THE RED LINE www.overtheredline.com
THE RED LINE
The Man in the Black Pyjamas Matthew W Huggins Bruce Harris
Amanda J Murphy And William Cass
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Editor’s Introduction……………………………………………….……………………………3 The Seventy-Three Things You Know………………………………………………………..4 Calling……………………………………………………………………………………………….10 Terms of Surrender……………………………………………………………………………….16 The Hangings……………………………………………………………………………………...25 Mrs and Mrs Frankenstein……………………………………………………………………..33 The Judgement…………………………………………………………………………………….42
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THE RED LINE Hello! Continuing our onward march towards literary excellence, we have five stories for you this issue. Five stories but, as always, only one winner. We will open with the winning entry I think, so you could just flip over the page to find out who it is. To be honest, we donâ€™t know really who the winner is ourselves, but we know what s/he has written. Itâ€™s oozing with creativity and novelty, as well as telling a human story at the same time.
The rest of the stories were good, but we felt that we had a stand out winner this time and the judge (without any comment from us) has agreed. You can find out what our judge, Sarah Cedeno, thinks of them all on page forty-two. We have really landed on our feet with Sarah, and all of the stories have been given a great deal of though, which comes out through the feedback provided. Thanks, Sarah. Not much to add now beyond the usual, which is that we hope you enjoy the stories. Josh, Stephen, and James
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The Seventy-Three Things You Know
by The Man in The Black Pyjamas
You know you can’t sing love songs anymore since you know so much about natural selection. The D.J is playing ‘Thunder Road’ as you leave the office party early and dip out into the soupy end-of-summer
night. You are reminded, as you move with the music through the squashed heat, of your old trick of using lines from ‘Thunder Road’ during pick up. You know you got it from a forum and despite that you know it works on account of the same biological urges which send you out to do it in the first place. ‘Show a little faith, there’s magic in the night’ you might say as you and the target stop to kiss in the lagoon of a summer morning. You know to turn on ‘Thunder Road’ then when you get home and know to close too, showing dominance, on the couch before the song has finished. You know about women. You know to get their full name, as you did with Susannah, and know to use your phone to Google them and build rapport and comfort with the certainty that knowledge gives you. Susannah, you found out three and a half years ago in the toilets after an open-mic night, was trying to be a singer, as you were too then but have given up since. You know about giving up. You know that you and Susannah, after all those weekend-less months of trying to make it together, had to get jobs your parents understood. You know that she is still trying to
believe and you know it must be harder for her now as she falls, eyes closed, towards thirty. You know that she will soon no longer have the excuse of youth, of all this being the prologue to something big, to her making it in the life-defining way that Rob’s girlfriend (Esmé) has made it. You know that admin—where you both started and where she remains—is the right place to give up, though Susannah and Rob and four or five of the others you started with haven’t yet. Rob, as he left to begin recording his crowd-funded album, tweeted that today would be his last Friday ever, and though you retweeted it you know that this will be Rob’s specific tragedy. You know that Friday is Susannah’s favourite day of the week and for everyone in admin it is, in 4
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the moments of walking from the office to the street, the time to shake off the dust of work and of failure and of being the wrong person in the wrong place. You know that for them, it is the time to become again the writer or the actor or the sculptor or the painter or the cello player they always knew they were. There is, you know, a sadness in a Friday too. You know that that moment of release, of putting earphones in, of texting to arrange the night or of taking off their work clothes is the best that most of them will feel all week and after it’s passed and the possibilities it seemed to have held are gone with it, they will have lost that chance to be themselves again. This is why, you know, that tragedy attends at all your office parties, which is one of the many reasons you left Rob’s leaving party early as the rock was being lifted and the little red dots of what-we-really -think-we-feel moved everywhere and made everyone believe, if just for tonight, that everything—their lives, the way they walk through the office—had been changed for the better by the lifting. When you were still down in admin you once tweeted ‘Friday is the only day of the week’ and you got two retweets, which seemed a lot then though tonight it doesn’t, since now you know exactly how to
time and word your tweets for the biggest impact. As you left Rob’s party—walking outside into the humid night that keeps threatening a thunder storm which hasn’t yet come—you rubbed out a witty and angry tweet about the differences between private and public sector pay and conditions. Now, as you watch for her from your third floor window, you rub your phone and it magics up little hits of joy with every new favourite and reply and retweet. You know that Susannah hates twitter and can’t attach pictures, though twelve seconds earlier she tweeted ‘The lonely cool before dawn’ and a link to an unfiltered Instagram picture of an empty park with purple clouds boiling above the trees.
You know therefore that Susannah is with Rob in Fitzwilliam Square, which you know too is a private park that Esmé’s family have had the keys to since they built up the wealth that sustains her today. You go there, you and Esmé, while Rob and Susannah are at open mic nights in the upstairs of sadly carpeted pubs, and you lay down on the cool grass under the cover of a tree or out in the open as the clouds move busily along, and, when she comes and makes nail prints in her palms and curses you, you know you’ll never not know what it means to be an alpha male. You know which shirt Susannah loves most (for it brings out your shoulders) so you put it on and stand in your socks and move—shoes on—into the hallway and the lift and then the muggy almost thun5
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dery night to go the park and bring her back. You know that she will walk back silently with you and that Sunday will follow Saturday, and Monday will come and soothe her with the soft anaesthetic of routine and together you will put tonight away with the other things you don’t talk about, with the fingernail marks Esmé likes to leave on your forearm and with the texts you get when you’re pretending to be sleeping and with the night you misread the signals trying to be alpha, and, though you know it was only two thrusts, Susannah scrunched herself up like a bobbin and sat in the shower long after the water went cold singing ‘It’s a town full of losers, I’m pulling out of here to win’ in a voice so low you had to put your ear to the bottom of the door to hear.
You know that Susannah and Rob are somewhere in the park so you listen closely as the trees inflate and deflate in the hot breeze. You know they are sharing the quiet sounds of the warm city with you as you circle the park. You know they are breathing and listening too to the taxis cooling in neutral and to tired footsteps and the far off sound of road-works coming through on the thick air and to the passing cars humming
a lullaby of late August football analysis. You know that, to know as much as you can, you once calculated the chances of something happening between Rob and Susannah and found them to be slim, due to: (among other things) the weakness of Rob’s chin; his average height; his beta way of being overly polite; his lack of money; his politically correct support of feminism. You know too, of course, that an admin office is life squeezed, that the normal rules of attraction and seduction can sometimes be circumvented there. Down in admin, you know, they mark the time by the way the walls they stare at stare back—a hot shadow in summer or tinsil and cards at Christmas or the glow of bright rain in winter and one seeming to follow the next into eternity. You know, as you stop under the sprinkled cool of a tree, that Susannah has to remind herself she doesn’t like it by keeping a sign above her computer which reads ‘This is not my life’. You know it is her life however and you know that time in the admin office pools into a hot, stagnant puddle. In afternoons, you know, they wade through that thick soup and hope for something to happen. You know, for you saw it once and noted it for the warning sign it was, that Susannah and Rob, to pass the time (she says) make up
love songs for the stationary on their desks. You know they once dueted to the tune of ‘Thunder Road’, with her in the role of stapler and him as the puncher, and, you know, the office pulsed with electric feel6
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Susannah scrunched herself up like a bobbin and sat in the shower long after the water went cold singing ‘It’s a town full of losers, I’m pulling out of here to win’ in a voice so low you had to put your ear to the bottom of the door to hear.
ing when at the end of the song she pressed her stapler against his puncher. From the park you hear what you know is the sound of bare feet ssh ssh sshing across the night grass and what you know too is the sound of Susannah’s bracelets clinking together. You listen closer still but the closer you listen the quieter it gets until all you can hear is the far off sound of the clucking green man calling across a street. You know you should have listened as closely when, before you both left for the party, she sat on the bed with her hair wet and began to tell you again the story of where it all went wrong
for her, the story of how she wishes she could be like you, how she wishes she could imagine a time when she doesn’t believe it could happen, how she wishes she could know, as you say you know, that she won’t be paralysed by regret if she gives up now. You know, though, that it was your life before giving up that first made Susannah fall in love with you and made her believe that together you could be something in the world in the way that Esmé and Rob are now. It is the difference, you know, between the future Susannah imagines and the one you are readying yourself for which often makes you agree with Esmé, when, with your time together in the park running out, she turns her hair to you and says ‘this can’t go on’. You know Esmé is in London this weekend, retweeting compliments from people who saw her gig last night and not responding to either of your cocky/ funny texts. Last Saturday, you know, she was in your apartment with you. Susannah was back at home with her parents and would be gone until late Sunday evening, when she would get back up and feel, you know, like crying. You know that those hours between Esmé leaving and Susannah getting back is just enough time to wash the glitter from the sheets and hoover up the tiny slivers of condom wrappers and find by accident, in the way you know she would have, the bracelets and the single earring and the eyelashes and the long dark hairs on the couch and the rest of 7
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the clues that lies leave. You know, as the faint tune of ‘Thunder Road’ circles the park in trying-to-not-to-make-a-sound steps, that you should be alpha and do something. You know that while you rub your phone and check her twitter again the things that aren’t the internet tap too heavily on the foaming night sky and make the trees shake and the squares of path around the park beat in the streetlight. You know, as the tense sound of one material whispering against another drifts towards you like gas through the trees, that it all makes it hard not to believe, to ignore the mysteries you know you have to ignore to live in the certainty that you do.
