vortex Literary Magazine 2019
Breakfast 4 Breakfast Buffet Buffet | John| Son John Son Difference 6 Difference in Attraction in Attraction | Robyn | Robyn Proctor Proctor The 15 Dahlias The Dahlias | Emma | Emma PowellPowell Crash 16 Crash | Carrie | Carrie Hardman Hardman The 23 Collector The Collector | Kaycee | Kaycee Hill Hill Alien 25 Alien DiscoDisco TightsTights | Emma | Emma PowellPowell Lessons 26 Lessons from from my first my night first night awayaway from from homehome | Lawrence | Lawrence Nicholas Nicholas Cacti 28 Cacti into Cactus into Cactus | Augusta | Augusta Reve Reve The 34 Father The Father | Summer | Summer YoungYoung 3am 41 3am and a and grey a grey ceiling ceiling | Nick| Spalding Nick Spalding Philosophical 42 Philosophical Star Star WarsWars Debates Debates | Jack |Stacey Jack Stacey Playpen 44 Playpen Parent Parent | Emma | Emma PowellPowell Polystyrene 46 Polystyrene Cup Cup | Kaycee | Kaycee Hill Hill My 48 Daisy My Daisy Brockman Brockman | Rosie| Rosie Boyagis-Cooper Boyagis-Cooper The 57 Yellow The Yellow DressDress | Elmarie | Elmarie Messina Messina Wrinkles 59 Wrinkles | Kat Hunter | Kat Hunter Metaphorical 68 Metaphorical Manifestations Manifestations | Leith| Leith Brownlee Brownlee 3
Breakfast Buffet Holiday Inn, Kensington. I try to catch Markâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s eyes over the jam just to spread the transpiration of the moment. He lifts pans. Hot, salty hits of steam make us blush under the heat lamps. I quote the unlikely Delia Smith line and wait for the thunder. In this place you have to work for the laughs. Black pudding - enough to conquer the Isle of Wight. Mark can hear pointillism from two buildings away but fails to sublimate sexuality into what he puts in his morning Americano. No matter, Mark. Isnâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;t bacon the most nubile of all pork cuts? Like so much uneaten hollandaise, I drip coldly onto the Morris rug.
Are we continental? I scoop. Glasses tremble with orange ice. With my mouth full of egg, I am rakish. The utensils have been pre-set, Mark it’s all so refreshing.
If love were a loaf, it would be thick-cut. “For longevity.” I surprise even myself, sometimes. Mark is at the table, showing Japanese tourists how to re-contextualise boredom.
Let’s turn the spatulas into an advantage. Let me reheat what’s been forgotten.
Difference in Attraction Robyn Proctor
The white horses pushed up the beach in perfect parallel lines, each one reaching patches of dry sand that were yet to be smoothed. Sun beams poked through thick clouds like fingers, the rays finding every nook amongst the rocks and filling every dimple in the dunes. I sat in those dunes, sifting sand granules through my fingers and toes, marram grass tickling my back. My eyes were shut, but I could see it all stretching out before me like a painting. The breeze toyed with my hair, tangling and knotting it like washed-up seaweed in the strand line. The sun had reached the ocean now. There were only seconds left before it would sink below the waves. Down and down it would drop, down to where the fish move as shadows amongst the giant bodies of sleeping whales. And up it would rise on the other side, leaving us to wait in silvery darkness until it returned. * Squealing to a halt in front of the café, a car was met with a chorus of horns. My eyes snapped open to the noise. Inescapable, unavoidable, frustrating noise. Cars and taxis and buses and cyclists. Dog-walkers and window-shoppers, suited workers and sweating joggers. They all flowed together like a river. I finished my coffee and prepared to join them; bag firmly placed on shoulder, blazer fastened, skirt adjusted, deep breath – but not too deep. Breathing exhaust fumes wasn’t the same as breathing the sea air. After assessing the current of white-collars and heelclickers, I was about to step into the throng when I felt my phone buzz through my bag. It was from him. ‘Dinner tonight?’ I stared at the screen, then slipped my phone back into my bag and made my way through the crowd. 7
I’d met him six months ago, not too long after moving to London. I’d felt about as small as plankton in the big blue, so I was grateful for a helping hand. We looked fairly similar, both with thick dark hair that couldn’t be tamed, blue eyes, a slightly pointed chin. We liked the same music, the same food. But he was also something different. Something exciting. I’d spent those first months in a bubble, as you often hear people say. They were filled with the kind of heart-racing, palmsweating feelings you experience when things are new and absolutely wonderful. Unfortunately, you have to go through these misleading and deceptive stages to get to the real person; to get to know what they really want, desire, fear. The problem is, by the time you get to this point, you may already be falling. Falling with feelings that you thought only existed on a television screen or in a book. Feelings that you’ve dreamed about since you were sixteen. Only now you don’t know if you want to feel them. You don’t know if it’s going to work. * Polished cutlery lay on the white table cloth, the lights from the ceiling glinting in their shiny faces. The stems of two sparkling wine glasses rose up from the table, soon to be filled with a crisp Sauvignon Blanc, or perhaps a Chardonnay if he felt like treating me. It used to always be Chardonnay. ‘How was your day?’ he smiled. Somehow, he still managed to make my stomach flutter, but only just. I used to love that question, yet I now feared it had become more of a habit than a genuine interest. His eyes met mine over the top of the menus, glinting from the flickering tea lights. ‘Good. There was a slight problem with one of the outfits and its model, somehow the sizing wasn’t right on the blouse.’ 8
‘Oh?’ ‘Nothing that couldn’t be sorted, though. Are we doing starters?’ I scanned down the list of dishes on the left side of the menu. ‘They have calamari.’ ‘Then yes.’ The waiter came and took our order. Our glasses were filled and we sat sipping in silence. I always wondered if he liked these silences, whether he felt comfortable in them. I didn’t really see it that way. I felt the more silence we sat in, the larger the space grew between us, as though the table was stretching, pushing us further apart. Eventually we’d have to shout if either of us wanted to speak to one another. I looked around the restaurant. Waiters ran up and down the glass staircases, tending to everyone seated on the floor above and retrieving food from the kitchens below. To the left of me, another couple had just been seated. Their hands were linked together on the table, engrossed in some deep conversation where she laughed at everything he said. They’d not even looked at their menus. ‘How about your day?’ I ventured. ‘Yeah, good, too.’ ‘Wasn’t that website you’ve been working on meant to go live today?’ ‘Yeah, but one of the guys had a problem with the design and layout, so it’ll probably be pushed back a couple of days, which the boss won’t like, but hopefully—’ ‘I think I want to go home.’ I cut him off mid ramble. He looked at me, mouth left hanging open. ‘Only for a weekend or something. And I was wondering if you’d like to come with me again? Like last time?’ He shut his mouth as the waiter came over with our calamari. ‘You could bring your laptop so you could still work,’ I 9
continued. ‘Sometime after your website’s been launched, so you’re not stressed with that.’ He stuck a fork-full of squid in his mouth and chewed, brow furrowed, eyes on his plate. ‘I don’t know,’ he said finally. ‘Everything with work is hectic at the minute, I don’t think it’ll calm down any time soon.’ I sat back, watching him squirm. ‘I’d really love to, it’s just—’ ‘You don’t want to. That’s fine.’ I looked away. The couple on my left were smiling as the waiter filled their glasses with Chardonnay. ‘It’s not that.’ ‘Yes, it is. This is always going to be a problem, isn’t it? You can’t stand it down there.’ ‘Look, just listen to me for a minute.’ ‘Forget it. Forget I said anything,’ I muttered, lifting my glass to my lips. He sat back in his chair, taking a gulp from his own. It used to excite him that I was different. He said he’d never met anyone with such a free spirit, or something like that anyway. I used to talk about what my summers were like, spent with friends watching the sunset and toasting marshmallows around a bonfire. About the best spots for swimming, where to go for good surf. He used to get absorbed by it, wanted to be part of it. I told him he could be, but I think he thought it would be easy, like taking a holiday. He never considered how different it actually was. He ignores those parts now. Blocks them out. As though he thinks if he doesn’t acknowledge them, they’ll just go away. Unfortunately, he doesn’t understand that my home is what makes me. Without it, the rest of me would fade away, too. * 10
The drive down was peaceful, the roads fairly empty once I’d gotten out of the city and on to the motorway. I always felt a sense of calm descend over me when the journey began. The sun was out in the open sky, throwing stretching shadows of trees over the dry roads. I was in no hurry, watching the faster cars speed past me in the outside lane as I ambled along, Bob Marley singing to me through the speakers. My grip loosened on the wheel and my shoulders sunk further into the seat with each passing mile I put between myself and London. After four hours of driving, the roads started to narrow. Pavements were replaced by tall hedgerows and the white dashes separating the two lines of traffic began to fade. As I got closer, my eyes were drawn to the familiar horizon that had appeared in front of me, where the ocean stopped and sky began. I continued along the snaking coastal roads, down to my little Cornish village, and out the other side. I never go straight home when I first arrive back. I carry on driving until the road runs out. Right at the top of the cliffs, with the ocean pounding at the rocks below, that’s where I always turn off my engine. I got out and perched on my bonnet, watching the great ball of fire sink into the mighty blue. Sunset was always the best time to be up on the cliffs. I allowed myself to breathe. Properly breathe. Sucking in the clean ocean air, free of smog and car fumes. Since moving to London, my place in the world had become so much clearer. I smiled, knowing I was exactly where I belonged. ‘So, how’s it going up there?’ Mum grinned at me across the other side of our dining table, steam swirling out the top of her mug. I knew she missed having me around; I could tell from her tight squeeze as soon as I walked in the door.
