Hollyhocks

Sue brought a small, battered, tea cannister out onto the veranda and squinted at the sky. In the hours since her husband Greg had left for the shearing, she had not seen another living soul. The outdoors called to her. She had the strange feeling that it was trying too hard. All this blue, all this dazzle, all this desperate outpouring of the last of the sunlight from the honeyed stores of summer. Just let it go, she wanted to say. Breathe out. Grow old. There is no shame in a season ending. I don’t know who you’re trying to impress, but don’t mind me. The house exhaled comfortably at her back. It was a plain old place. A roof of corrugated iron. Dark wooden floor-boards with cracks of light between. A kitchen with pretty lino and low benches built for a shorter woman. A chilly bathroom off the back veranda. A hook in the fireplace for hanging a kettle over the flames.

It was 1980, a fresh new decade. Shorts were short. Hair was big. The recession was 7 long years in the future. She and Greg were newly married. With the optimism of youth they had bought a couple of bracken-edged paddocks and a small swathe of bush stretching from a breezy hilltop to a bright green gully, and at the edge of the property, this old house. The nearest neighbours were 20 minutes’ walk away. Greg was working every second God gave him. To be honest, it was a little quiet.

Sue sat on a narrow wooden bench and prized off the dented cannister lid with a butter knife. She’d found the cannister tucked up at the very top of the pantry, along with a rusted cake tin and a jar of sugared violets, brown and crumbled into sweet dust, and she always put it straight back there afterwards, like returning a book to the library. It was her secret. A sudden bang made her heart flutter. A flock of black cockatoos rose indignant from the pine tree. In the paddock, five wallabies lifted their heads and pricked their ears nervously. Their fur was so soft, their eyes so inquisitive. Not like the pugnacious kangaroos with their muscles and their lounging. It had been a gun shot from over the neighbour’s way, but there were no more; must have been a one-off pot shot. The cockatoos sank back onto their perches, the wallabies relaxed. Sue pulled out a bundle of papers from the tin.

First, here was Daphne’s beautiful copperplate, neat as a pin. ‘I woke this morning to find the hollyhocks blown over by the wind …’ Daphne had planted a garden around the edges of the house, inside the safety of the wooden fence. She was responsible for the orange blossom, the crooked plum tree, and, Sue hoped, perhaps some daffodils in Spring. Of her 6 pages, 5 were about the garden and the rest about the weather. ‘I regret planting the ivy’ ‘Do remember to water the front garden beds well; it has been such a dry Winter’. Sue folded them again. The garden was in a state of disrepair, but Daphne’s work was still visible in the layout of the vegetable patch, the straggling hedge, the path to the water tank that was paved with stones.

Next, Kate’s scraps of paper, found by Daphne under the house when it was re-stumped (there was a note). Sue imagined they had been posted by one of Kate’s 7 children into the cracks between the floor-boards. Half a recipe for fruit cake. A shopping list. The children’s birthdates. The final page of a letter signed ‘your dear friend, Kate’ The letter had been crumpled, and the phrase ‘dear friend’ crossed out.

Finally, a single page from a diary. ‘I am writing in fear of my life for the natives have been camped outside for two days now.’ The rest of the page was blank.

Sue smoothed the papers and folded them back into the tin. She intended to add her own contribution to it one day, but when? Her life was still unformed. Perhaps she should achieve something first, like a garden, or children, or some other kind of life carved out of the wilderness. She had no idea what. She sat and looked at the sky. All the blue, all the dazzle. One season holding on, waiting for the next.

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Metamorph

When Olivia woke up and found she had metamorphosed into a giant cockroach, her first feeling was one of relief. Now, finally and unequivocally, she would not be able to go to work. She lay there on her back waving her new limbs in the air.

Olivia’s bed was in the spare room. When they had first moved in together as a throuple, she, Max, and Charlie had planned to sleep together every night. She remembered the shopping trip, full of bravado as they tried first one and then another emperor sized mattress in front of the sales staff. It had occurred to her at the time that the whole thing was a bit performative, but back then she’d found it charming. Charlie’s brittle energy stepping up to the world like it was a dare, Max’s easy grace as he lay in the middle, arms outstretched, Olivia, unfurling her soul like a bright spinnaker in their company as she bounced suggestively to test the springs. She had looked sidelong at her two loves as she dealt with the payment, trying not to laugh. They were family now, a joyous, creative, out-of-the-mould group of beings who had found each other outside the narrow confines of society. They could do what they liked.

But that was three years ago. Now Max and Charlie stayed up late every night and slept until noon in the communal bed while Olivia went to work. She needed her sleep before the early shift. It just made sense. Max was between jobs, smoking weed and gaming to prepare for his creative rebirth. Charlie’s anxiety had rendered her unemployable since she resigned from the tax office. That had been a bad day. Max had sided with Charlie’s decision on the grounds of supporting her mental health. Olivia, wrong-footed and furious, had argued until Charlie cried, and then had gone out and run stormily along the nearest bush track fighting down her rising panic at the prospect of financially supporting three adults on her meagre nursing home carer’s wage. They patched it over eventually and had a long and respectful conference session. Olivia accepted that Max did more of the emotional work. Charlie appreciated that Olivia brought home the bacon, so to speak. They all acknowledged their privileges. Olivia signed up for extra shifts. They slept together for the rest of the weekend.

Oliva gazed up at the ceiling. Birds were chirping in the tree outside. Traffic noise intensified on the highway. All those commuters. All those busses and cars and uniforms and workers and here she was, lying on her back for the longest time she could remember. Cherie would have to do a double shift. Prathiba would probably come in early. Olivia’s phone started to buzz. Work. She lay there, watching it vibrate itself across the bedside table and drop to the floor. She could feel the vibrations in her body, like the sympathetic hum of a finely tuned instrument. Somebody stirred next door. She stretched out her six legs one by one, and experimentally pressed three feet (feet?) against the wall. They stuck, firmly. She pulled herself onto her side. The wall was like a floor to her now. She scurried quickly up it, without thinking, and stopped just under the ceiling. Her clothes on the floor below looked odd. Shock would set in soon. Or maybe cockroaches didn’t feel shock. There was a knock on her bedroom door. Charlie.

