was known to them. He started to tell his mum but as he glanced in the rear view, he saw her looking at the shop door as they passed and her wide smile drained all the words from his mouth; he hadn’t realised that she hadn’t liked him. Paul was his name and he had been their family’s go to butcher for as long as Michael could remember.

‘Here will do, Michael.’

‘It’s a taxi rank, Mum. There are lots of people there.’ Michael could only imagine how her strange actions and chant would go down here. ‘I’ll have to drop you and go round. Is that all right?’

‘If that’s what you have to do, that’s what you have to do.’

She got out and Michael pulled away before even one of the taxicab drivers had formulated a territorial expletive. From experience Michael knew how long he had and he decided to pick up a local paper while he waited. Pulling into the OneStop carpark at the end of the high street, he saw that the news boards were full of the butcher’s funeral which was taking place on Thursday of the next week. He sat back in the car and read about the community’s grief and enough of the detail to realise how little he had known about this pillar of the community. Paul Hoskins had been raising money for the local children’s hospice. His long distance running and had raised over £20,000 at the time of his death.

Michael wanted to tell his mother about him – perhaps so that she might appreciate him more and perhaps so that she might rub out that smile from Michael’s memory and replace it with some sign respectful grief. However, when he had finally negotiated the morning traffic back to the taxi rank, the scene that greeted him wiped all conversation from his mind.

His mother was standing bolt upright surrounded by taxi drivers and passersby, like Miss Marple amongst all the suspects she had ever accused of murder. Everyone seemed to be shouting at her. Before he realised what he was doing, Michael was out of the car, his arm around her, guiding his mother to safety. As they drove away, narrowly missing one of the taxi drivers who had run at the car as it left, Michael asked, ‘What happened mum? Are you alright? What did you do?’

‘It’s telling that you think it was my fault.’

‘Mum, everyone was shouting at you! What happened?’

‘A misunderstanding. That’s all. Take me home, Michael.’

And that was that. She would not say another word or even acknowledge his questions all the way back.

The sirens were back in his head that night. His father’s accusing eyes held him like a vice and in ripping himself away from their glare he found himself thrown half out of bed, fevered and with no prospect of further sleep. It was 3 0’clock in the morning. Michael drove the empty streets of the town and turned into the high street, passing the taxi rank. Too late for punters, he saw that there were flowers around the base of the post which held the sign for taxi rank and wondered what could have happened there. Still distracted and scared that inaction would invite in his father’s baleful presence, he drove on. Soon he found himself back on the A351 heading towards Swanage where he had taken his mother three weeks ago. As he came round the bend his full beams reflected on something glittery where he knew the old oak stood back from the road.

Pulling over in the same place, Michael retraced his mother’s steps by torchlight and stood before the tree. A jagged scar had torn away a swath of bark half way up the trunk and ripped two of the lower branches like dolls limbs from their sockets. The verge had been chewed up and there were pieces of glass and plastic strewn around the base of the tree. Someone had tied a bright red and glittery ribbon around the tree and a cheap clip frame had been slipped under it.

The face of a young man – a little younger than Michael smiled out at him. Had mum known that someone had died here when she came to chant and touch? Had this been her silent farewell? Perhaps she knew him? But what of all the other strange roadside vigils he had taken her to?

When she had been here, Michael didn’t remember the damage to the tree. But he had been over a hundred yards away. He was however certain that there had been no ribbon. He noticed another frame tucked into the wide ribbon; this one small, wooden with a glass pane. Stepping closer he shone his torch at the beautiful hand-written script, ‘My beloved, Cameron, we had so little time together but you filled my days with joy. I will always love you.  John xxx’.

Above this simple declaration of love were the dates: Cameron Stainforth May 12th 1993 – September 14th 2020.

Michael froze. Was this all just a coincidence? That he and his mother had visited a tree before a fatal accident at exactly the same tree? He could barely breathe. He and his mother had visited the tree two days before Cameron had died.

How could she have known that an accident would happen here? Unless this Cameron had the accident earlier, say Saturday, and didn’t die until later? Then his mum found out about it and came to wish him well where he was injured. But the tree had looked whole on that Sunday. The tree’s damage was severe so wouldn’t he have seen it? And who was Cameron? His mum didn’t know anyone of her own age far less a man in his twenties. And Cameron was obviously gay and if Michael was honest, he knew that his mum was ‘conservative’ about such things.

