Category: Short Stories

ASTROLOGICAL ANNOYANCES

The Moon crossed her arms. She nearly stomped her feet but refused to be so crass. “That Mercury!”

The Sun couldn’t resist the hint of intrigue. “Why? What has he done now?”

The Moon’s voice was filled with frustration. “He is so full of himself, strutting around like he’s something special, just because he rules two Signs. I can’t stand it.”

Mars inserted himself into the conversation. “Well, he does. It’s a bit of a trip.”

The Moon and the Sun both swivelled round to look at Mars, annoyance clear in their eyes.

“Don’t look at me like that. I understand perfectly what it feels like to rule two Signs.”

The Moon was just about to complain about Mars’s interruption and attitude when Pluto stepped forward.

“That’s right. Mars did rule two Signs. He ruled Aries -”

“And I still do,” Mars interrupted.

Pluto smiled. “That’s true. You do, Mars. And you also used to look after Scorpio.”

Mars still resented Pluto, even after all this time. Pluto wasn’t even a real Planet, for heaven’s sake. “Yes, I did, until you suddenly appeared out of nowhere.”

“Not out of nowhere, exactly. I was here all the time.”

“Yes, but why would you hide like that? No one saw you for ages.”

Before Pluto could respond the Moon spoke again, her voice whinier than she would have liked, but she didn’t seem to be able to help herself. “What has all that to do with Mercury? His arrogance is beyond words. I don’t care that he is the only Planet to rule two Signs.”

The Sun tried to get next to her, but Mars blocked his path. The Sun had to crane his neck to look past Mars when he spoke to her. “I don’t understand why you’re so riled up about Mercury. What does it matter to you that he rules two Signs.”

The Moon pouted. “It’s unfair. All of us have only one Sign to look after, but he has two. And that makes him utterly insufferable. He’s always darting about, never still. It’s so annoying.”

Mars had always thought the Moon to be the most beautiful, but she had always scorned him. He was as curious as the Sun about her sudden outburst and hoped that she would confide in him, at last.

“Why? What happened?” he asked.

The Moon dropped her head, suddenly shy. “Nothing…”

Jupiter, who had overheard the conversation, came to stand next to the Moon and placed a comforting arm around her shoulders as he came to her defence.

“It doesn’t matter what happened. It’s between the Moon and Mercury. I’m just grateful that I don’t have to look after two Signs like he does. I can still remember the stress of having to do so. Long ago, I was responsible not only for Sagittarius but also for Pisces – nightmare – those two Signs couldn’t be more different. It was quite the juggling act! Probably similar to what Mercury has to deal with from Gemini and Virgo. I’m grateful that I have so much more freedom now that I have only Sagittarius to look after.”

Jupiter seemed utterly oblivious to the poisonous glances from Mars who was trying to reclaim his place beside the Moon.

Pluto was aware of Mars’s interest in the Moon and his jealousy aimed at anyone who got too close to her. But he chose to ignore it, and instead, nodded. “I agree with you, Jupiter. Not only about the freedom…also about the stress. Having only Scorpio to look after is quite enough, thank you. It’s a complicated Sign and takes up all of my time.”

Neptune had walked up without being noticed, meanwhile. “Why are we all standing here? What’s happened?”

The Moon shook her head, close to tears and unable to speak.

The Sun and Mars spoke simultaneously, “Mercury has done something again.”

Neptune immediately focused on the Moon’s distress. He went to her and took her hand to comfort her. “I’m sorry to hear that Mercury has upset you. Don’t mind him. He can be a bit…well…mercurial. It’s just his nature…nothing personal. Let’s go dancing, instead. I know it will cheer you up. You’ll forget about Mercury soon.”

The Moon swallowed harder at the tears that threatened to spill down her flawless face. How could she ever forget about Mercury?

Uranus, who’d overheard Neptune’s suggestion to go dancing, quickly took the Moon’s other hand. “Oh, yes! That sounds fabby. Let’s go dancing. I know just the place. It’s modern and hip and has fantastic music. You’ll love it. Let’s go.”

But just as he was about to drag the Moon off, Saturn appeared and they had to take a step back from his imposing form barring their way.

“Where are we going?” Saturn asked.

The Sun explained everything to Saturn, beginning with the fact that the Moon was very upset about Mercury’s attitude towards her. He ended by agreeing with the Moon that Mercury’s attitude probably was as bad as it was because he ruled two Signs and therefore felt superior, somehow.

Saturn took a moment to think things through. Everyone waited patiently. Even though in reality Jupiter was the eldest of the Planets, Saturn was the father and founder of civilisations, social order and stability. Everyone, including Jupiter, relied on him for his guidance and words of wisdom. Saturn always seemed to know the answer and he always spoke the truth.

He stroked his beard thoughtfully before speaking. “First of all, it’s not true that Mercury is the only planet to rule two Signs. Mars -”

Before he could complete his sentence, Mars interrupted. “Yes, we’ve been through this. I used to rule two Signs too until Pluto, here, came along and took one away from me.”

Pluto’s intense eyes cast daggers in Mars’s direction.

Saturn held up a hand to stop Mars from starting an argument unnecessarily. “Alright, alright. Yes, true. Mars, you did rule two Signs until Pluto relieved you of Scorpio, for which you should be grateful and thank him instead of trying to start a war. The same happened to Jupiter. He is responsible for Sagittarius only because Neptune now looks after Pisces.”

Mars was becoming very impatient. “Yes, yes, we know all that.”

Saturn didn’t allow Mars’s interruption to flummox him.

“But do you remember that I used to be responsible not only for Capricorn as I am now. I also used to look after Aquarius until Uranus came along to relieve me of that responsibility.”

The Sun clapped his hands together. “Oh, yes. I’d forgotten that. Thanks for the reminder, Saturn. So, actually, those of us looking after only one Sign are the special ones.”