You know you are pressed most by these mysteries on nights like tonight when you lie in bed picking through them on the way to sleep. You know, as the soft mumble of conversation floats up from the street below, that you were right not to climb the gate into the park and right not to try to know exactly what she was doing and what she was thinking and what it was, precisely, that lead her there. You know you were right to go home and wait, in the sea-grey glow of her laptop, for the tick tick of her key at the door. You
know, as you restore her deleted internet history, that she is thinking of leaving. Last week, you know, she searched: ‘best cities for artists to live in’; ‘cheap bohemian cities’; ‘how old is too old’; ‘Can you love two people at the same time?’; ‘chords for Thunder Road’. There is the sad sound of her feet outside the apartment and then of her jingling search for her keys as you shut the laptop and lie on your side pretending to be asleep. You know, as you breathe rhythmically enough to make it seem like your snoring and listen as she takes off her clothes and opens and closes drawers, that Rob must have walked her home the same way you came half an hour before when you felt yourself dissolve into everything. You know it must have been shock, but as you walked from the park you were the lights in the glossy late night offices, you were the leaves and the wind that moved them, you were the smell of the humid canal; you were all those things and nothing too. With your eyes closed you can smell the night from her as she brushes her hair more frantically than usual. She smells, you know, of wine and beer and damp grass and sweat and perfume and other things too that you don’t know. You know if you open your eyes now you will be opening them to the unknowable night and to the unknowable lives that swirl around in it. You know you will be opening them to the life pausing admission that Susannah—and by extension, everyone else—is more mysterious and more com8
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plex than you could have known. You know that facing her now would be facing again the kind of regret and confusion you spent so long trying to never know again. You hear her unzipping her wash bag and pausing as she looks in the mirror or over at you or out the window at the purple sky. As you listen for her to move, the sound of a guitar strumming seeps down from upstairs as a bike hisses by on the murky street and the shower drips into a still-warm puddle—with your eyes closed it is a world of seconds and in these seconds you feel the years roll over you as if you had been threading water all along and had finally given in and gone under and found peace under the wash of everything you’ve done and everyone you used to know. You open one eye to come up for air and watch her back and her hair as she creaks into bed and wipes away the last of her mascara as if wiping away a tear. These are the seconds, you know, when it’s hard to know if every calculation you’ve made was right or wrong. You know it was emotion that night when you went too far, after Esmé had spent the evening playfully rejecting you and you came home to find Susannah doing the same. You know, from checking her phone, the she saved the message you sent her the next day saying you loved her—the first time you said it—and reminding her it was only two thrusts and telling her you knew it was wrong, that you would know what to do in the future. It was those seconds of not knowing, of thinking she wanted you to force it (since sometimes she does) which you know has brought you to here. It was a miscalculation to be so clingy with Esmé, a miscalculation to not know what Susannah was saying when she said ‘I’m serious, no’, and it was the regret, you know, of so many miscalculations which made you do so many more. When you know she has fallen asleep you take out your phone and Google her name and find only what you found the first time you did it. As you ask the internet ‘What is she thinking?’ ‘What’s the right
way of getting her back?’ ‘How should you feel on Friday?’ ‘How do I know my girlfriend is cheating on me?’ ‘What can you tell by the way someone sleeps?’ ‘How late is too late to start again?’ the light of your phone attracts a moth and it lands on the glowing screen and sniffs and beats its wings and then slants off towards the window and the light from the street. You take out your iPod and put in your earphones and scroll to ‘Thunder Road’, as if the answers might be there, though they aren’t and as the song ends and silence beats again you hear her blinking in the dark and so you replay ‘Thunder Road’ and sing along under your breath as if to say to her ‘I just can’t face myself alone again’ and as you whisper-sing you rub your
phone and ask it again, as it lights up in response, all those questions you know the internet can’t answer.
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By William Cass
The grass had all turned brown. Snow, crusted gray by car exhaust, hugged the curb. A blare of shift change whistle blew at the factory a few blocks away; 5:00pm and the gloaming of evening had already fallen. From his bedroom window in the rectory, Father Francis watched the cold breeze tug at a lone leaf on the tree in the front lawn. His own heart felt like that leaf. He went down the hall to the kitchen to heat water for tea. Although he’d only turned forty-six earlier that month, days after his mother’s death, he walked with a slight limp. The rectory was as quiet as a tomb. At the sound of the factory whistle, Sister Katherine glanced up and looked outside the convent’s basement window. Above the roof tops, she could see the plume of smoke from the factory’s chimney against the ink-wash sky. She paused at the ironing board in the laundry room where she was pressing the
nuns’ habits. The globe on the ceiling threw white light. A glimpse of her ex-husband entered her mind, and she shook it away. In the convent’s small chapel directly above her, she could hear Mother Superior’s quiet voice leading the rosary, followed by the answering chorus of the other nine nuns. She saw a light blink on in the rectory’s kitchen. ~ It was the early winter in that industrial section of Cleveland. St. Richard’s church, school, convent, and rectory were all made of red brick, smoke-stained over the years. Most of the apartment buildings,
businesses, and small houses in the old neighborhood were built with the same brick. A tangle of telephone wires and clotheslines hung suspended among them. Father Francis had come to the parish two years earlier replacing a longtime priest who’d been promoted to a larger parish. With the congregation’s census in decline, after the monsignor retired later that year, the diocese didn’t replace him, but left Father Francis there to run things on his own. Sister Katherine had only been at the parish for less than a year; it was her first assignment after taking her vows. She taught second grade at the parish school. Shortly after Sister Katherine arrived, Father Francis overheard two of the other nuns talking about
her. One told the other that Sister Katherine had been married for seventeen years before having her mar-
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riage annulled when she’d discovered her husband’s affair with another woman. They’d had no children. She’d started her training in the order up in Michigan shortly after the annulment became official. At her orientation, Mother Superior provided Sister Katherine only a brief overview of Father Francis’ background: he’d taught English at a Catholic high school in Cincinnati for a number of years at the beginning of his career and then moved on to be a chaplain at a prison before coming to St. Richard’s. This was his first parish assignment. Father Francis was a quiet man, Mother Superior told her, but a good one. Rather shy, she said, somewhat reserved. Aside from the general pleasantries exchanged between all of the nuns and Father Francis and the daily early morning Mass he said for them in the convent chapel each weekday, Sister Katherine did not have occasion for much personal contact with him until he began preparation with her second graders for their first confession and communion in October of that year. He came to her classroom twice each week to teach them, and she sat at her desk in the back of the room and watched him as he spoke. He was gentle and patient; even when a student didn’t know the answer to a question tied to the catechism reading from the prior day, he was kind and encouraging. Occasionally, when a student said something silly or off topic, they would exchange glances and smile. She was struck by a sadness in his eyes with which she sensed a kinship. Father Francis felt the same. His lessons with her students came at the end of each afternoon, and he stayed after dismissal one day to ask if she had any teaching suggestions for him. “Well,” she said, “you might tell them about your own spiritual journey.” “My own journey?” “Yes, it may help them personalize the sacraments you’re preparing them for.” “I see.” She smiled. “You have a lovely way with them. They’re very fond of you.” He looked at her for a long moment. There was a smudge of chalk on her cheek; he touched his own and pointed. She regarded her reflection in the classroom window and wiped it away. When she turned back to him, she was blushing. After he left her classroom, Father Francis went for a walk along the river and thought about what she’d said. His own spiritual journey had long been a struggle. He’d entered the seminary mostly to please his mother, who was devout and had raised him alone, and her pride in his being a priest was the primary 11
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factor, he now acknowledged, that had maintained his religious commitment over the years. With that gone since her death, he felt untethered. He felt very much alone. From her classroom window, Sister Katherine watched Father Francis walk away with his awkward gait until he turned the corner. She put her fingertips against the pane and found herself weeping silently. His manner, she realized, was the polar opposite of her ex-husband’s. She closed her eyes against the memory of his shouts and beery breath. Father Francis began to linger after her students left on the pretence of helping her clean up her classroom. At first, they spoke only about religious instruction and benign parish business, but eventually he told her a little about his own experiences teaching high school and ministering in the prison. She shared a few things about the period of prayer that led to her vocational calling after her marriage ended. They listened quietly to one another as the late afternoon light fell outside. Over time, they allowed their stolen gazes to become bolder. Father Francis found himself thinking about her before falling asleep at night. In spite of her efforts to the contrary, the same thing occurred for her, and at times, he entered her dreams. He often joined her on the playground when she had recess duty. And at communion during the early morning Mass in the convent chapel, she began to look up at him when he placed the host on her tongue instead of closing her eyes. One Saturday afternoon, he was taking the city bus back from visiting an ill parishioner, and she boarded a couple of stops later holding a shopping bag. The bus was crowded, and he was standing in the back. He waved to her and she joined him there. He told her where he’d been, and she said that she’d bought items at a craft store for an art activity with her students. At the next stop, a large boisterous crowd boarded carrying stadium blankets and wearing sweatshirts and caps of the local college. The bus quickly filled to capacity and Sister Katherine’s back was pushed up against Father Francis. They stood very still, and he tried to concentrate on the passing traffic, but she felt the bulge in his pants stiffen against her bottom. She heard him whisper, “I’m so sorry”. She shook her head and didn’t move. When she got off the bus in front of the church, he stayed where he was. That next week, he left her classroom promptly with the students at dismissal, and she kept her eyes 12