‘Are you still home, Liv?’

She must have heard the phone. Olivia tried to speak but the best she could come up with was a kind of a hissing. The bedroom door opened cautiously. Charlie stood there in her oversized T shirt, short hair sticking up in spikes. She always looked softer somehow without her contact lenses in; unfinished. She rubbed her eyes. Looked up. Screamed. Olivia ran to her. Charlie, her face a mask of horror, slammed the door.  

Olivia was locked in. She ran around the walls and the floor. The window was closed. She couldn’t open the door. She was thirsty now, and anxious. Charlie’s screams had stopped, soothed by Max’s deep voice. She pressed close to the wall trying to hear what he was saying. He was getting up. They were coming in. Some instinct told Olivia to stay close to the door. They were approaching. She skittered up the wall and waited above the door frame.

Max’s head below her.

‘See? Nothing there. It was a bad dream.’

She waited. Open the door further. Open it open it open it. Max flung it wide. Charlie approached nervously. Now! Olivia threw herself around the top of the door frame, grasping desperately for the wall on the other side. The angle was wrong. Her front legs gripped but the others waved in space. She fell, bouncing off Max’s shoulder, and landing awkwardly on the floor.

‘What the holy fuck?’

Olivia dashed down the corridor, feet scratching and clattering on the wooden floor, but she was too slow. Max and Charlie cornered her with the broom before she had gone two metres. Their pushing and shoving hurt her heart more than it hurt her body. Back in the spare room, bruised, battered, and hungry, she listened to the disgust in the voices of the people who loved her most in the world. Not for a moment did they wonder who she was. They knew it was her and that somehow hurt the most.

Max, smoking, sat with his back to the spare bedroom door. Charlie brought a bean bag into the hallway.

‘We have to feed her.’

‘Or we could just not.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘She’s not exactly her is she? We squash bugs, usually.’

‘Don’t be so cruel.’

‘What are we going to do now she can’t work?’

‘Get a job.’

‘Doing what?’

‘Dunno. I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed right now’

‘No shit.’

The fragrant smoke came under the door and into Olivia’s body through the cracks in her carapace. She relaxed. Nothing mattered now. She would sleep and wait for nightfall.

That night, Charlie’s arm entered the room. She only opened the door the tiniest crack and by the time Olivia opened her eyes, it was closed again. A bowl of water was on the floor. Next to it, a plate of food. Olivia’s vision in the dark was stunning. There was nothing she couldn’t see. The spider in the corner of the room. The shine of oil on the chips on the plate. The crystals of salt. All of it. Hungry as she was, she could not help but be distracted. She approached the plates sideways, looking. A quiet voice came from the other side of the door.

‘Hey, Liv. I didn’t know what you’d like.’

She couldn’t answer. She had no voice, and besides she was eating now, and eating was all there was.

‘It’s OK, I’ll get a job.’

Olivia paused in her eating. What did she care about the job?

‘Maybe this is all a dream, hey. Maybe it will be better in the morning.’

Olivia’s side hurt where the broom had shoved her. One of her legs was stiff. Open the door. Soothe me. Let me sleep near you. I am still here. Love me for who I am. Why hasn’t Max spoken to me? Talk to me. But Charlie had already gone.

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Gift

Eva had a gift; had had it, in fact, since she was born. No, before she was born. When she was a baby in the womb, visible only in the form of an occasional footprint on the drum of her mother’s belly, she could already call the elements to her. Sigrid, her long-suffering mother, felt Eva’s powers. She knew the baby was thirsty when she looked down at her hands and saw them shrunken to the bones, all the moisture sucked down into her sloshing centre.  When Eva became frustrated, trapped within the tight confines of the womb she had outgrown, Sigrid felt the sky darken, saw the clouds draw dangerously near as she closed the shutters against the roaring of the wind. Only when the sky had been rent by lightning and the clouds shredded and whipped away did the baby grow calm again. Sigrid crossed herself. Nobody but God would believe her, and she was too tired to bother God.

Eva had a lonely childhood. She lived with her family in a small village on the foothills of a mountain where the peak was covered with snow 10 months of the year and the village was threatened by avalanche every ski season. She had no idea why she struggled to make friends with the dozen or so local children and if she asked them, they would look at her nervously and go back to their play. The teachers in the staff room and the parents in the playground, however, were quite clear on the topic. Eva was weird, strange, odd, and a little not-right. Neurodiverse, said the school psychologist. Touched, said her grandma. Blessed, said the priest, in a way that didn’t require her to attend Sunday School. That particular Sunday, the candle flames had flared up towards the great arched ceiling and the thurible had grown red hot on its swinging chain as it spewed out clouds of smoke, more like a tiny forest fire than a censer. Eva ruminated on this later, as she washed up after Sunday dinner. While she calmed herself, small waves ran across the sink, creating a current that drew the cutlery to the surface and made it swim around the soapy water like so many stainless steel sharks. She was not an angry child. It’s just that she felt things deeply. She scrubbed at some hard residue on the side of a baking dish and wished to be someone else. What use is it to be able to call wind or water or fire when all you want is a friend? No use. That’s what. She banished the last of the dampness from her soaked apron and hung it up. It would have dried anyway, in time.

It was a film that changed her life. One Saturday afternoon, her father took Eva and her younger brother to the cinema to see Disney’s new release, Frozen. It was cold and grey outside, with the first wind of winter blowing and twisting around the cobbled streets. They had been getting on Sigrid’s nerves as well as each other’s, and this was Anders’ contribution to the peace of the household. He was not a massive fan of children’s cinema, but he valued calm relations and was willing to buy popcorn and fizzy drinks and sit in the dark for two hours if that’s what it took. Eva was transfixed. A film with girls who looked like her in a country that looked like theirs, and a hopping snowman for comic relief, would have been enough, but when she realised the heroine had magic power over ice and snow, something woke inside her. Not for her, the Elsa and Anna merchandise, the cheaply made blue princess dress, the snowflake-decorated slushie cup. This was sacred. She had found her purpose. The lonely, tortured, Elsa spoke straight to Eva’s soul. With her, she strode fearless up the mountain. Together they pulled the power of the aurora down from the night sky. With a gesture of their arms, an ice castle exploded out of the ground. They were invincible. Let it go. She would not hold back anymore. Eva burst out of the cinema like a piece of popcorn from its shell. Everything would change.