Too many questions rang around Michaels’ head as he drove home, so many that sleep would have been impossible so he drove on towards town.

Michael arrived back at the taxi rank. It was still early but there were already three taxis waiting for the commuters who would soon emerge from the underpass that led from the town’s station.  The third in line he recognised as the woman who he had almost hit as she tried to get at his mother as they’d driven away.  

Michael pulled up on the other side of the road and walked to the taxi. Her window was open. ‘Excuse me.’

‘Start that end, mate’, she said without looking up from her phone.

‘I don’t need a taxi I just need to ask you something.’

She looked up and recognition spread across her face like rash. ‘You were with that old bitch from yesterday!’

Michael winced but carried on, ‘Yeah, my mother. What did she do?’

‘What she did was unforgiveable. Evil old witch, with John only just gone.’

‘Tell me, what did she do? She wouldn’t tell me anything.’

‘She told us that John had taken her on a job last Sunday and that he’d been rude. Well he’d already told me and a couple of the other drivers what really happened. John was never rude, even when he should be. She got him to take her out to a really dodgy stretch of road where the camber is treacherous and then told him off for not waiting on a blind corner. John wouldn’t wait thee but he was concerned about her walking about on that road by herself so he parked safe and walked back. She was chanting at milestone – on her knees stroking the bloody thing! Is your mother ok? I mean ok in her head?’ She didn’t wait for a reply.  ‘John told us she screamed at him, awful language, when she saw him watching her and despite this John still waited for her and drove her home – proper gent he was.’

‘Was? And why were you all screaming at her?’

‘John died on Saturday. She laughed when we told her. Laughed out loud and I think she already knew because she didn’t look surprised, just happy. We’d only just heard he’d been taken off life support and she laughed.’

Michael hardly dared to ask but he had to know, ‘When was John’s accident?’

‘Thursday night. They think he hit something on the road and then lost control and ended up in that ditch. He was such a safe, skilful driver. Just goes to show…’

‘Oh, my god, I’m so sorry.’ Michael should have been driving his mother that Sunday not John. Was it his fault, the taxi driver had died?

Michael drove back the long way, through the mist that hung in tattered curtains across the minor road that meandered south of the town, through the remnants of the ancient woods that had grown there since the ice age. The giant trees reached across the road and under the arch of their entwined fingers, he felt he was driving into a tunnel from which little light escaped. He imagined the trees festooned in ribbons with decaying cuddly toys scattered in holocaust legions, piled between the roots under cellophane shrouds. A sharp bend showed palely 100 yards ahead as the headlights picked out the white of a bracket fungus feeding off a dying silver birch and next to it an oak tree, ancient and unmoveable. So easy to just to not turn the wheel. Just to keep going straight. To do nothing.

When Michael got back home he was still shaky. He sat facing the wall on which the photograph of his father hung and where the shadows cast out by the rising sun passed over it like veils lifting. It all made sense now. He tried to remember how many trips there had been. How many deaths – predicted or arranged? How did she know them and how did she get them there? How did she choose them?  Who else had died on the road, died alone in the shadow of a wall or tree?

His father.

He thought back to that night after they had identified his body. The police had been cold to his mother. He remembered the little girl’s parents’ grief stricken voices in the next room. When he and his mother had finally got home he had told her of his father’s suicide plan. And in the voice she had used with him ever since, she tonelessly and oh so quietly told him that his father’s and the little girl’s death were Michael’s fault. And so she had made him her like a penance, teaching him the error of what? Keeping his father’s plan a secret from his mother?

Michael jumped when the phone rang. He knew who it would be.


‘Michael, I need you to drive me to…’

‘Who is it this time, Mum?’

An extended pause. More than enough space for mutual recognition.

‘‘Where’ not ‘who’, Michael. And it’s not far. And I think we’ll go today.’

‘It’s not Sunday.’

‘This one doesn’t have to be.’

‘It’s nearly 8 O’clock. I’ll come over now.’ He hung up.

Pond Life

My world is of the dark and of the cold. It is alien to you and yet you are drawn to me and my world. I am not drawn to yours.