The Moon looked up, hope shining in her eyes. She had forgotten that there were more Planets who once looked after two Signs. Perhaps Mercury wasn’t deliberately ignoring her. If what Saturn said was true, then looking after two Signs simultaneously was not a walk among the stars. Perhaps she was being unfair towards Mercury. But why was he forever on the move, unable to sit still even for a second? He always seemed to be in two places at once. If he would just stay still for a moment, perhaps she could talk to him. How else could she make him understand how thrilling she found him, how exciting, and how much she loved him?

Again, Saturn didn’t allow the Sun’s interruption to throw him off his stride. He continued as if he hadn’t heard the Sun’s comment. “Also, it seems to me you have all forgotten that Venus is still taking care of two Signs herself. She looks after both Taurus and Libra.”

The silence that followed as everyone processed this information, was suddenly shattered. Mercury and Venus arrived arm-in-arm, laughing and skipping as they came to join the others. They stopped in their tracks when the weird atmosphere hit them.

The Moon shook her head. She could not believe that Mercury would be so friendly with Venus. And that after she was prepared to forgive him. See? It’s probably because they’re the only two Planets who have two Signs each to look after. They have things in common that she couldn’t hope to share with Mercury. She blinked back more tears. Crying in front of the others was not an option and especially not in front of Mercury.

Mercury pulled his arm from Venus.

“What’s up? Why do you all stand here like someone’s died? Has someone died?”

Venus laid a restricting arm on Mercury. He could be very blunt. He turned to cast a questioning look at Venus. When she smiled at him, deep dimples in her cheeks made her even more attractive. She gestured for him to stay silent. She had immediately noticed the Moon’s tearful eyes and the hostility from Mars, especially, towards Mercury and understood exactly what was going on. But she didn’t care about Mars. Her focus was on the Moon and Mercury. She knew her friend could appear uncaring and preoccupied, but she had known him for many years. His heart was true and loyal and he had confided in her recently that it belonged to the Moon.

The Moon, meanwhile, wanted to run and hide. She didn’t want to have to witness Mercury’s happiness with Venus. How could she blame him? Venus was stunning. She always behaved with such decorum and diplomacy. She acted with wisdom and taste. Who could resist her beauty and charms? As these thoughts swirled in her mind, the Moon felt even more upset. But how could she escape without drawing more attention to herself?

No one responded to Mercury’s question but all for very different reasons. The Moon was too upset to trust her voice. Mars was too angry with Mercury for upsetting the Moon. Pluto and Saturn were watching Mercury, wondering what he would do or say next. The Sun, Uranus, Jupiter, Neptune and Venus got that Mercury was only trying to lift the heavy atmosphere. They knew he was trying to use his usual shock tactics, which didn’t shock them at all. But when he pulled the biggest ruby they had ever seen from his pocket, everyone caught their breath. They parted to make way for him as he walked toward the Moon, his hand held out to her.

“I know this is your birthstone.”

The Moon looked down. A blush crept up her cheeks. She couldn’t believe that he was standing in front of her with such a huge ruby in his hand.

She cleared her throat and whispered, “But it’s not my birthday.”

Mercury moved even closer to her. She could feel his breath on her cheeks. His voice was soft and melodious as he spoke. “I know. I tried to find something that could adequately express my love for you, but this is the best I could find.”

The Moon gasped. She had not expected those words to come from his mouth. But she had longed for it forever. Once again, Mercury had more than surprised her. Her heart overflowed with happiness. He must have known that the ruby wasn’t only her birthstone, but that it also promised love, integrity and passion.

His embrace was gentle but firm. His kiss was soft and passionate. She didn’t care that everyone witnessed it.

***

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SHORT STORY – THE DOOR

 

As her consciousness shifted, the sounds from her dream slowly morphed into day sounds that she recognised. She kept her eyes closed. The sounds – birdsong mostly – beckoned her with the promise that today could be a good day. But how could it be good when she felt so emotionally disturbed. The presence of the dream lurked. Its tentacles, as always, reluctant to let her go. She pushed the duvet aside. Drenched in sweat, her body displayed the evidence of her struggle to get away from the dream.

She opened her eyes and sighed.

Daylight poured through the sheer yellow curtains. She had always liked yellow – such a happy colour. The curtains matched the accent wall opposite her bed. She wished she could match the happiness that the colour represented. But the darkness of the dream still clutched her close to its sinister bosom.

The alarm’s shrill call announced the day’s urgency. Simultaneously, her phone vibrated on her bedside table. It was a text message from Mary.

U still up for lunch? Xxx

Was she? Was she up for anything? She had to be up for work – no choice there. So, why not lunch.

Sure, see you there xxx

Send.

Her weekly lunch meeting with Mary had worked itself into her life with as much insidiousness as everything else she had allowed. It was one of the things she didn’t regret. A good old chin-wag was often the antidote to an assortment of anxieties and hang-ups. Perhaps it was just the act of sharing things with another person – someone you could trust – that did the trick. No need for scientists to fiddle with your mind when you had such a friend as Mary. Hopefully, Mary got as much out of their relationship as she did.

Outside, the day seemed friendly enough, unlike her fellow commuters who, no doubt, hated this part of their lives as much as she did.

At five minutes to one o’clock, she switched off the computer and tidied her work into her to-do basket. She grabbed her handbag from the bottom drawer where she kept it out of the way and walked around the corner to the tiny restaurant to meet Mary.

Mary had already secured their favourite table at the back of the restaurant and waved to her as she walked through the door, indicating that she had already placed their lunch order. A few other regulars sat at small tables but mostly, tourists who could not believe that such a quaint little place existed, made up its daily clientele.

Mary smiled at her as she sat down. “I hope you don’t mind me saying, but you look like you could do with some more sleep.”

“Not so much more sleep – more quality sleep.”

Mary leant forward, concern in her eyes. “Oh, no. Not again? Did you try writing it down, like I’d suggested? Has it helped?”

She shook her head. “No, I haven’t managed to write anything down yet. I’ve got the pen and paper ready on my bedside table, as you suggested, but unlike you, I don’t remember much when I wake up. There’s only the sense of danger and the overwhelming feeling of helplessness. It’s really beginning to get me down.”

