The Book Fair
smelt of mould, foxed paper, wet Barbours,
a melange of musts that kept me near sneezing,
threatening to shatter the reverent susurrus
of shuffling browsers, the mutters and whispers,
the rustle of pages being caressed apart.
I dithered over Decline and Fall, a Life of Yeats,
Five Centuries of Ballads and Broadsheets,
avoiding the sellers’ eyes, but decided no,
remembering your shelves of the second-,
third- and fourth-hand, my nose wrinkling in reflex.
What was best was walking there and back,
how you turned to smile up at me
from under your fake fur hat,
the Cossack calpac, sugared by the sleet
so that it seemed like a black pastille.
You made me feel like some illiterate uhlan, in love
with the daughter of the town academy’s librarian.
You were taking me to see your father’s tower,
its stock of thesauri, Psalters and incunabula
as vast and disciplined as the Emperor’s Horse.
(1952 – 2011)
Filed under: Poems | Leave a Comment
Tags: Paul Lee, poetry
Published in Sein and Werden and performed at Short Fuse Leicester 20 October 2009.
Even though it was all of ten paces from her room to the baby’s room, Audra felt as if she were running uphill though shoulder-high water against the current. The baby was crying with high-pitched insistency. Audra stumbled, scrabbled back, not knowing whether the current had got stronger or how the water’s consistency had somehow become that of treacle. She struggled to breathe. Found struggling to keep on her feet too much.
“Sweetheart, I’m coming!” she mentally yelled. One final push.
The baby’s room door burst open, as if the current had suddenly reversed. Audra gasped, fighting for her breath. Then collapsed on the carpet, sobbing.
It wasn’t her white cot in the bedroom. It was an old, heavy Victorian one draped with hand-crocheted blankets.
Just before Audra covered her face with her hands, she caught a glimpse of her picture on the floor, the frame still broken where Nick’s shoulder had knocked against it. She curled into foetal ball. The baby’s crying had stopped.
Not daring to look, Audra stretched out a hand towards the cot, crawling towards it. Her hand met with nothing. She dropped it to the carpet and felt damp where an ice cube had melted. Nick had said it would help the carpet pile spring back into shape. Audra curled into the place where she’d expected to find the cot.
The weak winter sunlight managed to force a warm glow inside Audra’s closed eyelids. She didn’t bother opening her eyes. She knew shafts of sun were probing past the gaps in her curtains, highlighting numerous dust motes, the scattered sketch pads and the almost overflowing ash tray. She’d promised to give up, but the New Year was still over a month away and she needed the mellowness to fall asleep.
Before opening her eyes, she stretched her limbs and ran a hand over her flat stomach. So flat now it was concave, showing off her hip bones.
Of course the first thing she saw was the print of Millias’s “Ophelia” and the first thing she said was “poor Lizzie”, as automatic as saying “bless you!” on hearing a sneeze. Nick, who’d bought the print as an anniversary present, had been amazed to learn the model, Lizzie Siddall, was also an artist. He’d thought that was somehow incestuous. Audra had made a mental note never to buy a guitar or take up lyric-writing.
Nick: the reason she had a completely immaculate, unused bedroom, a dusty spare room where Sarah had to replace the picture that Nick had knocked to the floor, a tip of a lounge and sketches everywhere. Time to tidy up, Audra told herself. Nick was due back after touring.
She dusted the lounge and hesitated outside the door of the spare room, rubbing the duster over the handle. Then decided against going in.
After vacuuming, she began running a bath. She propped some of the sketches against the empty shelving in her bookcases. She studied them. Not bad, she thought. Pen and ink or pencilled sketches of Nick onstage with or without an audience, with or without the other band members, plus a couple of him in rehearsal and one of him sitting at her dressing table scribbling a lyric, all from memory. Like Lizzie, she preferred sketching to painting. Nick would never sit still long enough to model for her. He certainly would not have stayed in bath water slowly going numb because the heating lamps had gone out.
After her bath, Audra dragged a brush through her hair, the blonde streaks that Sarah had helped with over-powered the natural, pale copper underneath. She smudged some metallic blue eyeshadow over her eyelids, added kohl, but only put mascara on her upper eyelashes to try and draw attention away from her crows’-feet. She chose the bottle-green dress. It looked baggy, but she couldn’t fix that in a matter of hours.
When the doorbell rang, she let Sarah in.
“Wow, you’ve cleaned up! Let’s have a look at you.”
Audra stood, watching Sarah dash round the flat, her neat figure in slimming black with scarlet highlights in her jet black hair.
“Well, a little on the bony side, but you’ve got a bit of colour in your cheeks today.” Sarah hesitated in front of the spare room door.
Audra shrugged. “I guess it’s about time I faced it, isn’t it?”
“I mean, Nick’s not coming back here, is he? I’ve frightened him away.”
“Did he say that?”
Audra shook her head. “He’s not been in touch.”
“Then you shouldn’t assume.”
“Has he said anything to you?” Audra tried to keep the desperation out of her voice but she knew Sarah would have heard it.
Sarah shook her head. “He told John the subject was off-limits. He needed time to think.” She opened the door. “You’ve not touched in here,” her tone was gentle.
“Couldn’t face it. I still hear…” Audra let her voice trail off.
Sarah closed the door. “Come on, Nick needed some space. It did affect him too.”
Audra nodded. “I don’t suppose I helped. But… it was so real…”
“I think the problem was that for him the baby was conceptual but not real. He saw you getting fatter, but couldn’t see or hold the baby. But for you it was real. You could feel it move. I guess, he felt, naturally, you’d feel as if you had a bereavement, but expected you to bounce back quicker, somehow. You hearing baby’s cries scared him.”
Scared me too, thought Audra.
“Last chance to back out: are you coming tonight nor not?”
Audra nodded. A noisy bar full of fans welcoming the band back from their national tour, then a loud gig followed by that awkward moment when she’d find out whether Nick was still talking to her was the last place she wanted to be. But she followed Sarah.
During the gig, Audra lurked near the back of the venue, focusing on appreciating how six months of touring had tightened the band’s sound, how Nick didn’t let his stage fright show and that his shoulder-length hair was now creeping half-way down his back. Otherwise little had changed: still as tall and skinny as ever. ‘Neo-raphaelite’ was the phrase one journalist tried to coin for the band but it was too multi-syllabic to catch on. After the second encore, she made her way backstage, nearly hesitating when she heard laughter from a shared joke.
“Hi,” said Nick, spotting her.
“Hi,” she said and watched him for a reaction.
He looked her up and down, avoiding her gaze. “Is the offer of a coffee open?”
She nodded, noting his tone was friendly rather than harsh but also that he’d not said anything about where he was staying.
Nick picked his rucksack up, muttered something to the guitarist and walked out of the bar. Audra followed. She found them a cab. Audra listened to his account of the tour as they got back to the flat. She wasn’t sure if it was hers or theirs.
“You’ve done some more sketches,” Nick commented. He’d dropped his rucksack next to the sofa while Audra made coffee. “Need your expertise to upload photos from the tour. Some of the images might need manipulating.”
Audra fixed a smile on her face and handed him a coffee. She sank into the sofa.
He was still studying the sketches. “Is there a way of uploading these on the site?”
“Yeah. Like I do with the photos.”
He turned towards the door to the spare room. She watched him open it, look round and close it again. “You’ve re-hung the sketch.”
“Sarah did. She got it re-framed too.” Another thing I couldn’t face, she reminded herself.
Finally Nick sat beside her, stretching his arm along the back of the sofa. “You look thinner than ever. Has Sarah been looking after you?”
Audra nodded. Sarah would look after her – as she would Sarah – even if Nick hadn’t asked. “I have been eating. But not as much.” Her, “And you’ve no idea how many calories nightmares feed on,” was left unsaid. She was looking at the concern in his eyes. No trace of the anger that had been there before. He couldn’t have been more supportive when their son had been stillborn, but he’d wanted to get rid of the cot before she was ready. In the argument, he’d knocked her sketch of their son off the wall.