My world is denser than yours and sound travels differently; it moves faster but more quietly. We live in hollow whispers but whispers that follow us anywhere and everywhere. We hear your world. It seldom whispers. One voice dominates: its deep resonance shakes our world and we have known its taunts and scolds and its never idle threats can crack the ice on our February skin.

I wish the dark of my world was the darkness of space, that infinite vacuum in which sound cannot exist. Then I would not hear her scream nor my fragile tympanum vibrate to a fear we cannot comprehend. 

The scream jogs our collective memory and we replay those times when her world, your world and ours lapped each other’s shore…

A season past, another scream disturbed our peace. I woke to the sound that broke our stillness: high pitched, its icy resonance sent ripples adrift which curled the sodden tendrils of my weeds. I’d heard the sound before – when dragon fly larvae bit tender lace fly legs that dabbled foolishly in the shallows, the haunts for stalkers and predators. This sound was of that ilk – a terror in the surprise attack, trailing off to the resigned, despairing whimper of one who knows there’s no escape.

In my world I am streamlined yet you laugh at my attempts to travel through yours with your gravity snatching at my webbed feet. You ridicule my awkward attempts to walk upon your earth. I ask, where are you perfectly adapted? Where do you swim with graceful ease?  It seems you flounder wherever you are and drown on dry land as easily as you drown in water.

A child’s ball, a spinning globe of primary colour, splashed above and our dark world shook, reverberating like the jelly spawn we lace each spring for our silent, busy young; moulded, packaged, protected through their journey into life. I watched it spin and heard the child cry and felt the unsteady fall of toddler’s feet come gingerly to the brink of our dark, cold world. The spinning ball beckoned its determined owner, whose shape eclipsed the sun and in whose stead we basked,  reached out, grunting with frustrated stretching, pudgy fingers touching …just. And the ball spun away. Yet still he leant, his fair framed head level with my submerged perch, his face just inches from the wet. And in that face we could see hers.

Inevitable. He toppled and yelped with sudden fear. We would have supported his soft frame had we had the combined mass. Held him up, just for her. We breed in legions but she puts all her love and future into his single fragile body. We would have kept him dry and safe but he fell defenceless towards our depths.

She was there.  And caught her son. He never touched the wet and soon was giggling, kicking whisked away and never knew how close he came to us and death. I watched her face, still white but pretending that she had not almost died with fear. She later came back for the ball and its technicolour glory gone, we returned to our verdigris twilight and forgot the child but not the colour he left gently burnt on our collective retina; our cold green eye on your world.

Our pool looks up at the night, the stars enclose our world whilst we, the habitually torpid, sleep deeply and wake slowly and wait for the sun. By day, ours is a hunting ground and not one of us is safe. I only fear the great grey bird whose military stealth stalks all my dreams.  The child’s mother knew my fear and planted a false cat upon our bank. We are a community that dares not turn our backs on each other’s hunger but hunger we understand and there is no malice in need. At night we can usually sleep but with one eye open.

Nights in your well-fed world are another matter. High drama erupts above us and through the glassy surface the lights show what trauma thunders through your homes at night. Deep threats of an anger we don’t feel, her small voice pleading, always pleading and often too the higher pitched cries of her young son who understands no more than we why his repose was disturbed, why his little world had been blasted apart. Why his mother cries. Our pond faces the back of the house where there’s no need to shade the dark events hidden from the street. We get the private grief not public smiles and we saw her stalked from room to room. She hid beneath a window sill but he soon found her refuge and we descended to depths where sight and sound were cushioned.

I returned to the bright gold band, no tarnish there, and wondered what it meant. She dropped it into our depths one evening as the sun dipped behind the wall, and she and we watched together its bright spiral fade into our cold void as our stagnant waters were diluted with her salt tears. She didn’t try to retrieve it. Instead it nestled into our silt. We kept it uncovered in case she ever came for it, if only to see her pale hand brush our weeds and feel her warmth send ripples throughout our frigid realm. It lies there still.