Mary nodded. “I can see that. But it’s not true that you don’t remember anything. You’ve told me about the door before. I take it you had the same dream again last night?”

She sighed.

“Yes, it was the same dream about the door. I don’t even know why it’s so terrifying. I mean, it’s just a door. The door itself isn’t scary. It’s actually rather beautiful – an ornately carved wooden door. I think it might be because it’s so old. I get a sense that it’s truly ancient and that the secret it holds must not be revealed.”

She sat back in her chair, flipping her hair out of her eyes. “It sounds so stupid when I talk about it. I can hear myself say these words to you and it sounds like it’s nothing.”

Mary’s eyes continued to show her concern for her friend. “Well, it’s clearly not ‘nothing.’ If writing it down hasn’t worked, and talking to me hasn’t worked, perhaps you should see a professional.”

“Like a shrink, you mean?”

“Yes.”

Their food arrived and neither spoke while the waitress put the plates on the table.

When she left, Mary continued. “Maybe there’s some deep-seated something you need to let go of. How long have you been having this dream did you say again?”

She finished chewing a mouthful of mashed potato before answering. “Ever since I can remember… It must have started when I was very young – maybe five or six?”

“And there was no trauma around that time?”

“My dad died. But I was too young to really know what was going on.”

Mary sat back in her chair, a satisfied smile on her face. “Well, there you are, then. It must have something to do with that, don’t you think?”

“Maybe -”

But before she could continue, Mary interrupted her. “I know what you should do. Tonight when you have the dream again, you should open the door.”

“What!”

Mary nodded as she munched on a tomato. “Yes, you should open the door.”

“But that’s what I’m scared -”

“Remember that it’s just a dream. You can’t really be hurt. If I were you, that’s what I would do. Confront your fears head-on. My mum always said when you do that, you’ll find the lion turns into a kitten.”

She smiled despite herself. “You mean you want to use me as a guinea pig to see if your mum’s words of wisdom are true?”

“Sure. Why not?”

In a way, it was a relief that Mary wasn’t taking her dread of the recurrent dream too seriously. It was just a dream, after all.

The afternoon dragged. She could hardly wait to get home to try Mary’s advice. Mary had inspired her to feel excited, rather than scared, about going on the adventure to find out what lies behind the door. Why had she never thought of opening the bloody door herself? Just the thought of taking action made her feel a hundred times better about the situation. Her feelings of hopelessness were almost completely gone.

That night, she took extra care when getting ready for bed. She made sure that the pen was lying on top of a blank page, ready to be used. She squished her pillow until it felt comfortable and then switched off the light, ready for whatever the night and the dream would bring.

This time, when the door appeared, it came with the knowledge that she was dreaming. She found herself moving closer and closer to the door, as always. Its massive size rose above her head and towered over her, shrinking her to the size of an ant. She had to stand on her toes as her hand reached out to touch the massive black handle above her head. So far, nothing was different from what had happened in the dream every single time before. But this time, instead of withdrawing her hand, she willed herself to stay. She knew this scenario usually ended with her running away as fast as her legs could carry her, even though she could never get away from the door – that was the horror of it.

Slowly, very slowly, she turned the handle. The door started to move inwards. On the other side of the door, only darkness met her eyes. She nearly lost her nerve then. Her breath was coming fast and high, her heart was thumping in her chest and she knew her body was drenched in sweat. The scream that usually accompanied her efforts to get away from the door sat in her throat. Her eyes felt as though they were on stalks as she stayed alerted to even the slightest movement that might spell danger.

The door moved further inwards and she went with it even though everything in her wanted to scream and run. She squared her shoulders and clenched her jaw in determination, instead. This time, she won’t be beaten.

The door stood wide open. The space in front of her was in total darkness. She remained in the doorway. Just as she was wondering if it was a good idea to go inside, light flooded the room. It was massive. Maybe that’s why it had to have such a big door. Her heart still thumped in her chest, but now it was with excitement. It was the most beautiful room she had ever seen. Every wall, from floor to very high, ornate ceiling, was filled with books. Rows and rows upon rows and rows of books…

The room drew her inside. As she walked, she glided her finger along the spines of the books. Each spine displayed only one name at a time. So many names – a different name for each book. Sudden insight flooded her mind. The names – it was their stories. Their lives…all our lives…they’re just stories. That was the door’s secret. She wanted to remember that. She wanted to write it down when she woke up. And she had to tell Mary that her mum was right; the lion, when faced, turns into a kitten. Except her kitten was the most beautiful, exotic sort of kitten she had never expected to find.

THE BEGINNING – EXTRACT FROM THE SENSE OF OTHER

Something is wrong. I know it straight away. I know it with the knowingness when you just know something, and you don’t know how you know it. The knowing lives inside me, without pictures, without words. But there are sounds. Mother’s sounds. Her voice. And other voices, deeper, scary. Mother is scared. Her heart is beating fast, thrumming in my ears, her breathing faster.

Suddenly, an enormous squeeze clutches me. It’s too tight. More follow. They feel claustrophobic and angry, unlike the warm, fuzzy rubs and hugs from Mother when she is overcome with love for me. The squeezes are much stronger. They feel serious and not loving at all. They are getting even tighter now, and more frequent. I want them to stop, but they do not stop. Why don’t they stop? It’s hurting now, and one follows the next more and more rapidly. Mother’s sounds are loud. Has something happened to us, something bad? The squeezes are even tighter. Mother isn’t stopping them. I want to stop them, but I don’t know how.

I’m moving now, moving away from the warm weightlessness that is my home, down a very narrow place. It’s slippery, and I can’t stop moving no matter how hard I try. My shoulders are squashed up towards my head. Many other, unfamiliar voices join mother’s. They sound scared or excited. I can’t tell which.