Up close she could see the thick layer of concealer under his eyes.
“It was a stupid argument. I said things I shouldn’t have said. Worse, I didn’t apologise before I went.”
Audra stood up. “I still hear a baby crying sometimes. I go to the door but can’t open it.”
“Why don’t I stay in there tonight?”
“What!” Audra turned to face him.
“If that’s what it will take to convince you, I’m prepared to do it. I don’t want to leave you, but I do want you to get through this.” He spread his arms, palms up.
“You’ll do this?”
He stood and pulled her close, wrapping his arms around her. “She lost a baby too,” he whispered. Audra knew he was talking about Lizzie Siddall. “Dante was a bastard to her. I don’t want to do that to you.”
Audra watched Nick spread out a sleeping bag, admiring the ordinariness of his movements. He kissed her goodnight. She left him and stretched out on her side of the double bed, ears strained but she couldn’t hear anything except a faint rumble of traffic and the occasional siren.
Audra sensed herself running uphill, towards a baby’s high-pitched, insistent cry. She reached the baby’s room and scrabbled at the door, her fingers too clammy to grip. She stopped trying. Her breaths heaved. Her lungs felt as if her rib bones had taken on an impossible rigidity and she would never take in enough air. Snatching shallow breaths, she stopped. She made herself count to ten.
She got as far as five when she tried the door again. This time it opened. The heavy Victorian cot was there. Audra hurried towards it. She picked the bundle of hand-made blankets up. The baby still cried. Mentally Audra was shouting “Shut up, shut up,” at it. Physically she stuck her little finger in the baby’s mouth.
It suckled. The noise stopped. Audra felt relief sweep through her. The crying had drowned out her thoughts. She looked at the baby. The red blotches on its cheeks were fading to pink. It had green eyes. The moonlight revealed strands of dark, coppery hair.
“Nick!” she shouted, dropping the baby. Shaking uncontrollably, Audra woke to find herself sitting bolt upright in bed, dripping with sweat. She forced herself to concentrate, straining her ears for any sound beyond the distant city traffic.
Hearing nothing, she got up. Her shaking had eased. She hesitated outside her bedroom door, then moved towards the room where Nick was sleeping. The door was ajar. She pushed it open. Then clamped a hand across her mouth.
Audra bit her finger as well for good measure. In front of her was her mirror image, the woman who’d lain in a tub of cooling water, risking hypothermia as she dare not move to tell the painter the heating lamps had gone out. The woman was cooing, leaning over the old fashioned cot. She looked up. Audra saw her green eyes reflected back at her. With trepidation, Audra moved closer to the cot. The woman was cooing and rocking the cot again. Audra remembered that Lizzie Siddall had rocked an empty cot, often repeatedly asking visitors to be quiet so as not to wake the baby.
Audra saw a bundle of blankets. She reached down, intending to ease them back so she could see the baby’s face. She felt nothing. She looked. There was blank space where a face should have been. Audra let out a long sigh. She’d briefly wondered if she’d see Nick, bundled up and stolen from her. Audra picked the bundle up.
“He’s asleep now,” she murmured to the woman.
The woman smiled and straightened. She moved closer to Audra. Audra stood her ground. The woman bent and kissed the bundle.
Audra moved back towards the door. The other woman seemed to be fading, the room growing darker as if cloud had covered the moon. Audra looked at the walls. Her sketch was still there.
The bundle fell to the floor. Audra bent to pick it up. She could hear breathing now, the regular rise and fall of someone sleeping. When she looked up, the cot and the woman had gone. Nick was curled in his sleeping bag. She picked up the blanket from where it had fallen at her feet and folded it neatly. She left the room, quietly pulling the door to as she went.
Audra, still carrying the blanket, looked up at her print of Ophelia. “You let it happen,” she murmured. “You let yourself grow cold. You let him suppress you. Well, it’s over now.”
Filed under: Short Stories | Leave a Comment
Tags: Emma Lee stories, Ghost Story, John Millias, Lizzie Siddall, Lizzie's Baby, Ophelia, Pre-Raphaelites
I have a map inside my head. A map of either brilliant or first-and-only versions of various songs. It starts: Hamburg “Sister Ray”, Newcastle “Nine While Nine”, Blackburn “Stairway to Heaven”, Wembley “Temple of Love”, Brixton Academy “Ribbons”… OK, I’ll be the first to admit I’m a fanatic. How many other people would seriously get up at ridiculous hours on weekends to wear out shoe leather around record fairs in search of that unique piece of memorabilia, that limited edition format? I had a knack: visiting a different town I invariably found a new fair to visit. Perhaps obsessive is nearer the word.
Ironically I’m not even old enough to have heard the earlier songs live. Let’s face it, I was eight years old when Andrew Eldritch formed the original Sisters of Mercy line-up and recorded the first single “Damage Done”.
It’s Dad’s fault really. I’d bounced out of bed on my tenth birthday and scurried downstairs, probably making enough noise to wake the neighbours as I never was light-footed. There was nothing downstairs to even suggest it was my birthday: no cards left at my place at the table, no presents piled in the lounge. I poured cereal into a bowl, added milk and ate, thinking that maybe the postman would have come by the time I’d finished.
He hadn’t. So I slunk back upstairs and into the record room. Strictly it was the spare bedroom but Dad had put up customised shelving and stored his jazz records there. I was only allowed to touch records in certain sections: bog standard releases of Ella Fitzgerald’s songs. The others, only Dad handled, holding them with reverance as if offering a prayer before placing them on the turntable as if they were as fragile as one of Mum’s glass ornaments. I didn’t feel like playing anything.
“Well, there’s the birthday girl, then!”
Dad’s voice had startled me.
That’s how I always remember him: his tall, thin frame half-turned in the doorway, ready to race me back to my room. Sun from the landing window picking out the flecks of grey in his dark hair, but the grin on his face made him look like a boy eager to share in opening my presents.
He was irresistible. I got up and raced to my room, narrowly beating him and skidding to a stop just in front of a huge box of wrapping paper. I ripped it off. Dad sat on his hands to stop himself helping me. I knew it was a cabinet for a stereo as soon as I got a glimpse of the mahogany veneer covered chipboard underneath the paper. I also knew the cabinet wouldn’t be empty. A proper grown-up’s stereo instead of the ghetto blasters I’d had so far.
I flung my arms around Dad, “Thank you!”
He couldn’t stop grinning.
He never saw my twelfth birthday.
Small wonder then I was subsequently attracted to the black cover with a red mock-snakeskin streak with the band’s name and album title, “First and Last and Always”. I bought it then played it to death. Then discovered there was a limited edition gatefold version, plus a Japanese import…
I get mocked. I go out and someone, usually male, will eventually comment, “You don’t like them do you?”, leaving me wondering why I’d bother wasting money on a tee shirt of a band I didn’t like. I guess at gigs I’m too busy checking out the merchandise or pushing my way down to the front of the stage to take much notice of anyone in the audience. And at record fairs, well, if it’s not vinyl…
As Brixton Academy had been fogged in dry ice, I felt disorientated coming out into the normal people and traffic fumes of London. Even so I noticed him immediately: slender frame, naturally dark hair, pale complexion and clear blue eyes looking perplexed at a flat tyre. I offered to help. He surprised I’d want to risk breaking a nail. But I’d learnt to drive as soon as I could and it was no use ringing Mum if I’d got a flat – she would not have risked a broken nail – so I’d soon learnt basic car maintenance. He offered me a lift home and wrote his name, Oliver, and phone number on a piece of paper and joked about not letting me out of the car until I gave him mine. I doubted I’d hear from him again. Although he was the first fan who didn’t compare me with Morticia Addams. I guess my long, dark hair and dark eyes invite the comparison, but it gets tedious. I also shared her alleged vital statistics, 36-26-36, something else most men eyed up. It wasn’t until I’d closed my door behind me that I heard him drive off.
