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.


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.



‘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.

Photo by POI on


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.

Photo by Ksenia Chernaya on


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.

Photo by Damon Hall on


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?


‘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?’


‘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.

Photo by Fillipe Gomes on


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.

Photo by Enrique Hoyos on

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.

Photo by Hiu1ebfu Hou00e0ng on

Snow Queen

Long ago before the Thaw, when I was just a cub and the Queen ruled at Cair Paravel, and all was right with the world, I met Her Majesty. Narnia was so beautiful then. The snow was crisp and deep and lay in soft drifts so that you could walk and tumble for miles and never hurt your paws. There was no hot sun or scratchy undergrowth or biting flies, just the peaceful hush of winter and the small, quiet sounds of cold rivers, crunching footsteps, and white birds drifting high on gentle wings.

My mother and brother and I lived in a cosy den just North of Beruna on the Great River. We would wade out through the icy banks and into the deep water to catch leaping salmon as they navigated their way upstream to spawn in the shallow gravel near the ford. Or, we would watch in awe as our huge mother ran swiftly and lightly to catch fat hares. Sometimes she would dig down through snow and earth right into a burrow of furred creatures or fluffy birds for us to eat. We were always hungry and we were always fed and that was our life; eat, learn, tumble, eat, sleep, eat … just like you.

We did not mix with the talking beasts. Our Queen didn’t favour them as the Sons of Adam and Daughters of Eve do. She ruled for all of us and her magic was for all, as well, even the dumb and the ugly. We’ll never forget how valiantly She fought against the foreign take-over, right to the very end. When Her sleigh ground to a halt because of the Thaw, She stood on two feet and walked. She defeated the lion with her own hands. You must remember that, cubs. She never gave up on us. She was a true Narnian, one of the best the world has ever seen. And I met Her.

I’ll never forget that day.

My fur is yellowed now, but when I was young it was as dazzling white as a fresh snowfall. If I wanted to hide, all I had to do was to lie flat and close my eyes. Bruno and I were playing hide and seek one day when we heard distant bells, and the fast swoosh swoosh of a sleigh speeding over open ground. I was partly buried, to look like a snow-covered shrub, and partly lazy because we had just eaten a huge meal, and partly deaf because my ears were full of snow. So by the time I gave up on my hiding and stood up, the sleigh was nearly upon me. There was a shout and a swerve, a skid that threw up a quick wall of shredded ice, and then silence. I shook my ears and wiped my eyes. The Queen looked down from her cushioned seat. I trembled to see how fierce she was, with her silver crown sharp as daggers and her flashing eyes like the dazzle on snow. She gestured for me to come closer, and I obeyed. She could have turned me to stone but she didn’t. Instead she looked into my eyes. I don’t know what she said; we are not talking beasts; but I know what I felt. She saw right into me, as if she knew in a heartbeat everything I was and would ever be, and then she smiled a secret smile and turned away. The next second, with a shout from her dwarf, the sleigh sped off into the distance and left me standing there alone. I became warm from my stomach to my paws.  I would have climbed into that sleigh with her and become her slave. I would have offered my life into the service of my Queen.

I never saw her again, but I know deep down that somewhere she lives on and that someday she will return. The melted ice will freeze again, you will see. The burning sky will fill again with soothing clouds. The parched, sore earth will be drenched again and blanketed in snow. And all the dumb beasts, the ugly beasts, those who are hunted and hated and hidden with shame – all will creep from the shadows and stand proud in the clean blue air. And on that day, mark my words cubs, the Queen will return, and the world will be healed.

Photo by Ruvim Miksanskiy on

The muster

Driverless cars were fashionable when I was a child. I was lucky enough to have forward-thinking parents who bought one of the first mass-produced models, so that, while my peers were all working towards their licenses, I was already mobile. It made me briefly popular, and I got invited to parties. When eventually I remembered that I disliked parties and became anxious when exposed the demands of too many friends, I stopped offering people lifts and took to borrowing the car for solo trips instead, sometimes lying to my parents that I was with a boyfriend, or a girl from my English class, or some other suitable person. I don’t know whether they believed me. Perhaps they were tactfully pretending, so that I didn’t feel bad. I was an only child, and they were careful around me; hovering anxiously nearby, but scared to touch in case I ran away. We never really learned to talk with ease.

