Once bitten…

Once bittenI don’t think any of any of us had ever thought about Vicky before. Not in that way, anyway. There were plenty of others to think about – Maria Fairley, Jacqui Sellars. Lisa Williams too, of course, although she mysteriously lost it at the end of seventh year. I don’t know where it went, but once it was lost, it never came back.

When I say ‘us’, I should specify who I mean, because I don’t mean everyone. I mean the losers, the nerds, the retards and the irredeemably unhygienic. The ones who all the girls were so not ever going to even give a chance to, we had to experience it all vicariously, a reluctant yet fascinated audience for the couplings of the chosen few. We were a shudderingly desperate collection of cretins.

Not so Ash. He wasn’t especially handsome, with his uneven front teeth and Pontefract Cake hair that just couldn’t be cut into a flattering shape. When I saw him again in my early twenties, his hair closely-cropped, I understood that some guys’ heads are only designed for the crew-cut. He was also neither eloquent nor intelligent, although these were not considered advantageous at our school. What he was, was confident. And good at sports. And that was a killer package as far as all the girls appeared to be concerned.

I suppose Ash was also imaginative. As I said, no-one had thought about Vicky Chapman as potential girlfriend material, not until the rumour that he was going out with her reached escape velocity and entered the intoxicating orbit of school gossip. How had this happened? What had we missed? When I picture her now, I get it instantly. She had perfect olive skin and always wore her hair in a long braid you could moor a yacht with (until she had it tragically lopped to collar-length in the summer holidays between the eighth and ninth years). She also had these nut-brown, cartoon eyes that never looked far from playful, wicked laughter. Yet there had always been something equally fierce about her, and intimidating, more so than the girls who were intimidating just because they were universally reckoned to be desirable. And because they were girls, of course.

Another thing I should probably clarify, are the details of the going out with arrangement. Expectations were low. A typical first date would involve a walk around some of the town’s choicest alleys and lanes, with optional grunting. Hand-holding was on the menu for the brave and romantic. If all was progressing well, the evening could be capped by a shared bag of chips on a park bench, before the first exploratory snog at a safe distance from the girl’s house. Safe meaning either far enough away so that no parent would accidentally disturb the act, or close enough that a hasty exit could be arranged if necessary.

The morning after Ash and Vicky’s first date was one of rare anticipation. We all huddled at the usual location in the school grounds, hands in pockets, staring at our feet, waiting for something to catch our attention. When Ash arrived, he looked very pleased with himself. You could sense he was bursting with something.

Before saying a word, he took hold of his lower lip and pulled it down to show us its inside. There were two red marks, wounds of some description.

“She bit me,” he informed us. “When we were snogging.”

She’d bitten him. This was a new piece in an already complicated puzzle. Had she meant to? I’d never come close to kissing a girl before, obviously, but I’d seen it happen, and it did look quite violent at times. Was it normal for the girl to bite you though?

With his lips back in place, Ash resumed his self-satisfied, perhaps even boastful air. The urge to not seem even more stupid by asking the wrong question meant that a nervous silence gathered, but I’m sure I wasn’t alone in having my head filled for the rest of the morning by thoughts of that braid, of it being slowly and carefully unplaited.

 

Image: Nicolas Raymond


 

 

Next year’s holiday

Contrails

Noel had been certain the bungee cords would be adequate. Boasted, even. Sworn on his life in the face of almost universal doubt and derision. And yet he understood that moments like these – right now – were the moments in a long, complicated life that truly made you die, more completely than anything physical.

He’d managed to bring the car to a halt on a gently-sloping verge of daisies, clover, dandelions with seed-clock heads bedraggled by the night’s rain and pasted to their stems. Each of the four suitcases had slipped from the roof and yawned their contents across the carriageway, decorating both lanes. You could see them for over a hundred yards up the road, arranged like fallen festival bunting.

The beginning of the trail was beyond sight, but the traffic was swerving to avoid them, or trying to, a long way back. Occasionally, a vehicle passed with an item of clothing clinging to its tyres, like it was spinning dry in a washing machine.