‘Okay.’ I faked a smile. She raised an eyebrow. ‘Well, okay, not that okay.’ I could hear my voice wavering. ‘I do love the job up there… and it is amazing to be part of such a city. It’s just—’ I broke off, looking out of the window. ‘I know,’ she smiled. I let out a shaky breath and took a biscuit from the plate in the middle of the table. ‘And how’s the boyfriend?’ she asked gingerly. Seconds passed as I tried to find the right words to use. After a minute I sighed, realising I couldn’t find any. ‘Oh, well, that can’t be good,’ she muttered. I raised my shoulders in a defeated shrug. ‘Come on, I know what you need.’ The sand was cool underfoot. Familiar. Lupo, our pointer, was out ahead as usual. He raced up and down the side of the dunes, panting frantically with his long tongue hanging out of his mouth. The clouds looked like candyfloss against the now purpling sky. My mind ran back to the last time I was here, with him. The evening had been warm. I’d pictured us walking barefoot down by the shore, waves lapping at our feet. We would have spoken about packing up and leaving the chaos of London, starting a life down here together. And it would have been a lovely evening, if he hadn’t spent the whole walk complaining about the sand in his shoes after refusing to take them off, and worrying if the salt would leave marks on the leather. It was so hard to imagine my life in London when I was at home. It was so distant. There was something about the ocean that seemed to drain all the care out of me. What if you don’t go back? The dangerous thought tingled at the edge of my mind. Do you need to go back? I stopped walking and looked out to sea. Darkness was 12
descending now, the moon becoming brighter as the sky turned to indigo. You could get a new job. I left Mum and walked down to the shore so that the waves came up over my ankles, rising half way up my calves. A new boyfriend. The water was cold even though it was mid-summer. I sucked in a sharp breath as it rose up over my knees, soaking the bottoms of my cut-off shorts, making my hairs stand to attention. But it was a good cold. A refreshing cold. Would he even miss you? Without thinking, I raised my arms above my head and dived smoothly beneath the surface in one fluid movement. Instincts took over. My legs moving together as one, arms outstretched ahead, eyes adjusting to the salt. Is he missing you now? I flipped over and gazed up at the rippling surface, watching air bubbles wobble up from my lips like tiny jelly fish. Is he even thinking about you now? I allowed myself to sink to the bottom, knowing I only had a few seconds left. A wave rolled over the top of me, its white horses galloping and frothing as it headed for the shore. My lungs reached their limit. I pushed off the sea bed and floated to the top. Do you miss him? It was dark when we got home. The stars winked down from above, Beetlejuice sitting proudly on Orion’s shoulder. I quickly found the North Star, the first one Dad had taught me. I never got to see them in London. The city never went to sleep, its fluorescent lights flashing relentlessly from dusk till dawn. ‘There she is!’ Dad smiled as he opened the front door, pulling me in for a bear hug. ‘How’s my girl? Hmm? Been swimming already?’ I heard his voice rumble as he spoke to the top of my head. I could only mumble in agreement, my face pressed against his chest. ‘Come on, let’s get you dry and open up a bottle, hey?’ I nodded as he walked me into the house, Lupo barking with
excitement; he loved it when the pack was all together. Up in my room I stripped off my wet clothes and found some old pyjamas. I stood in front of my mirror, thinking about how the reflection had changed, when my bag buzzed on the floor at the foot of my bed. I hesitated, not wanting to be reminded of London. Or him. I groaned as it buzzed again, and giving in, I reluctantly fished my phone out the front pocket. ‘Hey, boys are coming over Sunday, could you stay down there another night?’ ‘Let me know asap.’ I looked at the words. A month ago, they would have upset me. ‘Doesn’t he miss me?’ I would’ve thought. ‘Doesn’t he want me back?’ Now, I felt nothing. No stomach churning, no tears welling, no pang in my heart. I didn’t care. And he obviously didn’t either. I unlocked the screen as realisation dawned, typing the words before I’d even thought about what I was doing. ‘I’m not coming back.’ Send.
Like rock bands, you turn up bold and loud The Franz Kafka, the Dutch Explosion, the Mz. Bee Haven the slugs are soon your groupies, in circles of worship and rhythmic waves they undulate to the beat of your flamboyance, man You bring in the crowds until the first frost when your petals begin to roll like cigarettes and the trail of white lines fades out
Crash Carrie Hardman They say that when you’re about to die, you see your life flash before you. Tiny snapshots of the last thirty-two years should flicker before your eyes in a matter of seconds, give you some profound epiphany about love and life and how precious both are. But it doesn’t. At least, for you it didn’t. You didn’t see images of your childhood holidays, grainy pictures of you and your family in front of a battered caravan, or on the beach posing next to a lopsided sandcastle. You saw only the front of your car make contact with the back of the red Audi in front. Saw the bonnet crumple, fold in on itself like a piece of origami. You didn’t see pictures of your first day at school, Christmases or birthdays spent with loved ones, or the prom that your Mum forced you to go to with Spotty Simon from next door. But you saw the windscreen seemingly come towards you, closed your eyes as tight as possible before your head smashed against it. Then there was nothing. No great epiphany. Just pain. You didn’t know it would feel like this. You knew there would be pain, a lot of it, and you assumed you would cry. Movies and TV programmes had taught you that much. But what they didn’t teach you, what they omitted through the CGI and fake blood, or the wailing of some over-priced actor as the car flipped in spectacular slow motion, was this feeling: vacancy. Like everything you ever knew, ever were, momentarily seeped out from your very pores 16
at the moment of impact, leaving you empty, lifeless. A shell. You braced yourself as your car slammed into the back of the other, but nothing could prepare you for this. Sitting here now, with blood trickling into your eyes, you try to remember even the smallest detail of your life. Where were you going? Where do you live? What’s your name? As a list of possibilities rushes through your mind, you start to panic. Your chest fills with too much air, so you start choking on your own sobs. The pain of merely breathing is so excruciating you think you might die from it. You try to focus on what’s around you, take stock and try to remember something, anything. You tell yourself to breathe slower, it hurts less that way. You’re in a car. It crashed. You’re in the passenger seat. You cannot seem to move any part of your body without agony. Not even a finger. Your legs are trapped beneath the dashboard that, somewhat ironically, reads “airbag”. Your head hit the windscreen, hard. But how, the seatbelt should have stopped you? You look down to see you weren’t wearing your seatbelt. You can’t hear much over the high-pitched ringing that doesn’t seem to want to stop, but you are sure you can make out the sound of someone screaming in the distance. You’re in the passenger seat. So, who was driving? You try looking to the driver’s seat without moving your head, but something blurs your peripheral. Blood or tears or something else. You try to turn slowly, but even that slightest of movements sends pain shooting through every muscle in your back and down through your legs. You scream out in both pain and frustration, decide just to do it quickly, rip the plaster off, see who is next to you. The man slumped over the steering wheel is familiar. He’s unconscious and blood drips from a large gash on his temple, running down to his stubbled jawline. You remember you had told him to shave that morning, but he didn’t 17
listen. He was too busy being annoyed with you about something. You remember him. Jason. “Jason? Jason! Can you hear me?” The words come out softer than you intended them to, almost breathless, and they set off an intense throbbing behind your ears and eyes. You don’t care and call for him again, despite the ache. You try to move, to reach out to him, but your body doesn’t respond. Not even a twitch from a finger. Scanning his body for signs that he is alive, you see his stomach moving faintly. He is breathing, but barely. Then you spot the ring he is wearing. A gold band on his left hand. You have a matching one, but slimmer and with a diamond encrusted in it. You remember him in his suit, smiling at you as you walked down the aisle towards him. The tears come now. “Jason, wake up. Please?” Suddenly, there’s a bang at the window next to you, and you hurt your neck once more as you whip your head back around to see. Everything momentarily spins out of focus, the taste of something you ate that morning – toast, maybe? – threatening to reappear at the back of your mouth. You strain your eyes and then, slowly, you see him. A man, standing at the window with a chubby hand pressed so hard up against the glass that his skin has turned white. He looks around the car, eyes darting between you and Jason and the backseats. “If you can hear me in there, help is on the way, okay? Help is coming,” he shouts as he presses his face as close to glass as he can get without making contact. He slaps his hand against it once more, before running to the car in front. You want to shout to him to come back, to help Jason, to tell you what’s happening, to tell you anything, but no words come out. Just more tears and sobs heave from your heavy chest. Looking back to Jason, you try to remember more about him, about yourself, hoping life might seep back in. He’s wearing a 18