But is life ever that easy? All Eva needed to control was herself, and now here she was trying to control the world. She spent hours on the mountain making herself ill. The sullen snow ignored her until she became furious and then there were blizzards and deep, unsafe, rumblings in the permafrost, and she was forced off the mountain and back home to melt cheese in front of the fire and try to calm her pulse rate to control the flame. The delicate ice structures in the film eluded her, as surely as friendship. And still, the skies responded in their own way. Thunder. Gales of wind. A week of rain. Eva crept into her parents’ bed one morning for comfort. The girl was yellow-skinned and red-eyed and her hair stuck out from her head in a range of messy tufts. She tucked herself in and sighed deeply. Sigrid, waking, murmured the words that had been rattling round her head for weeks:

‘It’s not what you ask, Eva, it’s who.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘Stop telling the snow what to do. Ask your own self how you feel.’

‘I just want a friend.’

‘Then be a friend to yourself. And have a bath.’

And with that, Sigrid rose to make the porridge, leaving Eva in bed to consult her feelings and to find they spoke a foreign language. She had not really, until that moment, noticed.

But Eva had a gift. Had had it, in fact, since before she was born. That morning she went back up the mountain and asked a different question;

‘How do I feel?’

A breeze blew up and twisted this way and that. Clouds boiled on the horizon.

‘Confused?’

Yes, confused. The clouds calmed, the wind dropped. She had got it right. Now what?

‘Content?’

Sun shone on the upper slopes, brightening the snow until it glowed back at the sky. A scent of late Autumn grass came up from the valley. A nearby stream tinkled over golden shingle. Content. Perhaps even smug. Not many people can see their emotions in the sky.

‘Angry?’

But no, she didn’t feel angry anymore. In fact, on her way back home she may have skipped a little. The group of girls playing hopscotch on the street noticed her skipping and smiled. She smiled back, and not in a weird way. Less than a week later, they invited her to join their game.

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Seeing someone

A few months after my brother dies, I book myself in to see a counsellor. It seems like the sensible and responsible thing to do, if only to reassure everyone who suggests, with a slight sense of panic, that I See Someone. It turns out to be a mistake, though. What can I say? The counsellor is more miserable than I am.

I’m not expecting him to crack jokes, but he is relentlessly dour, his face so grave that gravity itself could not shift it. If I had any worry left, I would worry for him. He solemnly clarifies the reason for my visit and hands me a checklist to fill in before we talk, to establish just how mad I really am. From the options presented, I would say the answer is ‘not very’, which is consoling. My ghostly brother, looking over my shoulder, makes scathing comments on both the questions and my answers. Shut up Adam, I mutter – but sanely. I pass the form back for marking and distract myself by trying to make the counsellor smile. It doesn’t work, so I bring out my prepared question instead. Should I just book a cabin somewhere and spend a week by myself wallowing and get all my crying over with? I feel that perhaps there’s an amount I have to complete before it will stop, and I am currently spending most of my waking hours trying to find time for it. This seems pretty clear to me, but he avoids a definitive answer, and gravely suggests that some people find meaning in awareness raising.

He is so damn serious it’s starting to feel like a power play. Awareness of what, exactly? Depression? Suicide? The shittiness of life? They’re all comprehensively covered in the mainstream media. He pushes inexorably on, through his invisible list. Perhaps I would like to celebrate Adam’s life by doing something that he enjoyed or didn’t get the chance to achieve? An image flashes into my head of myself celebrating Adam’s life by drinking a bar dry and sampling a vast range of non-prescription drugs, some of which must surely have been invented in the months since his death. Imaginary Adam lets out a surprised and enthusiastic ‘Yeah!’ inaudible to anyone but myself. I was never that supportive of his drug taking while he was alive. I decide not to mention this to the counsellor, who has moved on to making scrap books and setting up foundations.

Eventually, inevitably, he prompts me to talk about my brother. I get the impression that he thinks this is what I’m here for. It’s a reasonable assumption, and one I may have made myself in a previous life, but now it feels grimy, like paying for sex. He has no interest in Adam at all – why would he? And (why would he) neither does he care about me. When he elicits the inevitable tears it’s like a hard little orgasm, too soon. I talk and cry anyway, until it’s time for him to look at the clock and cut me off with a neat summary of the issues (dead brother, feeling sad) and an offer of two more appointments paid for by my employer. Adam was right to be scathing. My troubled brother’s cynical ghost is warmer than this man. I feel close to him for a moment because we agree on something, then I remember that we will never agree on anything again, and I leave bereft, taking the rest of my tears with me brimming all the way back down to ground floor, and on to work, somehow sadder than I was before.

But that’s not the end of the story, because I am the lucky one. I have a friend to tell about it over cake. She laughs affectionately at me for preparing questions and gives me the advice I need, easily and without fuss – ‘If you go away and spend a week crying, you’ll just end up dehydrated as well as sad. You’re an intelligent and resourceful person. You’ll get through this.’ She shares stories of her own madness and indulges my weak jokes with a quicksilver smile like flashing sunshine through clouds. She sees me. I see her back. It occurs to me that the phrase to ‘see someone’ had somehow been mistranslated, because this kind of seeing is exactly what I need. I don’t make another counselling appointment but instead go out and eat cake with her every day that she’ll come with me, until I am sane again, and the rest of the world can bear to look.

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Something more

Akiko chewed her pencil, then her nails and then, finally, the end of her ponytail. She had never asked a boy out before. But he was perfect. Had anyone ever been so perfect? She doodled another heart in the corner of her exercise book. Akira. Akira and Akiko. Akiko and Akira. Perfect. They were made for each other. Yesterday he had smiled at her as they picked up their bikes after school. Today there had been a space next to his. It was fate. She had slid her bike in beside his and they were nestling together right now, touching. Just like she and Akira would be soon. She blushed. She would ask him today, after volleyball club.