Mother wouldn’t look. Or perhaps she didn’t want to be seen. She kept her face wrapped up in her hands, as though it made her invisible. The girls were on their phones, taking pictures, thumbing away on screens, faces intent. Intermittent bleeps of notification coming from his trouser pocket told Noel that the scene was already on Instagram. Were either of them using Twitter yet? Did kids do Twitter? Or had it already become uncool?

Noel gazed across beyond the other side of the road. Families whose holiday luggage wasn’t going to be reported in traffic bulletins – even if it didn’t go viral online – were moving or settling into new homes dotting a half-completed estate. Above the noise of cars, you could still hear the rumbling of egg-yolk yellow bulldozers, the screeching of orange cranes swinging pallets of breeze blocks about like conkers. The routine violence of it all was presumably being co-ordinated from somewhere, no matter how random it appeared.

A truck growled by in the inside lane. Noel briefly caught sight of one of his shirts – a striped number he’d been bought last Christmas by Mother – partly obscuring the windscreen, though only on the passenger side. The driver hadn’t seen fit to decelerate as he’d carved his way through their new, open-plan wardrobe, and the car shuddered on the verge as it passed, tiny chips of aggregate pinging off the bodywork and skittling into the grass.  In the truck’s wake, smaller items of clothing circled like sparrows before landing unceremoniously – and no doubt only temporarily. A sock; something green and white he couldn’t place; and a pair of what Noel was certain were very insubstantial, very pink knickers. He was also certain they weren’t Mother’s.

Fifteen to twenty minutes, the emergency call centre operator had assured him. Half an hour had elapsed. Overhead, aircraft contrails and their peculiar shadows crossed the sky like spines, or the antennae of insects, yet no planes were visible anywhere.

Next year, he resolved – if there was a next year – they would fly.

Flight

Heron in flight“Let go,” Will said. “Let me go.”

His strangled voice was pushing at the edges of its limited range, threatening to break if its volume increased further. Stuart held on with both hands. It was an uncomfortable position, and his back was beginning to ache from having to bend.

“Let go, let go,” the boy said again. He was pleading now, starting to kick out with his feet in desperation.

The car park was almost empty. There were only three other cars, and none of them were parked close to Stuart’s. It was getting gloomy, evening approaching. The lights hadn’t come on yet, although even once they did, it would still be gloomy. There weren’t enough of them, and the bulbs were a pathetic, low-watt type, which it took the council ages to replace once they’d burned out.

“Let me go. Please!”

Will was almost in tears now, tears of fury.

Just like your bloody mother, Stuart thought.

“Look, Will,” he said, “how about this? I’ll let go with this hand, and then you can work the handlebars.”

Stuart released his right hand, so the boy was in complete control of the steering. He wobbled instantly, and the bike swung from left to right to left to right until he gathered some measure of equilibrium. Stuart thanked himself silently for not letting go with both hands, for keeping his left one securely on the stem of the seat, just below the saddle. The bike and the boy would never have remained upright if he hadn’t, although it did mean he had to continue stooping.

Will was only placated for a moment.

“No, daddy,” he said. “Let go properly. Please. Let go.”

“Will,” Stuart said, “you don’t have your helmet on.” He was starting to get out of breath, though he couldn’t see why.

They’d now negotiated their way to the end of the path leading down from the front steps of the community centre. Stuart put his hand back on the handlebar for a second, to guide the bicycle through the ninety degree turn it needed to take to enter the car park.

“Daddy, let go!” Will snapped again, grabbing at Stuart’s fingers to try and prise them off.

“OK,” Stuart said, peeling his hand away. They were already safely within the car park, facing the far corner, where the silver hatchback waited for them.

From behind, a dark shape appeared low in the sky, moving slowly, even clumsily, almost not dynamic enough to be airborne. As it moved past and gave a dinosaur screech, Stuart realised it was a heron, returning through the twilight to roost somewhere in the trees ringing the old quarry ponds. There were often herons there, though you rarely saw them flying; it was easy to forget that they could, and to forget how ungainly they were. Stuart watched it move beyond the field of tarmac, with its rows of identical straight lines marked out in white paint, and disappear between two poplars, gaunt now their leaves had fallen to earth.