Oliver invited me for a drink. We went clubbing afterwards and he insisted on driving me home. He hadn’t drunk alcohol and I’d only had a couple so it felt safe. We chatted about music, discovering we shared tastes. He was a student too, final year of business studies. He’d frowned a bit when I said mechanical engineering, muttering something about not being very practical. I reassured him it didn’t matter. He slipped his arm around my shoulders and I leaned into him, grateful that here was someone I could talk to, who seemed to see beyond the vital statistics.
We saw each other a few more times before I invited Oliver in for coffee. He admired my record collection. So I started talking about them, where I’d picked up various rarities, what I thought of the live recordings. Oliver stopped me for a kiss. Light years away from his spacious flat, he expressed surprise that a thin mattress spread across two wooden pallets in my tiny bedsit could actually be comfortable.
We kissed again. I tasted breath freshening mint, smelt a subtle lingering of aftershave, hair gel and newly-laundered clothes with a faint overlayer of dry ice, cigarette smoke and damp air. He complimented my outfit: a long, black jersey dress, the leather jacket having been left on the threadbare but clean floor. He’d declined coffee, an unsurprising decision in hindsight, so I wasn’t sure what to do.
He put “First and Last and Always” on my record player and laid me down on my bed. I undid his shirt, kissing exposed flesh and sliding his belt undone. He responded in kind, undressing me slowly. Our love-making gentle, satisfying. He lay still for ages with me curled up, legs entwined, arms around each other, with his eyes closed afterwards.
When he opened them, I moved away, assuming he’d get up and go.
“Could I stay?” he asked.
“’Course,” I said softly.
“You sound surprised.”
“I thought you’d go.” I moved back.
“Where? Back to an empty apartment when I could stay here with you?”
“Well, if you put it like that…”
He grinned and kissed me. “You’re so uncomplicated. And that’s a compliment.”
Waking up inspired a reprise of last night’s performance. Sunlight filtered in through the thin curtains, making the room less dingy.
“Breakfast?” I asked hesitantly.
He smiled. “Back to mine. We’ll shower and I’ll get you breakfast.”
He slid his clothes back on while I got a pair of black jeans and a black shirt off the rail and dug out fresh underwear from a small chest.
Oliver was still smiling when we got back to his car. Naively I was wondering what kind of student lived in an apartment block with underground car-parking when the carpeted elevator – it was too smart to be called a lift – stopped at one of the upper floors. The plants in the pots that were spaced at intervals along the corridor were real. I was thinking back to my bedsit: wide enough for a single bed, desk and clothing rail with just enough space for my stereo cabinet and stacks of record boxes.
Oliver opened the door. I pinched myself. I was looking into a loft-style apartment with exposed brick, decorative timber beams and a wall of windows hidden by thick, pale green drapes. I liked the drapes: it would have felt horribly exposed without them drawn.
Oliver grabbed my hand and pulled me in. I couldn’t help staring at his top of the range stereo and the shelves of records next to it. His record collection may not have been as impressive, but I looked at him again, sure my eyes had been as wide as seven inch singles.
His lips covered mine and I responded to his kiss, letting it blot out the generously proportioned lounge, the thick oatmeal-coloured carpet, the chocolate brown sofa and armchairs that weren’t faux leather, the large antique desk in front of the windows and the TV set that looked more like a cinema screen.
I wanted to run away. If Oliver wasn’t holding my hand, I would have done.
“Don’t. I could buy you a diamond-encrusted dress and it would be loose change. Don’t let it intimidate you. You’re here because I want you to be. Not because I’m showing off or want to slum it for a while with a poor little girl. It’s really not like that. I can’t help who am I.”
I let go of his hand and walked over to the desk, then around the sofa and up to the TV. I couldn’t bring myself to touch any of it. I returned to Oliver.
He held me in his arms. “Please don’t go.”
“It’s not what I thought. But if you had all this, why did you stay at mine last night?”
“Because I wanted to see who you were. I wanted you to see me before you saw all this. I wanted… I want us to connect as two individuals. I want us not to be about money. Sure, it buys you things, it makes life more luxurious, but it complicates things. You can’t be sure people hang around because of you or because of what you can shower them with.” He kissed my forehead. “Shower. We were going to shower and have breakfast.”
The bathroom was three times the size of my bedsit. Showering took at least twice as long, involving lots of kissing and caressing. He preferred holding me close, his arms behind me, stroking my back. It wasn’t until he picked up a towel that I noticed. Along the inside of his left arm was a long scar that ran from his wrist to his elbow. I reached out and traced it with my finger.
He looked alarmed then quickly looked down, letting his fringe fall over his face. “An old scar,” was said in such a way it was clear he didn’t want me to ask anymore about it.
“Must have been a deep cut,” having opened my mouth to ask how he’d done it, I had to say something to cover myself.
I quickly dressed and dragged a brush through my hair as Oliver went to his bedroom to get dressed. I took the opportunity to study his record collection. He had the standard releases, the imports and the official limited editions, but not the bootlegs and live recordings.
“Records again,” he grinned, returning in a clean pair of jeans, ironed shirt and with his hair gelled into place.
I felt scruffy. “You don’t mind?”
“Be my guest. Let’s get breakfast.” He put his jacket on. I must have looked baffled because he chided, “If you can tear yourself away…”
I slipped my jacket back on. Breakfast, it turned out, was bought at a nearby coffee shop: skinny lattes and Danish pastries.
“I have to be at the record shop in half an hour,” I said.
“I work there.”
“Sorry. I’m being dim, aren’t I? I should’ve known.”
I shrugged. “No. Just a different planet, that’s all.”
“I do want to see you again.”
“If you don’t mind me asking, where does the money come from? You’re a student, with no job, after all.”
Oliver sighed. “My father’s a financier. Worth… well… He bought the apartment to put me in while I studied. He tops up my bank account regularly. I’m under pressure to follow suit. I don’t think it’s me.”
“What would you prefer to do?”
Oliver shrugged. “That’s the complicated part. I don’t really know.” He fiddled with a spoon, turning it over and over in his hand.
I let it go. “I’d like to get re-acquainted with your records.”
“OK.” He grinned. “Pick you up tonight. I’ll take you to dinner.”
Of course, after that, we always went back to his flat. I ended up moving in: meant the money from my part-time job in a record store didn’t have to go on rent. Kept my records separate from Oliver’s, to start with. I think I did intend to merge them eventually, but Oliver’s had no logical order. He just pulled out the records he wanted to play and left them propped by the side of the stereo until he got fed up and simply stacked the records with the others at random. If he wanted to play a certain song, he’d spend ages looking for it.
One morning he proudly presented me with a round of unburnt toast. “I think I’m learning.” He was wearing the chef’s apron I’d bought him and still had his sleeves rolled up.
“You’re doing well,” I said, joining him at the breakfast bar.
“I love learning all this stuff you just do. You’re very patient with me.”
I shrugged. “I’m surprised you tolerate me, sometimes.”
“I want to learn. I hate that I don’t know how to do what to you are very simple things.”
“I’m happy to show you.”
“I don’t want to shower you with money,” began Oliver. “Well, I do. But you’d be uncomfortable and I don’t want to make you uncomfortable.”
“I wouldn’t let you. It’s nice to be able to relax a bit, occasionally buy a luxury brand instead of the supermarket’s own without worrying about the impact on your budget. But if you flooded me with it, I wouldn’t know what to do with it.”
“I love that in you.”
I smiled and leant against him.
He kissed me. “You’re still keeping up your job?”
I nodded. “I actually enjoy it. You’re always going to get the odd awkward customer, but I get to hear about all the latest releases, latest on tour dates and gossip before things go on sale. I’d miss all that. And it’s great when you’re able to advise customers about other bands they’ll like based on the music they’re buying or finding a hard to find record. That’s really rewarding.”
Oliver was looking at me as if this were really fascinating news. “I’ll see you later.” He kissed me. “I miss you. When you’re here, I don’t notice how empty this place feels. That’s what struck me about your old place, it seemed so full and not because it was so small either. It felt as if it were part of you. This place is never going to feel part of me.”