Akiko was a pretty girl, in a cute kind of way, like a mascot, or an anime. She smiled a lot and had dimples and wore short skirts and long socks and neat bows in her shiny, bouncy, hair. She was adorable. All the girls said so. They gathered around her desk at lunch time looking at the hearts and the blushes and giggling supportively. Akira was such a lucky boy! And so cute! Those cheekbones! He could be in a boy band. He and Akiko would look perfect in matching sweaters. Akiko demurred;

‘Do you think so? Really? I don’t know, I’m so ugly today!’,

which set them off into a twittering chorus of encouragement.

‘You can do it! Be brave! He loves you! Don’t give up!’

But late that afternoon, when she got to the bike racks, she nearly lost her nerve. Akira was there, leaning casually against the wall and chatting to his friends. The gentle sun shone from behind him, outlining him in gold, like a vision. She walked hesitantly over to get her bike, lifting it carefully away from his, and lingered, gazing at him with what she believed was her best possible expression. When he left his friends and came over to her, her heart raced.

‘Akira’ She stuttered.

‘I have something to ask you. Will you, really, maybe, could you, I mean, I WANT TO BE YOUR GIRLFRIEND’.

With that, she cast her eyes to the ground and clasped her hands together, waiting anxiously for his reply.

On the other side of the campus, Haru was leaving English club late. As he walked, he thumbed through his dictionary, deep in thought, trying to memorise some new words by applying them to his life. The world’s first Pokèmon theme park, Pokè Park, was due to open next Spring. It was his life’s dream to go, but he had nobody to go with him, since his best friend had moved on from Pokémon to girls. Were they really getting so old? The thought depressed him. His life was becoming … what was that word? Prosaic. Prosaic when he wanted poetic. Work when he had not yet tired of playing. Elegant when cute was what made him smile. He flipped through the pages, arriving at fulsome just as his attention was seized by a desperate cry. He glanced up to see a bike careering out of control towards him, weaving dangerously back and forth. The rider’s eyes seemed to be tight shut, her legs suck out sideways away from the pedals.

‘Watch out!’ he shouted, just too late.

Bike and rider were upon him. Literally upon him. He fell over backwards, the girl with the ponytail fell over forwards, and the bike skidded off to the side where it span twice in a circle and then collapsed exhausted on the ground. The girl was on top of him. She felt … fulsome. He struggled, quickly, to disentangle himself and get up. She stayed on the ground crying.

‘Are you hurt?’ Hiro asked, awkwardly.

She sobbed for a while before answering.

‘Yes’, she said, ‘I have a broken heart!’

‘Uh, I’m sorry to hear that?’

‘I’m Hiro.’

She looked up at him, finally.

‘Akiko.’

She was perfect. Adorable. Dimpled. Cute. He blushed. She blushed. He offered her his hand.

Let’s leave them there for a moment. I think we all know where this is heading. It’s Autumn when they meet and fall in love. They’re going to lean over the bridge to admire the river full of Autumn leaves, aren’t they? They’ll walk hand in hand through smoky streets to eat eel together after school. When Winter comes, they’ll huddle under her kotatsu to do their homework. Hiro will show Akiko his sacred folder of Pokémon cards. They’ll lounge against Akiko’s Hello Kitty soft toys and kiss. There will be snowballs and red dimpled cheeks. Their families will likely go out together on New Year’s eve to eat mochi and ring the temple bell. By spring, Hiro will be known as Wigglytuff.  Akiko will be his assistant, Chatot. Please don’t ask why.

Let’s go back to Akira. Those cheekbones deserve a second glance. Or maybe we could see him as a complete person with a personality and a soul. Whatever. Akira was not interested in going out with Akiko because they had exchanged no more than five words before her proposal, and because he had never really seen her outside the knot of girls she went around with like a tight school of fish, and also because, truth be told, he was secretly more into his classmate Hiro. So when he inadvertently broke her heart and then, in consequence, was forced to watch Hiro fall for her, he felt a degree of discomfort. He was a sensitive character, our Akira, for all that he was one of the popular crowd. He responded by looking inward, avoiding social events, spending more time with his family, and throwing himself into both study and sports. When the Pokè Park opened, he agreed to take his two small nephews along to give his older sister a break.  He was not interested in looking for girls.

The park was crowded. His nephews were beside themselves with excitement.

‘Uncle Akira! Uncle Akira! Help us download Fishing Rally!’

‘Uncle Akira! Uncle Akira! Can we go on the Rascal Railway?’

‘Can we have candyfloss?’

‘Can we get a drink?’

‘I feel sick’

And so on. By mid-afternoon, he was exhausted. With stern warnings to look after each other, he dropped them off at Pikachu’s Forest and found a bench to sit on, and a warm can of coffee from the vending machine. He had just closed his eyes to relax when a familiar voice greeted him.

‘Akira?’

‘Hiro?’

‘What are you doing here?’

‘I came with my nephews. What about you?’

‘I was supposed to come with my girlfriend but, uh, we split up.’

Akira sat up a little straighter.

‘Sorry to hear that, man. You OK?’

‘Oh, you know, these things just happen. Sometimes, life isn’t like you thought it would be, you know?’

‘Yes, I understand. Honestly, sometimes I feel my life is becoming … do you know that English word, prosaic?’

‘I do! That’s exactly how I feel. My life is becoming prosaic. When I wanted something more.’

Their eyes met, in surprise. Their eyes and, behind their eyes, for a moment, their true selves. A hum of energy. A spark of electricity, a meeting of souls. Something more.

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Park

Day is dawning. Early runners are out already, jogging along the bike track in grey light. The trees in the park are brightening slowly from the tops of their canopies down to the shadowy branches below. The playground is still, waiting. Nobody is there to see a figure slip furtively through the safety gate with a baby in her arms. Nobody sees her take off her jacket, wrap the baby in it, and place it, carefully, under the slide. She turns away, and then back, and then away again, three times. She leaves. The bright horizon fills with clouds. The rain hesitates, then softly begins to fall.