My body moves even further down the narrow place. Somehow, I don’t know how, I’m sure I’d see Mother’s face soon. I’m happy about it, looking forward to it. But as soon as I relax, rough hands grab my head and pull me quickly through the narrow place. My body gulps air. My legs and arms flail without my permission. A bright light hits my eyes. I can’t focus on anything, but I know the skin I feel beneath me belongs to Mother. Her sounds are nearer, clearer and happy. She is making cooing sounds. Her soft hands touch me all over, as though she is checking that all of me is here, that I am safe. Just as I am getting used to her hands on my body, her skin beneath me and the bright lights around me, other, rougher hands take me away from her. I feel instantly cold, then.

Peculiar, pungent smells are all around me. I can hear a strange sound and realise it’s coming from me. I am crying, yes, but it’s shocking. The actual sound of my crying, makes me cry even louder. I don’t remember being able to hear it before, and I’ve cried many times before. I wonder if others can hear me, too? If Mother can hear me? Will she come to me?

Mother doesn’t come. But another someone – like her – but with a different smell and sounds, come. She picks me up. She makes soothing sounds and gently sways me from side to side. It’s comforting, and I stop crying. I look up at her and see she’s smiling.

In her eyes, the thing that’s wrong with me recognises me in the reflection and smiles back. It’s much bigger than me and I’m glad it’s here. I feel safe now. It likes the nurse’s smile and smiles wider.

I focus on it and hardly hear her whispered words but understand that she has misunderstood my smile.

“You’re a lovely little boy, aren’t you? And so bright, I see, already smiling, and you just born. But poor little thing, your ma’s just a little baby herself. I wonder what’ll become of you?”

***

“Jesus, Conor O’Reilly, take this fekkin child away to the other room. His constant screaming’s doing my bloody head in.”

Mother’s words are about me. The sound of her words slices my ears. Her words spear my heart. But a painful, gnawing, empty feeling inside me hurts far more. I cry harder.

I don’t understand why Mother doesn’t help me. I know she can take away the pain. But she’s been lying on the small red sofa for days now. Conor and Mary have tried to take care of me as best they can. Mary, especially, often cries with me. But Conor is always quiet. He never cries, or laughs, or speaks.

I’d been sitting in front of the telly playing with the empty bottles until one broke and a shard of glass cut my finger. It hurts, but less than the empty feeling in my body. Red liquid is everywhere. It’s coming from my finger. Conor puts his mouth over my finger and sucks the red stuff into his mouth. I stop crying and watch him. Conor’s blonde hair is standing on end, matted and dull. His blue eyes, like Mother’s, are closed. His face is screwed up in concentration. He sucks hard on my finger, clasping my hand to his mouth. But each time he pulls my finger from his mouth, blood flows again from the small wound.

Next to me, Mary has also stopped crying. Like me, she’s watching Conor. As though she suddenly remembers something, she gets up and waddles down the hallway. Her nappy hangs full and low down her little legs, and her dark hair is bunched up from sleeping on it. I watch her go, wondering when I’d be able to stand and walk, like her. She isn’t much older than me. Conor pays her no attention and goes back to sucking on my finger.

The only sounds in our small living room are the telly and Mother’s soft snoring. It’s incredible how she could be so cross one moment and fast asleep the next. I wish I could do that. But the empty, gnawing pain in my stomach often keeps me awake.

Mary comes back into the room with a tiny piece of toilet paper. She offers it to Conor. He takes it and carefully puts it around my finger. A big red mark appears on the white paper, but at least it doesn’t flow down my finger anymore. Mary sits on the floor beside me again and holds my hand while Conner goes to answer the doorbell that won’t stop ringing.

Uncle takes long strides into the room with Conor following behind. Uncle’s face wears a dark frown.

“Jesus, it stinks in here,” he says and opens a window before moving to Mother. He shakes her shoulder, but she doesn’t wake up. She just grumbles in her sleep.

Uncle brought the cold, fresh smells of outside into the room with him. The sharp smell of fresh alcohol stings the air. But the food smells make all our tummies rumble. Uncle’s dark hair is short and clean, and his blue eyes wild with an emotion I don’t understand.

“Conor,” Uncle says, “take those babies into the other room. I wanna talk to your ma. And change their nappies.”

Conor picks me up, and Mary follows as we make our way down the hallway to the bedroom we share with Mother. The room is much colder than the living room where the small heater lives. Conor puts me down on Mother’s bed. The sheets and blankets are cold against my back, and they smell funny of old sweat and lack of life.

Conor changes my nappy quickly. I’m warmer in my dry nappy at once. While empty feeling in my tummy still hurts, now I can tolerate it more.

Mary knows it’s her turn next. She comes to stand next to Conor. He lifts her on Mother’s bed, so she lies next to me. She’s quiet, clutching her teddy in one hand, her other holding mine. As soon as her new nappy is on, Mary draws Mother’s sheets and blankets around us. She lies close to me and I feel slightly warmer. Conor doesn’t wear a nappy any more.

Conor leaves the room, and I know he’s gone to put the nappies in the bucket in the bathroom. But he comes back quickly, the nappies still in his hand. His face is white and frown sits between his eyes. He says nothing, closes the door, puts the nappies on the floor next to Mother’s bed, and goes to sit on his mattress against the far wall of the small room. He sits with his back against the cold wall, his head in his hands on his knees, he’s drawn tight against his body.

Mary and I are quiet. We are watching him. He doesn’t move or look at us.

We listen to the sounds coming from the other room. Uncle’s voice; loud, demanding. Mother’s voice; speaking fast, rising as if she’s trying to defend herself. Sounds of a struggle, Mother screaming, something breaking, probably more bottles. A rhythmic banging sound and Mother’s low wailing, followed by Uncle’s sudden loud, piercing cry. Then, silence. Silence for a long time…

I cry as I wake up. The gnawing in my body is excruciating and making me feel ill. Mary wakes up and starts crying, too. Conor is still on his mattress, but he must have fallen asleep because he’s lying under his blankets. He gets up quickly when he hears us crying. His eyes are red and swollen.