My “well, move then” went unsaid. I’d learnt things were never that simple with Oliver. The apartment was in his father’s name so Oliver couldn’t sell it. Although that didn’t necessarily stop him renting somewhere else, it seemed a waste of money to do so. At least, it did from my point of view. I never asked Oliver about money, merely trusted it was more than I could dream of. I kissed him instead of replying.
“I love you.”
“I do. You’re so sweet and uncomplicated and beautiful and you never make a big deal of anything.” He kissed me. “Oh, I know, you’re not ready to say it. But I really do.” His eyes shone, child-like in his enthusiasm. “I’ll get a take-away tonight.”
“Thought you were supposed to be learning…”
“Then there’ll be no washing up and I can have you to myself for longer.” He finally began to roll his sleeves back down.
“You’re too much of a temptation. I’ve a deadline looming.” I reached out and touched his scar. “How did it happen?”
“You won’t believe me.” He looked away from me.
“Try me. You know I won’t tell anyone else.”
“I know. It’s not that. It’s difficult to explain. I did it myself.”
“I… I… was about fifteen and had gone to the kitchen. Can’t remember why. But the cook had left a knife lying on one of the work surfaces. I picked it up, put my arm in water. The water was cold, my arm started to go numb. I cut. You won’t understand, but it felt good. So I cut again. I don’t know how long it took. But cook came back in, saw the reddened water, saw the knife, pulled my arm and knife out of the water. I felt faint, I remember that much. Someone must have called a doctor… It was dark when I came round. I was in bed, but still had my clothes on. Cook begged me not to tell my parents what had actually happened.” Oliver shrugged. “I never did. They never knew. When they saw the scar eventually I told them I’d been walking, felt myself fall and caught my arm on something to break my fall. They swallowed it. Stupid, wasn’t it?”
I intertwined my fingers with his. “It was a good job the cook found you.”
Oliver didn’t answer.
“Have you ever been tempted to do something like that again?”
He tried to pull his hand away.
“Oliver,” I began, softly. “You’ve just told me you love me. Was this a one-off?”
“You know me. You’ve not found any other scars.” His tone was dismissive.
I pulled his hand to my lips and kissed it.
When he looked at me again, his eyes were bright with tears. “I wish… No, you’re so sweet. I couldn’t put you through something like that. You’re not going to find me cutting myself, I promise.”
I didn’t have anything to say, but kept hold of his hand.
Eventually, Oliver broke the silence, “Tonight, we’ll take a break then tomorrow morning, we’ll work. You have the desk, I’ll have the sofa and we’ll see who finishes first.”
“First one to finish cooks dinner,” I said.
“So, if I win, we’ll go out.”
“How does that give me an incentive to finish my assignment, then?”
Oliver thought. “If you finish first, I’ll include dessert. If I finish first, no dessert.”
“OK. You’re getting to know me too well.”
“I want to. You never talk about your parents.”
“You just complain about yours.”
Oliver shrugged. “They were distant. Everything could be solved with money. If that didn’t work, more money would. You were closer to yours.”
“Mum got a bit distant after Dad died. I was always closer to Dad. We both loved music. Oliver, I really must go. I don’t want to be late.”
“OK. One more kiss.”
I looked up at him.
“It’s got to last all day. I’m not going to see you until tonight.”
“You’re amazing,” he groaned softly. A cancelled lecture had turned into a lazy morning in bed making love.
“You’re wonderful,” I responded. The chorus of “Some Kind of Stranger”, which I’d adopted as our song, was running through my head. Gary Marx had intended it as his version of “The Wedding March”. Andrew Eldritch corrupted it into a celebration of casual sex. The resulting tension polished it into a brilliant song, although the ambiguity remained. I preferred Gary Marx’s intention.
Oliver kissed me.
I rested my head on his shoulder, turning onto my side so I could curl against him. Despite the warmth of our loving, Oliver felt chilly. I pulled the quilt over us.
“Dad loved that sculpture you made.”
Sculpture? “Oh, it wasn’t much.” I remembered now. I’d found some bits of scrap metal, used them for welding practise then brought it back to Oliver’s flat, not sure what to do with it but determined the other students weren’t going to see it. I’d heard the panic in Oliver’s voice as he’d realised he’d had less than a week until his Dad’s birthday. Oliver saw the welded pieces and said it would be perfect if it weren’t so dirty. I’d cleaned and polished it. Oliver had called it a “sculpture”, way too grand a word for what it actually was.
“You don’t understand.”
True, I didn’t understand. “He liked it. I’ll do a different one next year if we can’t find something else,” I tried to sound reassuring.
“Another one won’t do. It has to be something different. But it’s so difficult. What do you get a man who has everything?” he groaned.
I nuzzled his neck.
“Stop torturing yourself,” I interrupted, keeping my voice as gentle as possible.
Oliver looked at me then. I saw the tears in his eyes. I pushed his hair away from his forehead and kissed it. “I feel trapped. I hate it. I don’t have to work but I want to. I try and be careful with money, but Dad bails me out anyway. I ask Mum to tell him to stop putting money in my account but she won’t. How am I going to stand on my own two feet?”
“You are,” I murmured.
“Not like you do.”
“I don’t have a choice. There’s no one to bail me out. But you don’t ask him to do this. He doesn’t give you money because you need it. You are standing on your own two feet.” I propped myself up so I could look down at him.
“You’re so sweet,” he said. “I want to cut adrift. Just you and me.” He tilted his face up and I thought he’d kiss me. He closed his eyes. “But it’s just a dream.”
“It’s not. We could do it.”
“My little catalyst.” He pulled his lips close together, making his mouth appear as a straight line. “What would I do?”
What do you want to do? seemed the obvious question, but I knew Oliver didn’t know. “You design, I sculpt.”
I was rewarded with a small smile. “But I couldn’t…”
“You could run the finances for our own company. Find a small shop with room at the back for a studio. We could do mirror frames, candelabrum, ornaments…” I could picture it: mirror frames at the back of the window display with ornamental iron sculptures near the front, me welding something or other in the back studio and Oliver learning when to remain behind the counter to allow browsers to fell welcome and when to encourage a sale.
“But I wouldn’t be much use. I’d just be hanging around, getting in your way.”
“You wouldn’t. You have to give it a go. You strangle everything before it’s even been conceived.” I kissed him, aroused him again. It was the only thing I could think of doing.
“Remember what you promised,” I reminded Oliver as he paid the admission to the record fair.
“OK,” he nodded. He took my hand as we turned into the actual fair. “Don’t buy you anything without your agreement. I think there are just some things that I’m going to accept I can’t understand.”
“But if you buy me everything I want, you take away the thrill of tracking down something and the agonising over whether I can afford it. That’s the whole point of collecting: those kind of decisions. If I could just buy it, it wouldn’t seem so rare.”
He shrugged. “Where do we start?”
The sports hall was two basketball fields wide and littered with trestle tables covered in record boxes. Some vendors had put up displays behind them to entice potential buyers. Most were collectors, selling off parts of their collections they no longer wanted or selling records they’d deliberately bought to make a profit on to use to buy the records they really wanted. A couple of stalls were staffed by second hand record shops, displaying their rarer wares in the hope of getting a slightly higher price.
I pointed at the first trestle table, “What do you see?”
“No display. No band names. Just alphabet labels. Nothing worth looking at. Let’s try that one,” he pointed further along. “It’s sectioned by music type and he’s got a decent ‘alternative’ selection,” he whispered in my ear.
I raised an eyebrow: he must have been listening last night when I tried to explain how to look for rarities and how to tell a decent live recording from a duff one, without listening to the record. “Have a look then,” I suggested. “I’m going to start in the other direction and we’ll meet half-way. Don’t buy anything yet. We’ll compare notes when we meet again.”
I left Oliver gently flicking through the records. I already knew which stalls were the only ones worth bothering with, but lingered and browsed at a few others so that Oliver had time to look. I’d found an American import of a single complete with accompanying DJ notes.