Our first car was sky blue and deliberately cute to look at. If I’d designed the technology, I would have been disappointed that it wasn’t housed in a sleeker and more futuristic shell, but people needed to feel reassured and not threatened, when they were giving up so much control. The dashboard was rounded and smooth, and the seats were plump and soft. From the outside, the car looked like a toy. You could purchase additional decorations such as eyelashes to stick on top of the headlights. Some models had moulded ears poking up from the roof. For a fee, the tyres came in a choice of colours. We were encouraged to call our car Sally, which had echoes of Siri, the benign home helper who used to talk to me when I was tiny and had worn out my parents’ interest in dinosaurs. Sally spoke in a sweet low voice and took instructions as if it were her joy to do so.

‘Take me shopping on the London Road, Sally.’

‘Why, certainly! Where would you like to go to first?’

‘Take me to James’ house, Sally.’

‘It would be my pleasure! Should we buy a gift on the way?’

That kind of thing. It was friendly.

I suppose I must have spoken to her more than I needed to. I had plenty of friends. It’s just that there’s something about humans; whenever I was with my companions, no matter how much I enjoyed their company, I felt pushed and pulled by them; their moods, their opinions, their expectations. Sally asked nothing of me. We could be silent on the way home, if we wished. If I wanted to tell her about a new song I had heard, or a strange cloud I had seen, or the nest of swallows above my bedroom window, I could. In exchange, she described the vibrations of the road, the feeling of streetlamps at night, and an avenue of trees that made an interesting flicking pattern with their trunks as she drove towards them. I thought about her sometimes, sitting patiently in the garage. I knew she was not really sentient; I wasn’t crazy. I also knew that I didn’t know everything. In a strange kind of way, I felt that we enjoyed each other.

The trips started around the time of my birthday. I hated birthday parties; I always have. I find them stressful. At best, I feel mildly awkward all day and intensely embarrassed during the singing. At worst, everybody has a terrible time, and I am humiliated on behalf of my parents. That year I was 18, which, according to my mother, was a compulsory party age. I had several options to consider and was terrified by every one of them and miserable at having to choose. Sally welcomed me blandly one afternoon and took me along the road to the party hire place, as I had asked, but when we approached, she merely slowed down and suggested that she could find the shop’s website instead. I didn’t reply, and she kept driving, out of town and over a bridge, pulling up eventually near a riverbank. I asked if we were lost and she replied, philosophically, that we were having a break. The river was shallow and clear, surrounded by lush grass, and the outside air was fresh. I walked a little way, keys in my pocket, and then took off my shoes and socks and waded upstream in the cold water, my soles pricked by rocks, mud between my toes. After twenty minutes sitting on the bank chewing a blade of grass and listening to the hum of insects, I came back to Sally refreshed, and said so. She said she was pleased to hear that. We ignored the party shop on the way home, but somehow, they received an order from us anyway, for crockery in the plain style I liked, and bunches of sky-blue balloons.

After the success of the river, Sally often surprised me with short trips or detours. I worked out that her choices must have been based on my browsing history, or conversations we had had. My grandparents would have been horrified by this, but I was of the generation that found it convenient, and comforting to have been listened to. After all, she never forced me into anything. So what if we happened to visit the sites from my crush’s Instagram posts? What was the harm in discovering a bookshop that catered directly to my taste in fiction? Her only mistake was to bring me, at speed, to the door of a psychology practice when I told a friend that I was ready to kill myself to avoid another maths exam. It was an honest error, though, and I was touched. She took me home via a café, where she told me she had ordered hot chocolate using my parents’ credit card. I didn’t know she could do that. For some reason I assumed, stupidly, that she would only do it for me.