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turned downward at morning communion. She waited until the end of confession hours that Friday evening after the church had emptied to enter his confessional. In the dim light, they could just make out one another’s image through the small dark screen. “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned,” she began. Then she became quiet. His head was turned to the side where he sat on the stiff chair on his side of the confessional. She shifted where she knelt on the other, her hands clasped on the ledge under the screen. “Yes?” he asked. She swallowed and said, “I have covetous thoughts for a man. A man of the cloth.” She could see his breathing quicken through the screen, but he said nothing. He didn’t turn his head. He closed his eyes. “Father,” she finally whispered. “My real name is Charles,” he said. “Charlie, I was called when I was young. I only took my middle name, Francis, when I entered the seminary.” He turned and looked at her with his sad eyes through the screen. “You see, I’m really just a man named Charlie. That’s all I really am.” He stood up, and left the confessional. She listened to his footsteps cross the wooden floorboards and the sound of the church’s side doors open and close. ~ Sister Katherine stood the iron up on its end on the board and watched out the window. Father Francis appeared in the rectory kitchen and began filling a teapot with water at the sink. He looked out the window in her direction, paused, and turned off the light. The kitchen turned dark, but by the streetlamp outside, she could still see his face muffled there through the glass. Sister Katherine folded the habit she’d finished ironing carefully and set it on a bench next to her with the others. She unclipped her black veil, removed the white coif that covered her head, and shook her hair free. She lifted both layers of sleeves over her shoulders and unclasped the cross from her neck. She untied the woolen belt around her waist and slipped off the wooden rosary that it held before slowly taking off her tunic. Finally, she lifted the top underskirt with it black serge over her head, and then stepped out of the bottom one. She wore no bra; her underpants were black. Next, Sister Katherine separated the garments on the ironing board and made a pile of them on the 13
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bench. She spread one of the underskirts on the board, and Father Francis watched her slide the iron slowly over it. Water was still running from the tap; he set the teapot in the sink. When she moved the ironed portion of the underskirt so that it dangled, Father Francis reached out as if to feel the warmth on it. His breath caught in his throat when he saw her look out the laundry room window at the rectory. ~ When Sister Katherine wasn’t at early morning Mass and when a substitute taught her class that next week, Father Francis didn’t wonder too much. He thought she must just have been ill. He waited until the following Monday to ask Mother Superior about her. “She’s gone away, Father,” Mother Superior said. She watched him frown. She’d seen them together on the playground; she’d watched their eyes as he served Sister Katherine communion in the mornings. He said, “I don’t understand.” “She had a change in calling. She wanted to serve the homeless.” Mother Superior paused. “I believe the order was able to arrange a placement for her somewhere in the Southwest.” He looked off over her shoulder, blinking. “Is everything all right, Father?” Slowly, he looked back at her. “Yes,” he said. “Everything is fine.” She nodded. He did the same, and she watched him limp away. ~ The second graders made their first confessions that Friday, and the bishop served their first communion the following day. The students all dressed in white for the Mass, and a reception was held in the parish hall afterwards. Father Francis made the rounds visiting with families and posing for photographs. Then he went for a long walk along the river. Afterwards, he wrote a letter to Sister Katherine in care of the order’s headquarters in Michigan, but he never heard back, so he wasn’t sure if it ever reached her. Father Francis put up Christmas lights on the rectory earlier than usual and often walked out onto the front sidewalk to look at them when it became dark. In the spring, he began a stamp collection, which was something he’d done as a boy. And in the early summer, he planted a vegetable garden in the back yard. It did well, and he canned tomatoes and pickles that lasted him well into the winter. At times, he looked out of the kitchen window down to the convent laundry room, but he never saw 14
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anyone ironing there again. On occasion, he wrote other notes to Sister Katherine, but buried them in the garden. Over the ensuing years, whenever John’s second epistle was included in the scriptures for a Sunday Mass, Father Francis preached on the gospel instead. But he saved a passage from it in his wallet, the part that said: “And the world passeth away, and the lust thereof, but he that doeth the will of God abideth forever.” When he found himself thinking of Sister Katherine, which never completely stopped, he would sometimes take out the passage and read it. He wanted it to help, but it really didn’t. Nor did prayer or exercise or good work or anything else. It was worse with the coming of each winter, with its fading light and its pungent sense of irretrievability. But somehow, each day came and went. He was never the same, but somehow, he kept on.
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Terms of Surrender
By Bruce Harris
He looks at me over his glasses, like he’s imitating a professor. I try to remember his name; I think it’s Martin. ‘So – the name’s John, but for professional purposes you want it to be Jed’, he says, and there is a trace of a giggle in his voice which pains me briefly. ‘You’re 20 years old, proof on file, willing to do solo and duo photosets and videos, but no bareback and no SM but spanking. All correct so far?’ ‘Yes’. My voice is too faint, too acquiescent; I try for better control. If this finishes up costing me too much pride, some corner will need to be fought. ‘I’ve signed the contract, Martin. I can’t back out now even I want to’.
The name’s right. Gambled and won, but now, I suppose, he is about to make it clear to my naïve young self just what exactly I’m letting myself in for. ‘No, but we’re really not as legalistic as that, Jed; professional names now. Firstly, we pride ourselves that we do take care of our boys and, secondly, we find sometimes that if they’re doing this because they need money for drugs or debts, they hate every minute of it, and it all gets a bit messy. Our guys are working to tight schedules, Jed; they can’t afford weepies, or tantrums, or sudden ‘I can’t do this’ chickening out. Yes, we might enforce a contract if the boy has been especially annoying, but it’s expensive and upsetting and we’d rather not, which is why we’re having this little chat now. Personal questions, Jed, but necessary from our point of view. O.K.?’ He is thinning on top, probably in his forties; the clear blue eyes would have been attractive before those glasses enlarged them to awkward proportions. Slightly camp, in an assertive, what about it sort of way. Lean build; no middle-aged spare flesh. He punctuates what he’s saying with odd hand twitches and occasionally drums the desk with his fingers.
‘Yes, I suppose so. What questions?’ The voice deepener needed again, it seems.
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‘Well, I’m asking, in the first instance, whether you are actually gay. It’s not compulsory; some boys swear they’re straight and are just doing it for the money’ – repeated like a catch phrase – ‘or are maybe kidding themselves, or persuade themselves it’s for women. Where are you, Jed?’ I still haven’t done this very often, but I don’t have to pause and think it over any more. ‘Yes, I am gay. Not bi. Not just for the money. Gay’. The big eyes melt a little; he’s leaning forward towards me.
‘Better when you’ve got it sorted, isn’t it? Makes life so much simpler, I think’. A flash of a smile, appearing and departing in seconds; immediate acceptance, I think. Wrongly.
Year 10. The boys’ toilets. I usually steer clear, but it’s a warm day, I’ve been taking in water, and I really need to go. Three of them, huddled together at the sinks, looking at something. When I see two of them are Danny
Orston and Matt Fenwick, I almost turn and leave, but the other one is Alan Furness, probably the nearest thing I have to a mate in this place. I wonder why he’s keeping this company. I pee and wash my hands, and they still ignore me. Curiosity overtakes caution. I get closer. It’s a magazine full of pictures of naked women in intimate and revealing positions. I wonder why the poses need to be humiliating; head on the floor, bottom in the air, legs spread wide and open, as if the women don’t just have to pose, they need to surrender as well. I look at the face of a blonde girl with friendly, humorous eyes, in spite of everything. ‘She’s nice’, I say, half to myself, over Orston’s shoulder. He turns and leers sideways at me, eyes narrowed, mouth half open; study of a thug. ‘She sure is’, Alan says. ‘Best pair of tits I’ve seen in a while’. He looks around at me and smiles, the e laugh lines appearing beside his mouth, and I remember him doing that in the pool once, above his beautiful straight bare shoulders, and how I almost kissed him. ‘There’s hope for you yet, Meggs’. It’s normally John; still, the smile remains. I’m encouraged. ‘No, not nice like that. I mean, pleasant. Friendly sort of girl’. 17
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Three faces towards me now, and no more smiles. ‘Doesn’t that matter? I mean, if she was an unpleasant, manipulative cow, would that matter?’ Fenwick’s face is suddenly closer; a waft of fag ash on his breath. ‘I would fuck it if it was the wicked witch of the fucking north’, he says. ‘So would anyone else, Meggs – anyone normal’. The word spat, like a swear word. ‘Look, Fenwick – ‘ I start, but Alan shakes his head at me in exasperation.
‘Leave it, Meggs. Just leave it’. They turn back in towards each other. I just go. But the ‘it’ stays with me. ‘I would fuck it’. Thus the surrender, I suppose.
‘O.K., well, cards on the table, Jed, gay or straight, why do you really want to do this? Turns you on? Dealer on your back? Doing poker on line? Getting a portfolio together to go on the game? And have you really
thought it through? Naked for the camera? Backside, bits, the lot? Intimate activities performed with people watching every moment and thousands more then enjoying it for a few quid? Tell me why, Jed’. This is it, then, I see. His eyes are harder now; his hands have settled on the desk and his face is tilted slightly. This is how they weed out the tragedies, the pretenders, the time wasters, and get down to the ones who are actually going to make them money. O.K., then, Jekyll and Hyde agent man. O.K., then, I’ll bloody tell you.