Oliver looked as excited as a child in a sweet shop. “Found a couple of things,” he said. “Get you a coffee first.”
The sports centre’s café was actually shut, but enterprising record fair organisers had set up an urn and were offering polystyrene cups of coffee with a complimentary plain digestive biscuit. Oliver was enchanted even though the coffee was no more than hot sludge and the digestives as bland as sawdust.
“What have you seen then?” I asked.
“It looks like an import compilation of the early singles. Black cover, red logo and lettering.”
I nodded. “I’ve seen one too. It’s geniune: a Greek import.” I’d also heard that some of these imports were unplayable.
“This one wasn’t warped. I did it: took it out of its sleeve, holding the edge against my thumb and resting the hole on my forefinger and held it up. Saw a black line.”
I nodded again. The one he’d found sounded in better condition than mine.
“Saw a ‘Damage Done’ single too.”
Probably a copy, I thought.
“I wasn’t sure, so I left it.”
“Only three hundred and fifty were made originally and if one comes into circulation, vendors will keep them for special customers. The import’s worth another, serious look.” I kept my tone flat, but knew Oliver could see then excitement in my eyes.
“I think I’m getting the buzz you seem to get. Thank you for sharing this.” He slid his arm around me and kissed me. He tasted of sludge and sawdust, but I didn’t want this kiss to end.
We bought the Greek import Oliver found: his was in better condition than the one I’d seen and it turned out to be playable, plus the American import I’d seen. That night I cooked a hotpot and was laying the dishes out on the table when I noticed a single propped against a vase of lilies.
Not just any single, but “Damage Done”. My heart sank, how was I going to explain it was just a copy and I already had a mere copy?
“Check it out,” said Oliver, grinning.
I picked it up and slid the single out, keeping it horizontal. “No warping,” I commented, trying to delay the moment. It was a good copy, I thought as I turned it vertical. Then my jaw dropped. “The real thing! Thank you!” I managed to return the single to the safety of its sleeve before hugging and kissing Oliver.
“I thought you might be angry. But I know how much it would mean to you. I wasn’t sure at first. But then remembered what you said about the run-off. It’s the right one, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” I grinned.
“Now I really do get the buzz you get out of these things.”
I was clearing dinner plates, putting them in hot, soapy water. I heard Oliver come out to the kitchen and stand behind me, that close I could feel his breath glide over my hair. If I tilted my head back it would rest on his shoulder.
“Could you contemplate spending the rest of your life with me?” his voice was just above a whisper.
He turned me around to face him. “You really mean it.” He kissed me, running his tongue over my bottom lip until I parted my lips for him. “When you graduate, we’ll do it. Leave, just the two of us. Cast ourselves adrift. You can teach me all those practical things you do so naturally and I’ve been taught I only have to pay someone to do. And it’ll be just the two of us. I’ve got something for you.”
His expression reminded me of Dad’s on my tenth birthday: someone receiving so much joy from giving something they know to be so right. I followed Oliver back into the lounge. He knelt on one knee and held up a small box.
It took several moments before I got the significance. “Engaged?”
He grinned. I wanted to pull him up and kiss him. But he opened the box and pushed it closer to my face. A plain white-gold band with a ruby that was twenty-five millimetres in diameter.
“It’s beautiful,” I breathed. I couldn’t put it on.
Oliver took it out of the box, dropped the box to the floor and slid it on my finger. “I want to show this is real, not just some affair that I’ll cast off when I graduate.”
His eyes were brighter than the ruby. I placed my ringed hand over his heart. His hand covered mine. I remembered thinking how alive he seemed.
I hurried to the flat, mind already celebrating the end of lectures – at least until Monday – and spinning with the possibilities the weekend offered. Clumsily I opened the door and stopped.
I tugged the door closed and retched. Thankfully my stomach was too empty to bring anything up. My heart raced. I didn’t think I’d ever catch up with it, let alone steady it again. But I had to do something.
I inched the door open, turned my back and, crab-like, sidled to the phone. It took several goes before my shaking fingers could manage to stab three nines slowly enough for the dialling system to actually dial.
What service did I want? My mind blanked. I saw a picture: white van-size vehicle with blue flashing lights. “A-am-ambulance,” I stuttered the address, our address.
The voice on the other end was calm, reassuring even. I put the phone down and awkwardly crabbed back out, putting the door on the latch as I went.
Then my knees gave way. I huddled in the corridor, head buried in my knees, arms across my forehead. But the more you want to forget something, the more your mind’s eye repeats it.
His feet didn’t touch the floor. I hadn’t wanted to look up, but I did anyway. He’d tied a rope from one of the beams and kicked the chair away.
Tears finally came.
The police were sympathetic. His family gave me a month to move out and asked for Oliver’s ring back. I don’t think I’d have kept it anyway. Most of that month I spent in the apartment, drifting from bed to sofa to bed again, dazed. A splinter of me knew I had to leave but the rest of me didn’t want to. I didn’t know a person could cry that much.
I told my Mum that Oliver and I had split. I didn’t want the worry of her worrying about me, although it felt mean lying.
I needed another gig on my map. “Under the Gun” wormed its way into my head.
Filed under: Short Stories | Leave a Comment
Tags: Elastic Press, Emma Lee stories, Extended Play, First and Last and Always, Record collecting, The Sisters of Mercy
Published in “Making a Mark” anthology to celebrate Leicester Writers’ Club’s 50th anniversary.
“Do not fear for the child / its gold is hid“
(Jorie Graham, “Motive Elusive”)
“Daddy,” he said under his breath,
naming the voice he heard
as the door slammed.
“White,” he stroked a bar on his cot.
He liked naming things:
it made Mommy smile.
“White,” was the wall too,
Then his Mommy made a sound
he knew how to make:
he put his hand over his mouth,
clamped it tight
and tried to say “Mommy.”
He pulled himself up
so he could touch the wall.
“Window,” his fingers traced
the borders of shadow
following the outline of a pane.
There were more sounds
like the one he knew how to make.
He touched his cot bar,
that felt smooth and slightly warm.
But the wall felt different:
like Mommy’s skin when she was cold.
“Wall,” he almost sat
when it shook with a thud
like the one he heard
when he fell and hit his head.
A few white flakes drifted down.
He caught one.
“Little wall,” he looked again.
A door slammed, “Daddy gone.”
“Sssh,” there was no sound
not even the one Mommy
made when she slept.
He dropped the paint-flake
and stretched his hands
to the wall, thumbs touching,
either side of the shadow.
It looked like… like Mummy’s picture
He named it, “Butterfly.”
Filed under: Poems | Leave a Comment
Tags: Emma Lee Poems, Little Wall
A horror story originally published in “Not for Bedtime” (Infinity Junction). Wallpaper can’t grow roses, can it?
Someone Else’s Wallpaper
“I swear I can smell roses,” Charlotte muttered to herself, but as she looked round the room the only roses she could see were crowded on the wallpaper climbing around a green trellis design. A masculine attempt at a feminine touch if ever I saw one, she thought.
From the window she saw her husband flirting with the woman from the estate agent. “I know he loves the garden. And it’s only this chintzy rose that’s bad. Maybe, once Mark’s done the garden, I can persuade him to help me do this room,” she murmured, fully aware that only the roses could hear her. Charlotte shrugged, and went to join her husband.
Mark turned to face her, his blue eyes shining with a boyish excitement, “Seen enough?”
Charlotte nodded and thanked the estate agent
She led Mark back to their car and got in while Mark took one last look at the house before getting in the car. Charlotte drove off. “We could offer a thousand under,” she suggested.
“There are three bedrooms,” began Mark. “One for us, one spare and one for Bethany,” he reminded her why they were househunting: Bethany, at six months, was old enough for her own bedroom. Their child was the spitting image of Charlotte: dark hair, brown eyes and very pale skin. “A thousand under then,” he agreed. “The neighbours are friendly. I got Mrs Stone’s life history and had to stop her telling me all the others.”
“Oh great, we’ll be next to the local busybody.”