When Frances bought her apartment 30 years ago, it was for the smooth green lawns and the well-tended flower beds in the council park next door. It was rare to have such a good view from a second storey and she snapped it up, in those days when a single woman could still buy an apartment in the inner city. Those were the days. She was still single. She was still wayward and ornery and difficult and she still didn’t give a fig what people said about her. She still smoked cigarettes on her balcony and tapped the ash so that it drifted down onto the heads of anyone walking below, like grey dandruff. She still had no maternal instinct and she still couldn’t be bothered with a man in daylight. The only thing that had changed was the park. The new council had dug up the flower beds and destroyed a huge patch of lawn for the sole purpose of installing a playground, practically under her window, where children shouted and wailed and generally caused a ruckus all day and teenagers shouted and swore and generally caused a ruckus all night, climbing on the roundabout and going at it like animals on the steps of the slide. She was looking forward to the peace of a rainy day, when nobody would come but dog walkers, and she could sit near the window and feel the greens blurring together, washing away the ugly straight lines of climbing frame and swings, returning to gentler times while she completed her crossword and rolled her eyes at the news.

The runners are leaving as quickly as they came, off to hot showers and dry clothes. The wind is picking up now, pushing one of the swings. Under the slide, rain is staining the sand a dark blonde. The baby cries. A dog walker pauses outside the fence to tear off a plastic bag from the roll near the bin, while her dog dashes through the open gate into the play area and heads straight for the slide. ‘Rex!’ she shouts at him ‘heel!’. He ignores her, growling at something. Last time he behaved like this, he ended up biting a smaller dog. She dashes towards him, hand out to grab his collar, but he turns and runs off. She strides after him, slamming the gate behind them.

Hannah usually keeps her promises but today will have to be an exception. Yes, she had promised to take them to the park, just like every other Tuesday, and yes, she had said they could have an icecream from the kiosk if they were good, but sometimes, kids, plans change. It is wet, it is cold, it is muddy, and to be honest she is feeling a bit under the weather herself. No, they will not go even in gumboots. There is point in crying about it. Look out of the window. No other kids will be there. There will be no-one to play with. The slide will be freezing cold. They can stay at home instead and play with their many toys. OK, even the ipad. Hannah cuts her losses.

Frances’ bedroom blind is rattling and knocking in the wind. She strides across to the window and glances out. Someone has left a jacket or something under the slide. If she were a kinder person, she would go out there and hang it up on the gate where it could be seen. Then again, they might just as well come and look for it where it is. She closes the window firmly and goes back to the kitchen, turning the radiator on, on the way.

The playground smells of rain and damp earth; wet sand and concrete and thirsty leaves. The wind rises and drops again, sighing and keening. A fine sheet of droplets swooshes across the grey sky, a curtain of water sweeping the ground with its hem. The temperature drops. The rain eases. A lonely runner marks the perimeter of the fence, at last breaking his stride to open the gate. He jogs on the spot for a moment and then takes off again, on his way to the toilet block. Something catches his eye. He turns his gaze ever so slightly and then moves on. A small thread of water clings underneath the slide and then falls, drip, drip, onto a tiny, cold hand.

Kayla sits in the back of the class staring into space. Under her tracksuit, she can feel herself bleeding and bleeding, so much blood that she wonders if she has turned vampire-white and, if so, whether anyone will see. She had changed her pad as soon as she got off the bus and then again after maths but she isn’t sure now that it has been enough. She zones out, and then in again, and then out again. Outside it is raining. Maybe it doesn’t matter now. She shifts in her seat.

At noon, the sun breaks through the clouds, yellow as butter. The close sounds of wind and rain are swept away by birdsong, the conversations of office workers on their lunch break, the brushing off of benches, the opening of sandwiches, the checking of phones. Parents enter the playground laden with bags and prams, children tucked under their arms. Puddles are jumped into. Knees are bruised. A toddler stumbles and trips around the slide, proud to be walking, while his mother keeps an ear out for disaster. In the shadows, he comes across a coat and inside it, a baby. He pokes at it, but there is no sound. He goes to tell his mother. ‘Ba ba’, he says. ‘Yes!’ she responds enthusiastically, ‘You’re my baby’. He is used to being misunderstood. He sits on his bottom for a while and then shuffles off towards the climbing frame.

Frances lights a cigarette and hangs over her balcony, watching the activity below. So many people on their phones. She is not a fuddy duddy, but even the parents stare at screens while they ignore their children. What has the world come to? The jacket is still under the slide. Someone surely will pick it up soon. If only they’d look up. Not her job. It irritates her, nonetheless.

Kayla had expected it to hurt but she hadn’t been prepared for the loss of control, the way the process took over her body while she spun anxiously outside herself, powerless to do anything but watch as she spasmed and clenched and turned inside out with pain. She was genuinely worried at one point that she was going to die, but when the head came out, gruesome and alien between her legs, she found a new determination, and pushed and shoved and expelled the thing from her. She hadn’t expected the afterbirth, like something from a horror movie. She hadn’t expected to lose consciousness, briefly, on the bathroom floor. The baby’s hands were chubby but wrinkled at the same time, her miniature fingers creased like they had just been unpacked, which in a way, they had. The feet had come out last, slipping so quickly behind her that Kayla, dazed and befuddled with shock, had needed to check that she had feet at all. Her toes were surprisingly long. Kayla had expected them to be squashed together like a doll’s toes, perhaps not even separated. The next morning, she had no idea how she’d managed to clean up and get back into bed. It was as if someone else had done all those things, and also run her over with a truck and also left a baby in the bottom of her wardrobe wrapped in a hoodie and crying like a kitten. The clock was moving too slowly. She needed a new pad before the end of class. She put up her hand.

Late afternoon, two hours from nightfall. The park is emptying again. The slide is giving back the sun’s borrowed heat. A possum has woken and is scratching itself in one of the trees. A rat sniffs around the playground looking for food. It comes across a human baby, alone and still. It climbs curiously into the coat. The baby’s ears are small and meaty. It considers them.

Hannah is stir crazy. She should have taken the children out to the park, rain or no rain. Why does she never learn? She bundles them into their jackets. They don’t want to go now, of course. Gabriel screams and flops like a rag doll in protest at being dressed. Rafe stubbornly clings to the ipad until she tells him he can take it in the car. She sits in the driveway for a minute, deep breathing. The fresh air will be worth it.

Frances closes her curtains early and turns on the lamps. The jacket under the slide nags at her, like a hang nail, or the sight of an open cupboard door. She should have just gone out and fetched it.