‘My name is John Meggs. Jed Dalton is a stage name, maybe just a bit more exciting than John Meggs. I’m not a noisy guy, I’m a guy who fits into the scenery, who generally doesn’t say much until he has to. Maybe because of that, I want – I need- to go crazy occasionally, get shot of the clothes, the baggage, the routine. The constant anxiety about whether I’m being used, or offering too much, or keeping to the rules. Use me, have me, forget the fucking rules. And yes, it does turn me on to think that there are men who will pay to look at my body. And yes, it does turn me on to have sex with good looking young guys, and if someone likes the idea of paying me for it, well so much the better. And I’m an English student, I want to write
scripts which will connect with people’s lives, and what the fuck do I know about people’s lives, eighteen
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years in a suburban semi, then university student room, then a flat. I want a broader experience of my sexuality. I want a broader knowledge of life. To help me understand who I am now and where I want to go. O.K.? Is that O.K.?’ Now his big eyes appear to be shining, and he is getting up. For a moment, I think he’s hitting on me, and I’m making rapid calculations about where I am with that. He is sitting on a table to the side of me; I turn towards him. ‘No, don’t do that, Jed. I came over here to see the profile. You’re going to think I’m coming on to you, I
suppose, but I’m spoken for, and him indoors doesn’t take kindly to hanky-panky. You’re not heading for any casting couches here, Jed. But I’m going to tell you, just in case you should need the confidence, that you are absolutely fucking gorgeous. That’s why the Spanish inquisition, I suppose. It’s a while since something as good as you has walked in here. Those enigmatic green eyes; lock them to the camera, they won’t need the rest. Though I bet the rest is something else. I’ll buy the photos and the videos, you can be sure of that. You’re a sex bomb, boy, that’s what you are’. He goes back to the desk and sits down, suddenly brisk and businesslike all over again. ‘Which I shouldn’t say, of course, in case you turn into an arrogant bastard. And we’ve yet to see how you handle the shoots. But I suspect you’re going to accumulate quite a few fans, Jed Dalton, before we’re finished with you’. And he’s right, it doesn’t do my confidence any harm, and of course, it flatters me, but I don’t how to react to it. How to feel about it. I never really have done.
Year 12. Douglas Edwards, nickname Ed, P.E. and languages teacher, calls me across to him and asks me to give him a hand carrying equipment in. I nod immediately; he works this on a kind of rota, and everyone in sixth form athletics helps him in with the stuff occasionally. I seem to recall that this is the third time I’ve done this since the beginning of term, which is unusual, but what the hell. I’ve taken to middle distance running, firstly because I’m good at it, I have a natural running rhythm which I knew nothing about until Ed ‘discovered’ me, and secondly, being good at a sport keeps the jocks off my back.
There’s more than usual; a full set of hurdles has been taken out, and it’s well past half past four by the
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time we get finished. He’s started going on about breath control, stride patterns and race tactics – there’s an interschool meeting in a couple of weeks – and he’s still talking, his eyes darting at mine and away, when we’re standing in the changing room. He looks at his watch. ‘God, Ben Whitehead’s going to have my guts for garters. I’m supposed to be locked up in five minutes’. Whitehead is the caretaker. ‘Presumably you’ll need a shower, John’. ‘Yes, sir. Meeting up with the gang. Just a burger, nothing fancy, but I am sweaty. Is it O.K.?’ ‘Have to be, won’t it? You get on with it, John. Don’t dash about; it’ll just make you sweat more on a day like this. I’ll go have a word with Ben. His bark’s generally worse than his bite’. He’s back in five minutes, and I’m in the shower. He sits on a bench, and it isn’t a bench over the other side of the room, it’s the bench opposite where I am in the shower. He is no more than ten feet away from me. He’s talking about Ben and what a good guy he is basically, but the voice sounds strained, oddly artificial. I cannot see him, but I feel his eyes. I’m getting used to feeling the eyes, like lasers on the skin, sometimes
from unexpected quarters. Sometimes it pleases me, sometimes it frightens me, and the unpredictability of my reactions worries me too. I reflect that Edwards is married, that the easy nudity of changing rooms is common to athletes and not to be misunderstood, but then I drop my shampoo, jittery as I am, and when I bend to pick it up I can see him. There are no words now, just a unrelenting stare, fixed into a frown, as if he wants to tear his eyes away and can’t. Here and now, It is easier to be amused than frightened, and I play up to it, bending to wash each foot in turn, standing full frontal to soap everything, front and back.. I am half erect now, and still his eyes are on me, and now they are moistened, as if seeing my body is a kind of torture. I become more blatant in my exposure, more daring in my positions. I remember the girls in the magazine, and yes, it is submission, surrender, but it’s a surrender on terms. O.K., you want to look, maybe you need to look, so look, but looking is all there is; anything else you might want to happen is going to be about negotiations, and they will be on my terms. My body is simultaneously your instrument of subjugation and my web, and you are sleep walking your way into it.
Suddenly, he bangs up off the bench like a coiled spring released, and there are tears in his voice as he shouts back towards me. 20
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‘Squaring it with Ben again. See you tomorrow, John. I’ll lock up when you’ve gone’. I lean back against the cool tiling. For a moment, I wonder about how long Mr. Edwards has kept his secret to himself and what his chances are of continuing to live with it, but the fantasy of him joining me in the shower is so immediate, so very realistic, that it cannot be wasted. Seconds before the crucial moment, I hear his voice close by; if he had entered, he would have seen the climax itself. But he is talking to Ben about hurdles.
Two years on, and I am the studio star. Every time I go into Martin’s office, there are pictures of me on the noticeboard beside him, little stars strategically covering the bits, and the word ‘Jed’ in big red letters over everything. My sets and videos have sold in thousands, and Martin lives in fear of someone filching me from under his nose. A few have tried; he knows it, and I know it, and every time I want more money, I get it. I have been ‘requested’ quite frequently, and the more bizarre the request, the more money there is likely to
be in it. There have been a few extremely lucrative one to ones, but I still won’t do anything (a) risky HIVwise, (b) physically beyond my pain threshold, which isn’t very high, or (c) anything to do with excrement, public nudity or gang banging. The richer I get, the pickier I get, and the pickier I get, the more boring the whole thing seems to be becoming. However grand the feast, even the most gargantuan appetite will subside eventually. For that reason and a few others, we both know it can’t go on like this for much longer, but neither of us is very sure about how and when to close it. I am looking at the current sales figures; I still like to gloat occasionally, or maybe I am in more need of reassurance. He tells me to sit down, and he is serious, his big eyes resting on me mournfully. ‘We have had a very particular request, Jed’, he says. These days, I’m the cynic, the laid back star. ‘I’ve told you before, love, I’m not doing donkeys. I’m not being pleasured while hanging off a trapeze, I’m not doing fake frat initiations –‘ ‘David Carlton’, he says. ‘You’ve heard of him, I assume?’ 21
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I put the sales figures down. A whole battery of questions and wild surmises arrive in my mind simultaneously. ‘Of course I’ve heard of him. He’s the top men’s fashion designer in the country’. ‘He wants you to model for him. He’s gay, which means he’s seen some of your stuff, of course, and he says, and I quote, ‘that guy’s too good for porn’. He’s offering a truly amazing amount of money for you to join his stable, and he’s made it very clear to me that if I don’t tell you about it, he will’. ‘Oh, Martin’. I lean over to him and put a hand lightly on his shoulder, one of the very rare actual physical contacts between us, though he has regularly been at my shoots. Verging on the hilarious as it might be, and with due allowance made for whatever he does with photos and videos, the love between us has a touch of the platonic. ‘It was always going to happen, Jed. Wherever you came from, you’re at the top now. Go get respectable, and rich. Rich-er, darling. I’ll be watching you along the catwalk’.
For a moment, I wonder about how long Mr. Edwards has kept his secret to himself and what his chances are of continuing to live with it, but the fantasy of him joining me in the shower is so immediate, so very realistic, that it cannot be wasted.
Year 13. I am at home, with the UCCA forms spread out over the desk in my bedroom. Dad is working late
again; Dad seems to be working late quite a lot recently, and he says it’s about the demands of the job, but
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he manages a store and the hours are fixed. I wonder why working late is suddenly so necessary, though I’m pretty sure I know. I’ve deliberately left the door open so that my mother knows she can come in. She moves lightly on her feet; she is still slim and attractive, with those quizzical green eyes which I’ve inherited, and I’ve always thought she deserved better than my father, with his clipped speech and contempt for ‘socialising’, but I can no longer afford their business being my business all the time. She pulls up a chair and sits at the end of the desk; she looks apprehensive, even a little frightened. I push the completed forms across to her without comment, and tidy the prospectuses into a pile to give us a bit of room. Silence as she reads, but only for five minutes. ‘Darling, none of these universities are anywhere near us. The nearest one must be at least 150 miles away. Are you so determined to get well clear of us?’ It is predictable, almost inevitable. ‘Dad cannot come to terms with what I am. It’s been eight months now; I’ve only told you and him, and he won’t have it. You know that as well as I do. He works late to avoid me; he sometimes goes out as soon as I walk into the room. For once, Mum, don’t pretend you haven’t noticed’. She looks about to protest, but thinks better of it. ‘Your father does love you, John. He will come round. Just give him time’. I make myself look her straight in the eyes. ‘And just how long am I supposed to live in this atmosphere all the time before he ‘comes round’?’ She changes voice and tactics, as she has a bewildering habit of doing. ‘So you’re leaving me? With him? You’re abandoning us in our misery, are you, John?’ I have to stand up to force my anger down. ‘Mum, I can’t sort your life out for you. I’m still trying to sort out my own. In any case, at the moment, I’m more the problem than the solution’.