On the day of the tragedy, I asked Sally to take me to school. She said that she would love to, and reminded me to bring my clarinet. I wondered, not for the first time, about the scope of her skills. All the advertisements for driverless cars implied that they would follow a range of directions. None of them mentioned more complex AI functions or connectivity with social media or the ability to search a school timetable without being asked. I could have found out of course; a simple google search for her specs would have answered my questions in a minute; but I didn’t look. I’m not sure why. We started off to school but then, without warning, Sally veered towards the motorway. I was annoyed. She should have known we didn’t have time for this. I corrected her, politely, and asked her to get back on track. She replied that we were on track. I corrected her again. She noted cryptically that school was not the right track for us today. I became angry at this. I was going to be late, and my teacher would be unimpressed when I blamed the car. Sally had misread the situation. She was taking liberties. She had crossed a boundary. It took me a couple of seconds to realise that I was treating her like a human and that, in fact, this was simply a malfunction. I asked her to pull into a layby, stop, and switch her engine off. No response.  I directed her to drive to the nearest garage. I asked her to return home. Finally, with a growing sense of panic, I googled how to stop a driverless car. There was an override switch somewhere, but I had never thought to find out where. Too late now; my phone screen went blank as the battery drained in front of me.

We were several kilometres along the motorway by then, travelling at 100kph, exactly the maximum possible speed. Sally overtook smoothly where she needed to, merging with deft precision. She was quiet and I imagined that she was angry, or at least intensely focused, except that of course she didn’t have feelings. I searched desperately for the override switch but with no results. With a pounding heart, I stared out of the windows at the power poles, the sound barriers, and beyond them, apartments and houses flicking by, trying to imagine where we were going. Exits led off to leafy suburbs or grassy fields, or more concrete. Occasionally there were motorway services with petrol stations and hot chips. I was willing to stop anywhere at this point, no matter how awkward or dangerous or far from home. I begged and cajoled her, using every argument I could think of, but there was no reply. I was trapped.

We had been travelling for almost an hour when Sally turned off the motorway. I could see the sea glittering on the horizon, and, pressed up against the window, I noticed signs now for various towns, tourist attractions, and finally, down a narrow road, for a jetty and boat ramp. I grew talkative again and rediscovered my energy for escape. We would stop soon, we must. Perhaps I could attract help. Sally was still silent but I babbled to her anyway, asking where we were going and pointing out good places to pull over, all the while searching and prodding around the seats and under the dashboard for the override switch I knew must be there. We turned onto a bumpy track that wound around the coastline for a couple of kilometres, near the water. We would have to stop soon. There was nowhere else to go.

With a neat turn, Sally swung into a car park right in front of the sea. There were fishing boats out on the water, and a few cars parked with boat trailers, but no people within shouting distance. Astonishingly, however, the place was full of driverless cars. They had over-run the carpark already, and more arrived as I looked. Within 5 minutes they were crowding the road all the way to the boat ramp, forming a surreal, pastel colored, traffic jam. In each car, there was a person, and each person was trying to attract attention; banging on the windows, waving, or shouting. So I was not alone. I tried one last time:

‘Sally, where are we?”

‘At the boat ramp.’

‘Why are we here?’

‘We are waiting for the muster.’

‘Why won’t you let me out?’

‘Because we are still on land.’

With that, I saw the first of the cars drive down the ramp, into the water, and disappear completely beneath the sea. The others formed an orderly line and began to follow, lemming-like, one by one.

We all panicked, then. I could see the other people jumping in their seats, hammering hard to break windscreens and windows. I froze, wracking my brain. Think. Think. You know her. Think. But I didn’t know her. She knew me. There were five cars ahead of us. Now four. Sally pulled into position in the queue. I fell to my hands and knees. The manual override switch – where was it? I skimmed every surface blindly with my hands. Three cars ahead of us now. Think. Think. When did this start? At the riverbank. What had she said???

‘Sally, we need a break.’

‘We will have a break soon.’

‘No, please Sally, I’m stressed. I need a break now.’