The door flies open. Mother is standing in the doorway. She is swaying slightly. Her hair is a mess, and she has a blue bruise on her eye and a raw swelling on her lower lip. Behind her, Uncle appears. His eyes aren’t wild anymore. Instead, he’s smiling.

“Here he is, my little man. Just look how much you’ve grown.”

He pushes past Mother into the room and picks me up.

“We’re all starving, Moreen. Go. Order food. My little man’s hungry. What do you feed him these days?” he says as he tickles my tummy. But it just makes the horrid feeling there worse, and I cry more.

Uncle carries me on his hip and does a little dance down the hallway.

The heat in the front room pounces on me and invades my body. I stop crying.

Mother is at the door, collecting boxes of food from a delivery man. She’s put plates ready on the table.

It feels like a feast day, all of us sitting in the warmer living room. Mother is on the sofa with me at her breast, Uncle on the beanbag with a big slice of pizza on his plate, and Conor and Mary side by side at the small table in the corner. I know they’re enjoying themselves because they’re swinging their legs as they eat. Mother’s plate sits next to her on the sofa. She takes small, careful bites now and then.

I’m not sure if we’re a real family, or not. I’m not sure I like Uncle. But at least Mother is awake now, and the sicky, empty feeling in my stomach is disappearing. I don’t want any more milk. Mother puts me down next to her on the sofa and picks up her plate.

My eyelids are heavy. But I don’t want to sleep because I like the sounds of my family around me and I don’t want to miss anything. The warmth of the room and the lovely full feeling in my tummy lulls me. I close my eyes and listen to the voices of Mother and Uncle talking as they’re eating.

“So, what are you going to do with the older two?” Uncle asks. “You can’t have them all here. I can’t support all of them. They’re not mine. And you better be right about Lee being mine because if I find out otherwise…”

Even though I’m sleepy, something in my mind registers the words and the meaning behind them, somehow. The thing that’s wrong with me, stirs. It feels like me, but not like me. It feels big, bigger than Uncle, bigger than our home, and powerful and dark. It peeps out at Uncle.

***

Mother is on the phone. She is walking back and forth in our small living room. Her hair is standing up even more than usual. She runs a distracted hand through it every now and then. She seems so alive. She is by turns talking very fast and then being very silent, listening to the other person speaking. Something is wrong. It has something to do with Uncle.

I am sitting between Conor and Mary on the red sofa, watching telly. Mother said we could watch cartoons. Conor and Mary are watching cartoons, but I prefer to watch Mother.

Something bad has happened to Uncle. He’s died. Mother’s conversation on the phone goes on for longer than I’ve ever seen. She cries and yells and then becomes quiet, watching us as she continues to listen to the other person talking. Her eyes move over us again and again, as though she is thinking about what to do with us. Conor and Mary don’t look at her, they’re watching telly.

When the phone call finally ends, Mother goes to sit on her chair at the table, resting her head in her hands. Her shoulders are shaking and I think she’s crying, but she’s quiet.

The front door buzzer goes and Conor gets up to answer it, his eyes staying fixed on the telly until the very last moment. Mother doesn’t move, nor does she look up when Grandmother walks into the room. Grandmother is bigger than Mother, but they look very similar. Grandmother’s hair is longer but just like Uncle’s, it’s a little curly. She seems angry and unhappy.

“Jesus, Moreen,” she says, “look at the state of the place, and the kids. Don’t you ever clean up?”

Conor walks past her and gets back on the sofa beside me, his eyes already glued to the telly again. Mother looks up. She looks like she has a cold.

Grandmother’s hands are on her hips. “Why are you so upset? He wasn’t your son. He was mine. I should be crying like you. But I can’t, can I? No, because I have to come here to sort you out. He tried, you know. He really tried to help you, but you’re such an ungrateful little cow, aren’t you? And now he’s gone, my beautiful son. Why he came here last night I’ll never know. What happened here? Did you fight with him, as usual? Why couldn’t you just love your brother.”

I don’t like the sound of Grandmother’s rough voice. The big darkness in me awakens again and stirs, but it doesn’t come out this time.

Mother doesn’t say anything. She’s looking at us, her eyes moving over us again, as she did earlier. She’s become like Conor; quiet, distant, drawn into herself.

Grandmother sighs and sits down on Conor’s chair at the table.

“Right, let’s get the kids clean first of all. Do you have hot water in this godforsaken place?”

Mother gets up. She moves slowly. She leaves the room. Moments later, the sound of running water comes from the bathroom.

Mother comes to stand in the doorway.

“Conor,” her voice sounds strange and soft, as though she’s lost a great battle. “Time for your bath.”

Conor gets up and follows Mother from the room, his eyes again remaining on the telly until the last moment.

Grandmother comes to sit in the empty space Conor has left on the sofa. She picks me up and gingerly holds me on her knees, staring at my face, unsmiling. Her eyes are sharp, like Uncle’s, but now she is squinting at me and only now do I see how shiny they are through her lashes. Suddenly, she turns me this way and that, really looking at me as though she’s seen something interesting on me. I can’t imagine what. She’s still not smiling, so it’s not something funny. Then, abruptly, she turns me around so that I’m sitting on her knees, facing the telly again.

Conor comes back. He takes Mary’s place as she slides from the sofa to follow Mother to the bathroom. Conor smells of clean soap. His face glistens and his wet hair has been combed neatly back, the longer bits tucked behind his ears. He’s wearing clean clothes that I have never seen before; a white T-shirt under a red hoodie, and jeans with proper socks and trainers. The clothes look new. I wonder where he got them from. He watches the telly again, fully absorbed as though he’d never left. I can feel Grandmother staring at him, but he doesn’t return her examination of him.

When Mary comes back into the room she, too, is clean from head to toe. Her hair, still wet, has been braided into two long braids that hang beside her head. Her face is gleaming and her eyes are sparkling. She’s dressed in pink tights under a pink dress with a grey woollen cardigan over the top, and white trainers, similar to Conor’s. She smiles and comes to sit beside Grandmother. I can’t stop staring at her. She looks like an angel.