“It’s not like that. She’s probably a bit lonely. We were invited round for coffee. I told her we’d take her up when we move in.”
“OK,” Charlotte felt herself smile as she thought, yes, I suppose I could grow to live there.
As if the house had been reserved especially for them, their offer was accepted and the mortgage, conveyancing and move went smoothly. Charlotte found herself arranging furniture while Mark began work on the garden. He’d laughed when she asked about redecorating their bedroom. So she didn’t raise the issue again, nor her worry that there seemed to be more roses on the wallpaper than she remembered from their viewing, although she couldn’t be sure. Charlotte bought her new cooker, promising herself she’d spare some time for baking as the winter nights drew in. Bethany seemed to like her yellow room, even though it wasn’t so bright in the hazy autumn sun.
“It feels so right, doesn’t it?” even badly twisting his ankle on a loose paving stone in the garden hadn’t dimmed Mark’s enthusiasm. Charlotte had struggled with surprise when Mrs Stone called round to check Mark was all right as she hadn’t seen him working in the garden for a day.
“It’s not worn you out, has it?” Charlotte observed, she cuddled against him having turned the bedside light off.
“Only you can do that,” Mark kissed her, “and the more often the better.”
“Can you smell roses?”
Mark sniffed, “No. I can smell your perfume… but not roses.”
“Mind if we open the window a little?” Charlotte was beginning to find the rose-scent stifling. She took Mark’s silence for agreement and opened the window slightly, then hurried back into bed.
Mark wrapped his arms around her, “Bethany’s first birthday soon.”
“I suppose that means we get to put her in that horrible pink outfit your mother bought, you know, the one with the rose motif and go for a visit again? Remember last time when Bethany cried practically non stop?”
“We could put her off until Christmas,” suggested Mark.
“Oh?” Charlotte was expecting Mark to suggest Bethany had been picking anti-mother-in-law vibes off her and to defend his mother.
“And have her over for Christmas Day. She’ll want to see the house.”
“And criticise me for not dusting under the TV set, for not boiling the vegetables to a pulp, undercooking the meat and not sweetening my apple pie enough. Plus any other minor crimes I carelessly commit under her gaze. Not to mention failing to appreciate her mothering skills by bringing up Bethany all wrong and not listening to her proffered advice. I’m surprised the NSPCC haven’t been round.”
Charlotte felt Mark’s hold loosen.
“She’s not that bad. And she didn’t exactly do a bad job with me. The alternative is both Bethany’s birthday and Christmas.”
“OK Christmas Day, she’ll be here,” Charlotte quickly agreed.
Mark kissed her and turned over to sleep. Charlotte found sleep more elusive and counted roses in a patch of wallpaper under the windowsill until she eventually nodded off after reaching fifty.
“Must you have the window open?” Mark asked a fortnight later.
Charlotte stood by the window, about to open it a fraction. She paused, “Can’t you smell the roses?” She was sure the headaches she had every morning was down to the stifling rose-scent of this room. Mark had refused to move into the spare room and, disappointingly, laughed when she asked about redecorating.
Mark shook his head, “I’m worried about Bethany. It might be an idea to bring her in here tonight, in case she wakes up.”
Charlotte sighed, “OK.” She thought Mark was over-reacting. Bethany had a cold, not a life-threatening illness. But she knew when to let Mark have his way.
Mark carried Bethany in her cot and put the cot near the window. While he told her a story until she fell asleep, Charlotte began counting the roses under the windowsill again. When Mark got into bed, Charlotte had counted sixty. Hadn’t she counted fifty before? She began counting again and reached seventy before giving into sleep.
Mark was bending over the cot, stroking his daughter’s hair when Charlotte woke. The rose-scent immediately making her feel out of sorts. Was it her headache, or did the roses seem redder than usual?
“She’s got a temperature. I’ve called our GP, just in case,” he greeted her.
“And you were going to leave me here asleep when he came, were you?” Charlotte accused him, “that would look really good, wouldn’t it? We’re supposed to be worried sick and the GP finds me still asleep in bed.”
“Bethany could be seriously ill and you’re worried about your appearance?” Mark stage-whispered.
Charlotte opened her mouth and then closed it. “I’m going to get an aspirin.” She pulled on a pair of jeans and a sweater.
“You’re always taking aspirin in the morning.”
Charlotte slunk downstairs: she knew if she tried to talk about the stifling rose-scent, she’d make their argument worse. She couldn’t understand why he couldn’t smell it. He’d probably accuse her of paranoia if she spoke about counting the roses and the fact they seemed to be growing. By the time she took her aspirin and had her morning tea, the GP arrived. She took him upstairs after quietly explaining that Bethany had a bad cold and a bit of a temperature and Mark was panicking.
The GP agreed with her: plenty of warm drinks and lots of rest was his advice. Charlotte felt Mark’s cold glare as she showed the GP out.
“You did the right thing,” she said, trying to reassure Mark. “You were worried and got the GP. It was worth doing, just in case. I’ll stay home today and look after her. You go to work. Over the weekend we’ll organise shifts.”
Mark seemed to relent at this and reluctantly went to work.
Charlotte took her favourite recipe book upstairs, intending to sit and read while keeping an eye on Bethany. As soon as Mark was out of view of the house, she opened the bedroom window. The smell seemed to have grown even stronger. Charlotte searched the fitted cupboard, taking out Mark’s clothes and tapping the walls. The walls sounded solid, so she replaced the clothes. Then she checked along the skirting boards, ensuring there were no gaps between the boards and the walls. She couldn’t find any gaps. She also checked that the light switch was firmly attached to the wall. She rubbed a bit of wallpaper with the tip of her right index finger and sniffed. Her finger stank of roses.
Bethany stirred in her sleep, but didn’t wake.
Maybe, thought Charlotte, maybe the builders mixed rosewater with the wallpaper paste. Unusual, I know, but maybe they really wanted to make this room feminine and one of them ‘borrowed’ his wife’s eau de toilette just to make it smell welcoming and less unlived-in.
She opened the fitted cupboard again and wriggled a fingernail through the join between two pieces of wallpaper. Gently she teased a strip away from the wall. All she could see under the paper was traces of wallpaper paste and the imprint of the rose pattern. She rubbed her left index finger against the plaster. Then sniffed. Only the damp smell of plaster. So the roses smell was either in paper or the paste. Charlotte closed the cupboard again and washed her hands.
She sat on the bed and picked up her recipe book. She flipped through the contents, looking for the apple pie recipe.
Something at the window caught her eye. She began counting the roses under the window. She reached sixty… seventy and there were still more to count… eighty, ninety… How could a wallpaper ‘grow’ more flowers? she asked herself. A hundred. Even if she’d miscounted before, there were definitely not a hundred roses there last night.
Charlotte let her book fall on the bed. She got up, picked up Bethany, wrapping her in her cot blanket and shakily walked downstairs. Once downstairs, she lay Bethany on the lounge carpet. She felt Bethany’s forehead: still hot.
Then Charlotte’s heart began racing: she couldn’t hear or see Bethany breathe. Charlotte tried to feel for a pulse, but her hands were shaking so badly, she couldn’t keep her fingers still long enough.
“Bethany!” Charlotte cried.
The baby didn’t respond. Charlotte gently shook Bethany’s arm. No response.
Charlotte rushed through to the kitchen and picked out a handbag mirror she’d shoved in one of the drawers. Then held it close to Bethany’s mouth, struggling to hold the mirror steady. There was no condensation.
Trying to keep calm enough to speak, Charlotte phoned for an ambulance. Then paced the lounge for the ten minutes it took for the ambulance to get there. The paramedics examined Bethany and took her and Charlotte to the hospital, “as a precaution”. Charlotte phoned Mark at work and told him to meet her at the hospital just before they left.
Hospital felt unreal to Charlotte as she paced the corridor. Somehow Mark found her. Charlotte was still shaking as Mark gripped her and told her it wasn’t her fault. After what seemed like hours they were finally allowed to see Bethany.