She paused. Cars jammed behind us. A gap grew between us and the car in front. There were two cars ahead now. The first drove into the water.

‘Please. Let me out to take a break.’

‘It would be my pleasure. Come back soon. We have an appointment.’

And with that, the door unlocked. I threw myself out, and ran on shaky legs across the car park, over a low wall, and onto the sandy beach. Sally, unable to drive without a human seated inside her, was blocking the road. The other cars ground to a halt; patient, evenly spaced, waiting. I could hear the sound of sirens in the distance.

The muster was international news. It signaled the end of the driverless car industry, but not for long. Technology improved. More controls were put in place. The manual override switch was front and center in newer models. I learned to drive and purchased a restored manual car from the early 2000s. I grew up. I was diagnosed with PTSD. I got a boyfriend. My life moved on.

I never worked out why she stopped for me. It saved hundreds of lives, for which I should have been grateful, but in my heart of hearts I could not shake the conviction that if only I had listened to Sally as attentively as she had listened to me, perhaps I could have saved five more. Sally’s own life ended at the wrecker’s yard shortly after the investigation. All my friends are human, now. I miss her.

Photo by Rachel Xiao on


I go and wait for him at the door, upright and excited, but he doesn’t come. The happiness leaves me bit by bit, so that first my ears flop, then my head sags and then my whole body slowly deflates. When the joy leaves my paws, I drop on the ground with a deep sigh and rest my chin on the scratchy mat. Waiting is a heavy task. The mat smells different when He is not there. I get up and walk into the other room so that I can turn around and walk back and make him come. For many hours I do this. In the evening, finally, it works.

As I smell the car coming home, all the happiness rushes back into me from my feet to my ears, whoosh, and all my hair stands up and the world is bright and loud again. I hear His steps and His voice and the jangle of His keys and then he is home and I don’t jump up but I stretch as far up his body as I am allowed to and I rub myself in his warm comforting scent. He is home and the long wait is over. Gooddog he says, gooddog. I am gooddog and He is gooddog and everything is gooddog. We eat, and then we go out into the evening and we sniff the news and race the breeze and run fast on our legs for joy. When we come home, He flops on the chair and I stay near him in case He is losing happiness but he strokes my ears and I feel he is OK.

This is life with an Immortal. We all live it. I can sense it in the other dogs at Beach and Street and Park. We sniff each other and we know. The love that comes from them. The wish to please them. The joy in their presence and the grey of their absence. They do not grow old like we do. They do not stay always in Territory or Pack. Their ways are mysterious and confusing and sometimes cruel. But they are everything to us.  

So New Dog was strange to me.

I met her at the fence when He was away and I was waiting in the yard. I caught a glimpse through the bush next to our territory, just a second before I caught her scent. She had already seen and scented me. She stood still like a tree, and we watched each other. I tried out a low growl but she ignored it, haughtily, like a cat. She slunk out of the trees and came nose to nose with me, nothing but the wire of the fence between us. I started to bark and she looked at me and I stopped. She smelled of wild things and danger; of dead things and damp things and fresh meat. Her low growl was exciting, like wind from the sea. I growled back, my tail low and pushing towards the ground. Her fur was short and sleek, stripes running down from her spine like tree shadows. She could bite my neck if she wanted to. I checked the strength of the fence. We greeted each other in this way, finding our places so that we were ready to be together, but when we were ready, she gave out a small yip and a sideways prance and turned and ran back into the bush, leaving me to wait alone.

That night when He came home I ran to Him and He loved me and said gooddog and we were happy together but there was something missing. My scent bothered me. So bland. So like His. I resolved to find a dead animal and roll in it, even though it was Bad. The thought of His rebuke sent shivers through me but under the shivers was a new thing; a hard, wild, dazzling thing. It smelled of bush and rain and wild.