smart black suit. Somehow you know this is unusual, that if he were awake he would be moaning about how uncomfortable he is. You try to speak again, call his name to rouse him, but the throbbing in your head and back reaches its peak and you slip into darkness. “It’s a funeral, Claire. I don’t think anyone is going to give a fuck if I shave or not, do you?” He was in one of his moods again, best not to answer. You want to speak up, to tell him that he should bloody shave, that it’s his uncle’s funeral and it’s not a ridiculous request. But as you watch him as he attempts to do up his tie, you think better of it. With each failed loop his face reddens, his brow furrows further as his breathing deepens. It will be your fault. Somehow, it always is. His rugby team losing, the traffic being bad, him getting fired: all your fault, and always ending the same way. He’ll be angry with you for a while, shout mean and hurtful things at you, before he’ll hit something – the wall, a door, your face. Then he’ll get sad and cry, offer you an apology that essentially blames you in the long run. You’ll forgive him, as always. Then finally, he’ll act as if nothing happened, and life will carry on as normal. Until the next time. Sirens. In the distance but getting closer. You manage to open your eyes, turn from Jason and focus instead on the smashed windscreen in front of you. You can see the point where your head made contact: the glass splinters out from one bloodied spot, like an intricate spider web. As the sirens near, you try to look through it, make out the scene beyond your car. Smoke bellows from the Audi that Jason went into the back of. It, in turn, seems to have hit another car in front of it, a four-byfour of some kind, but you can’t see much of it beyond its roof. You think something went in to the back of you too, but you can’t be sure. 19
The Audi’s back windshield sits on top of what is left of the bumper of your white Ford Focus. Jason had brought the car when you married, a “proper family car”, he’d said. You hated it. You wanted to tell him that white was the worst colour for a car, that it would be filthy within a week, that you’d be the one to end up cleaning it. You wanted to tell him you weren’t ready for a family yet, for babies, to stop your career at his command. You didn’t tell him either. The sirens suddenly stop, but a sea of blue and red and white lights cascading around you let you know that help has finally arrived. The pain seems to be subsiding now, or you have at least gotten used to the constant throb that seems to be coursing through your veins. “Claire?” Jason’s voice shakes as he calls to you, and you look to see that his eyes are now open. They widen in shock as he looks you over, assesses the damage. Sitting up, he reaches a weak arm over to you, squeezes your cold hand as he repeats “no, no, no,” over and over through his tears. You manage to force out a groan in response, but he looks away, pulls his hand from yours as he reaches into the seat behind you. “Noah. Noah, buddy, Daddy’s here. Open your eyes for me. Noah, please.” Noah. Everything around you sways, twisting and shifting like you’re on a roller-coaster that’s lost control, before you spin into darkness once more. “Okay, now, Claire, I need one last big push from you. Go.” You push with every part of your body, feel pain in places you didn’t even know existed. You feel a ripping sensation, then wetness, and then finally allow your body to relax. You’re handed a tightly wrapped, squirming bundle. A boy. Your boy. His tiny blue eyes scan your face, lock with yours. A warmth washes over you, like you knew in that moment everything was worth it. Every argument, 20
every black eye and broken rib, all led you here. To this moment. To him. And you knew you could survive anything, would survive, if only to keep him safe. The sound of glass breaking brings you sharply back to reality, back inside the car, back to the pain. A silver blanket is being held across you and Jason as firefighters break what is left of the windscreen. They pull it away, and a man with a thick ginger beard peers at you through the hole that is left. At once, you and Jason both start shouting about Noah, about your baby, and the man raises his hands to get you to calm down. Speaking seemingly only to Jason, he assures that he is going to take care of you all, that you need to stay calm and let them do their job. He talks Jason through what will happen next, that paramedics will assess you all before the “jaws of life” can be brought in to free you. You don’t listen to him, not properly. You can’t. Your only thoughts now are of Noah. Your sweet little blue-eyed baby boy. You see him in the car seat that first trip home from the hospital, see a flash of his first smile, hear his first tiny, infectious laugh. Desperately you try to move, to turn in the chair, to see him. But it doesn’t work. Nothing in your body seems to work anymore. You realise then that you don’t feel anything. Not the pain that was in your back, or the throbbing from your head. Your heartbeat. All at once you remember everything – every family holiday, Christmases and birthdays, the prom. You remember the crash, and what happened leading up to it. Noah had been crying continuously for the last twenty minutes, leaving you on the receiving end of Jason’s rant. Of course, it was your fault. You didn’t pack enough pacifiers, you hadn’t fed him enough that morning, you weren’t trying to sooth him well enough. You apologised over and over again, whilst trying to contort your body around the chair, searching for the pacifier 21
Noah had chucked in his enraged tantrum. You felt it with the tips of your fingers just below Jason’s chair, but it pinged further under as the car swayed. Shit. Undoing your seatbelt, you leant further over and finally managed to reach the damn thing. Sitting up, you showed it to Jason, hoping he’d mirror the triumphant smile on your face. He didn’t. Instead, he grimaced and stared at you as he spat, “give it to him so he might shut the fuck up.” That’s when you saw the car in front had stopped. Your door opens with a screech, the sound of metal twisting and scraping making you jump. You shout at the paramedic leaning in to leave you, to help your baby instead, but she doesn’t listen. Instead she shines a torch in your eyes, asks if you can hear her repeatedly. Touching your neck, she feels for your pulse. Her face pales. You stare into her eyes, but realise she isn’t looking into yours. She exhales deeply, then looks to someone outside the car and shakes her head. As they place something over you, a sheet or blanket of some kind, you hear Jason screaming. “Claire! No, no, no. Claire! You have to help her. You have to help my wife!” They say that when you’re about to die your life flashes before your eyes. They’re almost right.
She comes to me, every night at the stroke of three, well fitted in her black and her white, to greet me. She taps twice, two for joy â&#x20AC;&#x201C; with her pointed matte, black beak and drops from her tongue treasure, onto my window sill.
She brings flecks of silver foil, beads from necklaces passed, beer coloured glass and sometimes when she is feeling generous, gold. She is a strange creature, beautiful in her plumage, her ink blue tail-stripe winking as she turns to feed, I am certain she likes me watching her. She eats her fill and when she is done shoots her beady, liquid topaz eye into mine and flies into the shrieking wind.
Usurped! The community hall flashes its distress beacon in pink, green and blue to a heartbeat named Agadoo. Children, abducted for one night only, are herded beneath crepe-paper veins that sag more every hour, like skipping ropes lowered to test the buoyancy of knees. Mum is stuck to the wall, a piece of chewing gum, drinking cordial with a dash of something â&#x20AC;&#x201C; anything to make time go faster as she watches me integrate.
Alien Disco Tights
Or not. She chose these tights for me, hot pink to match the flush of my cheeks as I two-step, to the bee-bop of the alien mothership. In her robotic tongue, remember me, is all she asks as the lights dim and the music stops.