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She meets my eyes, turns away, meets them again, and walks out. I sit down, winded and ashamed. She is probably the person in my life most entitled to my surrender, any kind of surrender. Certainly more so than Douglas Edwards. It seems that the colder and more distant the surrender is, the easier it is to bear. It’s a lesson I don’t forget.
David and I civil partnered last year, though by then we’d actually been together for five years. Five star hotel, showbizzy guest list, paparazzi all over the place. My porn past is forgotten, like an embarrassing illness shaken off, and David has too much media pull for anyone to start giving us grief about it. It hasn’t been roses all the way. David admits that, in the first place, it was sheer lust. ‘And selfishness. I wanted you all to myself. O.K., plenty of other people had seen, but I didn’t want them to see any more’. My mother came, with her new partner – well, I think of Mel as her new partner, though they’ve been together longer than David and I. She finally got enough courage and enterprise together to go for it,
once she’d finally acknowledged to herself that ‘it’ didn’t include Dad. I tried to contact Dad, with the most recent details I had, but there was no answer. My major problem has been thinking myself into monogamy. I’ve been used to strategic surrender, giving in, or appearing to, on my terms. Most of the time, I told myself that I didn’t care much about who bought the videos or even put in their ‘requests’. I wouldn’t tolerate anyone who believed that treating me with contempt was part of the deal they had bought. It wasn’t. But it would be way off the mark to say that I didn’t enjoy the variety of partners, lots of them attractive and interesting guys. David is that and more, and finally, David was and is enough. I suppose it could be said that my body is my fortune, and so it is, but it is in the way that a pack of cards is a gambler’s fortune, or a painter’s fortune is his paint box. The gambler has to know how to bluff, the painter has to know how to impress. I had to know how to surrender.
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By Matthew W Huggins
February 20th The noise. I hear it when I'm cooking, when I'm cleaning, even in my dreams. The screeching, bustling, giggling, manic wails; their piercing pleas for attention explode between my temples. The cacophonic orchestra plagues me every day. I know it’s not their fault; I'm not blind to their screwed up parentage. I taught their parents. I know what they have been left with as a guide to life: an apathetic map of misdirection. Yet, seeing younger versions of past students shows how I have become Sisyphus rolling his stone rather than Prometheus, bringer of light. The cycle repeats itself, changing bodies and names, holding steadfast to its feckless status quo. They are called children, but they show no such innocence. At least three generations have passed through my purview, each worse than before. I can trace most of them back to the source, living only to repeat their parent’s mistake by procreating at the earliest opportunity. Some of them think that is their role in life, to multiply; what nature intended and evolution perfected. Not you, though, I want to say, nature never intended for you to procreate. They are an anomaly, ignored by evolutionary advancement. Natural selection would have rid them in any other species. I know the problem. Not that it matters to the educators and social workers: it can't be the parent’s fault, they just need a bit of help. They are blind to reality, as unknowing as Oedipus. I spent years trying to give them an education, but time, which sees all things, has shown me more than I cared to see. I used to tell myself education would make a difference, that I could make a difference. Save one, save them all was my compromise. Little Hugo was the one, coming into the classroom full of amazement with what he discovered in Atticus Finch. We discussed what Harper Lee was trying to convey and I saw his eyes grow wide, his hands tapping with euphoria, his mind alive. I felt that same euphoria, the power to awaken another’s mind.
I was eager to put the extra time in, sacrificing my marriage in the process, sacrificing time with my love
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Mary. Little Hugo was why I stayed. Yet, like a bad drug, I have been chasing after that euphoria for too long. There hasn’t been a Hugo for several decades. My wife dead and that sacrifice I made a waste of her life too, my efforts to find another Hugo dying with her. Nothing changes, the children just get worse. It’s the parent’s fault. The social workers would be best camped out in student’s houses, supervising homework, making sure they get in before dark and up to bed on time, reading to them before they sleep. They don't listen. They think they have the problem nailed: it's the teachers. They say we need to be more understanding of the children. Bad behaviour is a symptom of something deeper, they say. The hangings will
continue unless we catch that something deeper, they say. They know nothing. The hangings will continue, unless we find a way to change the children.
February 21st Phillips was in perfect form at the Crisis Prevention Strategy Meeting, foaming at the mouth to unveil
the latest government acronym – CPSM. The meeting was full of acronyms, as if they might be the solution themselves - SSRA, OSR, JAMT - I didn't bother to ask what they meant. Phillips gave us one of his pep talks. Over eleven years since the first hanging, he said, almost enthusiastically, as if the dead bodies of children were the highlight of his career, Eleven years and the school is unrecognisable. He claimed achievement. The school is unrecognisable. He dismantled the good parts, unveiling a school designed by committee. They say a camel is a horse built by committee. The school fared even worse. The press call him ‘Super Head’. He was the third in two years, the other two out within months. One lasted three weeks before she was caught speeding on the way home from a Governors meeting, half cut on vodka. ‘Hangings School Head Drunk At Wheel’, the papers headlined. With all the bad press, it was either close the school or bring in the ‘Super Head’. The council bent over backwards for our great saviour, giving him everything he wanted: new building, state of the art technology, whizzy white boards controlled from consoles. This will work toward solving the problem, he said. It’s starts with their environ-
ment, he said. A new name was needed, too. As if inserting Academy into the title might give the pupils more self-respect, become a little cleverer than before, more – as Phillips evangelizes – employable. 26
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Every term another change. First, the building and name. Then, the new behaviour contract. We can't shout at them now. We have to hold up our hand and then wait until they raise their hands in unison. It could work in theory. But, there's always one who decides not to put his hand up, as if some revolutionary leader. Yes, the school is unrecognisable Mr Phillips. It no longer resembles a school. He went on with the meeting asking us to recognise our achievements, meaning his achievements. Then, after the congratulations on a job well done, the real problem: what are we going to do about the hangings? Quiet. Masked in the silence of respect was helplessness; nobody knew what to do about the
hangings. Mrs Hudgens raised her head after a moment, nodded, mouth pursed at the side, eyes watery. She didn't say anything. She has no idea what to do, either. What answer can any of them give? Five hangings, one every other year, always on the same date. We were approaching the sixth if the pattern continued. After the first body was found, strangled, hanging like a cow’s carcass at a butcher shop, the Local Authority sent in an army of counsellors to listen to the children. None of them talked. The counsellors left. Nobody expected it to ever happen again so, after the second hanging, the press camped themselves outside the gates, igniting a frenzy. Students wanting their five minutes of fame, came to school in façade, girls’ jumpers puffed up with tissue, boys trying to walk like gangsters. They thought it was an audition for some TV reality show, they thought the news cameras were there for them. The press asked the question: Is this the worst school in the country? They reported the third hanging with much the same circus. By the fourth, it was merely an item on page ten. It was as if two hangings were newsworthy, three worth another batch of despair but the fourth – just something that happens, an anomaly. These students are not the type the press concerns itself with any longer than necessary. It was after the fourth hanging that the third Head in two years drunk herself to a breakdown and Phillips was parachuted in to save us from utter annihilation. Philips reminded the meeting, as if we didn’t know, that there’ll be another hanging in four days if the cycle sticks. Phillips explained that the social workers were to support the teachers in identifying vulnerables, but he was sure his leadership had put an end to the hangings. Mrs Hudgens was weeping openly. I watched her; so beautiful, her eyes awash with tenderness. The tears looked real. She still cares. Her eyes found mine and recognized that I do too.
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22nd February Met John for drinks after work. Drinking is all he does now. Every year he gets worse. Why? Not like he's had to go in day after day, year after year, watching the students’ race to the bottom. John left after the first hanging, so he hasn't had to deal with the parents. He hasn’t experienced the meetings, wherein they smugly claim their child is getting a raw deal, just like they did. I watched him: hunched over his pint, staring into it, looking for something. He looked like he was going to cry. I felt like shouting, what have you got to cry about, John? John hasn't had to deal with the kids, their parents, and watch our sycophantic Lo-
cal Authority kowtow to every whim of the ‘Super Head’. He hasn’t had to watch our ‘Super Head’ lead Government Ministers down our gleaming new school halls and advanced classrooms, taking all the credit for turning around the worst school in Britain. The only one who came to our school and made himself a bright future was Phillips. We were merely a stepping-stone in his career. The Local Authority will be left with a shambolic White Elephant, the result of providing a solution without understanding the problem, once Phillips leaves. I bought John another pint. Tetleys. Same beer as always. We chatted old times. The usual: which teachers have retired, what happened to the ones who didn't survive the various culls performed by new Heads in their vain attempts to start afresh. Just me and Mrs Hudgens from the old lot, I said. John asked if I still had a crush on Mrs Phillips. I don’t, I said and moved from the subject quickly. Every other teacher started in the last twelve years, most fresh from training. Useless, I told him. They don't push the kids. They lie, telling the students they can do whatever they want with their lives. The newest ones even believe what they say. W e never told them that, John said. W e knew how to keep a class quiet, reading and passing their exams, he said. The newest teachers think we have to get down to the children’s level – that we are boring with our books and long words; we need to understand where these kids come from. There are too many of them and only Mrs Hudgens and me left upholding standards. Although, now she thinks love is the answer. Most of them want to be singers anyway, I tell John. Not singer singers, but One Direction singers. He asked what One Direction was. A boy band of seventeen year-olds, singing about love, I explained. What do they know about love, he asked. Then he went quiet. Staring at his pint again, looking for something. He would have been Seventeen this year, John said. I didn't say anything. He looked up. Adam, he said. Adam would have been Seventeen. Then he went back to staring into his pint.
