He was running and running and running, and when he thought he couldn’t run any more, he carried on running. And all the people came out onto the streets to watch him running, and they said, there he goes, running and running. And he ran right out of this country and into the next one. But they don’t care for running in that country and I couldn’t say what became of him.
One day, for example, I disguised myself as the number three and hoped no one would notice. Janice was in town all day, so there was no worry there. Steve, though, he was still in the flat. He woke late and seemed cautious, and when he stood for some minutes staring glassy-eyed at three elephant ornaments on the mantelpiece, I thought I had been discovered. With a shake of the head, he came to himself, sat down and turned on the telly. Occluded, I watched him until mid-afternoon, when he left in a hurry. I was shocked it had worked so well.
(Featured in Dodging The Rain – May, 2017)
The breeze caressed the trees. The nightingales sang loudly.
– The breeze, a southerly, and somewhat damp from the sea, caused the trees to whisper among themselves as if a stranger were in town. Moonless night in spring and the nightingales sang loudly. By the window, the curve of you, a silhouette against the stars.
– The breeze caressed the trees, wavering every leaf, just passing through, no haste. Moonless sky of stars, the dark flicker of bats on constellations defined and bold. The curve of the plough matching that of your shoulder, as if it were a decoration. And the nightingales sang loudly.
The breeze caressed you, and the trees approved, dampened by the sea, and starry sky; the curve in the window with the curve in the sky and the night within the night all wavered and flickered, and the great bear at your shoulder; and boldest of all, as I kissed you, the nightingales sang loudly.
I had seen the dog limping around the village a few days before the evening it called at my door. It was a surprise but then again it wasn’t. When I answered, it was sitting some paces from the step, watching with black eyes. Perhaps I should have been amazed it managed to reach the bell. Perhaps I should have wondered at the directness of its stare. Perhaps it was expecting a different reaction, a more appropriate one, a yelp, or swearing, or beseeching.
I lent back inside to get my coat and it said, you won’t need a coat. So I followed, coatless, as it limped this way and that, and led me down an old dirt track until we reached the river that had grown so lethargic over summer it could barely be called a river anymore. The smell of stagnant water hung thick around us as if the air itself had decomposed. I waited. The dog waited. Then, nodding at an unseen, unheard signal, it picked up a stick and tossed it into the shallow water. Obediently, I fetched, my socks and shoes made sodden and the hems of my jeans stained, and the water, when I reached into it to retrieve the stick, was warm like a second helping of soup.
The disappointment I felt on returning to the bank and finding myself alone was acute.
I went home and watched The X Factor without actually watching it all.
The sun lay on top of us like a heavy lover, and we, naked as the day, sprawled semi-dozing at the edge of the empty pool. Our world was circumscribed by the scent of pine trees and an unremitting chorus of cicadas. It was forever mid-afternoon and the scrawny shadows refused to broaden. The sky was an immense gong, struck by the sun, reverberating with heat and light and faultless blue.
Lily said it was the cruellest thing to have a swimming pool that we couldn’t fill. She threatened to dive in anyway, either crack her head on the cracked tiles, or find herself buoyed by thin air. The memory of water, she called it, drawing idly inaccurate parallels with homeopathy and a necessity of conviction, before the heat hammered out her line of thought into an unfinished sentence.
The night before, like every night before, thunder grumbled beyond the horizon. Dim throbs of lightening had barely troubled the stars in the lower portions of the sky. Somewhere, very far away, storms raged, rain fell and people were relieved. But not here. Our vicinity had been sealed, airtight, dehydrated. Desiccated pine needles and dust. Nothing moved. We breathed in shallow puffs, our nostrils burnt by the hot air.
‘What are you doing,’ I asked.
Lily had her arm up in the air. ‘I’m going to throw an imaginary stone into the imaginary pool of water.’
I stopped her. ‘What kind of stone is it?’
‘So, you must have imagined it. What size is it?’
She described a smooth pebble, neat in the palm. It was green, she continued, polished, possibly jade. I suggested it was too precious to simply throw away.
‘But I’m not throwing it away. I’m throwing it into the pool. I’ll dive in later and fish it out. Anyway,’ she said and began to raise herself from her towel.
‘Anyway, I don’t want to play this game.’
She moved with such deliberate slowness that I had to watch. Upright, she paused to reconsider, then stepped into her flip-flops and over to the edge of the empty pool. She tried to shade her eyes with her hand, but the sun was everywhere; it bounced from the ground, poured from the white-tiled empty pool. She stared into the bright void. She glowered at it and the sunlight glowered back.
The triangular stencil of an abandoned bikini was still clear across her buttocks. The skin, though, was reddening; no longer quite so contrasted with the rest of her nut brown body. It was like a coy and isolated blush. After a few days, our nudity was forgotten. I had the odd presentiment that when, eventually, we went back to clothes, embarrassment would accompany our dressing, that it would make us feel estranged. With our nakedness we belonged to a different world, we had set ourselves apart – much more so than just the fact of our being secluded from other people and everyday behaviour, we felt ourselves members of a different race. It helped that the property was miles from anywhere, from anyone. There were just the pine trees, and the cicadas, and at night the winking stars.
She sighed and sat with her feet in the pool. A flip-flop fell and hit the bottom with a slap.
‘I’ll have to get it now,’ she said and sighed again.
The chrome ladder was on the other side. In due course, she got there, kicked off her remaining flip-flop, and descended into the deep end and out of sight.
‘You can get your precious stone while you’re down there,’ I offered, but she didn’t respond.
I waited. I counted my breaths, imagining her underwater. I counted to one hundred, propped myself on an elbow and called her name. In the heat-thick air, the sound of my voice barely registered, but in my head it boomed. Perhaps I didn’t call out at all. Something prevented me from trying again. Her silence.