Lessons from my first night away from home 1. Nothing smells right. 2. This bed is not my bed no matter how well I cocoon myself in it. 3. I think I’m going to like my flatmates; they’re not talking to me like a wheelchair. 4. Never let a drunk person drive my chair again. 5. 2am is early evening now. 6. My bedroom light is nocturnal providing an evergreen-glow when it breathes in the dark. 7. Other people’s sex sounds like an argument between a sofa and a wardrobe. 8. All the mirrors and quiet moments that told me that I couldn’t do this were wrong.
Cacti into Cactus Augusta Rêve
“My darling Calliandra. Your name always reminded me of my favourite flower. I guess your parents wanted that. Please do your best not to hate me, I understand if you do. There’s no reason for you to like me anymore.” Perched on the top of a cliff a young woman swung her legs over the side, her body thick from the tattered layers of fabric wrapped around her. The dense cover protected her from the sun beating down on the harsh, desert lands. Pieces of material were sewn together in a mismatching patchwork of cloth, which was transformed into trousers and a coat that came to her knees. Her mouth was covered with the left over fabric from when her father had made the outfit. It was pulled taut over her nose, but it didn’t stop the dark, gentle freckles that were scattered on ebony skin. Her eyebrows were wild and arched over velvety hazel eyes; thick eyelashes protected them from the chafing winds. The land was pale, and sand strewn; cracks tarnishing the smooth surface. Rain blessed the area regularly, but with the sun now slowly expanding towards the Earth, it didn’t quench the land’s thirst. Seas and lakes were long forgotten. The cacti and other plants gave just about enough fluid for the people that inhabited this world. They had evolved since the start of what was known before as Global Warming. Humans could survive like this. Civilisation had long since become a dream, and Calli’ had only heard stories of what real buildings had been like. Cars, screens that talked, lights that didn’t flicker and fade if not fed… They seemed
like the fanciful tales of someone who had eaten one too many cacti. “If I am honest, Calliandra, I was never going to tell you, I was going to get out, get clean, stop this life and join you. I wanted to stay with you, and I’ve ruined it. Oh Gods. I’ve ruined so much. Please get away from here. Far away. As far as you can go. You like exploring right? Go and explore further than anyone has ever gone. Maybe you’ll find someone…” When the sun got lower, the air cooled, and Calli’ stood up with a sigh. She grunted as she stretched towards the sky, and closed her eyes in the odd sense of bliss that the action released. With a smile underneath the mask she let her hands drop to her sides limply, and set off in the opposite direction to the cliff face. She ran a hand through her short, thickly curled hair, shaking the sand from it and hummed. The smell of the early evening air was tainted by the stuffiness of the thick cloth over her nose. She strode through the deserts and headed in a direction that to any other would seem random, but she knew where she was going. She was born in these lands; she had walked the invisible roads many times. Her footsteps might have blown away, but she never forgot the path to M’s. Spotting one of the many cacti that she knew, she crouched down beside it. The plant was large and round, like a melon, with sharp spikes and spines jutting out. It was blooming; flowers of purple and white were scattered across its musty green skin. With a knife she cut one of the thick lumps of spiked flesh from the plant, carving the spines from it as she stood back up. She carried on her way, eating it as she walked. “You’re an incredible gatherer, and you’ve shown promise in hunting as well. You know all of the best places for finding things to eat, drink, even materials. I’ll always… I always used to treasure the present you gave me. The beautiful craft that went into making that 29
spear. You must have known I needed it. More than anyone else at least…” As she continued walking through the isolated world she saw the poorly constructed tent. Rusted poles of steel and iron held it up, scavenged from the wastelands of once built up areas. They had managed to get everything from the markets that were held to sell materials, food, water, and anything that their community needed. A lot was stolen, but in times such as these, they had to do what they needed to in order to survive. There was still kindness though: friendships, truces, love. The funniest thing to her about troubling times like these was that people could do whatever they want. They were able to love who they want, be who they wanted to be. Although there were still types that were undesirable. The Plaga was a gang that was feared across all of the jointed lands known as Pangaea. Everywhere they went they brought death, misery and heartache. Some killed and fought, for no reason. Offerings could be made but they’d still choose to drag someone out to the middle of the community, beat them to death and threaten to do the same to anyone who interfered. Some were sneaky, they’d hide away and seem to be a part of the community, slowly syphoning off any goods. They would eventually use up all of the resources and move on, leaving the rest of the group to die. Calli’ hated all of that gang. It was like a disease, a virus that spread across the world and scarred it more than the sun. She wanted The Plaga gone, wiped from the face of the planet. They had taken friends and treasures from her in the past, but never again was she going to be a victim. That’s why she loved M’ so much. Her lover had taught her to be a fighter, to stand up and survive. She felt like she could now, with M’ by her side. “I taught you how to use it, and you taught me so much as well. You never once questioned why I knew how to fight. You have 30
such faith in people. It’s admirable. You’re admirable. And beautiful. I’m so sorry. I’m so so sorry. I’ve messed up, and now you might be affected. I’ve taught you enough. Just go! Leave! Gods, I never meant for this. I never asked for this. Please believe me.” Calli’ could remember how M’ and her first met, it was quite funny to think back, especially when eating the very thing that brought the two together. M’ was so cute back then. Calli’ had approached the stranger, slowly with a smirk. It was amusing to watch M’ swear and growl at the cactus as they kept pricking their hand on its spines. Must have been pretty thirsty since her future lover had mistaken it for an edible one. She laughed a little bit before helping M’ find a more suitable food. It was curious how one event can do something like that. Bring people together. Their bond was strengthened when The Plaga attacked her. The gang nearly took everything she had. Her beloved saved her. Fought the gang off. She’ll never forget that day, when she stopped being a victim. If there came a time that she had to fight off those demons of the desert, she could. The riders of mechanical bikes, with skeletal metallic masks hiding their faces. That was what made The Plaga look threatening, the masks. It made them look like agents of Death Herself. Some wore full masks, their eyes just about visible behind the shadows of their patchwork hoods and the metal shielding their faces. Others wore half masks, either on their jaws or over their eyes. The ones that just wore them over their eyes were rare. She doubted those ones lasted long. The sand probably shredded their lungs to tiny insignificant pieces. “I love you. I love you so much; I wanted to live with you. Forget about me Calli’. Get on with your life. That’s rich for me to say, you’ll probably want nothing to do with me ever again once you find this. I never intended for any of this to happen you know. I’m so happy that it did though. You’ve shown me kindness and love that is 31
far too good for this world.” She knew something was off when she called out to M’, half expecting the love struck fool to come out with a massive smile or an offer of a hug with arms held out welcomingly. No one came though. Perhaps M’ was asleep, or had gone out. It wasn’t unusual. What was unusual was for them to leave their spear stabbed into the ground by the front door. It was as close to a front door that anyone could have anyway, it was just a flap of fabric, gently wafting through the breeze as it hung limply from the metallic frame of the home. The spear was a creation of hers. It was a gift on the anniversary of the first date between M’ and herself…. But it was stuck uselessly in the sand. The handle was an old pipe that she had found at the markets, the scrap metal that she had used to make the blade. A bronze tinge against the still shining surface made it more beautiful. To the two of them it did at least. The couple admired how something could always change, better or for worse. Calling in again she gently entered the small home and looked around. Calliandra’s blood ran cold and tears immediately filled her eyes as she looked around at the state of her beloved’s dwelling. It was in shambles, furniture was smashed with the pieces scattering the floor. The food stores, which were simple, rudimentary boxes, were empty and strewn across the ground. The back of the tent was ragged, and shredded with long jagged cuts, as if giant claws had come down from the sky and torn open this sanctuary. It had been a sanctuary for her. It was untouchable, never once hit by the curse of the land. This had been a happy place. A safe place. It was M’s place. As she called out again her voice cracked as fear began to grip her. Panic rose and she feared the worst. M’ couldn’t be gone. The world started spinning faster and faster. Round and round and round and round and round and round and round it went. The air got thick and she pulled the cloth 32
down from her mouth as she tried to gain control of her breathing. M’ could just be out for a walk and have missed the raid. That had to be it. Dread continued to flood through her blood stream and she saw a small slip of paper blow in the gentle breeze that ran through the once friendly place. When she got closer she saw that it was a letter and what laid beside it made her recoil in horror. Shakily she took the envelope addressed to her. She opened it and tried to ignore the cold, shining steel of a half skull mask, glinting in the corner of her eye. “I never thought I’d meet someone like you. You changed me, my love. For the better, but it’s too late. If I’m not dead I soon will be, and if I’m not, then they may try to harm you for my treachery. I joined to save myself when I was young. It was foolish, but I’m so glad that I did. That one stupid decision led me to you. I’m so happy to have met you. Please forget about me. Someone will love you so much more than I can. I never deserved you in the first place. I just ask that you don’t hate me. I will forever love you, and I wish that I could have been everything that you deserve. Goodbye Calliandra Forever yours; Malvolia X”