Flags wave across our horizon; it must be Sunday. And she who sits beside our bank on summer evenings and stares into our depths, makes her gentle progress and ties upon a line a myriad of bunting; their colours follow her, mocking the movements of our drab weeds. As the capricious wind takes our fronds and emerald billows strum our little world, so too does it pull and stretch the  infinite array of shape and colour that snaps and dances for our wonder. Later she returns and takes in her rainbow foliage. Sundays were good.   

She brought a toad to us, saved from certain rest and bug rich earth and therefore grumpy even for a toad. Her intention was clear: she saw amphibian need so brought our reluctant guest and shuffled her gently into our depths. ‘There you go. Be free. Be safe, mother toad.’ The toad’s wet affront provoked our dark humour which rebounded from her warty hide. She turned her thick skinned indifference to our disrespect as she clambered back to her world to seek the shelter of old wood or pot.   She may remember us and come back to spawn her bead-like strings of life. I doubt it. I revelled in her ugly presence but too soon she fled our wet for the merely damp and how my relative beauty faded!  I slept and dreamed of lonely princesses.

On summer days we congregate just below the surface, a menagerie of the faithful to hear her tell her tales. Water boatmen skit across the surface leaving con trails in our sky and we rise towards them, gliding: her silent, invisible audience. On the eddies of her voice we drift, beguiled and dream of heroes, witches, labyrinths and happy ever afters she will never know.

And though her words are strange, we join the quest and allow ourselves to be spied by her little son who sits against her knee and stares into our pool. He listens rapt and watches us and sees the fantasy spun by his mother played out in our assigned roles. The great diving beetle is now a bear glowering from the forest glades and a raft spider, a visitor from the fens who stayed, becomes the witch transformed by hate. In his young mind we take our cues and our mime inspires unrestrained delight. His laughter urged us on to greater feats of derring-do: chasing dragonfly nymphs, who enjoy their role too much, typecast and too eager to forget the play and prey on those in pursuit. I, a handsome, speckled steed, of course, race through forests of elodea with my water flea hounds until we are recalled, at last, by a wistful longing that invades her voice as she describes a princess wronged, now saved and carried safely to a different place. The adventure is over for another night.

We saw less of her as summer pollen gave way to fallen leaves that clogged our sky and settling began their acidification of our depths. She appears briefly, seems wary, hurriedly pulling at the worst of the leaves from our autumn dankness. Soon she hurries in and though we should be able to breathe more easy, we cannot. There must be death before life can begin and all that died above and around us this year is absorbed to feed next Spring’s water lily, yellow flag and water violet.

Life only follows death in our universe.

I saw a face. Unfamiliar porous skin stretched rictus thin across strange teeth. We regarded each other, eye to eye. She, pleading, saw me. I recognised her then, disguised behind a white mask of moon-like luminance. Strange, blue eyes bored into my bulbous orbs. But my webbed fingers would not have broken that angry, white knuckled grip that forced her scared, white face into my world. And so she thrashed and all who lived beneath were buffeted by one who died above. The torment ended, she saw no more and her accusing eyes lost focus as she was dragged from our cold world which soon returned to peace.

Tonight an unnatural calm lies heavy on us and we are more aware than usual that nothing separates us from all the dark weight of the night sky.

I swim reluctantly upwards and my head breaks the unnatural peace. It’s Sunday and the sun’s vestige glimmers dully in the west. There is no colour except for her bunting uncollected on the line and the garden deafens me with its silence. Holding my breath, I wait. Our collective eye, like that shared by ancient seers, stares out but we cannot see her future. No evening story from the bank or window; no-more her soft, rich voice to tell of forests and castles and of frogs who would be princes. 

The water stirs around me. They have assembled. They rise together to discover the end of her story, the story we did not choose to join. We wait in the hope that something remains of her, of the love for life, the warmth and optimism.  All that she bequeathed to the heart of that little boy.  We wait. And then, as the last of the sun dies behind the wall and blue replaces the stale orange and pinks in the sky, they come. Strangers dressed darkly race past our hiding place. More lights, shouts then hushed conversation. Then more silence.  The boy is there. Safe. Blanketed, cocooned; holding hands with those that seem hardened to be kind. He’s led form our garden and our lives. Cold blue lights invade our depths like a choking algal bloom.