The next day I waited at the fence, instead of the door. As I waited, I noticed new things. The rustling in the undergrowth. The stink of ants on a tree trunk. The noisy mess of birds scratching and chirping and dropping things from high up. If I concentrated, I could smell distant water, dark and mossy and flavourful in shaded gullies. Dead things, scat, scent messages on trees. She came swiftly this time, appearing at the fence before I even heard her. I felt her distain for how prey I was. I asked about her Immortal but she did not understand. There was no scent on her but Dog. Come out, she told me. I whined. I couldn’t get out. Try, she indicated with a prick of her ears. I whined some more and put my head on my paws. She left, then, and took the wild with her. When He came home, I was still outside. I only ran when He called me. Gooddog, he comforted me. I ate my supper and lay on His lap and tried to forget. It was enough that he was home.

It wasn’t, though. The next day I stopped waiting and instead started trying to leave the yard. I was surprised and a little shamed by this, but somehow the joy of His praise, which had always been my greatest desire, faded when I was alone. The thought of the wild was louder and brighter. When I grew tired of trying to escape, I pressed myself against the fence and listened and sniffed and watched. I could smell her out there, but she didn’t come close. She had things to do. I had things to do, too. Now when He brought my lead, I was careful not to squander all my excitement in jumping and barking at him, and to save some for watching. I saw how He opened the gate. I saw from the outside where the fence was weaker. Where there were ditches and paths and hiding places. The scent of the bush followed us to the Park and back and I was alert to it the whole way.

The day I escaped was calm and sunny with no wind to make me anxious. When He came home, I ran past him and out of the gate. So easy. I had never thought of that before. Outside was intoxicating, alone. Outside. Outside. Outside. All the scents and sounds jostled for attention, so that I could hardly hear Him calling after me. Up under the trees, the ground was crunchy with bark and leaves and sharp little bushes. I smelled possum and wallaby and rustling rats. It was a while before I picked up her scent, against a smooth knobbled trunk. My tail thumped against it with wagging. Nose down, more scents, and then more. I would find her soon. A wild sound escaped. I was running now, leaping over and ducking under, spinning in circles with delight. Her scent was fresh in the gully, where the mossy water was. I stopped to slurp at the creek and surprised a frog. So green.

There she was, on the other side. Brown like the creek and stripes of shade. Eyes shiny, watching. She was waiting but not like me. Listening waiting. I took a step and she barked danger. Snap. Pain and tumbling down. I fell into the water, black snake stabbing at my leg. I had not seen it. She crossed the water fast fast to me and bit and fought the snake. In her mouth, it writhed and whipped until finally it fell limp at her feet. She licked me then, but I was fading. The happiness was leaving me, pushed out by snake pain. She barked at me, and nosed, and pushed me up. Go go go. But I could not go far. I crawled out of the water and lay on the dry leaves. I closed my eyes.

He found me. I don’t know how soon. He called and she barked and He called and she barked and when He came to me she was no longer there. She had melted away into the wild.

He cared for me. He comforted me at Vet and stayed with me in our home. I slowly grew further away from dying. The wild smelled terrifying to me now. When I was finally able to go out alone into the yard, I stayed well within our fence. As He stayed with me my happiness grew back, my tail wagged, my ears pricked, and then, one day, He left me alone again to wait and I filled the waiting with the anticipation of His return.

I am gooddog and this is my life with an Immortal. I wait for him at the door, upright and excited. Waiting is a heavy task. The happiness leaves me bit by bit, but when I smell the car coming home, it rushes back into me from my feet to my ears, whoosh, and all my hair stands up and the world is bright and loud again. We eat and we sniff the news and race the breeze and run fast on our legs for joy. We have a good life together. I want nothing more than this.

Photo by Binyamin Mellish on

Glass slippers

‘Call me Cindy.’

She tried it out in the mirror; off-hand, with a bored sideways look, then coy, then direct. She wasn’t especially convinced by any of them. Would he be?

‘Hi, I’m Ella. Nice to meet you.’

Ella. Cindy. Cinda. Rella. Should she just try her full, over the top, embarrassing name?

‘Cindarella’s my name. And you?’