The Father Summer Young
A place that is not the village Rafi had shoes that looked like his feet. They felt similar too, the soles falling on roots and carcasses like a blanket. Leaves accumulated and clung to them along his path. Coincidentally, the shoes had gained substance during the journey. He came across an ancient ruin that smelt of dirt. It seemed little more than a few stone pillars, painted with a thin green layer where the moss had made its home. It was topped with a dome which, from the peeling gold, looked to have been scorched and dried by the sun. He glanced back through the acres of forest. It was brimming over with Arjuna and Neem trees, and Banyans whose vines were thick ship rope, able to lift half of the village children. They had served as natureâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s hammock. They had also tried to grab the boy for the entirety of his ascent, all the while instructed from home by his mother. Bring Rafi back, they had been told, and passed the message through the leaves, ready to pick him up and send him home in the ripples of the branches. Of course, the wind was their very own Hermes. The Arjunas said you are not yet a lost boy, and so Rafi felt he should push on, until he found the ruin. The village could feel his movement as his body parted the wind, they had said. And, of course, the trees were never ones to lie. The temple, then, became a refuge from the 34
eyes of the wind. It had sunken partially, into the ground where trees had shed hundreds of years of bark and eggs and leaves and nests, and crushed them into the ground for the worms. The village It sits by a river that is always brown from the animals and people and fish that upturn the riverbed and flick the sand into the water. For this reason, the village well is a popular place. It filters most of the grains, and there is only a small chance of the big fish going into the mouths of the subjects when they are only parched and not famished. Nobody can read here. Not in the way that is known to be reading. Everyone can read here, and they are taught from the moment their mother throws them out of her stomach. They are taught to read the clouds and the way snakes dance and how to avoid reading the wrong fish as food. The wrong fish The wrong fish have read the villagersâ&#x20AC;&#x2122; bodies for centuries. They know what to produce to make the people keel over, and for this reason only village adults can catch the fish. The offspring practice being fish, and catch each other with headless spears and laugh. Rafi swings on a Banyan vine and thinks about his brother, who used to play fish with him before he caught the wrong fish. A place that is not the village A Banyan had used its roots to clamber over and mount the temple, 35
and Rafi thought of its hundred year journey from the ground, moving as a squid might flick its limbs across bedrock, except years slower. It sat atop the side of the dome, as if laying an egg, succeeding in leaving the trees around it parched of sunlight. Rafi was cold in the shade. NaĂŻve shoots filled the gaps here, copying the Banyanâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s reach for the sky. They climbed as if their roots were feet, and put them into cracks and holes in the walls, and the gaping mouths of the faces that were carved into the stone, and were nearly carved out of it by time. Rafi followed half a path along jagged steps that tunnelled his feet to the entrance. On reaching the doorway, he scoured the gaps between the trees. The branches ushered him into the darkness. A temple The air was caked in particles of moisture, and Rafi felt he would suffocate in the damp. His eyes, used to the company of the sun, longed for its help to see again. If eyes could tremble with fear, they might have been shaking without the sun. Rafi did not miss the sun. It took everything his family had needed, his father, even the water. Of course, with this in mind, he felt grateful for the moisture hiding in the temple. His eyes accepted the four walls. His feet, in their shoe capsules, felt around for roots and particularly hard chunks of rock. Rafi passed through this short dark entrance, into a large dome-like space. The air felt different here. Vines and leaves fragranced the air with oxygen and sucked out the musk. Tiny holes in the wall allowed for dots of light to pass through. The sun had perhaps heard a plea for help from Rafi and his eyes. 36
A tapping Rhythmic but with off-beats of life. The boy had thought it to be like the flapping tail of a fish or droplets on rocks, but there were no fish living in his backpack and the tap was too sharp. And it was coming from his feet. Rafi squatted and was blinded. The sun had come though one of the tiny holes, skewering his pupils. The Father He never believed in cowardice or heatstroke. The grooves in his fingertips were deep and widthy. They left his DNA on Rafi’s body each time he whacked him. Rafi couldn’t remember his face, but had studied his ankles in detail to avoid offending his father in existing. Once, Rafi was young. His father had living emotion, then. He would pick Rafi up and show him the way the sky could help them to hunt. Rafi would pretend to look at the swallows and thickness of the dust in the air, but all he ever did was follow the twirls of the hair that snaked from his father’s nose and stuck out a little. His father had hair. He was a man. Sometimes he would wonder if his father’s mistresses liked the hair. Or his fingerprints on their bodies. A beating Rafi looked down to the temple floor in silence. The tapping was not a fish tail or the dripping of water. It was a tiny heartbeat in a nest of Arjuna offcuts, fallen from the Banyan that had mounted the temple. Inside, two eggshells lay, divided in their middle. One bird, pink and stinking and with no eyeballs lay in the nest. Ants had made their way into its little stomach to gather nutrients from the inside. Beside
it, another bird sat, very much alive and staring straight at Rafi. Its tiny heart echoed in the dome and gave it away. Rafi knew it must be hungry, he could see it in the way the bird was weak in his hand. It was a weakness he was familiar with during the dry times. The search for food He turned on his left foot and marched back into the full sunlight, leaping down the temple steps but not using them. Through the trees he trotted, down the hill of Arjunas and Neems and Banyans, past the tree who said he was not lost. All the while, his mother’s leaves shook and followed him to the village until they felt he was close enough to home. To each tap of the little body in the temple he took another step. As he began to lose count of the beats he arrived on the village boundary. Rafi’s mother was between the trees as he made his way around them. She had made a hammock from the vines, and sat there swinging like a child. She hadn’t missed Rafi yet. He had not been gone even a day. Aside from this, Rafi could have left one hundred years ago and his mother would still mourn his brother for a century more. Rafi was the youngest and too small to hunt big game or big hunters. He hid from her as he ran. He hopped over the cooking fires and streams of sewage and the boys who threw rocks at the village rattlesnake every afternoon. The hut The roof was covered with leaves that Rafi had laid himself. They kept the cool evening air in, and most of the rain out when the wet times came around again. The inside was small but Rafi found it cosy. When he wasn’t required to collect water or watch over the very youngest villagers, he would take fur from the cows and animals 38
which had died and turn their skins into rugs and blankets. Rafi grabbed a handful of seeds and shoved them into the leather pouch tied to his side. Today, his hut smelt like the bird with no eyeballs. There were a handful more flies than usual. The end The father had come home from the forest, crossing paths with a departing Rafi but failing to notice him. There were no slaughtered meats in his hand, which was still clenched as though it were bringing something back, squirming. The men who trailed him said nothing. The boys stopped playing fish and the cows ran into the dry lands. He moved too furiously. Even the dust beneath his feet sat and watched in silence. The mother was sat in the village circle, facing away from the forest, carving a tree and thinking about Rafiâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s brother. She was crying and asking why she had not taught him the good and the bad fish. The father was quiet and flung himself toward her. Rafi had made it to the temple steps then. Animal fur The flies in the hut warned him to stay away, flew at his face and tried to push him back out of the shade. His collection of furs had been piled at the back of the hut, in darkness due to its being opposite the opening and source of light. At the right of the pile, stuck out what Rafi knew instantly to be his fatherâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s two ankles. Animal Father began to hit mother as Rafi found bird. 39
His palms hit her cheek until bone touched bone and she could not breathe. She lay in the dust, squirming like the village snake. He towered over her and ripped off her cloth to prove himself a man again. She carved his face with the trunk knife until his eyes stopped blinking and dried out for the flies. He flopped into the dirt, his member shrivelled from the sun and the death. She went to the river and rinsed her hands. A place that is not the village All he could see now were the ankles, blotchy and blue and colder than they had ever felt. Rafiâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s feet were clumsy as he returned to the temple. Their bottoms found only bad luck each time they sacrificed themselves to the forest floor. He had not noticed. His pouch bounced off his body as he hopped up the old steps, sprinkling chips of seed that were too small to stay inside. The temple was dustier now than the morning. Every inch inside the dome was filled with light. The great Banyan that mounted the ruin had fallen, and took with it almost the entirety of the ceiling it had attached itself to. In the centre of the sun sat the little bird, shaking furiously, but not to relieve itself of the dust coating. Rafi cradled it in his dirty hands.
