Short Story Competition 2012 – The Results
The stories have been read and the judging is completed. We thank all of
you who entered and commiserate with those who were not placed. There
were four prizes this year – the usual first, second and third prizes,
plus the Devon Prize; we congratulate you all.
The Right Time to Fly, by Shirley Golden from Hampshire
I Am My Brother's Keeper, by Michael Powell from London
The Incident on the Number Thirty-Six, by Ceri Lowe-Petraske from Bristol
Saving the Goss, by Ian Chamberlain from Teignmouth
Runners-up: (in alphabetical order)
See no Evil by Christian Cook
Icarus and the Cautious Man by Paul Green
Miles from Home by Sue Hoffmann
Poetman by Neil Howell
Sofa by Harriet Kline
Sisters by S.G. Norris
Jellyfish and Rice by Tracey S Rosenberg
|Registered Charity No. 313869|
Exeter Writers has made a donation of £100 to Book Aid International. This is a ‘reverse book club’ which uses donations to buy and send books to readers of all ages in Africa and beyond. They have told us that they can buy around 50 books with our donation and send them to some of the poorest communities in the world. For more information go to www.bookaid.org.
Literary agent Broo Doherty has agreed to undertake the final judging and Exeter Writers has generously donated the First Prize. The official launch will be on June 27th at Exeter Central Library.
First Prize £500 (sponsored by Exeter Writers); five runner up prizes of £50. Closing date 31st October 2013.
See Creative Writing Matters for further details and rules.
The Right Time to Fly
by Shirley Golden
‘She’s back,’ Marcus says. He claps his hands and waves. ‘Whoa, stop. Stop.’
Owen brings the crane to a halt. He leans from the open window and shouts, ‘There a problem?’
‘Wait here. Don’t aggravate the situation.’ Marcus frowns. He heads around the bank of rubble. ‘Damn it,’ he mutters and yanks off scratched goggles and shoves the hard hat back from his forehead. He walks past moored barges, awaiting their scrap pile destination, same as everything thing else in and around the yard.
He approaches her; her face is obscured by the camera lens, her finger poised waiting for a clean shot. She shuffles her cowboy booted feet, which are split along the seams. Her slung-on denim jacket is frayed and faded.
Marcus sees his reflection, dwarfed in the plug of the lens. Stretched around his outline are miniature wheels. Cracked screens and industrial drums encircle his image.
She lowers the camera. ‘Nice one, arse-wipe. You think I want your ugly mug in my shot?’
‘Don’t care. I’m this close to chucking that thing on the heap with the rest of the junk. How many times do I have to tell you, this is a restricted area?’
She conceals the camera behind her body. ‘I’m not doing any harm.’
‘You’re putting yourself in danger. Go to the other side of the fence if you must do it. Why you want to snap at people’s throw outs is beyond me.’
‘I can’t shoot from there. Come on, I need this for Uni. Come on.’ She steps forward.
‘You want me to call the police?’
She scowls. ‘Thanks for nothing.’
Owen hangs from the crane cabin. ‘You sort her out?’ he says, his tongue working the gum around his mouth. ‘I’d like to sort her...’
‘You lot will keep clear of her.’ Marcus rubs at his forehead where the rim of the hard hat left an impression. ‘I don’t understand how she’s getting in. Think I’ll check the fence tonight, put a stop to it once and for all.’
The operatives muster outside the office door. Owen taps on the glass and signals a cupped hand to his lips. Marcus shakes his head as always. Owen shrugs, says something to one of the other men. There’s a muted laugh and they leave.
Marcus glances at his watch and heads into the yard. The cranes are giant birds, petrified in mid-flight. The air is opaque with dust; the river below is dark and motionless.
On the other side of the bank, oaks and beech trees are thickening skeletons. A cloud of starlings gathers against a colourless sky.
Marcus removes his hat and sighs. Damn it, why can’t she take photos of nature, of things of beauty?
He completes a circuit of the yard. The sharp sweetness of metal filings mingles with oil, beneath an odour of brackish water. The scrap heap rears over the cranes and cabins, like the shell of a lifeless monster. Twisted steering wheels jut from fridge doors. Phone pads balance along railway sleepers, numbers missing, and their screens cracked.