Mother walks over and takes me from Grandmother’s outstretched arms. Grandmother is offering me as though I’m something foul. We go down the hallway to the bathroom. I already know I’m not going to like having a bath. I didn’t like it at the hospital and I was pretty sure nothing has changed since then. As always, I’m astonished to hear my own voice. As always, it’s piercing and loud and it hurts my ears, so I cry even louder.

Mother offers no sympathy. I’m unceremoniously stripped and dumped into the bath. Thankfully, the water only just covers my legs and it’s immediately lovely against my skin. I stop crying as Mother scoops the warm water over my body while holding my head upright with her other hand. I love the feeling of the soap suds on my body but when she tries to wash my hair, my loud voice erupts again and startles me into a crying fit. She ignores my loud screaming and finishes washing my hair. Then, she lifts me out of the bath and wraps me up in a big towel. I like the feeling of her attention on me, of her arms around me. I stop crying. She’s holding me close and making soft cooing sounds, whilst gently running her hand over my back. Even with the towel between her hand and my body, it’s a wonderful feeling. Her wet tears in my neck add to the warmth.

“God help me, help us, my darling Lee.” Mother’s voice is soft and sad, for my ears only. “I did love him. I really did, but I’m grateful he’s gone. Is that so wrong of me?”

SHORT STORY – REJECTION

“There’s gold in that voice,” my singing teacher said.

She was talking to my mother. I’d first seen that smile on my mother’s lips when I was around two or three years old. It happened when the adults around me had identified the noise I made as singing. Now, at the grand old age of six, I couldn’t remember a time without my voice, without singing.

My parent’s encouragement had made itself known in a small, pale blue, miniature baby grand piano that waited for me under the Christmas tree one year. It was perfect. I was delirious with excitement. A toy, with real keys that I could individually play, I adored that piano. Hours blurred one into another as I sang along to my heart’s content. The noise must have driven everyone around me insane. No wonder then that the piano disappeared one day, never to be found again.

I don’t know where the urge to sing came from, but there it was. Only much later did I discover that my grandmother also sang. Her grandmother was an opera singer in Europe somewhere before they’d left to make a new home in Africa, where we now lived.

We lived on a farm in the middle of nowhere. It was a big deal when guests came to visit. As the distances between farms were so huge, visitors would typically stay for a meal – either lunch or dinner. I was the entertainment. My mother would dress me up, brush out my long hair, and I would be summoned to sing for the adults after the meal. I can’t remember what I sang – it might have been hymns. Afterwards, I would receive applause and my mother would give me sweets to share with my sister as we were sent away from the adult company.

When it came time for school, I joined all the other shy, unsocial children from the surrounding farms. We stared at each other with big, curious eyes, but had learned that children were to be seen, not heard. We were an obedient, quiet bunch. Talking in front of each other was a struggle. Singing was out of the question. So, when the teacher wanted to test us for the choir, she devised a cunning plan. Square windows at the top of the wall that divided two classrooms were left open. In one of the classrooms sat all the students in neat, quiet rows. In the other was a piano. After being taught a song altogether, one by one, the students were ushered into the room with the piano. Being unable to see the classmates encouraged each young singer to utter sounds that indicated they had at least remembered the song. But in some cases, the tiny voices were so quiet that only the piano could be heard as the teacher softly played the accompaniment. Despite the awkward situation, the teacher bravely continued to search for new members of the choir to replace those who had left to join the secondary school.

My turn came. Being a seasoned professional, I sang as I usually did in front of our guests on the farm. After a few bars, the teacher stopped playing. I stopped singing, worried that I had done something wrong. But her hands were clasped in front of her mouth, her eyes were smiling at me and silent tears ran down her cheeks.

At home, I handed the letter from the teacher to my mother. She wiped the flour from her hands, untied her apron, and patting me on the head, took the letter from my hand. We sat at the kitchen table, my legs swinging in anticipation.

After what seemed like ages, I realised my mother was reading and re-reading the letter. But I couldn’t read her face when she finally looked at me. She folded the letter and put it on the table in front of her.

“You have not been selected for the choir, Annie. I’m so sorry.”

My heart stopped wanting to jump out of my chest from excitement and instead, stopped from the tidal wave of disappointment that flooded through my body. The tears that spilt from my eyes made my voice sound small and tight.

“Why? I did my best. I sang better than the others.”

My mother put a warm hand that smelled like flour and cookies on mine, but she didn’t smile. Her eyes looked as sad as I knew mine were. Singing was all I ever wanted to do. I was only going to school so that I could sing. Mother had told me that I could join the choir and I could hardly wait. Now, this. It was so unfair.

“You did sing better than the others, darling. And that’s why… Your voice is much louder than theirs. You won’t be able to blend in with the others.”

She patted my hand.

“We’ll think of something…”

I was still crying on my bed when I heard mother’s voice talking on the phone that stood on the small table in our long corridor. I couldn’t hear what she was saying but she was using her firm voice.

The next day after school, I started singing lessons with a singing teacher. But I carried the rejection from the choir deep in my heart.

After a month or so of lessons, my teacher entered me for an Eisteddfod, the annual singing and performance competition. It was my first performance in front of a hall filled with people. My mother thought I would be nervous. She held my hand as the chair beneath me shook from my uncontrollable trembling. But once I stood in front of the audience and the judge, a well-known operatic tenor, I loved every second of it.

Only when I won my first Eisteddfod as a soloist, did my six-year-old heart begin to feel hope that I could still sing even if it wasn’t with my friends in the choir.

Fading…

 

Fading…

Some days, she was herself again. Some days… What happened on the other days, the days that she was gone, she had no idea.

On the days of clarity, it felt as though she had been away on a long journey, only coming home now. She loved the feeling of coming home. It felt good to be home. It was such a relief. She felt as though she could breathe again. She wanted the feeling to continue, so this is where she would start. Here, where she was sitting in her living room, with her things around her. Here, where she felt safe.