I flip the pillow to the cold side remembering it’s Monday and double French and Mister Lowry. Last week he grabbed my ear for cheek and my twin stepped up and chinned him and we’re both in the shit now. ‘Are you awake?’ I grunt at Pete from the cold side. ‘Don’t worry. Dad went up and sorted it.’
3am and a grey ceiling
Philosophical Star Wars Debates My dog looks at me with his post-apocalyptic breath, and whines about the abandonment issues in the dog news. The friends I made some time after school and I don’t mean after the bell went I mean like ten years later did some drugs, so I did some drugs, and it was quite good staring at my mate’s cat the kind of cat that speaks in a monotone cat voice and me and my mate discussed how his cat would fantasise about sleeping on the shed roof surrounded by tickles. My mate’s shed had an old arm chair. I suppose people who do drugs don’t buy new armchairs for their sheds. He’d sit on the arm chair whilst I got the foot stool, otherwise known as his mum’s upside-down washing basket, and he’d laugh at me uncontrollably for making it bend.
The overriding feeling of needing a shit would kick in, before the lovely drugs swam me in its warm ocean and not the cold ocean my other mate visited when he turned blue, and died a bit.
Playpen Parent Iâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;ll admit, my memory of you is slippery like the melamine surfaces that once clad the furniture. But, in a canary romper I am netted, like a bird on the wrong side of a fruit cage with seventies sunlight showcasing the bad taste of your bedroom. Ignoring my open beaked song, you make your escape down the stairs to tend to my siblings, Cinzano and Lemonade.
Polystyrene Cup Once, we drove to the nature reserve and watched from our seats, as frogs went piggybacking from pond to pond. I dropped my polystyrene cup out the window. It was scarred with fingernail indents and lipstick bruises. You bust-a-gut laughing as it melted. The radio fidgeted with static.
My Daisy Brockman Rosie Boyagis-Cooper We’re all standing, watching and waiting. The lighting on the car isn’t right. Ralph hasn’t angled it correctly, they won’t see her face. Tilt it to the left, idiot. No, your other left. I want to get up and slap his hands away, but I’m not‘qualified’. That’s how it works. I’m just Frank’s apprentice; he’s the car guy. If the car gets scratched or dirty, I’m set to work under or behind where I’m not seen. They never see me. Even now, I’m masked by shadows as she steps past, sliding gently into the car; the light illuminating her divine features. And he gets in the other side, bringing her closer to his chest. It’s enough to make me vomit. I can see through the rear window, their silhouettes of gold and black conversing while Ralph sorts the lighting. He has to get it just right, to light them up; to light her up. Her. 48
The director snaps his fingers, my eyes leave her for a brief second. I’ve asked him on seven separate occasions for a role but every time: “Sorry Kid, we only take real actors.” She throws her head back in a fit of false laughter. She’s playing Daisy Brockman. An out-of-town girl, young and in love. About to be proposed to in the back of a dirty old Black Bentley; she’s going to say yes. He playing a lower class man. They’re talking now and she’s smiling sweetly. He’s leaning closer, whispering, pressing his lips to hers. I shut my eyes for a split second. The director is shouting. She looks startled. It was his fault, he held her face wrong, his thumb was covering the mole on her left temple. Ralph re-angles the lighting and it starts again. She laughs, he kisses her. The director slams his hands on the boot of the car. He’s messed up again. So it repeats. She laughs and falls silent with his kiss. All while I observe from the shadows. She’s a pure white against the bleak black and brown of his coat. Her blonde curls reflecting the light, casting a warmth on my face. Perhaps she’ll turn her head while he kisses her neck and notice me standing against the wall. She may. As he speaks softly to her, I mouth along, every syllable as it should be. I never want to be without you, Daisy Brockman. I love you. More than life itself. Please do me the honour of becoming my wife. She nods, ecstatically and kisses him hard. Her mother would never allow it, he’s lower class, 49
he’s a worker. But still, she sees him. I can’t watch. “Cut!” The director shouts. End of scene. I stand to open the door for her as I always do. Her eyes rest on mine, I’m hidden behind dust; she can’t see me. A smile creeps onto her lips, I attempt to reflect her, but it’s not me. I’m simply a mask. She’s stolen away to her dressing room and I’m left to clean the car for the next scene. The leather is scented, with her lipstick smudged along the fraying hem. The warmth from her fingertips still pressed into the fabric. “Hurry up.” Frank spits, smacking me around the head. My cap slips off; blackening the seat. I put it back on, tucking away a mess of hair and soot. I clean the smooth glass of the windscreen and mirrors, catching my reflection briefly before breathing onto the surface, wiping it clean with a dirtied, yellow cloth. I’m sent home with a few measly pennies in my hand. Maybe that’s why I can’t be an actor, or maybe it’s because I’m lower than the rest. I’m not good enough for them; even if I was a talented actor. Another day’s pay and it’s barely enough to put food on the table. It’s not as though I can do anything about it. I open the door to the small home I share with my mother and older brother Robbie. With father lost in the war, my brother and I were sent to work as soon as we were able. ‘You can be anything you want to be.’
My mother would always tell me this at the school gate. She’d smile down at me, tapping my nose with her forefinger before walking fifteen blocks to clean for a rich lady by the name of Evelyn Woodworths. That brought food to the table, just. Her mask was somewhat more delicate than mine.
Her hands moulded with calluses and cracks but she wasn’t hidden behind them. She refused to be. “Leo, darling,” she greets me. Mother always has a smile on her face, I wish I had her bravery to do the same. But how can I? I’m so close to everything I want... yet, unable to touch it. My brother fell in love with a nice city girl a of couple months ago, she still lives with her parents until he finds the money to marry her. He comes home from work at the factory every day with a smile on his face because he saw her during his break. I want to be able to see her during mine. My Daisy Brockman. We could eat sandwiches on the sidewalk, watching the world go by; I’d get cheese and she’d get ham and pickle. A young man would pass, he’d give me a dirty glare and I’d beam right back. That’s right Sir, she’s mine. She wouldn’t notice, she’d chew at her pickles, watching a little girl and a black kitten play across the street. Her eyes would glitter, a smile reaching the faint blush of her cheeks. I’m startled back into reality. Mother sets a loaf of bread and butter on the table. She tucks her hand under my brother’s chin, sitting beside me. The bread fills some space in my stomach but I don’t eat much. I can’t stop thinking about that kiss, the flash of lights, the re-shoots. I’m not naive enough to suspect she loves him. He’s been married to the same woman for five years now. Happy. “How was your day, little brother?” Robbie asks, receiving a gentle slap from my mother for picking at his fingernails at the table. I tell him it was good, focusing on pulling apart the dry crust of my sourdough. I started the job with Daisy Brockman around a year ago, first, it was an advert for 51
a car, then a movie; similar to the one we’re working on now. Since the first day I laid my eyes on her, I knew that I’d never love anyone else. Robbie has known for as long as I have. I talk in my sleep. By “how was your day”, Robbie means to say “did you finally speak to her?” Which I didn’t; I never do. The way I tear at this crust is my response. Robbie sighs. It’s easy for him, his date is a lower class girl like him, she sees past his mask because she has one too. Daisy is different. She’s pure, never seen a day of dirt or dust. She’s never been hidden behind a mask. Everyone sees her; I the most. ‘You’re never going to get anywhere if you get cold feet at every opportunity.’ Robbie tells me this; it’s not the first time. I say nothing, I don’t want yet another echo of a conversation from dinner a few nights ago. I push my plate away, excusing myself. I’d much rather lie thinking about her than attempt to distract myself with meaningless conversations about what I should be doing. But it’s not a case of simply speaking to her. Is it? Not with us. Just as my mind begins to clear into an uneasy state of relaxation, I hear Robbie’s footsteps approaching the bed; he lies beside me. I pretend to be asleep. I don’t want his lectures, nor his pity. “I saw her picture in the paper, she’s a beauty.” I feel myself smiling, I think he can sense it. He’s right of course. No one quite matches her.