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February 23rd Franklyn was a typical miscreant. I told him to come to my office. He kissed his teeth to impress his classmates; they all laughed. I let them. It wouldn't be long before he would be blubbering, begging me not to call his Mum. I can't swat the bugs, but their parents can. They’re not so tough with Mum. I remember Franklyn’s Mum from her school days, the feisty little cow. She had no chance with a name like Courtney, always slapping people and mouthing off abuse. What was it she called me? Fat Controller. Very funny. How they all laughed. Y es, very funny, I said. Now shut up, I shouted. Those were the days when I could still shout at them. Not that it made a difference to Courtney. On and on and on she went, fat controller, fat controller, fat controller. No amount of shouting from me shut her up. Then her brother Adam was found hanging; the first hanging. I watched as she got up to read at her brother’s funeral. It was a poem with some obscure reference to Adam marching to his own tune. Perhaps now you might take your life seriously, I thought, listen in class, do your homework, strive for something. If your parents wouldn’t make her, maybe Adam’s hanging would. She looked at me as she left the pulpit. I winked at her and smiled. I never saw her again. Six months later, I heard she was pregnant. Adam’s hanging did nothing to change Courtney. Now, almost twelve years later, Franklyn sits in front of me. I sat in silence for a while, just looking at him. He didn’t have a chance with Courtney as a mum. Her brother, Adam, had been just as bad, a little shit right up until his last breath. John had been Adam’s form tutor. He really tried with the lad, like I had with Hugo. Adam has potential, he had said. I told him not to bother. Adam never misses a day, never bunks a lesson and that’s something, John had argued, as if Adam’s attendance meant that school was important to him. I told John, that makes it worse, not better. Makes it wilful, makes him evil. John never listened. Kindness won’t work with this lot, I told him. John didn’t listen and look at him now. I looked at Franklyn. He looked at me. He had Adam's eyes. W hy bother? I told him to go back to class. There was no hope in doing anything else.
February 24th Mrs Hudgens is a slut. Almost fifty and flaunting it like that - in front of the students too! She bent down to talk to one of them during Assembly and her jeans slid down, revealing a thong. I couldn’t decide whether this ostentatious display made me want her more or less. It was as if she was inviting me to look. I 29
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spend my time in assembly doing what I have done for the last thirty years: eyes hovering from student to student, trying to prevent problems. I know who they are. They know I know who they are, too. When they see my eyes they focus on the front. But, I was out of sorts; Mrs Hudgens’ thong was urging me to look. Demanding it, even. As she stood up, she looked back at me, smiling. An inviting smile? Did she know what she had done? Did she know I like her? Is this what she thought I wanted? For the rest of the day, my mind wandered back to her thong, tantalising, and I wondered if her bra was just as purple, whether her nipples were big or small. I thought about the way she smiled at me, how she caught my eyes in the crisis meeting the other day. I found myself thinking bending her over Phillips’ desk. I had to go to the staff loo and relieve myself; it didn’t take long. Washing my hands, I looked at myself in the mirror: how old I look. I used to notice each grey hair as it made its appearance. At some point I stopped noticing; stopped caring. The years passed, the wrinkles etched, the bags under the eyes ballooned. It made me angry, thinking about it: the time I had lost with my wife, the hopelessness of it all. W hat use is trying if the hangings have changed nothing? Five hangings – another due in two days – and the kids are getting worse. The teachers are just as bad. John has given up on life and Mrs Hudgens is a slut. What will another hanging change?
February 25th I woke up dripping in sweat and shaking. It was a dream – a nightmare. If I write it out I may get back to sleep: There was nobody outside the school. I walked over to the assembly hall. All the students were sitting in their usual rows, smatterings of chatter. Standing around the perimeter were their parents, the ones I had taught. The teachers. I wondered where they were. I called out: W here are the teachers?
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I couldn't be heard, not over all the chatter. I called out again: W here are the teachers? Instead of quieting the racket, my calling heightened it. They got louder and louder until I was screaming, W here are the teachers? Then there was silence. They all looked at me. Students and parents, staring. There was a moment of pause. Maybe a moment, maybe an hour, maybe a day. Where are the teachers? Their heads turned, making a collective creak. Standing in the middle of the children was Mrs Hudgens. I asked her: W here are the teachers? She pointed up at the gallery of the hall. I looked. Sitting up there
were the teachers. Twelve, sitting in two rows, like a jury. It was as if they were waiting for me to do something, just staring at me. I screamed, wailed so loud the children covered their ears. Phillips appeared, pointing toward a screen on the back wall. The parents, teachers, and children all turned their gaze toward the screen. I looked. The screen mirrored the children in the hall, sitting in their rows. The image shook, hovering over the children, and then moved until I was the only one in focus, standing in front of the hall on a raised platform. Again, I screamed. I think I know what this means. It’s the teachers. They are to blame.
February 26th Got to school at six am. At that time I can walk down the empty corridors and high-tech classrooms and forget that it’s just a holding pen for tomorrow’s misfits. I can imagine that what we do is important. I watched from my window. Phillips was first. Six thirty, his BMW shooting through the gates. I’ve been teaching for over thirty years and I still get the bus to work. No matter what time of day, Phillips has his Blackberry clamped to his ear, feigning importance. But, if he went, there wouldn't be many tears. The social workers scurry about the gate by seven thirty. They stand with the newly qualifieds, ready to welcome the students - not mentioning the hangings, but 'identifying vulnerables'. Franklyn arrived on time. Surprised to see him. We don't mention the hangings, but his uncle Adam was the first - has Courtney forgotten? Franklyn had his tie off and his shirt languishing out of his trousers. Not one of the staff called him on it - just smiled and patted him on through the gates. If Franklyn hanged, it wouldn't change anything; he would get the sympathy of the staff and the kids would carry on with their life, unchanged. Mrs Hudgens came out to the gate with the social workers. Smiling, oozing love. She’s the one they 31
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slither to when they need help - she understands us, they say. She just panders. Doesn't she realise she is creating a generation of dependents, unable to care for themselves? What if they lost Mrs Hudgens? Who would they go to then? I saw her in the staff room before assembly. She smiled at me again. Then she spoke: W ould you like to join me for dinner tonight? Y ou shouldn’t be alone, she said. Not tonight. I agreed. We shouldn’t be alone tonight. Best to stay together, she said.
February 27th I went to eat dinner with Mrs Hudgens. If only she had just got on with it, if she had not prattled on about the poor children and how we need to understand them. I watched her preparing the food, chopping the onions, frying the mince. Spaghetti Bolognaise. She couldn’t have known it was my favourite, yet she smiled when I told her as if she did. Then she asked me about Mary: how long did it take after Mary died? It’s been six years since my James went. How long did it take to feel ok again, she asked. Nobody had asked me about Mary for a long
time. It was fourteen years to the day. Nobody had mentioned her since the first hanging, as if it had cancelled out her death, as if she didn’t matter as much as the cretins; a child’s life worth more than my Mary’s. It was overwhelming. I wanted to answer her. I wanted to tell her what happened after Mary died. She saw that I couldn’t answer, couldn’t say. I didn’t realize, she said. I didn’t realize that she hanged herself. I was silent. I’m sorry, she said, I can’t imagine, like she was going to cry. Can we not talk about Mary, I snapped. Of course, she said. That’s when she bent down to get the pot from the cupboard. Her jeans shifted down and there was that thong. She lingered, feeling my eyes on her. Her breathing a little harder, and a little louder as I stood behind her. I bent down, putting my hands on her neck, caressing so slightly. She moaned and said: I knew you were watching me the other day. I wore it for you. If she hadn’t said that, I might not have done it. The fraud. This slut couldn’t replace Mary. I left her body hanging with a belt around her neck like the others. I told Mrs Hudgens, as she struggled to free herself, that her hanging would change the children more than her pity ever did. I’m convinced that I saw, in her last moment alive, the recognition that I was right. 32
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Mr and Mrs Frankenstein
By Amanda J Murphy He was used to people looking his way, Rufus. He spread sunshine wherever he went although it took a while to warm me. I had already started my search, imagining if I found one that was even half-decent through internet dating or the personals, I would have to hurry them on a bit to get them ready. That was a month of my life I’ll never get back. Date after date with hairy, ego-centric, infantile monsters. I tried not to get too hung up on their brains; after all, a brain was replaceable, but God, there are limits. And then came Rufus. But I only really noticed him, I mean really took him in, when he came to my clinic. His notes were clear: a high grade astrocytic tumour pressing on his brain, breaking through synapses, soon to render him a baby again. It would spread quickly. It had already started to eat at his speech. It coiled around cranial tubes, squeezing. He stared at me with those arresting eyes, the blue of glaciers, lashes black and long. His hair curled around his face framing the pallid skin and I knew he was the one. I painted a picture in stark colours of his remaining months: the loss of coordination; the seizures; the slow and steady totter back to nappies and being fed mush. No operation, no. It would recur, yes. At the end of the meeting he croaked ‘Help me,’ and it took him a few minutes to compose those two words. So I have helped him. As I tired of searching for a soul mate to share my life with, his body tired of fighting the lure of death. In that moment of union, he was mine. I was careful with planning: it was delicate after all. Over two more visits, with the help of a computer screen (his mouth drooled and refused to cooperate, his right arm hung limp) I explained the procedure. He tapped responses with a shaking left hand. W ill I remember? Chances? W ords again? The clincher came when he asked if he would be able to read again. ‘Of course,’ I’d offered, sincerely hoping that would be the case. He named me next of kin as we’d agreed and I took control of the body the beautiful moment he died. I watched his eyes widen, heard the breath rasp out of his lungs. I saw the pupils blossom to eclipse the iris and waited until his eyes stopped twitching before closing his lids. I held his hand, his skin warm 33
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as the blood sat and waited. I had to act fast. I packed him carefully into his ice-coffin; I didn’t want any limbs being bashed or broken on the journey. He would arrive the day after me if my calculations were correct. It had to be Scotland, I guess. The Ancestor chose it for good reason. Geneva would never offer the desolation and solitude I needed for research, and required for my new life with my husband. I am too well known at home. Getting permits for certain chemicals, drugs and lab-tests is still difficult so many years later. I looked at other places, like The Orkneys (the scene of His crime) but surrounded by so much water, those little islands would be awash with day-trippers and mini-cruises these days. I needed somewhere without roads, where people would leave us alone, where boats would seldom come but close enough to the mainland for supplies. The house awaiting us at the other end had been carefully sourced: the remotest place in Scotland, with no roads to the house, only a mooring. My instruments I could carry, being fairly compact these days. Liquids, syrups, blood and drugs would need to come fresh from the mainland. Luckily, I had a friend at Edinburgh University Hospital who was more than happy to push things my way in exchange for the exclusive rights to publish my experiments after my death, so this journal will be hers one day. She, in turn, intends to go to Geneva for her own ends. I believe to pursue the same goal but with cloning technology. I couldn’t wait that long. The clock was ticking.