Music lived here. It had lived here for many, many years. She would play, and they would dance and sing. Well, in the beginning, when they were too young to sing, they danced. She would be over there, by the piano, playing. He would be here, sitting on this sofa, watching them, his little family. They would be dancing: her little boy and his two younger sisters. They made up their own steps and danced with such joy, such abandon, such enthusiasm, as only small children could.

It was love at first sight. She had been around six or seven, and she knew immediately, irrevocably, that music lived in her soul. She did not know how she knew it, but she had been certain of it. As certain as the sun that smiled on the exotic, yellow African Daisies outside her mother’s bedroom window. As certain as the music that poured from the record player in the corner of the room.

The first time he had heard her play was when she was twenty years old, petite, and quite beautiful. It was a knowing within her then, her beauty. Not something she ever shared with anyone else. It was enough that it belonged to her. Like her music. But unlike her beauty, the music wasn’t hers alone. It had to be shared. She remembered well the feeling of sharing it. Of seeing the happy smiling faces around her at the hearing of it. Her feelings of satisfaction.

The beautiful dresses she could choose from, the expensive jewellery. But no rings. She had loved rings. But never any rings. Or bracelets. They clincked on the keys.

The travel: New York, Dublin, Cardiff, Edinburgh, London, Paris, Saltzburg, Milan, Rome, Athens, Barcelona, Berlin, St Petersburg, Beijing, Hong Kong, Singapore, Tokyo, Los Angeles, Boston. Exhausting, thrilling, consuming. The audiences. The applause. One performance blurred into the next as she travelled from country to country.

“So exciting, darling!” “So glamorous!”

But it wasn’t. It was work, work, work. She never felt more alive, more vibrant, more herself. Music opened her soul. It allowed her to see for herself, her path ahead. She was doing the thing she had been born to do. The thing that eluded so many others. That caused so much frustration and unhappiness as far as she could tell. But not in her. Each day was a new opportunity to explore more music, to live her purpose.

And her hair… She had been enthralled with her long dark hair. It highlighted her flawless pale skin. Well, it did then. The person staring back at her from mirrors now was a stranger. A stranger she met anew each time she looked into a mirror. She met many strangers these days. Some insisted that she should know them. That she had known them. Others carried that hurtful look in their eyes when she did not recognise them. She had come to know that look well.

Thoughts… Many thoughts. Maybe memories. Maybe dreams. They lived at the edge of her memory, teasing her with their presence. Thoughts of music. Thoughts of family.

When her babies came, she had stopped travelling. She loved her babies. But they never asked that she give up her music. He and her babies and her music lived together. He would stay with them at those times when she played. The musicals, the recitals and concerts. Accompanying other soloists. The huge old pipe organ in church. These had become her outlets for music. She was grateful. Grateful that her purpose still lived alongside her family. These were her passions. These fed her soul.

The organ extended the music. Now there was Handel’s Messiah, too, and Bach’s toccatas and fugues for postludes. Practising in the beautiful old church was an opportunity to dress up, as much out of respect for the church, as for the music. Sunday dresses and the spiked shoes she would remove and replace with soft black slippers that would glide over the pedals as she played.

Some days, she was here. With her music and her young family and him. But somehow, they weren’t here. She could not find them. She was alone. They were gone. It was terrifying. She looked and looked but she was too tired. She felt too slow. She thought about taking a short rest. She would try again tomorrow. Now there were only strangers. What did they know. Of her music. Of her family.

But on the days of clarity her life was intact again. Connections made sense. Then, there were no strangers. Only her family that she loved. She recognised them. She knew them. They were all adults now, of course. And he was there, too. Older, gentler, familiar. It felt so good. She felt good. She would walk to the piano and sit down, her fingers already reaching for the keys.

I Could Have Danced All Night. Isn’t it odd that her fingers played that song in particular. She had not meant to play it. But that’s what came out. She tried again. There was so much music. Classical music. Ah, the Romantic Music she loved so.

Stupid, stupid, STUPID fingers.

Her daughter was here. Beautiful, talented. Her youngest. Christine sang. Christine sang the last song she could play.

I Could Have Danced All Night.

(For Nita, Smitty and Christine)

DIARY OF A LETTER

An awareness of my birth started with the first word. I savoured it even as I didn’t know what it meant. More words were added, and a sense of meaning began to form. The writing – margins and paragraphs, commas and full stops, capital letters and sentences – filled my pages until I felt full with their presence, pregnant with their meaning. I revelled in the feeling of my pages – two of them – pristine, neat and smooth. Ordered lines of writing covered my first page, the message completed on the top half of my second page. The empty white space beneath, a blissful freedom, neither waiting nor pining to be filled with words, at peace with its lot.

I shared the writer’s excitement which grew as she read and re-read the words on my pages. I was to deliver a message, an important message. I sensed the writer’s anticipation of a response to the message on my pages. Pride rose in me, pride that I had been especially created for this, and a sense of something else…that I was rare, that my appearance would be an unusually pleasant surprise for the recipient, somehow. The awareness came with the understanding that other ways to deliver messages were more usual. That, in part, I understood was the reason that I was uncommon, unique.

I wondered if the words I was carrying determined my personality, my energy, and my worth. I had a sense that it did. Unable to see the words, I could not even guess at their meaning. But it didn’t detract from my happiness. I had a purpose. I had a responsibility that only I could fulfil, and no one else. It made me extraordinarily happy. I was content.

But my tranquility and cheerfulness was suddenly interrupted in a way I could not foresee. I was being folded. Oh, no! My smoothness was being disrupted. One fold. No, two!

I could hardly stand it. How could anyone do this to me? It was clear that the writer didn’t have any remorse. Apparently, she considered this ill-treatment normal. She didn’t seem to understand that I would never be the same again. I had been changed forever. From this day, I would always carry the scars of the folds on my pages. The folds were severe. They diminished my size. I was now a third smaller than I used to be. Paralyzed from the shock, I froze, but the worst was still to come.

I was being stuffed into an envelope. Of all the indignities! My edges were being straightened within the envelope before it was sealed above me. Light disappeared. I stayed as still as I could, wondering what other horrors were to come. Hopelessness washed through me. What could I do? I was pretty sure I had not done anything to warrant such abuse. I had trusted the writer, felt safe with her. This was such betrayal. My thoughts swirled round and round. How long would I be contained in this envelope? What if the writer didn’t send the envelope off immediately and I had to languish here? What if the envelope got lost en route to the recipient? How would I ever escape then? Or what if the recipient didn’t open the envelope immediately, or worse, just threw it away? I tried to stop the suffocating panic from driving me crazy.

On one level, I was deeply disturbed at being forced into a situation I had no control over. But on the other, I realized that my thoughts were not helping my situation. If only I could control them… It was difficult to think of anything other than my immediate dire circumstances. But I had to… I tried to calm myself and look logically at what had happened. Had the folds in my pages killed me? No. Had being stuffed into the envelope killed me? No. All that had happened as a result of those two scenarios was that I’d been changed. But my panic level was still sky-high. My chaotic thoughts, although the truth, did not help me to gain any new perspective. Come on, think. THINK!

It worked. The terror faded slowly.

As I thought about my purpose, about the message on my pages and how I was the only one in the whole wide world that could deliver it, I started to feel better again. I could live with the folds on my pages. Okay, so it changed how I looked but it didn’t define who I was. Luckily, the folds didn’t disturb the words. The message I carried remained intact. My reason for existence, my worth, remained unaffected despite the ugliness of the folds. I was even beginning to think that being put into the envelope might have been a good thing. Perhaps the envelope’s purpose was to keep me and my message safe. Even though uncomfortable, it was a temporary situation and I could see now, necessary, for me to deliver my message in the best possible way.

The writer clearly trusted the process. Why shouldn’t I? But I wasn’t so sure about trust. I had trusted the writer and looked what happened. Forgiving her might be a long process. Change, however, seemed inevitable. I could see that. I understood change, appreciated its constancy. It was all I had, apart from my message. No matter how scary, how painful, how uncomfortable, change allowed expansion, transformation. That was the prize; the shiny new me with a wider perspective, and a deeper appreciation for myself, being reborn again and again.

SHORT STORY: WHEN YOU GOTTA GO!

I look up from my Kindle as the tube stops. Bounds Green says the sign on the wall. The digital message that runs above the windows inside the carriage confirms the same thing.

People board the tube and take the seats of those who had disembarked moments before. Opposite me, a mother and her young son take their seats. Like me, she sits in the first seat, her little boy in the second, next to her. I turn my attention back to my Kindle and pay them no further notice.

I don’t like children. I find their energy too disruptive and parents don’t seem to notice the effect their child’s behaviour has on the people around them. It irritates me. I don’t have children of my own…never wanted any. But if I did have children, I would want them to be considerate and kind, and sit still when they’re travelling on the tube, or eating in restaurants.

The little boy opposite doesn’t sit still. He’s off the seat in no time. But thankfully, his mother doesn’t allow him to run around. Even though she is reading a newspaper, she holds on to his arm as the tube shakes and jerks along the tracks towards central London. He’s about five or six years old I estimate, and a very cute, good looking little boy with a friendly smile. He smiles at me. I smile back. Just because I don’t like children, doesn’t mean I am mean to them. He can’t help being a little boy. But that’s the problem. Small children, I find, have entirely too much energy. His mother directs him back to his seat and he slides onto it backwards, legs dangling. He’s too short for his feet to touch the floor when seated. He’s asking her for something.

“Mummy…”

“Mummy…”

I can’t make out what he’s saying, but it sounds urgent. I continue to read, knowing that the mother would take care of whatever it is the little boy needs. Only when we stop at the next station, do I hear that he’s asking if he can go to the toilet. The mother remains very calm.

“There is no toilet on the train. You’ll have to wait until we get off.”

“But I have to go now, mummy.”

“Where do you want to go? There is nowhere here.”

I can now see why the little boy is getting off the seat. He’s dancing from one foot to the other. Poor little thing. He’s clearly in urgent need of the loo. But again, his mother directs him to sit down and wait for their stop. I am beginning to admire him. He sits quietly for a little while before leaning towards his mother and whispering to her. I can’t hear what he’s saying but it’s clear that he is still talking about needing to go to the loo.

As there is nothing I, or anyone, can do to help the boy, I return to my Kindle. But moments later, a sudden flurry of activity opposite me, makes me look up again.

The boy had wet himself. I’m not surprised. His need to go seemed really urgently. What does surprise me is his mother’s reaction. She seems more concerned with cleaning the seat than she does her son. The little boy is standing in front of her, pee streaming from his shorts down his little legs. But the mother ignores him as she grabs tissues and tries to mop up the pee from the seat beside her. There’s too much of it and she has to give up, eventually covering the seat with the newspaper she had been reading. I decide her actions must betray a sense of embarrassment. Why else would she ignore her little boy to deal with a wet seat, instead?

Apparently satisfied that she had done all she could for the pee soaked seat, she turns her attention to her little boy. She wipes his legs with tissues that she adds to the wet ones already in her bag. I can’t imagine how wet everything else in her bag must be by now or what it must smell like.

I pretend to read but can’t tear my eyes away from the mother and son.

By the way the boy acts, it’s clear that this is not the first time he’s has had to pee in his pants in public. He looks around, and smiles at me and the other commuters who are also watching. I imagine his shy smile covers his humiliation. I wonder if it would affect him later?

Whether by design or because of what happened, they get off at the next stop, and I watch as the commuters around the seat warn others not to sit there. Despite the fact that the tube becomes more and more packed as rush hour on a Friday dictate it does, the seat remains empty. Only the newspaper occupies it.

Now, when I get on the tube, I never sit in the second seat even if it’s the only one available. It will forever remind me of the little boy, of his trauma, his humiliation, and the part of him he’d left behind on the tube.

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