Kayla steps off the school bus and glances in the direction of the park. The enormity of it overwhelms her. She can’t look. What if, what if, what if. She turns resolutely in the other direction, feeling all the time as if she is being watched. Passing a public phone box, she hesitates and then turns back. She has never used one before but it’s not difficult. When the operator answers, she is not sure which service to ask for, police or ambulance or fire. She makes her voice low and hoarse. ‘Somebody has left a baby in the playground on the corner of Morris St and Adelaide Lane’ Then she hangs up. At home, she goes straight to her room.

Frances turns on the news at six o’clock. Just breaking, a baby girl has been found abandoned in a park and is now in hospital in a stable condition. Police are appealing for the mother to come forward and seek medical help. She can’t believe it. Look at the state of the world.

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Haunted

My ex-husband wasn’t stupid when I married him, but he became so through dogged determination and years of practice. I have no idea why he chose such a project, unless it was because he knew he could succeed. In the end, he blamed our failed marriage on a haunted house.

I suppose it was inevitable that he would find a church with all the answers. Why won’t my wife make love to me? Because she is infected with the spirit of feminism. Why is my marriage unhappy? Because Satanists are praying to destroy it. Why do men kill themselves? Because there is a suicide demon on the Tasman bridge. And, finally, why are we both so miserable? Because Big Pharma are lying to sell you poisons. Your government is controlling you. We are engaged in spiritual warfare. Your house is haunted.

I had different answers. They were, in order: the smell of your beard; because you’re acting like a dickhead; untreated mental illness, and, well, I could write a book on that last one, but I won’t. He never asked.

I was the one who moved out. The pernicious spirit of feminism with which I was infected had moved me to put half my wages in a separate account and, when it grew to the size of a deposit, to purchase a property of my own; a tiny weatherboard with a crooked veranda a hour’s drive out of town. As I packed up the framed copies of my degrees, I wondered aloud whether I had caught the spirit, like polio, from inhaling as I passed a feminist on the street, or whether it had hitched a ride with the spirit of lust that time I had an affair with the woman whose skin, I remembered loudly, was the warmest, smoothest, most supple thing I had ever touched and whose body pushed itself into my hands insistently until we were moving like one thing, together, in a way I had never experienced before or since. He slammed the door. I’d won. I was petty like that. After all, I was leaving him alone in a haunted house.

The first night in my new place was silent. Moonlight shone through empty windows onto piles of boxes, and, in the corner, my make-shift mattress-and-cushion bed. Financial necessity had taken me far away from streetlights, parties, traffic. Also, from insulation, central heating, wifi and hot water. Emergency services. Other human beings. The silence hummed like tinnitus in my ears. Any noise I made gathered in a tight penumbra around me, highlighting the quietness the way a torch intensifies the dark. There was wind, sometimes. A scuffling of small things. Silence. I had expected to sleep soundly without him, but I lay awake for a long time, listening. Eventually I drifted off into an uneasy dream.

I woke in the dark to the sound of footsteps on the veranda and sat straight up in alarm, heart pounding. The moon had slipped behind the clouds; it was pitch black outside. The footsteps stopped outside my window. I could not see so much as a shadow. For long moments nothing moved. I sat there barely breathing until, unaccountably, I slept again, and the next thing I was aware of was daylight, and I was alone. I walked around the house checking the windows and locks. Wallabies bounded away across the paddock when I approached. The windows were stiff and shut fast. The two doors, front and back, were locked. I drove to the nearest town to get coffee and then spent the rest of the day indoors, hanging blinds and filling gaps between the floorboards with newspaper and string. I hung sheets over the top of the blinds to keep out prying eyes. I would make pretty curtains another day.

That night the footsteps came again. I was prepared this time. I rose carefully, back against the wall, and peered through the crack I had left between window and blind. Nothing. I crept into the next room, opened the blind and looked boldly up and down the length of the veranda. Moonlight burst, silver, through a cloud. Nothing. Nobody. The place was empty. I settled down, cursing my over-active imagination. On the edge of sleep, I dreamed the creak of my bedroom door opening. A presence watching me, silently, until dawn.

My ex called the next day. He wanted me to know that he forgave me and that I could come back. God had revealed to him in a vision that we were meant to be together. He still had plans for our lives. We should have children. I could stay at home, thus restoring balance, and we would be happy. I pointed out that we had had this conversation before. I asked him how the haunted house was. He said he’d slept like a baby, actually. His faith had dispelled the ghosts. After the call, I went for a short walk around the parameter of my property, in gumboots. The fencing could do with some work. If I could keep out the wild-life I might be able to perch a garden on top of the shallow, mossy soil. The house looked disarmingly simple from the outside; even charming. Some paint, some roofing iron, a few replaced weatherboards – nothing I couldn’t do. There was no sign of anyone else; no hint of a track, no footprints in the mud. I was safely alone.

That night I drank a bottle of wine and went to sleep listening to a meditation app. The piled boxes were beginning to feel familiar, almost homely. My bed was warm. The app filled the silence with soothing sounds from a distant rainforest. I intended to sleep all night; if he could do it, so could I. So I barely woke when the door opened. The footsteps could have been the creaking of wind in the gumtrees outside. The presence by my bed, a dream conjured from loneliness. When I woke the next morning, it was to the sound of my alarm. No self-respecting ghost, I told myself, would enjoy that. I chose to ignore the open bedroom door.

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Normal

We all lived close to each other, in the community. There were no predators in paradise but we were alert, nonetheless. In our sightless world, we found our way with sounds and clicks, with shapes that loomed when they came close to us, dark grey on light grey and grey on black. We knotted long ropes to tell our fingers where the paths were so our fingers could tell our feet. My clever eyes were my secret. As were the contours and the shadows. As were the colours. They were all my secrets and I kept them all close to me, holding onto them like we held onto the navigation ropes when we walked. I could be normal if I tried. In the evenings, we would gather together and sing, as birds flock and chatter in the one tree. It was a simple life, and one we took pride in. There were no outsiders. That is to say, outsiders did not last long and then we never spoke of them again. I was determined that that would not be my fate.