Boarding the sleeper for Mallaig, I felt the thrill of adventure ease its tendrils into my stomach. I could not sleep as others bustled into cabins, folded into bunks and settled. I eased into a leather chair in the lounge car, ordered a gin and tonic and watched the ice shiver as the train pushed north. The bar was relatively empty but soon I was joined by a fellow drinker. ‘Do you mind?’ He indicated the stool by my side. ‘Not at all. A long night ahead. Company much appreciated.’ He was about sixty, grey hair still flecked with black, eyes still full of mischief, returning home to his 34
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house in Fort William, which doubled as a gallery, he told me. ‘I’ve been exhibiting my new stuff,’ he said, my ears warming to his strong Scottish brogue. ‘May I?’ His leather portfolio was propped at his feet. I was curious. ‘Proofs for first prints. Go ahead.’ They were glorious. Here was a man who had studied the human form. Bodies burst from the page: women whose torsos were rippling with laughter and fat; huge close-ups of eyes and noses; breasts with nipples like plums; glorious couples writhing on crumpled sheets, dirty from love-making, abundant with desire. I admired his anatomy and told him so. ‘I’m a surgeon. These are bang on.’ We drank more, the rocking train bringing rhythm to the anecdotes, our tales, his of life in the Highlands, his neighbours, his rich London patrons. We were still huddled together as the train lost two cars at the service stop in Edinburgh. We were sitting close. He was calculating me. I knew how this would end and gave into it.
Of course, getting him to come to the house was a breeze but he took more knocking out than I’d imagined. Clearly a lifetime’s drinking had given him the constitution of an ox but I needed his brain to be unaffected, so the poison was slight, soporific and worked gently. My brain ready, I waited to take possession of Rufus. I think we can all agree that The Ancestor was the baddest of all bad mothers and I was fully geared up to learn from his mistakes. Only a monster would bring a baby into the world and, at its first toothy grin from a half-formed face, abandon it to the elements: only a man. I knew, as a woman, that nurturing my
Rufus would come naturally. His body would be fully formed, and primed, but the mind needed the tender ministrations of a loving soul mate. My studies of brain-recovery from trauma taught me his language would be the last to return but as the brain took to its host and residual memories came back, the electricity of the brain would spark words, poetry and love once more. To help this along, Rufus had a nursery. Not a baby one – he would very quickly be the 30-year-old man I would take to my bed - but still, I had thought of his comforts for those early days. He had oil to rub into the scars at any opportunity; pictures around the room of me and him, never together (yet) but hopefully he would assume; and books. What did Victor expect, letting the poor creature choose his own reading material? Paradise Lost – of 35
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course there was going to be a power struggle! Of all things, it was the reading matter with which I took most care. My Rufus needed to be romantic (with a small r), passionate (with a capital p), masculine yet with an empathy for female suffering. He needed to be resourceful. I had scoured my bookshelf with a delight that brought colour to those dull days waiting for him to die. Eventually I settled on ten. With these, I felt, Rufus would imbibe the words, desires, morality, and love me as I wished to be loved. The Joy of Sex was number seven on the list. The nights stayed light there and it was on a glorious evening in July as the gibbous moon bloomed in the sky that his eyes opened. I was exhausted, my fingers aching from the minute stitching and fixing that, without a team around me, had worked in a flurry of excitement. As I sliced and sutured, I marvelled at advances in technology which meant we no longer had to select organs and limbs of an enormous size to work on, although I was happy to see, as I first unwrapped Rufus’s body, that at least some things were out of proportion. The dying sun was throwing embers into the attic room, my workshop, as Rufus spat out his dying
breath and took in his first. I won't lie. He wasn’t pretty. The fluid that had collected on his lungs after death and on the operating table meant he spent the first few hours hawking up black, foul-smelling phlegm that made me retch. His black curls were gone and the new brain was already starting to swell and leak in its initial protest, so he must have felt pretty rotten, but I held my baby to me that first night, and cooed lullabies and stroked his face as he started to calm and still. My husband was here, conjured by my hands, waiting to love me.
I never questioned whether I would love him. As my child, I knew I would. In those first days, we didn’t leave the nursery. He could barely move and I spooned baby food into his mouth, cleaned his fetid teeth, changed his nappies of man-sized turds and never flinched. I noticed him looking at the pictures around the room: of him on a bridge in Basel, looking down at the photographer, curls falling, eyes bright. He had
loved her, whoever she was. He stared at the carefully chosen black and white portraits of me, all Veronica
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Lake. I held his head in my lap, rubbed oil into his scars, picking away any scabs that came away easily, and he looked up and smiled. I felt a confusion of exaltation, the tingle of joy, the prick of pride, the desire to gather him to me, to suckle, but I waited. Rufus had to learn how to feel these too. I put my faith in the books. Rufus could read basic words straight away. My Scottish artist’s brain had kick-started on full power. I needed to capitalise on the window of opportunity to superimpose new thoughts and ideas onto his brain in those healing months, to make the books shout louder than the original brain’s memories. First came the early adventures of Narnia, me reading first, then Rufus haltingly taking up the narrative. He was moved and excited by the adventures. I was eager and impatient for Rufus to become not just my patient but my husband. One day, as I came to his room, I found him reading a book of his own choice. It was Jane Eyre. ‘Morning Rufus, how are you today?’ He did not respond at first, dropping the book an inch to show scowling eyes. ‘Always the same question. Don’t you tire of it?’ Alarm bells rang. Rufus’s library had one central tenet: strong men who loved powerful and independent women. W uthering Heights, Pride and Prejudice and Gone With the Wind lay close by. Yet here was the first sign of his rebellion and in it I sensed the beating heart of Rochester and Heathcliff, a glimmer of passion. ‘Do you find me handsome?’ He was standing now, taller and broader than me, his hair a black and
patchy fuzz, features his own yet a confusion of Rufus rather than the old Rufus. ‘Why is that important?’ ‘You find fault? You, such a plain thing.’ Oh Lord, he’d been Bröntefied! Rufus was close to me now, staring at my mouth. ‘You are strange,’ he started, not the best beginning I’ve ever had in a chat up line, ‘but there is something at work in my soul I cannot make out.’ In order to shush him, I leaned forward for a kiss. It was robust. He gripped my arms tight and went at it with some vigour for a good few minutes before I asked to come up for air. Giddy, probably through lack of oxygen, I silently thanked Charlotte and Emily and took him to bed. He was, shall we say, a little 37
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eager. He could go like the clappers but technique was poor. From then on he slept with me in my bed, our bed. He started retiring much earlier than me – I found the house huge and cold, and its maintenance was a weight of responsibility Rufus did not yet feel. I came to bed one night and he was naked, book open at a double-spread in The Joy of Sex, socks on. ‘I wish to pleasure you,’ he said, eyes smiling, hand patting the sheet beside him. I had no doubt he did. ‘Does this appeal?’ He indicated the picture, of a standing man holding a lady’s legs like wheelbarrow handles. He raised his eyebrows. My heart sank. It had been a long day. ‘Rufus, would you mind if we just held each other tonight?’ He was crestfallen but slept alongside me that night, breathing into my hair, hand on my stomach and it felt like bliss. Of course I knew it would end. I imagined I would love my creature, my child, my lover. He tried so hard. Each book in our carefully selected library was consumed in hours – he had a prodigious skill in that department. He moved on from the Bröntes and Austen to Harper Lee and Margaret Mitchell. We ate many meals during which he bored me at length. Initially he affected their characters, a southern drawl for Atticus here, Rhett Butler there. He was walking a mile in their shoes and the journey tired me out. But soon, he was boring me at length with his opinions about the characters. Knowledge made him a literary critic. He astonished me with the speed of his learning. I had wanted Rufus to be funny but the only comic novel I had brought was Right Ho, Jeeves. After a week of carefully crow-barred bon-mots after each utterance I resigned it to the fire. I soon started to avoid him. With an understanding akin to epiphany, The Ancestor wasn’t looking so stupid now. Rufus, my beautiful boy with the artist’s brain, worked hard to please me and I felt nothing but disdain. We ate in silence most nights, he reading, me looking out at the dying light and yearning to be away from this place. One night, over dinner, I told him. ‘Rufus. I need to go to the mainland.’ ‘What for? Don’t we have everything we need here?’ He was suspicious. Heathcliff reared his ugly head. 38
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‘I want to buy some clothes.’ ‘For the baby?’ I must have flinched for he winked. I had imagined we would but now I knew they would be monsters. ‘How long will you be gone? ‘Two days?’ ‘Two days?’ He was petulant. ‘I could come with you.’ ‘Love. You would be bored. Stay here. You could start Ivanhoe.’