Rusted palisades surround the compound like wartime defences, yet to be dismantled. The entrance is a mess of barbed wire.
He scans the perimeter. He looks out across the water. A cormorant squats on the channel buoy and dries its splayed wings.
He has to blink away the memory of their frayed washing line rigid across the balcony, tiny clothes, limp and dripping.
The barge below sways and water ripples. A shadow moves across the port hole, a fox looking for scraps, perhaps a cat? But the shadow reappears and fills the circle. Her pixie face and heap of rust-coloured hair are now distinct.
Marcus unlocks the side gate and marches down the dockside. The barge door slumps on one hinge. He hesitates, then takes a breath and steps inside.
A pan floats above his head like a decayed moon.
‘Shit,’ she says, ‘it’s just you.’ She lowers her weapon.
‘What are you doing here?’
In the galley, blankets cover lumpy seats. Clothes and towels are dumped on the end.
She splashes oil into the pan and it sizzles over a portable stove. ‘Frying,’ she says. She rips into Iceland beef burgers. ‘You want one?’ She opens a porthole and smoke funnels out. Her camera dangles, Western holster style. ‘I know. I shouldn’t be here. Can you please give the lecture a miss for once? Sit.’
His stomach grumbles. He can’t remember the last time someone cooked for him. ‘This doesn’t mean I’m going to let you in the yard…’
She grins. ‘Hey, stay cool. It’s just a burger. We’re not gettin’ married or nothin’.’
He sits down. ‘Have you been living here?’
She shrugs. ‘On the odd night – the lights across the way creates a…you’re not gonna grass me up, are you?’
‘You can’t stay here. It’s not safe.’
‘How old are you?’
‘You act like an old man. I’m guessing you’re thirty, tops. How old?’ She tears open a Bap, and smears tomato sauce across its innards.
‘What’s your name?’ Marcus says.
‘If I tell you my age, I should at least know your name.’
‘See, old man mentality. Suzy.’
He holds out his hand. ‘Twenty-nine. Marcus.’
‘Knew it.’ She slaps a burger into his palm and flops beside him. ‘You been working here long?’
‘Ten years,’ he says.
She almost chokes on her mouthful. ‘You been here ten years. No wonder you look done in.’
It’s not so bad, he thinks. ‘So, you’re a student then?’
She nods, nibbles at her burger. ‘Art and photography,’ she says. ‘I suppose you’re married and shit?’
The burger tastes better than it looks. Marcus nods and says slowly, ‘I was, yeah. Not any longer.’
‘A boy.’ He pauses. ‘He died.’ He can form the words now – just.
Seven years have lapsed. Hard to believe he had a son. Ben is a faded photo in his head. Yet flashbacks descend, hard and fast: the flat, with its wide window-seats. Her words, sharp like a slap: ‘Just watch him.’ Marcus sulks after another row. Ben plays by the window.
Then, an empty space instead. The flutter of net curtains. Silence.
Marcus recalls fear in his wife’s face. He can’t speak. He points and she rushes past him, leans out of the open window and looks down. He sees her mouth in a wide ‘O’ as if she is screaming but he doesn’t remember any sound. He can’t move. He can’t look.
Later fear is replaced by pain, and then an erosion of loathing.
‘Oh.’ Suzy looks around as if she might find a suitable response in the opaque air.
He studies his burger and stops eating, brings a hand to his forehead, and asks too loudly: ‘What are your plans when you finish your studies?’
Her lips pucker to a scowl. ‘You sound like Mum’s latest bloke – what a bore.’ She wipes her mouth with the back of her arm, smearing sauce up her cheek. ‘I’m nineteen. I’ll be…I’ll do whatever I like.’ She shakes her head. ‘Don’t you remember how to wing it, how to have fun?’
Marcus stares off through the pane, tries to see through the layers of salt and dirt. ‘No,’ he says.
She stands up. ‘Come on, I’ll show you something.’
He leaves the half-eaten burger and trails after her. ‘This doesn’t involve going back into the yard, does it?’
The scowl is back. ‘You game or not?’
They walk to the corner of the railings. ‘Look.’ She points to the side of the heap. Wires spiral like springs from a broken clock. Imbedded in the tangle is a radiator half-folded, its corners point towards the sky. ‘It’s like a pair of wings, waiting for release, for the right time to fly,’ she says.