But then there was a boy. Actually, two boys. It’s always that, isn’t it? The place where the story unravels, or begins. The first one bumped up against me a couple of times while we were tending crops; fake accidentally but enough that I caught some of his scent; sage and lanolin under sweat. He walked off grinning each time with a kind of a lurching swagger. I was fascinated. The approach, the bump, the smug face and the words of apology that were so at odds with his smile. I took to experimenting. When he approached, I would dart away, leaving him to move his head back and forth, sniffing with a surprised frown. Within one pace of me, he could change direction too, but two paces and he was lost. I felt powerful and then swiftly anxious; my power could reveal me. So I let him bump me, his hands stretched out to feel my shape. I even let him move them on me one day, before twisting like a spring breeze and batting him away. I was curious to notice that he still grinned.

Nightfall was particularly bright that day. I sat and listened as the colours glowed like heat then sang themselves into the distance, high and cold. My heart was full already when the huge globe rose from behind dark hills, the colour of sand melting into the colour of surf, like it wanted to call the sea. A great longing arose in me, and a great loneliness. I was the only one in the world who could hear it. It was only then that I noticed the second boy. He was sitting ten or so paces away from me, looking at the sky. I stared at him, squinting in the moonlight. I must be mistaken. He gazed up at the globe, bright now like the belly of a heron. Then he turned. He saw me. He saw me watching. He startled. He saw me. He saw the sky. He saw me. Without thinking, I ran and clasped my hand over his mouth.

‘Don’t tell’, I hissed.

I had seen him before; I’d seen everyone before. He was older and in a different family group and he farmed a different food (fruit, maybe? Or grubs?) His hair was sand colour, like the globe. His shape was much the same as other boys’. My heart thumped the walls of my chest. My hand was still over his mouth, my eyes still looking at him looking at me looking at him looking at me, transfixed. He shook his head and pushed my hand away.

‘Of course I won’t tell. I’m not stupid.’

Then, amazed, ‘You can see too.’

‘See what?’

But I was fooling no-one. He swung his arm in an arc and saw my eyes follow it.

‘This. All this.’

‘Yes. And the daytime. And faces. And the edge of the world.’

We met many times after that. Our hands and faces became our secret language. A wink for hello. A rub of the cheeks for the colour red. A quick flick of the wrist for the silver blue of a jumping fish. The other boy began to speak to me but what use did I have for that, now? He used the same old words that everyone else used. I wanted new ones. I wanted to run, surefooted. I wanted names for every silent cloud in the sky. My new companion’s name was Wren, like the bird. I pronounced it silently with one finger hopping briskly up and down to show a bright blue tail. He swooped his hands to show me flying high up; Hawk. Our real names. The other boy, Parrot, we never spoke of. Perhaps we should have done.

Wren and I came home one day to find a circle of elders gathered with serious faces. Instinctively we separated, unsure which one should go first, but they called both our names. Parrot was sitting in the circle, nervous and self-important, with a jutting chin. What had he told them? I saw my parents’ serious faces, smelled the sharp smell of fear. Wren and I never touched because it was a luxury not to have to. We mirrored each others’ movements often, close but never so much as brushing the others’ skin. I put my hand near to his, now.

‘Hawk and Wren, we have serious matters to discuss with you. You may speak only when told to speak. Do you understand?’

This was it; the moment I had been dreading my whole life. My mouth was too dry to reply.

Wren stepped forward.

‘Respectfully, elders, we have great news. We wish to bring you a gift.’

There was confused murmuring. I was rigid with anxiety. What was he playing at?

‘Speak.’

‘We are not abnormal. We are something new. We can see into the distance. We can move faster than anyone has ever moved. We can help the community in ways you could only dream of. Let us share our gifts with you.’

My mother’s face a mask of horror, mine a mask of pain. All those years of care, undone by two boys. I could not bear to be banished. I fled.

Wren found me two days later lingering on the hill, gazing at my parents in the distance as they tended their crops. My mother’s back was bent with sorrow.

‘Did they banish you?’

‘Yes.’

‘And they banished me too?’

‘I’m sorry. I tried to make them understand.’

‘What’s to understand? We’re not normal.’

And that was how I met my fate after all.

The sky was a rich blue, filled with bright white clouds. Behind us were the farms, all greens and browns and well-worn pathways. Ahead of us were the open yellow plains, flocks of parrots grazing, the tall trees standing in shady copses. The distant bulk of mountain ranges, the far away shimmer of the whale-filled sea. Light and colour and contour and shadow. The future unfolding before our curious eyes.

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Once

Let’s start with once upon a time. Once. Once upon a time, once upon an island, once upon the shining sea. Once under a silver-grey sky, once there lived a child and once that child was me. I lived on a hill crowned with an abbey so large that the rest of the town gathered and huddled under its walls. From the church tower, you could peer down at straight stone buildings and vertiginous streets; down, down, all the way to the city wall where, at low tide, a road emerged onto a thin strip of land surrounded by glittering pools and wet sand. At high tide, the hill became an island, and we were stranded there together as surely as if we had drifted off into the mist. It was such a place as legends are made of; the kind of place you visit in your dreams. So it came as no surprise when one day I met a king there.

I had ridden my skateboard to the patisserie on an errand for my mother. It was high tide and early Winter. There were no tourists, in other words. I was free. The tiny wheels rattled over the stone streets, accelerating wildly as I dared myself straight down, pivoting into a zig zag when I lost my nerve. I tacked back and forth down our road, missing obstacles by a whisper, immune to the dirty looks and outright complaints of the neighbours. Suddenly, a tall man stepped out directly into my path. I swerved, I bent, I executed a near to perfect turn, but it was too abrupt. The board zipped out from under me and I fell, crashing onto the hard stone street, bracing myself for a ‘told you so’ and trying not to cry out. Nobody values stoicism like a ten-year-old. He made no comment but bent down and, after a moment, offered me his hand.

I think he was the tallest man I had ever seen. His blond hair hung thickly down to his beard and his blonde beard bushed out from his cheeks like a creature all of its own. He was dressed in some kind of tunic. When he pulled me to my feet I came barely up to his chest.

‘Good day to you, young man’

His voice was deep and rich, like a pool of clear water in a mossy forest. I gathered up my English, which had scattered when I fell.