“An angel in disguise,” Robbie adds, I say nothing. This time he’s wrong,
she’s an angel yes, her golden curls match those of the gates of heaven. But there’s no disguise in it, it’s so crystal clear. Everyone sees it. The men who rest their feet while housemaids and butlers tend to their every need, buy jewels simply to hear her utter a ‘thank you’ while they kiss the back of her hand. I’m one of the other men. The men who simply observe the angel. We only receive a shadow of her glory but it’s still enough to knock us off our feet. It shatters us and we love it. I turn over and soon fall into an uneasy sleep. The following day begins earlier than usual, I get up to scrub my face and hands as best I can. The cold water turns a muddy grey, the faint smell of bicarbonate soap coats my now cleansed skin. Breakfast is the same as dinner: awkward conversation, bread and butter. Mother managed to bargain with a man at the market and got us some delicious strawberry jam; I savour every drop. Something feels different today, the air is fresher somehow. I find myself walking taller as I enter the studio. Frank catches me early on, setting me to work on one of the cameras. I’ve never worked on the cameras before. The metal is clean and delicate, a contrast to the heavy, oily joints of the car. I complete the job and still, my fingers are unscathed by work. Frank slaps me on the back “Don’t let it get to your head, you’ve got five more of these bad boys to tend to. Get to it.” And so I do until one of the cameramen whistles at me to move out of the way. She’s here. 53
She does her bit, he comes onto set. Does the same. Re-take re-take. All the while, Robbie’s words circle my head. I peer down at my hands; still clean. Save a cut on my right forefinger where I caught myself on the metal. I wipe the crimson on my pants. Frank tells me to have my break, fifteen minutes. I head towards the exit, the door swings. I notice a couple sitting in a diner across the street, watching the world go by; holding hands across the table. I glance at the cut on my finger once more, turning on my heel. I wipe my face, smoothing over my hair beneath my cap. This would be the first time she would see me, really see me. Without the lighting or shouting; there will be none of that. Just the cushions and cigarettes and little chocolates that are sent to her by rich fans and suitors hoping to make her theirs. I finally find the courage to lift my arm, to knock the door. To hear her call from the other side. She opens the door. I enter slowly, taking my cap off; standing before her. I’m shaking like a leaf. She gives me a warm smile, fingertips playing with the tips of her hair. She folds her legs beneath herself, lighting a cigarette; placing it delicately into her mouth. The smell of tobacco accompanying her rose water perfume that I’ve noticed her dabbing delicately on her wrists before shooting. “Would you like to sit down?” I hesitate. She insists. “It’s Leo isn’t it?” She looks tentative, as though she’s sure she’s got it wrong. But she hasn’t.
She remembered. From all the times where Frank has called me over? Or could it be when she asked my name on my first day? But that was a whole
year ago, 365 days plus a few others. “What have you done to your hand?” My tongue swells in my mouth. “Let me see.” She smiles, my hands shake as we touch. She dabs my finger gently with a hankie. It’s enough to make me cry out, how could she dirty something so pure with my blood? Her skin is so soft, softer than I imagined. “That’s better,” She says after a while, giving me a burning smile. “Now, what can I do for you, Leo?” I steady myself, swallow hard and tell her everything.
The Yellow Dress Elmarie Messina
Did you love me when I wore that yellow dress? It was a darling little piece. The pastel colour was a perfect balance with my pale complexion and auburn hair. I was told it presented my look with subtle elegance. The day the dress arrived from the store, I spent the whole afternoon meandering the light chiffon fabric through the folds of my fingers like a stream weaving through woodland trees. Of course, it wasn’t all perfect. The bust and waist did have to be altered, for I’ll admit that I sadly do not possess those to-diefor Monroe curves. Thankfully, mother’s always been handy with a needle and thread so I needn’t have worried. When she was done it was impeccable. Mother did mutter carelessly under her breath the inevitable comments. You know the ones I mean, like the ‘too provocative’ neckline or the ‘too figure-hugging’ waistband. To me, however, modesty was not my aim. We spent hours on the hair. Spiralling and pulling and pinning each strand in a specific place, perfectly framing my cheekbones. The ringlets bounced gleefully alongside the freckles on my cheeks which were dusted daintily with a pink rosy hue. I let Mother sweep my eyelids with a simple shimmering silver after she insisted that the makeup still ‘preserved my innocence’ in some manner. I could have sworn I saw your lips part in anticipation as you watched me walk down that gaudy hotel staircase, the chiffon fabric of the yellow dress floating in a haunting beauty. The bronze plated handrail twisted and curled with an exuberant extravagance. 57
Excessively polished. So much so that the metal felt strangely cold. Eventually, our bodies stood only one or two inches away from each other, as if the incessant buzz of voices had enclosed us in a bubble of isolation. Our hands were now resting together like strangers dancing in a tentative, delicate grace. Your fingers tracing my palm as if you were sketching the promise of devotion upon my skin. Those eyes. So cold and yet so kind. That icy stare that hypnotised my naivety and provoked any inhibitions to succumb to sweet, sickly sin. I could have sworn you loved me from that look alone. It was that very same look that blinded me with the protrusive green light. I could have sworn you loved me when the protuberant taste of alcohol on your tongue tickled my taste buds with temptation. But now, it is the green light that leaves my body paralysed over my piano. Each note that plays hang in the air around me, swelling with an unbearable grieving ache. The caress of alcohol feels rough like sandpaper, burning my already dry mouth. My yellow dress. Torn and frayed in an almost unforgivable condition.
Wrinkles Kat Hunter
Her head lolled gently, the veins on her neck bulging under the pressure of her weighty skull. A fingertip twitched. Fresh streams of blood escaped from her wrist, staining the translucent skin with crimson, snaking unevenly like a snail trail on a garden path. The ripped cloth partially covering her abdomen was blooming with red. Stab wounds were visible and gaping.Â Â 59
The onlookers had been sat in their pews for six hours now, heads down in prayer, hands gripped and cramping. A cough from the back row caught Emily’s attention. The preacher looked to the source of the noise, eyebrow raised. Only silence was permitted during the crucifixion. He turned back to the body at the front of the church. ‘Thank you for your patience,’ he eventually said. ‘Arthur. Get the body down.’ The members of the church collectively looked away from the cross and sighed in relief, nervous chatter echoing around the stone walls. Another person down. Arthur, a thirty-two year old lawyer with greying hair and a toothy smile, slowly got to his feet. He stretched his wrists and clicked his knuckles, the cracks making Emily flinch, before striding down the narrow aisle and stopping in front of the body. The woman’s aged skin was sagging, her naked form highlighted by the glaring sunlight. The black-tinted windows did nothing to hide the newly dyed wrinkles along her arms. With her eyes shut and tears dried out in the stuffy room, Arthur felt comfortable to reach out a calloused hand and pull a nail from the corpse’s wrist. It took a few tries of yanking before the iron finally broke free. He quickly moved to the other side, before untying the ropes supporting her dead weight. As the last rope dropped to the floor, so did the body. Again, the room descended into silence. Slumping down, folding in on itself, the corpse was the only thing moving in the room. Everyone watched as the departed Sarah took her last bow. * 60
‘Yes, yes, we should mourn. Sarah made a great sacrifice for us. So that we can fulfil our needs. Its needs. We are alive and free for another few hours. But now it is time to place our next member in isolation. I believe the oldest person in the group is now…’ The preacher stopped. Eyes flicking from face to face, he was scanning the room. His brows furrowed and a hand started tapping on the wooden pew next to Emily’s shoulder. A sigh escaped his dry lips and it seemed to take him great effort to swallow his saliva. ‘You see, we are here for the greater good. We are here to save ourselves, save each other. For what is love if there is no sacrifice? Now, some people don’t seem to understand this philosophy. Some people think running away is a viable option when it comes to this important practice. Has anyone seen Marcus?’ Emily’s eyes widened. Their second runner. She whipped her head round, searching the compact area, roaming faces but not finding Marcus’ signature quiff and easy smile. ‘Let’s not panic,’ the preacher continued. His nasal voice seemed to project into every corner of the damp room, the mildew and rotten wood absorbing every word he was saying. Another devoted follower. He looked at Emily and a smirk spread across his face. ‘It appears it is time for a hunt.’ Shuffling and whispering all started at once, with a laugh carrying from the pew behind Emily. She shuddered. ‘You know the drill. We are out to capture. Unless Marcus isn’t in the worship room by sunset, then we will… oh, I don’t need to explain it by now. Just get him back here and in that room. Before It finds out.’ The group stood up. Single file, age order. Always oldest first. As the rusted doors were pulled open, the leaves that had been gathered outside during the many hours of lockdown were 61