Charlotte’s hands covered her mouth as she tried not to cry out. Her daughter was in an incubator surrounded by wires and monitors. Someone in a hospital gown spoke to Mark as she looked down at Bethany. Words like “stable”, “comfortable”, “in safe hands” and Mark’s voice, “we did what we could”, “we didn’t realise how ill she was, it just seemed like a very bad cold”, sounded vaguely distant to Charlotte. Bethany looked so peaceful, so still, even though the bleeps of monitors told Charlotte her daughter was still alive, somehow. One of Bethany’s hands lay outside the blanket.
Charlotte noticed a mark on Bethany’s wrist, a bright red cut that could have been a scratch from a rose thorn.
“It wasn’t your fault. There’s no point in beating yourself up over it.”
Mark’s words as she left him at the hospital still rang in her ears. He volunteered to stay overnight with Bethany. She would relieve him tomorrow morning. Once home, Charlotte bustled around the bedrooms, moving Bethany’s cot to the yellow bedroom, stripped their bed, spare room, moved the furniture in the spare room to accommodate their bed and began emptying the fitted cupboard, piling the clothes up in Bethany’s room. Somehow, with a strength that surprised her, Charlotte managed to move their bed piece by piece and half-dragging the mattress, to the spare room.
Then she went to the cupboard where Mark kept his tools and pulled out a wallpaper scraper and steamer. She quickly read the steamer’s instructions and filled it with water. While waiting for the steamer to heat up, she fetched some dustbin bags to line the floor of the main bedroom with and found the stepladder. Charlotte used the scraper to score the wallpaper with long criss-cross marks. Then she began to strip the rose wallpaper. Or tried to: the top rose-covered layer came off fairly easily, but the layer underneath seemed to be stuck to the walls with superglue. It took two goes with the steamer before she could ease a scraper under the paper and scrape it off.
She opened the window for some air. The combination of heat and rose-scent had made her feel claustrophobic, but she was determined to battle on. It took her two hours to do one of the walls. She heard footsteps outside, but ignored them.
However, she couldn’t ignore the banging on door. Peering out of the window, Charlotte saw Mrs Stone, their elderly neighbour. Briefly, she thought about pretending she hadn’t heard. But then realised Mrs Stone was likely to try and shout through the open window, so it might be better to let her in.
“Hello, dear. Hope you don’t mind, but I saw the light on and wondered if anything was wrong. It’s not like you to be up at this hour.”
“Come on in. Cup of tea?”
“That would be lovely.”
Charlotte made two cups of tea. “You don’t mind coming up to the bedroom do you? I’d just started work and wanted to get as much done as possible.”
“Stripping wallpaper, nothing exciting,” Charlotte led the way upstairs.
“At this time of night…?” Mrs Stone began when they’d got to the main bedroom.
“Yeah, Mark’ll tell you once I get an idea in my head, it’s difficult to stop me. We decided we didn’t like the wallpaper, the roses were too much for us. I meant to get started earlier, but got delayed,” she stopped abruptly.
“Don’t blame you,” responded Mrs Stone, looking around the room. “That was Jackie’s taste, all right. Pink, feminine, suffocating. Not surprised you want rid of it. Surprised you’ve not woken your baby, though.”
“Jackie used to live here?” asked Charlotte.
“M-m. Five years ago. Moved out six months before you came. Had the house done up though. Thought she’d get a better price. Though this wallpaper would have put anyone off. There was a budget, but there wasn’t enough for the builders to do this room as well, so it got left as it was.”
“What was she like?” prompted Charlotte, shifting the ladder along as she began stripping around the window.
Mrs Stone nodded. “Man’s kind of woman, if you know what I mean. Never left the house without make-up and red nail polish. Never went out unless she had a man to take her out and there were plenty of those. She wanted to settle down and have children. But none of her men were the settling down type. But she tried anyway. I got to know her cycle, she cried for two days solid whenever her period started. Sometimes she’d have screaming fits about how unfair it was that others should have children when she couldn’t. She’d refuse to even speak to Mrs Green, over the way. Told her she shouldn’t flaunt her kids in front of the childless. Once she screamed at the eldest lad and threatened to murder him. She had a jealous streak, all right. I mean, where are the kids supposed to play if not in the street? And this ‘if I can’t, you shouldn’t’ is just plain selfishness. Then the ambulance came, took her away. She never came back.”
“Did she miscarry?”
“Doubt it. There was an ambulance here earlier, wasn’t there?”
Charlotte was still vigorously stripping wallpaper. “She never came back?”
Mrs Stone sipped her tea.
“Bethany was taken to hospital earlier. She’s got a touch of ‘flu so she’s in overnight for observation. Mark’s staying with her.”
“Ahh,” Mrs Stone nodded.
“They say it’s just a precaution.”
“This wallpaper is really stubborn,” commented Charlotte. “Do you think plaster should be that colour?” Charlotte was beginning to work at the area where she’d tried to count the roses.
“Looks darker than the rest. Maybe it was redone to cover a damp patch so it’s darker because it’s newer.”
“Probably,” Charlotte agreed with Mrs Stone, but wasn’t convinced that plaster came in dark red, particularly in a shade the colour of dried blood. She held the steamer over the top of the bare plaster and cautiously scraped at the very top layer of plaster. It crumbled a little. Charlotte wasn’t sure if she was doing any damage to the plaster, but she persisted where the red colour seemed worse.
“She wanted us to think so, though,” Mrs Stone stared into space.
“Think what?” asked Charlotte.
“That she miscarried. She wanted the sympathy. But it wasn’t a miscarriage. Bloody, though. She’d taken an overdose of sleeping pills and slashed at her wrists. Lost blood, but didn’t cut the right way. Took enough pills though.”
“It’s a sad story.”
“She chose the wallpaper.”
“Well, she didn’t do that bad a job. It’s just in here. The roses are a bit overwhelming.”
“But this room wasn’t redecorated.”
“So she really lived here with those roses?”
Mrs Stone nodded.
“I suppose it was sad. But a woman like that. If she had children, they wouldn’t have known if they were coming or going. No father to speak of. Not like you two. You’re a real family.”
Charlotte smiled. “But what prompted her to take the pills? Was she really that desperate?”
“Mrs Green was having her youngest. He was early and a bit underweight so they kept him in for a couple of weeks. While she was with him, she noticed Jackie visit. Jackie said she’d come to visit her, but Jackie never even said hello to Mrs Green. Jackie kept looking round the ward, watching the new mothers. After that security was stepped up. Mrs Green said she’d heard someone had tried to snatch a baby.”
Charlotte shook her head. “You’d have to be desperate to do that.”
“Nice to see a good young family here. Your Mark’s done a good job on the garden.”
“Yeah. He really wanted a garden.”
“You both work hard.”
“M-m,” Charlotte muttered agreement. “Where’s Jackie now?”
“Didn’t they tell you?”
“The estate agents.”
“Thought they had to disclose everything.”
“We bought this house from a Mrs J Smith.”
“That’s the sister. She must have got Jackie’s estate.”
“Ah,” said Charlotte. “I’ve got them confused, obviously.”
“She must have thought it worth spending a bit to get it done up before selling. Strange she didn’t do this room, though. After what happened, this room should have been done first.”
“Perhaps the builders started downstairs and worked their way up.”
“Thanks for the tea. Shall I see myself out?”
“No need. I’ll come down.”
Charlotte had a long soak in the bath after she’d finally managed to scrape the wallpaper off. As she climbed the stairs to go to bed Charlotte couldn’t resist pausing in the doorway of the main bedroom to admire the work she’d done. Cautiously, she sniffed. But could only smell the night air and damp plaster. The patch of plaster under the window still seemed darker than the rest, but it wasn’t as red as it had first appeared.
She knew Mark’s first question would be what she intended to do with the room now. Perhaps she’d have a go at decorating it herself. If she selected a vinyl paper without a pattern, like a wood chip, then she wouldn’t have to worry about lining it up. Yeah, she could do it. She remembered the scratch on Bethany’s arm. She didn’t want to think through her instinctive feeling that somehow a jealous desperation had rubbed off on the wallpaper. “Bethany’s safe now,” Charlotte told herself.