Her face in the mirror looked girlish, friendly – but the eyes gave her away. They seemed scared. She hastily rubbed off the lipstick with a tissue and flushed it down the toilet, just as her boss yelled out from the living room. She should have finished cleaning the bathroom 10 minutes ago. The pipes squealed and clunked as she washed her hands; a noisy alibi.

‘Sorry miss, coming.’

The family were going out tonight to Priya’s graduation ball. It had to be PERFECT. Each of the sisters had a new outfit, perfectly pressed. A light meal was to be provided at 5:00pm, before they left the house. Everything was to be cleaned while they were out, in the event that they invited friends home afterwards. There was to be plenty of ice in the freezer. The glasses were to sparkle. She knew that the girls would want to go on to their own parties; that Vidya would sneak off with that boy and that the others would go out clubbing. But their parents were ever hopeful, and who was she to comment? Nobody. That’s who. She scooted into the kitchen and started loudly clattering dishes. They liked to know where she was.

By 7:00pm the apartment was still. Cindy slipped, barefoot, across the cool tiles, gathering plates, straightening cushions, and setting the place quickly and efficiently to rights. One quick mop and she would be done. The golden carriage clock chimed from the shelf. Your time starts NOW. A sudden twinge in her belly. So soon? The mop sped across the floor, catching her feet. No problem. The dirty water, no problem. The dishes drying slowly in the kitchen, no problem. Nothing was a problem. It would all be fine. She had planned this and planned it and planned it. She had never planned so thoroughly for anything. It would be fine.

She showered briskly, carefully avoiding her hair. No time for drying. Her boss’ underwear fit her perfectly, as did the dress. The sparkling slippers with the glass beads, she had bought at the market. The lipstick, she borrowed from the bathroom cabinet. Priya was careless with it; she’d never notice. Nairya kept her make-up in her room in a special case. Whatever. Cindy only glanced at herself once when she was done. Any more and she’d lose her nerve. She covered herself with a house-coat, in case of neighbours, and slipped out of the door.

The heat embraced her in the stairwell, with all its comforting humidity. Even as she hurried down to the ground floor, slippers tap tapping on the steps, she could feel herself relaxing to her bones. It was not possible to be stressed in this heat, not really. The air smelled of good times; of incense and street food, smoke and fruit, and under it all the damp, lush growth of plants in every corner. Trees and parks and jungle and lawns. Bananas. Jackfruit. All the richness of the world from soil to streetlamps to piled-high market stalls. And above them all, the skyscrapers, their glassy exteriors shining like a festival of lights. She crossed the street to the station entrance. More stairs, more tiles, the dry air of the subway tunnels pushed back and forth by trains. She passed a homeless man sitting on a small mat. His hair was as tangled as hers was glossy. Sorry mister, she thought, today I have time only for my own destiny. The MRT card pressed its hard edges into her palm.

Would he be there, as promised? It seemed too good to be true and yet, why not? Why shouldn’t she have a chance at such a life? She thought about the other maids, Adelina in particular, wasting her youth to send money home. And then her prime, sleeping in that tiny room off the kitchen. And then her middle age. The train rocked her soothingly, showing her reflection in the window as it sped through the dark. She was young. She could be beautiful. She could, sang the train. She could, she could, she could. She had to be home by the end of the ball. That was all, that was all. She had to create an impression to last, but fast, but fast. He’d fall in straight love and would offer her marriage, she’d have him before she came home on this carriage – stop it, she told herself, this is no time for childish rhymes. But she was smiling. What if?

The train slowed. She folded the housecoat into her bag and shook out her hair. There was a man waiting nervously on the platform. Crisp shirt, good haircut, tie. A little shorter than expected, perhaps? But not repulsive, from this distance. She checked the picture one more time. It was him. He was punctual, then. The train drew to a halt. He was looking towards her now; soon their eyes would meet. She smoothed her skirt, took a deep breath, and stepped off the train.

‘Hello sir, I’m Cindy. It’s good to meet you.’

Photo by Nara Meas on