‘Hello, sir. I am a girl.’

‘A maid? And so brave and swift!’

He laughed with delight.

‘Well then, I have seen a wonder here. Tell me, where am I?’

‘Mont St Michael’, I told him. ‘St Michael’s hill’

He looked perplexed then. I wondered if he had amnesia; I’d seen a documentary.

‘Where are you from, sir?’

He gazed into the distance. The sea was restless that day. Fractious grey waves chopped up the surface and the swell rolled like a beast turning over and over. A mile or so offshore, white mist blurred the horizon.

‘I am England’s king. I would that I could find my way home.’

I was full of questions, then. Was he married to the queen? Had he sailed here? Why was he dressed like that? How had he become lost? Was he really a king? But I was old enough not to irritate adults with questions. Instead, I offered to take him to the Abbey. Perhaps the monks could help him. He agreed to this immediately and strode up the steep street on long legs while I scurried, two steps to his one. The sea air crept behind us, cold on the ears and on the backs of our necks, smelling of mist and brine. I noticed then that his clothes were wet from the knees down as if he had been wading. Strange clothes they were, too, like something from a school play. At his belt hung a sword, which swung slightly as he moved. He was very upright. And very tall. I could not hold in all my questions.

‘Sir, are you really a king?’

‘Yes, child. I am Arthur Pendragon, King of the Britons.’

‘How did you come here?’

He told me a tale then that I did not completely understand; a tale of magic and mists and journeys and loss. I gathered that he was alone and had come a long way from a dark place, both over and through the sea. He had lost his way and become separated from his companions, but he was alive and that, he seemed to think, was a miracle. His energy increased as he talked, so that his voice boomed out, confident and clear, like a trumpet announcing our arrival. People turned to look. When we entered the abbey grounds, he commented approvingly on the thickness of the stone walls and the grandeur of the tall buildings. He really did look like a king.

I knocked on the wooden door on the east side of the monk’s buildings, hoping for Brother Benedict, the kind one. Brother Michel, however, opened it.

‘Oh, Arthur, there you are! We have been worried about you.’

This was surprising.

‘Brother, do you know him?’

‘He is our guest.’

I lowered my voice.

‘Is he really the King of the Britons?’

The monk glanced swiftly from King Arthur back to me.

‘On some days, he feels that he is a king. Perhaps he is a king in his heart.’

What childish nonsense. King Arthur stood, regal, on the doorstep. Inside, I could see other monks going about their business. One came down the hall towards us and, with a great show of welcome, invited the king inside. He acquiesced then, graciously accepting the invitation, but before he entered, he turned back to me and went down on one knee so that we were face to face. His eyes were as blue as the summer sea.

‘Thank you, child. It was well that we met.’

‘I was pleased to meet you too, sir.’

Brother Michel hesitated before closing the door. He was not confident with children. Eventually, still holding the handle, he found the courage to speak to me.

‘He is not really a king, Mathilde. He is just a troubled soul. Sometimes we give sanctuary to those who lose their way.’

I skated cautiously home, carrying the weight of this thought, croissants cooling in my bag. Even a year before I would have dismissed Brother Michel’s comments out of hand but now I was ten, and should be casting away childish things. I turned my face towards the sensible adult world and believed him. So that was that.

I would make a different choice now.

Once upon a time the world was ordered, knowable, contained in the space of an island. But then I grew up, discovered uncertainty, and lost my own way in sea mist or magic or the mists of time. Once upon a time the tide was turning. The sun broke silver through the clouds. A king gazed out from a high window. A spine of sand emerged from the glittering sea. Once upon a time.

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Where the bee sucks

The owl hovered high up, its brown wings stretched wide as if to gather all the air towards it. Susanna knew it would have a white mask for a face and darting, hungry eyes but all she could see from this angle was the sun flickering and flashing between the feathers as it turned. She leaned back, craning her head to watch it dive. The meadow hummed and buzzed around her, soporific. Field mice would be out nibbling anxiously through the hedgerows, having prayed to the sun for protection from all the monsters of the night. She wondered if they sensed the shadow of this daytime owl, so far from their tiny lives, so close to the heavens. Suddenly, sharply, it plummeted to the ground. There was a scuffle, a shaking of grasses, and the smallest of high-pitched squeals, then it rose again, barely weighed down by the soft parcel it carried in its claws. Susanna followed its upward flight with her eyes, wondering dispassionately if she might cry about this small death. Sometimes, if she approached her grief sideways, she could creep up on it; observe from a distance before it came rushing back into her and pushed her breath away. She counted, ignoring the mouse, letting her mind drift up with the owl. Ten breaths and she would be free. She had never started crying after ten breaths. But at eight breaths her concentration wavered, and she remembered her little brother, as clear as a summer sky, chasing after her in this very meadow on the day the bees swarmed. A sob burst from her and she was tethered back to earth.  

She sat rocking on her heels until it passed, like a storm front, through her. First the rush of choking, breathless sobs, then the panting and whimpering like a trapped animal, and now finally the tears; spring rain. It was pointless to resist when she was alone. She saved all her fortitude for the solemn house full of people with more right to tears than she; their mother, who had carried and birthed him; Judith, his twin; their father, famed for his words yet struck dumb now by this. They walked around like ghosts, their faces as white and expressionless as the owl’s, but they didn’t cry and so neither, in their presence, would she. The tears slowed. Her voice came back to her, wavering as if underwater. ‘Where the bee sucks’, she sang tentatively, ‘there suck I’. She wiped her cheeks gently with the corner of her apron. She had learned not to rub her eyes. ‘In a cowslip’s bell I lie. There I conch when owls do fly.’ It was sweet nonsense. ‘On a bat’s back I do fly’. She used to sing it to him and Judith when they were babies. Her mind glanced off the thought, but it was safe; she had finished. She stood up and drew a quivering breath.

From high above, the owl observed her, turning his head crookedly to do so. He knew the paths and habits of every human in Warwickshire, or at least he would have done, had he cared to notice. This one lived near the barn where mice grew fat even in winter, and also the grain store where he hunted for food for his chicks in spring. She was moving slowly as if wounded. A breeze nudged his wingtip and he leaned into it, forgetting her. And time, as it always does, moved on.

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