Leaving the house, climbing onto the boat, felt like stepping into a hot shower after a punishing walk. The skipper helped me on, a ruddy chap with cracked hands and a sun-burnt face. ‘There you are, m’dear. Hop on.’ We jostled onto the tiny boat. I turned to wave goodbye to Rufus but he was marching at speed back up the jetty to the house. He was livid. He would soon be locked in the nursery reading, no doubt, seething until I returned. The crossing was fair. I sat at the front of the boat looking out to the expanse of blue. Ahead, on an orange buoy, a cormorant stood oil-sleek and slender feeling the warmth of the sun on its feathers. The distance between us became a breathing space. The weight lightened. The skipper was chatty. I resisted at
first. ‘You folks must like it quiet, eh?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Must be peaceful. Honeymooners?’ ‘Of sorts.’ ‘Not sure I’d choose this place for a honeymoon. Suits you, though. You look refreshed.’ I guessed he must have been the skipper who dropped me here. I had been anxious and red-eyed at 39
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the time, waiting for Rufus and eager to get the sea-sick artist inside. I turned to smile at him. ‘Thanks. It has its…advantages. But it can be too quiet.’ ‘Be careful what you wish for, eh? Peter.’ He offered his hand. ‘Victoria.’ His eyes were fixed on the sea ahead, reading its swells and stills. He fiddled with the brim of his hat to keep out the sun. He stood firmly planted on the deck as I bounced. Taking his eyes from the boat’s
path, he turned to smile. In that instant something inside me tugged hard, pulled me, reeled me in. I left Rufus behind, and moved forward, taking his arm for steadiness.
It was over a week before I returned. Staring at the house up the rocky path, I could see the curtains were
still closed. It was past midday. I worried he hadn’t eaten, wondered how many meals he’d missed, braced myself for the mess of plates and food detritus as any parent would returning after a break. I raised a hand to Peter as the boat’s engine quietened. ‘Rufus?’ I opened the door. We never locked it. The smell hit me first, of still air, the faint whiff of bin, of doors unopened and windows tight shut on sunny days. The kitchen was used, dishes stacked neatly on the side. He had eaten, at least. Clothes trailed from the washing machine like skin, glistening green. I headed upstairs, tutting at the wet trail, picking up strands of seaweed. Had he been fishing? How did he learn? Was that a residual memory? Was the Scottish artist a closet fly-fisher? I could hear the tread of feet upstairs in the attic, my workshop. I felt nauseous. As I neared the door I heard the puff of exertion from within, busy feet padding through the room, pants and groans. I pushed open the door, and let my eyes adjust to the half-light. In the centre of the room stood a mass, shivering as light picked out its skin. Taller than me, a mound of snot-green trails and stinking mud was being formed. I could make out Rufus’ hands as they clung to
the sides of the edifice, pushing hard, padding on more slime and seaweed, muttering. The room was scattered with buckets and bowls, trugs and boxes. All available containers were stacked with seashore and 40
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sand. At my question, the hands stilled, puffing stopped. ‘You know full well what I’m doing!’ he barked in a voice I had never heard before. I moved around the creature for a clearer view. Its base spread across the attic floor, rug ruined. Rufus’ statue was shaped and curved in places with truncated limbs and, pointing to the window, the crevice of buttocks. When at last I caught sight of my husband, he was clinging to two huge breasts on the front, his hands paddling the protuberances, circling to form nipples grossly huge, out of proportion. His gaze never left them as he trilled, ‘Welcome home, honey.’ He hung from a sculpted body, curved in to a tiny waist, breasts like moons. I left him to it. I should have known. My Peter, with his hairy hands and brainless banter, was waiting. What was I thinking? An artist’s brain indeed. A fisherman, now that’s the thing.
He astonished me with the speed of his learning. I had wanted Rufus to be funny but the only comic novel I had brought was Right Ho, Jeeves. After a week of carefully crow-barred bon-mots after each utterance I resigned it to the fire.
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Sarah Cedeno is the Fiction Editor at Animal, as well as being the Editor-In-Chief at The Pitkin Review. The other great thing is she's also a writer with a string of credits. You can find out more about her (and, let's face it, why wouldn't you) on her blog... including her ambivalent attitude towards wine, sleeping habits, and a cryptic suggestion that she may be a able to travel through time, inhabiting other people's bodies like that guy in Quantuum Leap. I'm not sure we have any info about the dog, so we're guessing she might have borrowed it for the photo shoot. The only thing we can say for sure is that it is not Scamp, The Red Line's very own fictional hero dog who prevented the end of the world last year. Anyway, Sarah's going to be laying down the law on our five stories over the next two pages.
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Winning piece: “The 73 Things You Know” by The Man in the Black Pyjamas It’s The Man in the Black Pyjamas’ (did I actually just type that?) intersection of language and experience that made me choose “The 73 Things You Know” as the winning submission. Lines like this: “As you listen for her to move, the sound of a guitar strumming seeps down from upstairs as a bike hisses by on the murky street and the shower drips into a still-warm puddle—with your eyes closed it is a world of seconds and in these seconds you feel the years roll over you as if you had been treading water all along and had finally given in and gone under and found peace under the wash of everything you’ve done and everything you used to know.” (6) Pyjamas reminds me of Michael Martone in how he rakes experience over and through language like a sieve to catch what it can. His prose is beautiful and funny and sad, despite his repetition of “you know,” which became gimmicky and, with every mention, didn’t gain meaning or nuance, and actually (at times) made me roll my eyes. Regardless, his work is solid enough to surpass these other strong submissions. This Man in the Black Pyjamas, whoever he is, is a stunning writer, poetic and sharp. Second Place: “Calling” by William Cass Reminiscent of Alice Munro in his extensive incorporation of setting and of Flannery O’Connor in his mastery of the roving third-person narrative, I was captivated and haunted by the love story here, in which the two characters simultaneously recognize that love is as much a natural part of the human body as hair. Cass weaves backstory sparingly and seamlessly, fleshing out Father Francis and Sister Katherine in complex and conflicting ways. Father Francis has unexpected and poignant behavior in the third to last paragraph, stringing Christmas lights and collecting stamps and gardening. The last paragraph was, however, problematic for me. The piece would be better served to end in an image of Father Francis—perhaps working on one of the projects and hobbies he’d taken up in the paragraphs before—rather than with the last phrase “he kept on.”
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Third Place: “Terms of Surrender” by Bruce Harris I admire how Harris winds the narrative around the idea of surrender. It’s in this way—in terms of surrender—that we come to know John, the first-person narrator, his mother, lover, and childhood acquaintances. It is a painfully funny and sad piece, though it could use a little pulling back of the phrase “terms of surrender” and also the repetition of the word “surrender,” to allow the piece to be about this idea on a larger level—to have it resonate throughout the piece and not be stated overtly so often. What a wonderfully lonely character John starts out as—though he sheds some loneliness (as much as one can) when he finds love with David. This piece has a happy (err, happier) ending. Fourth: “The Hangings” by Mathew W Huggins This piece follows a week in the life of who we assume is an English teacher, given the plentiful literary references (to Atticus Finch, Oedipus, and Greek Mythology) in the first two pages that die out by the third or fourth. The teacher is disgruntled, but I can never really tell why, only that he is disgusted with how the district handles these ambiguous “hangings” that have been occurring annually at this school, and he’s also fleetingly bothered by the fact that he has somehow sacrificed his wife to his obsession with a student named Hugo. Though there is something eerie about this narrator, he is not creepy enough for me to believe the last scene, when he hangs Mrs. Hudgens with a belt because she was a phony replacement for his wife. The wife, who’s only mentioned two or so times, is not central enough to the narrator’s perspective to serve as a believable motive. Also, it’s hinted at that this English teacher has hanged all the rest of the victims, but I’m not convinced that this character, as he’s presented in the piece, would have committed these murders. Huggins has some strong writing, but it doesn’t fall together as a narrative yet. Fifth: “Mr and Mrs Frankenstein” by Amanda J Murphy This piece meanders in a way that I can’t quite grasp where we are in the timeline of the narrator’s plan of (re)constructing her lover. At the start, I thought this piece might be an Aimee Bender-esque piece, a magical realist trip in which the narrator has fallen in love with Rufus, a man she knows will digress through his lifetime. Though what happens instead, is a strange Oedipal situation where the narrator seeks out a man named Rufus and scientifically diminishes him until he becomes something she, herself, can raise. This premise puzzles me because I’m left wondering why this narrator was determined to grow her own husband. By the end, Rufus, the son, becomes obsessed with the mother until she regrets creating this monster and leaves, returning only to find her son making his own mate, the figure of a woman, out of seaweed and muck. At best, this piece is an ironic and well-written story, but it could be much more if I had a greater sense of this narrator’s motives.
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THE END OF THE LINE
THE RED LINE 45
Published on May 25, 2014