What purpose did her death fulfil? Her solitary offspring, so long to wean, is unfinished, alone and out of her sun. We were the silent witnesses to her warmth and love and her cold death. No one asked us why. We had no reasons to give.

Her band of gold remains with us and we’ll keep it for her.

Burnt Out

That morning’s stubborn frost – the first of the year – groaned under his feet as he slogged his way up to the bonfire. A mist hung over the field. It seemed that the day hadn’t really started and yet it was already on the wane. His sense of distance was playing up; surely it was taking far too long? Too long to get to the huge pile of planks, branches and discarded furniture – a year’s worth of a village’s accumulated waste. Still, he told himself, it will be worth the effort, so he leaned into the slope pulling on the cord to drag his sled up its last hill. And there it was, looming out of the wet, grey membrane like a lost pyramid. ‘Shit! Someone’s been busy’ he thought. He wondered how the hell he was going to get the old sled to the top of what must be a fifteen foot pile of unstable debris.

What had his Dad called this – his ‘voluntary community service’? He’d explained what he wanted to do: to make a bonfire for the village fireworks night. He knew his dad was surprised, surprised by his feckless son’s enthusiasm and hard work.

Truth be told, Mike had never done the washing up, never offered to wash the car and keeping his room tidy was a joke. As for cleaning up after himself, putting the toilet seat down or washing out the bath after him – never. But this was different. This wasn’t something his parents had told him to do so that made it Ok, even if they would have approved, in their own way. Funny how his parents could have been what they were and yet still have a love for village life.

He looked up at the potential inferno and he grinned. A happily abandoned fly tipping mentality had infected the village, seems they all had something to burn, something to forget. He was part of the village now. In the last two days he’d been recognised and  congratulated by those nameless faces you sort of know but don’t in a small village. They knew about his efforts and rewarded him with the respect due to a young but worth-while member of the village. Diluted respect but respect nonetheless.

  ‘Hey, Mike that’s quite a pile you’ve got there!’

‘Yes, but I’ve got some cream!’ And they’d laughed at his lame joke. Looked at him, seen him as if for the first time.

He remembered his parents’ house parties when it seemed the entire village descended on their semi-detached cottage and then descended again deeper, mysteriously into their cellar. And as he let each guest in the front door, he remembered the scorn on their faces. Probably the same faces that now looked him in the eye as he passed them in the village,  who smiled, winked and tilted their heads almost conspiratorially as they went by. Pity he thought: that’s all it would have taken but now it was too late. Far too late. If only he could have trusted any of these erstwhile friends so he could tell them the truth about what was hidden behind his family’s perfect front.

Millie had been the last straw. The husky/border cross had been the companion of his youth and though her dotage had ended their exploration of the local countryside, their relationship had been the one honest constant in his life. One Saturday in early autumn, after a sleepless night, he’d stumbled down to breakfast where his mum had told him that Millie had been taken ill in the night and had had to be put down at the vets. Later that day he’d cycled to the vets to see her and to say goodbye. He had returned with nothing but the confirmation that his only friend had not been cut down with canine leukaemia, in fact she had not even been admitted at the vets. His parents had clearly been angry at being caught in their lie. As he watched his mum’s practiced regret flit briefly across her face, he remembered what he had thought was a dream the previous night. The familiar chants, that often invaded his dreams, were this time a bass counterpoint to a drawn out, whining that had curled up from the bowels of the house.  This dream had ended in a visceral and euphoric shout at which the whining abruptly stopped.

No dream, then. Mike’s world turned.

He tipped the load, the memory of that sudden realisation giving him the strength to throw the frame from a shattered bed high onto the pyre and heft the sled so it stood balanced on its only whole runner against the staved-in side of an old wardrobe. The wardrobe’s veneer was peeling and its cheap plywood was exposed for all the world to see. He thought of the secrets that Victorian relic might have stored and of the generations who’d polished the wardrobe’s flanks. What had they hidden in its naphthalene smelling insides? The terrible rows, the false accusations, pints of spat obscenities and of course, the hours of cold indifference.  All that history. All those sins. All to be burned away like old rags.