He did a hurried calculation in his mind. What was it – thirty yards? Perhaps forty? Less. It might take Will no more than twenty seconds to cross the barely noticeable slope. What could seriously go wrong? The numbers collided in Stuart’s exhausted brain, in a part of it where the inevitable unknowns in the equation could be easily overlooked, or fall through the gaps; unknowns that would seem obvious later. But he’d seen the scene before, the one he was picturing, in dozens of movies. He was sure of it: unaware that he’s no longer being held, the boy carries on pedalling as before, made confident by the imagined security of the adult hand, the one he resents, the one that represents restraint, unfairness. Before he realises the hand isn’t there, and he’s free, he’s already far away, beyond the threshold, becoming a man.

Stuart’s hand released its grip on the bike, and he watched as Will sailed off and away from him down the slope. Somewhere over by the ponds, in the descending darkness, there was a commotion, another screech, a sudden shaking of branches, the briefest view of something taking flight.

Old habits

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMarianne had taken the least expensive room. The place was visibly dying, crumbling with a lack of genuine love. She’d passed it often enough, wondered who the hell would stay in such a cattle pen. Now here she was standing in one of its windows, gazing down at her Subaru in the parking lot. There were three other cars, none of them worthy of extended attention. It was almost dark.

She pulled the curtains tight together with a shudder. As she flopped back onto the bed, under the swaying ceiling fan with its faint metal-on-metal squeal, she thought about those habits that had stitched themselves into her, how hard they were to unpick. Even in a moment like this, in the whirlpool of it all, when it was so far from important, she’d still needed a bargain. She couldn’t simply forget the money, say “what the hell?”. She could almost hear Henry’s voice in her head, wanting to know what she was wasting their money on now. At least it made her smile, albeit bitterly.

The mattress was brutal – stony in some places, shredded in others, and never consistent, whichever way she arranged herself. Marianne was still in her uniform. There was blood on it. That old guy with the greaseproof-paper flesh – he’d bled like a gutted fish when she changed his dressings. Warfarin. She kicked off her shoes and felt pure physical pleasure for once. How long must it have been?

The suitcase she’d stuffed lay open next to her. She hoped to find comfortable underwear, and pyjamas, but in the few frantic minutes she’d had she’d just scooped things up randomly from anywhere. She’d needed to be out of there before Henry and whoever it was came out of the shower. It was another one from his office, she’d guessed, looking at the clothing strewn across the bedroom. That Linda bitch, probably, all big hair and tits. If she was braver, she reasoned, she’d have stuck around, confronted them, not fled. But she was too tired for that. She just wanted to curl up and sleep.

How that was going to be possible here she wasn’t sure. She mouthed quiet curses at herself. She hadn’t even looked in the bathroom, checked out who or what she might be sharing it with.

She upended the suitcase. She found the bottom half of a pair of pyjamas, but there didn’t seem to be a top, never mind a matching one. She had – unintentionally – grabbed Henry’s old college football shirt, the one she’d taken to wearing as a nightdress. She flung it across the room, though there wasn’t far for it to go. She picked out a sweater, then put it to one side, figuring it was going to be way too warm to sleep in without any air-conditioning in the room.

Then she found something she’d never seen before, something that certainly wasn’t hers. A small but very expensive-looking patent leather purse was nestling in the pile of clothing. It had silver trim reinforcing the corners, some kind of monogram design that didn’t mean anything to her.

She opened the clip. There must’ve been three, maybe four hundred in cash, easy. She slipped out a credit card and examined the name on it. Linda Franklin, it said, both in the raised lettering across the front, and a scrupulously tidy signature on the reverse strip.

Marianne lay back on the bed again. She tapped the edge of the card absent-mindedly against her nose. The whining of the fan seemed to be getting louder.

She leaned over and grabbed the phone, lifting the receiver.

 

 

Image by cygk

 

Nail clippings

how-often-cut-nails-1

We found nail clippings lying in the sink in the bathroom at his apartment. It looks like it was one of the final things he did before leaving, getting into his car and driving across town. Maybe he cut them too short – maybe that was what made him do it? They were serious clippings for a guy.