I waited some more. The cicadas all stopped at once, and their silence and her silence combined and I had to break it.
‘Lily,’ I said, purposefully projecting the syllables. I got up and my head swam. Having stooped and steadied myself, I made my way across the burning tiles and looked into the pool.
She was sitting, squeezed into a corner where a thin wedge of shadow had gathered. Even from this distance, and despite the brightness and dryness of it all, I could tell she had been crying. I could tell from the way she jutted her chin, it was an unconscious show of strength after a moment of weakness.
As I deliberated what to do, she acknowledged me without looking up.
‘It’s okay, I didn’t drown.’
I tried to smile for her, but gave up and simply nodded. I sat where she had sat, feet dangling into the emptiness.
She huffed. She shrugged. ‘It just feels inappropriate to grieve in weather like this. It’s too bright.’
Her voice carried a slight echo from the tiled walls and again I suffered an uncertainty as to whether I could hear things properly, or if it was all in my head.
‘It should be raining, and grey and miserable,’ she carried on, ‘it’s just not appropriate.’
And then a sound came, and it sounded like rain, and we looked at each other in disbelief. But it wasn’t rain. It was a breeze, hot as a hairdryer, but a breeze all the same, shushing in the pine trees and stirring the finer dust on the ground. A breeze all the same. There was movement left in the world.
I went to the ladder and stepped down into the pool. I sat beside her, close, but not enough for our skin to touch. I wanted to tell her that the breeze was a good sign, that things would move again, but I found that I couldn’t speak, down there in the deep end.
I think she understood, anyhow.
With all the components in place, and the device fitted neatly into its containing box, he sighed and sat back. His brow was damp and his eyes stinging from the strain of concentrating so hard for so long. Composing himself, he took another deep breath and leant forward to complete the task. This was the tricky bit, attaching the leads of the detonator. He selected the blue one, twisted the vivid copper wire, and slotted it into the connector. As he tightened the tiny screw to hold it in place, he noticed his hand was trembling. Next, the red wire, and again its exposed strands were pinched and turned. Cautiously, he moved it to the device and just as bare wire touched connector the woman shields her eyes from the brightness and turns to face the bay. Afternoon sun lights the trembling leaves of the silver birch and they look like blossoms, as if autumn has been magically replaced by spring. She sighs. Such beauty there is in the world, what ecstasy to feel so connected. At times she thinks her heart will explode with the joy of it all. The children, tired of their chase, have quit the shining strand and are plodding up the hill towards her. She composes herself, stands to meet them. It is time to go home.
When they were handing out the prizes, a man, despite not having won a single event, decided he deserved one. Smiling, he insinuated himself into the pack of winners and adopted an air of merit. One after another, the victors were called up to the podium, cheered, and awarded their trophies. Before long, only two men remained. The master of ceremonies, realising something was untoward, frowned and blustered and leant away from the microphone to consult a colleague. The colleague consulted an underling, and the underling dealt sharp but whispered words to a minion. Looking sheepish, the minion approached the two men.
‘There is only one prize left. One of you is an impostor.’
The men regarded each other and tensed. They squared up. Gripping each other by the shoulders, they pushed and pulled and turned in circles, straining, grimacing, yelling. Such a cloud of dust was raised that the onlookers could no longer see them.
At long last the victor stepped from the confusion, dusted himself down, and ascended to claim his prize. The crowd went wild, and the loser, bloodied and shamed, was carried off and thrown into the river.
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There were seven or eight of us, single file on the narrow track, black river on our right, wooded rise to the left, and we were on our way home. Night was well on and fatigue petered out the conversation. We had been walking since early afternoon, a decent trek, all the way out to the Lisnaree Road, where we crossed the bridge and headed back on this side of the river. It was one of those hikes we did a lot at that age, early adolescence; too old for the park, too young for the town. Out as far as we could go before having to turn back. The new game, testing limits, playing dare with distance. This time though, we misjudged and night overtook us. We walked with the flow of our river, the silent motion keeping us going, as if we were all returning, us to our beds, the river to her sea. Still a good way out from the Creamery, the path became difficult, kept slipping into undergrowth, entangling brambles and fallen trees at the foot of the high bank. Ancient barbed wire fences merged into thorn; nettles grew in pert abundance. Progress was slow; no moon, no torch, a darkness damp and bulky, thick with a soup of sodden, rotten wood, weighted in with mud and tired limbs. From out of the silence came a heavy noise, the sound of something in the brier. Fear caught fire in us, and someone shouted, fuck! and a girl screamed. Self-preservation shoved the queue forward and panic, real panic, propelled the lot of us, one body, one thumping heart, many legged, down the blind path. I remember seeing something, swear I did, a shifting shape, low and fast and striped. We didn’t stop till we were clear of the woods.
In dim meadow we stood panting wide-eyed, communing the hilarity of shared terror. Did you see it? No, you? I did, right next to us. Jesus! Whoops and belly laughs, you shoulda seen your face, you shoulda seen your own. And deep breaths. We all knew him – knew of him, claws and clamping jaws that never let go. For a moment there, back there in the close, we were trespassers, clumsy humans in the dark, blundering his domain.
Woken by adrenaline, walking again, clear-eyed across a broad field of cow pats and thistle, and Lindsey’s Bridge was in sight. Unanimous, we left the river, threw some stones goodbye and joined the main road. The tarmac was wet and the traffic hissed like high-toned waves. Black road on our right, the fields falling off to the left, noisy and hastened, we skipped and kicked and laughed our way downhill to the clustered lights of home.
(This piece was written for inclusion in the Ancient Britons edition of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice)