She checks the bedroom one last time, gaze sweeping around the walls, into each corner, over the floor. The desk is empty, bed stripped and bare, walls blank, almost like a prison cell.
She remembers watching some TV drama, the new inmate arriving in an ill-fitting orange jumpsuit with a small pile of possessions in her arms. There was fear in her eyes, anxiety for the future and regret for the past. But there was nowhere else to go. She had to enter, and face whatever lay ahead.
Now it is her turn to move on. She pulls the door close, without shutting it completely.
“You could stay, you know.” He stands by the window, staring out at the light rain pattering on the rose bushes outside. His hands are jammed in the pockets of his sweatpants. He never does that normally. Through the fabric she sees his fists, balled up and tense. Her stomach twists. Those hands, like that mouth with its thin upper and generous lower lip, are still capable of so many things.
“I’m all set to go.” She forces her mouth into a smile, huffs out a breath. She uncurls her own fist, nails dug into the soft flesh. “This is yours.”
The key sits on her palm, its gleam dulled by time and repetition. If she took her hand away, would it float there in the air between them, given but not taken?
His jaw tightens and he presses his lips together. She does not offer comfort. Her hand remains steady, not shaking, as she feared it might. She looks away from his face and down at the key, examining the tiny nicks and scratches, an unwritten history.
New objects have crisp, sharp boundaries that separate them from their environment. But over time, a thing rubs and chafes against the outside and loses its shape. Eventually the edges are so worn that its original form is forgotten under the onslaught of a thousand tiny collisions with the world. Nothing survives life intact, and no-one knows where the lost pieces go.
She steps forward and sets the key on the kitchen table. He glances at it and then directly at her. She gazes back, breathing deliberately, consciously slowing her racing pulse. Nothing stops time. It runs fast or slow, but it wears everything down.
“I’m sorry,” he says finally. She notes with detachment that his eyes are still the startling blue of a summer sky that knows no grey.
“Me too,” she replies, nodding.
She slings her bag over her shoulder and walks out, away, closing the door softly behind her.
A fierce storm rolled in as I scattered John’s ashes. No chance of a ferry back to the mainland. I sat in the empty terminal building, truly alone.
A kindly old woman approached me. “Might I offer ye a bed for the night?”
I followed her home, hiding my grateful tears. Sleep came easier than I expected.
The morning dawned clear as she waved goodbye. But when I described her to the Ferrymaster, he looked baffled.
“You’re mistaken surely. Morag died twenty years ago, and Cameron’s Cottage has been empty since.”
My blood ran cold. My name is Margaret Cameron.
This piece was written in collaboration with Gordon Adams during a meeting of Northants Writers’ Ink. This writing group meets regularly and collaborative writing is always an enjoyable event. This time we were tasked to come up with a drabble of exactly one hundred words, on the comfort of strangers.
We considered a number of scenarios around chance and fleeting encounters. This story would take place in a transient environment where people come and go; waiting rooms, airports, bus stations, vending machines. Frequently these are also places where lives change in an instant, surrounded by a rushing humanity that seems not to care, taken up with its own drama. Yet, flashes of kindness do appear, sometimes when they are sorely needed.
Packing a story into such a small space is a challenge. Once we fleshed out the action, we began writing, and then cutting to shape. Like poetry, every single word must earn its place and preferably do double duty.
Writing is usually a solitary pursuit. It was a real pleasure to bounce ideas off someone who got my drift and contributed to the process too.
We had a time limit of about forty minutes, and the ticking clock also forced us to get on with it. Like so much in life, done is better than perfect! I prefer to write poetry, but this short form has a lot to recommend it.
I never said goodbye to my mother. By the time we realised she was leaving, we found that her body remained but her soul was already on the train. Her eyes were fixed on an unknowable, distant destination. We waved when the whistle blew, but she never looked back. Worrying away at that loose thread, I believed that goodbyes are important. So when I heard that he was going into the hospice that day, I went.
It was one of many such days. Endless activity, calls to action, demands to be met. But this call was my own, and not to be deferred. He smiled when I told him that I had to come before he left. In between pauses to catch his breath, he told me how much he valued our friendship.
In turn, I thanked him for his advice, freely given and always useful. We reminisced about past times, while afternoon sun bathed the room in a warm glow and a ticking clock provided a constant rhythm in the background.
He said he didn’t want to burden his wife any more, and shushed her murmured protests. This was the right thing for both of them, he said.
She was a strong woman, and she did not cry. She watched him with love and she smiled, because he needed to see it and she had to give him whatever he needed, now that all prayers were useless. Pain would be borne later, in private. She offered tea, but I could not delay my commitments further.
He coughed and wheezed. Joked that he sounded as if he had been on twenty a day, and I responded that life just wasn’t fair sometimes. It’s never been fair, and we shook hands.
We had spoken the truth, but we ended with a lie.
“See you again,” I said.
And he replied with a smile, “I hope so.”
We parted with a final, double-handed handshake, after which I held back my sudden impulse to hug him. It would have felt like surrendering to the inevitable. When all seems lost, the tiniest shred of hope is the only thing left to us, and we cling to it lest we drown.
He was tired of fighting, and he faced his future calmly. Intangible and yet absolutely present, the word we would not say hung in the air like smoke.
There are two kinds of people. Some wake to a pristine world of white and rejoice, while others groan. Some love the look of untouched snow in all its cool perfection. They smile as they view it from the warmth of the house, hot chocolate in hand. Some wrap up and race outside to catch snowflakes on their tongues, press prints into fresh snow with boots and sleds and make their mark on that blank canvas.
Two kinds of people. Those who observe and think, and those who engage and feel. I don’t know if one group understands the other, really.
Lumi is my little angel. After years of painful disappointment, unanswered prayers, procedures and doctors and emptiness, along she came. Making a new life is a mundane miracle that is also somehow transcendent. Lumi brought light to our lives, turned me from a have-not to a have overnight.
She had pneumonia that first winter. She was not yet a year old and so small. David and I sat either side of her bed, trying to breathe for her, hardly daring to breathe for ourselves, so afraid. Snow was something to scrape off the car and trudge through on our way to and from our darling girl. We hardly noticed it. She pulled through, and we gathered her close.
She’s tugging on my sleeve, turning her face up to scrunch her nose at me. Brown eyes sparkle and she points outside, through the glass doors.
“Look, mama, snow! Can I get wellies? An’ stomp the snow? Please mama.”
I look down at her dark curls flying as she bounces with excitement. The snow is perfect, and I picture cold air stealing its frozen tendrils into her lungs, wrapping her veins with ice. I don’t know if it’s safe.
She coughed all through her second winter, though no snow fell. I wrapped her up and kept her inside. I didn’t want her to fall ill again.
She’s still pulling at me, asking, good-humoured and adorably enthusiastic. Outside the sky is arctic blue, and low sun reflects off snow-covered branches. A robin hops by, leaving tiny tracks behind. She laughs and points at the birdie, asks me what sound it makes. I’m not sure I ever knew. Still I hesitate.
A fresh page, a clean slate holds limitless potential. Before you make a mark all the options are there, branching off in infinite directions. Anything could happen. After the decision is made, it’s spoiled. Infinite possibilities discarded in favour of just one.
There are two kinds of people, the confidently proactive and the anxious, paralysed by fear of making the wrong choice.
I think I did everything right. Perhaps I was too careful but a mother only wants the best for her child. I thought fate wanted the same.
“It’s very cold out there, sweetheart. You’ll have to wrap up and you don’t like wearing a scarf.”
“I will wear my scarf an’ my boots though. I get them now.”
And she’s off, giggling, to dig through the cloakroom for her knitted hat with the white pompom, and pink gloves with sequins on the back. I hear her singing a Disney song.
Once we’re wrapped up against the frigid weather, we will build a snowman. I picture my ski gloves and snow boots, relics of a different life, pushed to the back of the shoe rack. All at once we’re outside, laughing, kicking up white flurries.
She lies down to make a snow angel and I wish I had my phone to snap a picture of her joyful face, with her glittery wings spread wide. Twisted through the lens of grief, I can’t rely on memory these days.
I can’t tell which is dream, which is nightmare, which is real life. I should have let her play outside, and played along with her. Now I stand here looking out of my window at the silent snow that blankets everything. Maybe there is life beneath, but I’m too numb to dig myself out.
Lumi skips along and the robin hops behind her, orange breast vibrant against all that white. They’re singing but I can’t hear them, and they leave no tracks on the snow.
There are two kinds of people. The ones who think they have more time, and the ones with regrets.
I should have let her make her mark on the world while she could, before snow made me cry.
(first published in Creative Cafe on Medium, 16 December 2017)
I sat at a window table in the coffee shop waiting for my perennially tardy friend Clare. I’d come to expect the text saying she was running late two minutes before we were due to meet. I didn’t mind though. I got the first round in; a large latte for her, apple and elderflower tea for me, and millionaire’s shortbread to share. She’d be along, and I could people watch while I waited. Usually it was a chance to daydream with the hum of early Saturday morning as a soundtrack.
The slam of a car door outside rang through the entrance as a patron came in. The dark haired woman stormed off, pulling her shoulder strap over her head. Her blue bag bounced on her hip and she dodged other shoppers with grace and speed. As she approached the coffee shop her frown was obvious, dark brows lowered and jaw set.
Her companion caught up in a few long strides, grabbed her wrist. She spun round, shook her hand free. I sipped my tea and watched the back and forth. She waved her hands, stabbed a finger at his chest in accusation. He shook his head, clenched his fists at his sides. One or two passers-by glanced at them but they paid no attention, fully absorbed in their moment of drama.
My phone buzzed again. Clare was running really late, so I finished the shortbread. We could always get another. Meantime this silent altercation had drawn me in.
He opened his palms, placatory. Her shoulders slumped, eyes downcast. There was a brief pause. In movies, that would be the pivotal moment. He’d beg forgiveness, she’d realise what she’s losing, and they would fall into each other’s arms. Roll credits.
She walked away. He watched her go, then called out. She hesitated and stopped. I held my breath. She turned back and I saw her face clearly. She bit her bottom lip, nodded fractionally and walked up to him. The wind tugged at his light hair as she cupped his face between her hands and brought him down for a soft kiss. The tension in his shoulders relaxed and he reached for her at the exact moment she stepped away. She gave him a small, sad smile before leaving without looking back.
The man still stood rooted to the spot, touching his lips as if to hold on to her. He returned to his car and sat for a while before driving off.
I was still wondering about them even after Clare rushed in, describing her own little drama of lost keys and a broken heel. At least that could easily be fixed.
Maybe truth is stranger than fiction but life is not a fairytale. Sometimes it ends with a kiss.
“The true soldier fights not because he hates what is in front of him, but because he loves what is behind him.”
— GK Chesterton
It starts with little things. Small things that one hardly notices, a slight curl of the lip, a condescending word, interruptions borne less patiently. The fond smile becomes an irritated grimace, and before you know it a full-blown sneer. It might seem passive but it’s really not, all that hidden aggression smoothed over by an insincere smile. It usually bounces off, but it stings sometimes.
Still, it’s you and me against the world, united front, shared territory.
Next comes a subtle thickening of my skin to ward off those tiny arrows, ticks sinking little sharp mouthparts into my flesh and drinking. Absent kisses, back turned, cold disdain becomes the norm.
One sip of blood at a time adds up. I don’t feel it as much, through my sturdy hide. But I don’t feel the caresses either. Meantime the criticisms latch on, so hard to remove even with help. I don’t have the knack. I did not think to defend against an enemy within the walls.
No time to learn because bombs start to fall. Accusations and lies, silences and screams. I shout at you across a growing divide. We need to talk but here comes another missile, armed with shrapnel made of the insecurities I shared with you. I’m hit, bleeding, a serious wound but not lethal. I stretch out my hand but you’re already gone, back behind your gun emplacement. You fraternise in plain sight, covert texts and open falsehoods a carpet bomb of betrayal.
I retreat into a foxhole, lick my wounds, gasp in pain. When did it begin, this unrelenting conflict? No man’s land stretches between entrenched positions. No white flags here, just an nasty duel to the death. I want to fight for us, not against you. But you keep launching bombs.
I craft my armour and bide my time.
If I am grotesque, maddened by bloated bloodsuckers and ugly in hastily patched tin plates and makeshift helmet, know that you made this monster from a soft-bodied creature, vulnerable and foolish. That creature deserved pain for her weakness.
This soldier will not make that mistake. Our hot and fiery love burns down to cold, hard ashes. When pain forces me to dig deeper, into the molten core of my fury, I find a lava lake of rage to power my assault.
I know where you live, and all your weak spots. What we had is far behind us, forgotten ruins. What lies ahead cannot be seen through the smoke and flames of this battlefield. I care nothing for the future. There is only one mission. I will destroy you because this is war.
I will burn down the world if I must.
A response to Creative Challenge 51.5; first published in The Creative Cafe on Medium, 29 November 2017
It seemed so real. Rivers sparkled in the sunlight, meandering between soft green hills. Ali dipped low over a dark blue lake and caught glimpses of fish below the rippled surface. Warm air buoyed her up, towards a solitary eagle wheeling far above, but the wind failed and she fell back to earth.
She woke in bed and realised with a heavy heart that it was morning, already, again. Reluctantly she pulled back her covers and put her feet to the cold boards. Another day in paradise.
Boring days crawled by, nothing to mark one from another. She stared at her face in the mirror, wondering if this was it, all life had to offer. One grey evening Ali cuddled under a blanket on the sofa, watching nature documentaries. The kitchen was dark and cold, and after a long day of work a handful of dry cereal and a cup of tea was just easier. What was the point of cooking for one anyway? She could probably stand to lose a few pounds. She half-listened to David Attenborough talking about birds and habitat and such. His voice was soothing and familiar. She closed her eyes for a moment.
When she opened them again, a vast forest stretched below. From a distance it looked solid, but on closer inspection she could see separate trees in which flocks of scarlet macaws chattered noisily. Once again Ali fell, but as she wished that she could fly further, her descent slowed. She landed gently and put her feet to cool earth.
Around her, jewelled hummingbirds dashed from bloom to bloom and birds called overhead. Luxuriant foliage enclosed her in countless shades of green, and she breathed in faintly spiced air.
Her next thought was that she’d probably be eaten alive by mosquitos, but her arms and legs remained free of bites. She wandered around for a time until she heard buzzing. She looked up at a large beehive, with a few bees circling outside. Ali reached toward it but her arms were so heavy. She felt herself sink to the ground and woke in bed, limbs pleasantly warm and remembered birdsong in her ears.
That lunchtime she chatted to Debs, her desk neighbour for the last nine months. They usually dissected last night’s TV programmes. That was one thing Ali knew something about.
“Sorry, what?” She realised Debs was looking at her expectantly.
“I said, did you see those hummingbirds on TV last night?” Debs shook her head. “You’re a real space cadet today, didn’t you get your beauty sleep or something? Or, perhaps it’s someone who kept you awake…” She trailed off, raising her eyebrows suggestively.
“Maybe Jake the IT guy. He’s been checking you out for ages.”
“Ew, no. He’s creepy.” Ali shuddered for effect. “Actually, I had the most realistic dream, and when it was going to end I wished it wouldn’t, and I kept dreaming. It was amazing.”
“Oh really? You should look up lucid dreaming,” Debs bit into her apple. “It’s when you know it’s a dream and you can control it.”
“Is that really a thing? I thought dreaming was all pictures from your subconscious.” Ali pulled a yogurt out of her lunchbox, and peeled the lid off.
“Ali, you’re not at home now,” Debs hissed. “No wonder Jake has a thing for you when you’re licking the lid in public.”
She hastily dropped the foil, feeling warmth in her cheeks. She was getting sloppy and distracted and it wouldn’t do. “Sorry. So anyway, lucid dreaming is real then.”
“Yeah, I had this boyfriend who was into yoga and all that mystical stuff, but I stopped listening after a while. Too airy-fairy for me. Better get back to work.” Debs gathered her things and left Ali thinking. She ate her yogurt with a spoon and avoided eye contact with anyone.
Ali turned to the internet. She devoured articles on lucid dreaming, yoga nidra, astral projection and yogic flying. With practice, she discovered a knack for slipping from calm wakefulness into a dreamscape of her own choosing. Her nights filled with brilliant images.
The auroras blazed green and red above the poles. She followed a barn owl on its silent nocturnal hunt, and skimmed the seas with dolphins. She walked exotic beaches alongside turquoise seas, and wandered cool pine forests leaving no prints in the snow. It was exhilarating. Real life could not compare with the wondrous worlds of her dreams.
Ali burrowed her feet into warm pale sand and looked out at the distant horizon. In her night world she felt alive. Nothing could hurt her. Daytime was drab by contrast, with Debs nudging her and asking if Jake was the cause of her faraway look. She agreed just to shut Debs up. All she really wanted to spend more time asleep, alone.
Controlling dreams seemed impossible. Until you did it.
A flash of light caught her attention, perhaps a reflection from the sea. It shimmered like heat haze. She walked along the beach to find it. The air in front of her rippled, yet she could see the beach beyond. She circled the ripple and looked back at normal beach. Hesitantly she put out her hand, only to find it vanished into the shimmer. She screamed and woke up in her bed gasping for breath, her mouth dry with fear. Her hand shook, but it was intact. It seemed so real.
That was not meant to happen. She was meant to be in control.
“Just a dream,” she muttered. But she couldn’t explain it.
Ali stopped lucid dreaming after that. The monotonous days dragged on, but it was impossible to resist the pull of her dream world for long. She found herself back on the same beach, standing in front of the hazy air pocket. There was only one way to know. She took a breath, and stepped into the shimmer.
Beyond lay a magical world. Brilliant stars twinkled in a purple sky lit by two moons. The air hummed with strange energy, plants and flowers glowed with unnamed colours. She could feel everything, and it finally made sense.
Then she looked up at the brightest stars and wondered what they looked like up close. She soared into the sky. As the ground receded she heard her name. She was back on the beach, quick as thought. A paramedic was clearly visible through the portal, standing in her bedroom.
“Ali, Ali wake up!” Debs was holding her hand and crying.
She hovered by the ceiling for a while, looking down at her sleeping form. Her body was not dead. But mere existence held no appeal.
In this vibrant universe, she was truly alive. She slipped away unnoticed. The stars were calling her.