It’s irritating, frustrating, when you do that, leave them too short, expose the quick, even wound the nailbed. But easily done. A casual slip, a simple misjudgement. If you keep your nails relatively long, there’s plenty to play with, margin for error. But if they’re short anyway – it doesn’t take much in the way of carelessness and you’re in trouble.

Then you get that uncomfortable feeling. It’s not quite pain – unless you really do draw blood – but it’s impossible to ignore. And you can’t put them back on once they’ve been cut, can you?

There’s a Charlie Brown cartoon I recall from childhood, a line one of the characters says – maybe even Charlie himself. “Cutting your fingernails too short is like discovering your psychiatrist has gone away for the weekend.” Or perhaps it’s the other way round? Anyway, it always kills me thinking about it.

He drank a coffee at Nina’s, down by the riverfront. We know that because we have the footage. There’s a traffic camera on that corner, trying to catch drivers jumping the lights. He arrives at 10.25, alone, looking nervous. We can’t tell that from his face – the resolution’s not that good. But he’s doing a lot of looking around, guilty fidgeting, almost like he’s expecting to be watched, when all the time he is being watched, of course. Maybe he never noticed that camera?

He empties six of those little sachets of sugar into his coffee. Can you believe that? At first we thought the tape must be sticking on playback, except they don’t use tape these days of course. It’s all digital. And even though he’s already cut his nails to the quick – probably – he’s gnawing away at his finger-ends. Long enough and he’d be down to bone.

She arrives at 11. Classy. One of those who wears sunglasses all the time when she’s outside. I’m just guessing here, of course. Very unprofessional of me. I can’t prove it, and it’s probably not relevant. He gets up to kiss her. She must be in heels, because they’re almost the same height, and he’s no midget. Five eleven, easy. Maybe six.

And then they leave.

That’s all we have. Our guys are searching the river, but we’re not hopeful. After all the storms of the last few days, it’s fuller than it’s been for years. It’s conceivable anything of interest could’ve been washed out into the ocean by now.

Looking at it, it would be difficult to pinpoint a specific, solely-responsible catalyst for something like this – it usually is. Sometimes one thing simply leads to another. Maybe his fingernails had nothing to do with it. It’s just something we noticed. The forensics guys are running DNA tests on the clippings, naturally. But there’ll probably be nothing under his nails for them to look at if we ever do find him.

 

Relatively painless

He warned me to expect what he described as a slight scratching sensation.

needleHis mouthwash blue eyes followed the business end of the Novocain-charged hypodermic, as he located its point on the soft felting under the roof of my mouth. He caught my own eyes for a half-second of human recognition, then drifted away to something behind and beyond my reclined head, fractionally off the map, lulled by the routine of it all. I almost expected a yawn. He looked exhausted enough.

Drifting clearly being the thing, I thought about the tableau I’d seen outside on my arrival. The trio of men in tangerine hi-vis jackets probing a hole opened up in the high street using the biggest toothpick I’d ever seen. I could still hear the impatient blaring of car horns caught in the backlog, despite the muffler effect of the buildings.

I pictured the three of them, knocking off soon or thinking about it anyway, their retreat to an unloved guesthouse somewhere or a pallet in a damp shipping container. Rinsing away another day with bottles of imported lager. Some perfunctory text messaging to a loved or lusted-after one. Small screen poker, pornography. Or maybe Sartre instead? Origami. All of it unfair, ridiculous.

I started to come back. But what to? Small, sensitive parts of me were beginning to go numb, to take on a feeling of not feeling, advancing down a track towards not really being there. On the ceiling overhead, out of the Hollywood glare of surgery lighting, he’d blu-tacked a troop of butterflies snipped out of stiff paper by his twin girls in kindergarten. Some were green, some yellow. One was orange.

I watched them swirl around, the beating of their huge, flimsy wings surely an impossibility when their bodies were so relatively tiny. I imagined my own arms in similar proportions, how long they would have to be, how ungainly and incapable of butterfly grace.

He raised the shaft of the drill, already whirring, up towards my mouth.

“Tap the arm of the chair,” he said, “if you need to take a break.”