finally allowed sanctuary in their church. Clanking and banging could be heard from the umbrella bin by the door. Axe after bat after fire poker were pulled out of the broken plastic holder, the group getting more excited as each weapon was retrieved. There were brown stains on them already; clearly this wasn’t their first outing. ‘Split into groups, my friends. We must embrace this opportunity, draw ourselves closer together. For It appreciates humanity in its most developed forms.’ As the last words left his mouth, a shrill scream sounded. A war cry. Running down the sloped path, Emily fell to the back of the group, her breathing heavy and laboured. She felt an arm pulling her into the forest; it was the only covered spot for miles, the rest of the area grassy hills. Looking at the owner of the grip on her wrist, she saw Charles’ white-blonde hair being lifted delicately in the wind. The ten-yearold had a huge grin on his face and his eyes were darting around, never staying on one spot. He ran past an old oak tree, its branches low and decaying, mould turning mint green in the damp climate. As he turned back to check on Emily, he tripped over a hidden tree root and fell on to his exposed knees. The bloodied scrapes sank into the soggy mud. Stopping to hold out a hand, Emily had to look away from the infection waiting to happen. ‘Are you okay, Charles?’ she asked. ‘Want me to take you back?’ He jumped up and rubbed at the gore, spreading it round in circles, painting a picture on his skin. With the leftover mess, he decided to smear it on his forehead and cheeks, hiding his ruddy complexion. A laugh escaped his lips. ‘Nope, I’m good. We need to catch up! I don’t want the others to find him first, we’re so going to win this.’ 62
With that, he ran off further amongst the trees and debris, a high-pitched warble following his limping body. The grey sky developed a pink undertone, but streaks of navy were marring its delicate approach. Emily found it calming, but it also sent a wave of nausea through her body. Time was closing in on Marcus. They were closing in. * A shout reverberated from the far side of the woods, multiple cries synchronising with what Emily could only assume was glee. She stumbled towards the noise, struggling to find her footing in the dark. She hadn’t seen Charles in hours. Flickers of light caught Emily’s attention, signs of a small fire visible with five people waiting in a circle nearby. ‘Emily, look, look! We found him and he tried to run and we hit him and he stopped and now he’s lying on the floor!’ Emily could barely keep up with his words. Reaching the fire, she stopped by the body on the ground. A couple of leaves were scattered over Marcus’ chest. There was a fire poker protruding from his side, bending under the weight of gravity and forcing the skin and muscle to stick up at an unnatural angle. ‘Is he alive?’ she whispered. From seemingly nowhere, the preacher appeared behind her shaking body and knelt down next to Marcus. He placed two fingers under his jaw and waited. ‘Just about,’ the preacher said. ‘We have to get him back. We will hold a vigil. It is not his time to die yet.’ Standing up, he took three steps back and gestured to Arthur and another woman to take his place by Marcus, who was now juddering uncontrollably. Emily watched as they dragged him away by his arms and legs, body swinging gently between them, the poker 63
still attached to his side. Before the rest of the group made a move to walk, the preacher coughed. ‘Can someone scrape up any… leftovers you see on the ground? Just in case. It needs as much sustenance as it can get. Emily, will you do that?’ Emily’s mouth dropped open. She closed it, swallowed, and nodded. He smiled at her, his eyes narrowing. It was never a question. The wetness of his eyeballs reflected the dying firelight. * The blood still remained no matter how much she scrubbed at her skin, a permanent red tinge under her fingernails. There hadn’t been much to gather up. Most of the liquid had seeped into the thirsty mud, which had relished in the nourishment. The walk back was the worst part; she carried a bloodied plastic bottle slowly, tripping over and over again on the tree roots barely visible under the masked moonlight. Each hidden obstacle left her heart pumping, her breathing already heavy from the exercise. Branches caressed her arms, comforting her, letting her know she wasn’t alone, but somehow it just made her feel worse. Sitting back in the main room, all eyes were on Marcus. The vigil had been underway for just about an hour now, their lips moving around silent prayers. He was barely alive. Emily slipped a glance at the preacher. He wasn’t praying, just staring fixatedly at the mangled wound. The poker had been crudely pulled out and tossed to the side, crimson spatters defacing the stone floor. Did he not care about Marcus? Thinking back on it, he wasn’t that grateful when she came back either, not even when she shakily 64
handed him the remains she’d so carefully collected. She knew he’d never been openly empathetic, that wasn’t in his nature, but this was new. She moved her eyes back to her calloused, discoloured hands. Would he let her wash them again? There was a spluttering cough from the front. Marcus’ convulsing body rolled down the small set of steps leading to the wooden cross. Only the whites of his eyes were visible, thick, syrupy mucus dribbling down his cheek and pooling on the stone. The delirium was kicking in. Arthur jumped up and ran to the body from his pew, before pumping his fists on the hyperventilating chest. ‘For God’s sake, Emily, don’t just watch! Get some of the water,’ he shouted. Droplets of spit landed on her cheeks, like sticky tears. She rushed to the back of the room and picked up the small, disfigured mug they kept for special occasions. Dropping it in the metal basin, the dark water splashed on to her cream blouse, the mug’s handle chipping. ‘Emily! If you don’t hurry up, you know what will happen. Get over here.’ The preacher’s voice seemed to get quieter with each word, fists clenching and unclenching. Emily could see the nail marks on his palms. She hurried back and passed the mug to Arthur, spilling some in his hair. He brought the ceramic to Marcus’ lips and forced the water down his throat, ignoring the scrabbling hands pushing him away. Then Marcus stopped moving. There was a long pause. Only the sound of heavy breathing could be heard from the onlookers. The preacher turned to Emily. ‘His time is up. He is no longer viable. Do you know what this means?’ She looked down at her hands, truly noticing for the first 65
time the wrinkles, stained with Marcus’ blood. Her eyebrows crossed in confusion. ‘I can’t be next. It’s not my turn. There’s someone else before me, I’m sure of it!’ Emily felt people moving in behind her, sending the hairs on the back of her neck into a frenzy. A hand placed itself on her arm as someone else whispered words of comfort into her ear. She didn’t hear a word of it. Pushing back against the grip on her arms, she tried to move past the group. Fingertips grazed her body as she ran towards the iron door. ‘Don’t bother,’ his voice called. He was waiting by the bloodied crucifix. Emily ignored him and carried on running, but she couldn’t move fast enough. No matter how hard she tried, she knew she wouldn’t be able to make it. Arthur laughed as he chased her down the aisle. He pulled her back by her white hair, clumps of it drifting down to the floor along with her tired body. She clawed at the ground as she was dragged along the stone. Her finger nail broke off at the base and blood started to pour from the stringy flesh. Arthur ignored her kicking legs and screams, seeming to zone them out in his determination to crucify her aged body. ‘I promise you, Emily,’ the preacher said, ‘this is for the best. Think of the lives you will be saving. You are doing a good thing and It will thank you. We all thank you.’ After those eerily positive words, Arthur enlisted a young man’s help in hauling her resistant body on to the cross. The rope burned her gossamer skin as they wound the ties round, over and over again. Charles’ voice piped up: ‘Oh, can I help? Please? I want to help, let me!’ 66
Arthur laughed and nodded. Charles grabbed her leg with his petite hands. Emily’s scratchy cries were silenced with a cotton gag, soaked in the water from the metal basin. Drops of the tainted liquid flowed on to her tongue and she could feel her tears being wiped away by a caring hand. Another piece of cloth was placed over her eyes. She blinked against the fabric, bile rising in her stomach. A ringing started in her ears, muffling the voices around her. More water landed on her face and shivering body, and she knew they were cleansing her before her death. ‘You are safe now.’ And with that, the first nail was driven into her wrist.
Metaphorical Manifestations Iâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;m not sure if the onslaught of spiders flooding into my room through the gaps around my door are a metaphor for the creeping anxiety that I am feeling as I am drowned in fear (and spiders) while I get dressed to leave my house. Or if the large black widow living in the window of my bathroom has given birth and her children are seeking revenge for when I thought about killing her.
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Everything around you sways, twisting and shifting like you’re on a roller-coaster that’s lost control...
Carrie Hardman, Crash ISSN:1749-7191
ISSN:1749-7191 Copyright © Vortex 2019