He imagined himself sitting atop the pile looking out over the village. He’d miss the places where he’d taken his first girlfriend, guiltily hiding from the meagre street lights at the centre of the village but reluctant to leave the safety of their glimmer, wary of the dark recesses of the lanes and bridleways. He remembered how he’d respected her shy pleas for restraint and walked her safely home. In the failing light he would still be able to make out the rough track, a scar amongst the trees, where he’d come off his bike, got back up, bloodied, his tear streaked face determined to make the jump this time. From the pyre’s top he would see the recycling bins in the pub car-park where he’d stood up to the bullies who tormented the vicar’s autistic daughter as she returned from church on Sundays.

 If only it had all happened that way – the way he liked to remember it; the way he’d like to be remembered.

An old door, a little way inside the pile, caught his eye: knots weeping through the broken layers of lead paint, the Suffolk latch still attached, vainly reaching for the catch: old habits, it still leant almost straight barring access to the pyre’s heart . And in its hard flat surface, he saw the closed door to his parent’s room, the barred door to the cellar where he was never allowed and all the other doors  slamming in his house. He saw too his friends’ front doors deaf to his knocking and the world’s opportunities shutting in his face. When he tried to tell his mum of his fears or led his dad to the topics he needed help with – nothing. They didn’t, wouldn’t get it. A parent’s scorn was a terrible thing: their disappointment in him dripped from their stares like tears and it burnt him like acid. Surely, that’s child abuse?

And in those cold boards he saw again the locked door to the medicine cabinet opening to the edge of his knife.

At least his parents were together.  He stared deep inside the pyre’s heart, no not a pyre, nor even a pyramid, more like the praying hands of an old god – finger tips touching, the space between – an inverted heart.  And tonight’s bonfire, toasted with local ale and cider and a hog-roast would be a fitting farewell to the village.

Others were winding their way up the hill now.  It seemed everyone was on their way, snaking up through the dusk. Trestle tables appeared, local cider from Dove Farm frothing from demijohns, a fire crackled into paraffin life under a spit. Later, meat would roast. Someone with a head-torch flitted ghostlike behind the screen from behind which the fireworks would later scream.

Laughter now, sparklers ignited, neighbours joked, the cider doing its job, the smell of gently roasting pork – someone forced a glass in his hand;  a hug from someone unfamiliar smelling of cold tweed and then he held a roll – the heat from the roasted pork seeping through  dough, crust and paper, warming his hand. An alien feeling crept over him and threatened to overcome him. It was a sense of absolute belonging, of acceptance, of worth.

Someone swapped his glass for a burning torch – a medieval thing that fitted his grasp, and he was pushed forward through the crowd which opened to receive him like royalty. And now the people chanted down from ten. On cue he thrust the flame into the great pile and whoosh! A gasp from the crowd and then even applause. It seemed he was a natural fire maker. He was helped back from the heat as the fire took and the fireworks reached whining to heaven and fell spent into hell. The warmth of the flames melted the people into a unified whole, a village.

‘Hey, Mike that’s quite a fire you’ve made. Well done, well done!’  The playful thump on the shoulder from whoever – the butcher, Mike thought – and he lost half his onion from his roll. He struggled to remember the man’s name.

‘Sorry, son! Any’ows, it’s a pity your parents aren’t here to see this, eh?’

Jacob! That was his name. He remembered the man’s large, ruddy face serving diced steak across the counter in the butchers. He’d also seen him at the late night parties; always in the middle of a group.

Mike turned to look him in the eye, the way he’d practiced. ‘Yeah, they would have liked this a lot. Still, they couldn’t do anything about it.’

Jacob regarded him with cold blue eyes. ‘No, I suppose they couldn’t.’ And there was a smile under the opaque ice of those eyes. ‘They also would ‘ave appreciated the sacrifice. They never lost faith in you, son.’ He walked away then and joined the rest of the village as it turned almost mechanically to face Mike. Forming a giant ellipse, the village smiled at him and Mike was the eye’s dark centre.

And he wished his parents could see him now. They would be proud of what he’d become. He stared at the pyre’s heart where his mum lay wrapped in his dad’s arms, locked together in a last, warm embrace, wearing the robes they had worn in life but never in front of him; the same robes he saw surrounding him now. 

That morning, before the sun had risen, he’d hauled them up the slope on the sled his Dad had made him for the snowy slopes of his boyhood. And now, after the sun had set, he missed them.