After a fitful sleep, Charlotte woke as sunlight streamed in through the window. She’d forgotten to re-hang the curtains after stripping the wallpaper. She rubbed her eyes, put on a bathrobe and went downstairs to phone the hospital to check on Bethany. She almost cried out at the news that Bethany’s condition was stable although she was being kept in another night as a precaution. Charlotte hastily grabbed some breakfast, dressed and went back upstairs to tidy up the spare room, intending to have it in order for Mark’s return. She also got Bethany’s room ready as if expecting her daughter’s return. Charlotte couldn’t resist going to the main bedroom once more to admire her handiwork. She stopped in the doorway, letting her eyes survey the room.
Suddenly she clasped her hand over her mouth to stifle her scream. Her knees gave way so she clung to the doorframe with her free hand. The red patch under the window sill was back. Charlotte couldn’t stop herself staring at it. Not only was it back, the colour was stronger than before, even though she’d scraped the top layer of plaster off.
Realising she was blocking her breathing, Charlotte let her hand fall from her mouth. Cautiously, she walked towards the window and bent down. Softly she tapped the plaster with her fingernail. It seemed solid. She touched it with a fingertip. Dry too.
The phone rang. Charlotte straightened. As she turned to leave the room, she caught a hint of roses. But the smell barely registered as she hurried to answer the phone. She listened to Mark’s gabbled speech, struggling to follow what he was trying to tell her.
“In the theatre…” she repeated, “theatre… transfusion… sudden crying… Mark, what…? bleeding… aneurysm… where? how? Chance…” was that good chance or slim chance? She slid to the floor. “Are you sure? Hopeful?” She heard the tone which meant Mark’s coins were running out. The receiver dropped. “Bethany?”
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Tags: Emma Lee stories, Short Stories, Someone Else's Wallpaper
Inspired by a photo that accompanied an obituary of Emma Humphreys. Published in Let’s Shout About It, an anthology to raise funds for support services for survivors of sexual abuse, and on ABCTales.com.
(from a photo accompanying Emma Humphreys’ obituary)
Emma called you Tiger:
a big name for a little cat.
Her case changed the definition of provocation
to include accumulated violence.
You blink away from the sunlight:
outside is bright with trial and error.
She had blinked in the prison exit’s sunlight,
the brightness of her own flat.
Let’s count your tabby stripes.
Say fifteen for kittenhood.
At fifteen she ran away
to Nottingham’s inner city streets.
Let your sandpaper tongue wash
your dull metal-grey fur.
She used a knife on the pimp
about to rape her again.
Let’s count two more stripes
as you stretch onto your long spine.
She was sentenced to seven years,
but served ten.
You’ve no problem with appetite.
Over three years you watched her diminish.
Count thirty stripes of your silver.
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Tags: Emma Humphreys, Emma Lee Poems, Poems, Tiger
Triggered by a poem I read in a magazine. I modestly thought I could make a more imaginative treatment of the themes it raised. I got carried away. Published in Fire magazine.
Seven Traducements of a Stolen Poem
for Ryan Robbins
Teacher don’t know our word for praise.
She thinks it’s wicked.
She says the world began with a dude called Christ.
Our mam says he was just a man, there is no God.
Ahmed says God is Al-Lar-Blessed-Be-His-Name.
Bharat prays to an elephant.
Ahmed’s a bookworm.
Bharat is bomb. I’ve given him my blade.
School is pants.
One day, I’ll join a crew, push gear,
go large in Gap and Rockport, my wheels a TVR,
Eminem and Britney my sounds. Phat life.
Greetings from our benighted capital. Your exile as Assistant Secretary to His Majesty’s Representative to Vanuatu will soon be over. The Minister’s Inspectorate have…inspected…reported…and leaked before She could suppress or massage. The mole has long since tunnelled away. Illiteracy, innumeracy, truancy – all the indicators are dire and, oh dear, few have heard of Jesus Christ, fewer believe in God. So much for Her policies. Only the Lottery, drink, drugs and football mean anything to the mass. The Archbishop and cardinal are as respectively purple as their robe and red as their cap, their Palaces houses of mourning.. Meanwhile, the temples, synagogues and mosques overbrim. No, my dear Rawson, our Lesbian Icon will not spin Her way out of this one. She meets the PM tomorrow: our man has already been tipped the wink. Your former station, your mistresses and…other interests, await their resumption. No doubt we will read in Her memoirs how we conspired to bring Her down. We will, no doubt, be the only ones who do. They come and go. We remain. Little has really changed. Has it ever?
The word has come to me, Albion,
you who have shrivelled to an island,
you to whom the alien is now the leaven,
strong in his strange gods inimical
to the One
you have estranged, who once strode with you.
How long since your crimson armies dyed
your navies civilised its seas,
your clerics sowed His Word?
When did you mistake the act
for the vision?
Once you knew you had lost the Way:
now you have lost even that knowledge,
now you riot in carnality, covet gold,
and do not know you starve.
You gorge on husks and think
you are full.
Instead of the Word, you have merely
words like hills
You are the foam the wave leaves
on the shore,
that the next wave effaces.
I oscillate between ignorance and error.
What is the right thing to know, to teach?
Come down from your Cross, Lord,
re-acquaint us with Him.
The merchants and rentiers disdain You,
the plebeians disdain all things,
the civil servants undermine the polity.
We lack a Quest.
Instead, we conjugate the pillowbooks,
crowd the gaming halls and markets.
Our expeditions sail for El Dorado, Atlantis, all the fabled
We will leave no shadow on History.
Our librarians sleep all day.
Our scholars mumble at walls.
Ma punters? Theys wee jobbies, wan an all.
Ah huv a regular, a guidie, full o’ gripes.
Ah cannae wait tae gi um the heave
wanst he’s had his gam or parked, or baith.
Ah cannae staun they cunts wannae yabber.
Whit a Dublin!
He says he’s frae Embra,
thinks he’s the kippers knickers, um wae his jooks
an kegs mockit roond his ankles, his bahookie
aw scuddy, his walloper pamped. Ah cannae quote um.
Ah pity the poor weans he teaches at the Maggie May.
‘They no heird o’ Jeez-oh’ he says ‘let aloan believe
in Goad. Son o’ William, dochter o’ Wilma,
Tim Malloy – s’ainly a label. We’ve nae
a scooby doo. Their is nae Goad, nae Heaven,
nae Bad Fire, intit no? This society’s tea’s oot,
its aw aboot Gene Tunney an podgerin.
All oor books is tanned. Who’ll mind us?
Ah tell ya, yid wannae o.d.
on yoor skag or Spider’s eggs. Wheesht! I think,
away an pap peas at ya Granny….
How he hated himself,
was hostile to what we thought
-or knew – which was not much.
Nothing greened his drought.
There’s neither good nor evil
he’d say, despising the Lord,
denying Jesus ever lived.
Suffering, death, void
– that’s all there is, he’d sneer.
So many women he had
with never a word of love.
So many books he read.
What did they say to him?
How little we know, how wrong
even that is, that’s all
he’d reply. Why was he born
to die so young? Silence,
answer me, please. I’m waiting.
for Johanne Robbins
me bin here tree month. Me already weary.
A what dis at all? Me a tink pan sudden
dis islan no koo de pa dey. It a gorner,
a foo true.
De pickney hab no respeck
for you, Lard, dey buse you, dey forget Jesus,
All dis people wahn is
fix me up nice Dey motto Stone under water,
no feel the heat of day A wah mek
dey so nuff? Dey one hand no wash
Dey play Warri with you, Lard,
dey forgotten according to you act
you get wok and you kill me dog
me kill you cat.
Tupsh! Me no wahn um,
me must learn to see and no see.
But me weary, Lard, me long fee see you,
me long fee see you
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Tags: Paul Lee Poems, Poems, Seven Traducements of a Stolen Poem