Marcus shrugs. ‘Looks like a radiator mangled in the rest of the rubbish,’ he says.
She frowns, turns and presses her head against the bars. ‘Here’s how I do it.’ The space in-between the right angle of railings is a fraction wider. She twists her body to the side, dips down and squeezes through like a cat slipping from one territory into another’s.
Marcus stares and everything slows.
She lifts the camera and angles it towards the tower of waste. She raises her eyebrows. ‘Better be quick if you wanna stop me.’
Damn it, he can’t believe she tricked him.
His windpipe is raw by the time he unlocks the side gate and hurries towards her. He shields his face from the barrage of flashes. ‘Stop it, will you?’
She backs up stepping into a metal knot of waste, finger pumping as if performing mini CPR on the shutter.
He lunges for the camera. She stumbles. A pipe catches at a tear in her jeans and digs into her skin.
They pause and stare at each other.
‘Come on,’ he says, his voice unsteady. ‘You need to clean that up.’
She sits on a plastic chair in the hut. He crouches and squirts disinfectant on a pad of cotton. He cleans it as best as he can through the hole in her jeans. Her blood stains the edges of the fabric.
‘Wait.’ She aims her camera towards the wound.
‘You’re one sick individual,’ he says. ‘We need to cover it so it doesn’t get infected – especially as you’re holed up in that damp old barge.’
‘Suppose you’re gonna grass on me now, close off the gap?’
He sighs and rubs his fingers into his eye sockets. ‘No,’ he says. ‘Just be careful. And don’t come around during the day anymore, or I’ll be in as much trouble as you.’
She tilts her head to one side. ‘Sorry I called you an old man. Mum says I’ve got a gob on me.’ She grins.
He shrugs. ‘It doesn’t matter. And you’re right, anyway; I feel like an old man.’
He walks her back to the side gate and unlocks it. She touches the plaster briefly. ‘Thanks,’ she says.
‘Hey, Suzy. That barge you’re on, it’s programmed for demolition in a month – thought you should know that.’
‘You know, you’re not half bad,’ she says.
Marcus looks for her everyday. Part of him hopes she has moved on. Part of him is sorry not to see her.
A week elapses before he returns to the barge.
In the water, his reflection hits him, clear and hard. He’s a ghoul, a shadow. He feels ancient – she was right. He needs a hair cut too.
When he pushes the door, it falls inwards, the hinge finally giving up its duty. The place smells worse than he remembered. Empty: no clothes or blankets, no stove or oily pan. On the shelf is an envelope. In a small, quick motion, he rips the seal. Photographs: the first is of him, masking his face. In the next he is closer, eyes narrowed, mouth in a tight line, looking mean. Lastly, there are shots of her injury with him in the background, plaster in hand, his expression different, softer. On the back, scribbled in bubble letters: Not too old to start over.
He tucks the photos inside his pocket. His eyes smart. He walks up the ramp, blinking. By the time he’s back in the yard, everything appears clearer.
Water hisses from a pipe, spraying the heap, and the claw above waits. In amongst the ruins are greens, blues and yellows. And the sun, evident for the first time in weeks, glitters off a single burnished surface, like a star fallen in the waste.
He tilts his head, charting the range of shapes until he lifts his gaze to where the radiator remains.
And damn it, he must be at the oddest angle because it looks just like a pair of wings.
I Am My Brother’s Keeper
by Michael Powell
I knew that he was dead before the phone call.
Now I sit staring at the handset on the kitchen table in front of me. February snow floats lazily past the window. The washing machine starts the spin cycle. The towels inside smack against the metal drum.
Yes, I’d known. Memories of my brother are already drifting through my mind. Soon they will swell and drown out all other thoughts.
When the phone rang I had asked what had happened. Despite everything, I needed to know how he died. I needed to understand.
A climbing accident they told me. He had been bouldering somewhere in the Australian Outback and he’d slipped. He’d fallen down a canyon and become trapped. By the time they’d got to him he was critical and died on the way to the hospital.
I asked her how long the rescue had taken?
There was a pause before the woman spoke and said that the rescue team had worked as quickly as they could but that it was, possibly, seven hours.
That was about right.
What were his injuries? That was my next question. She was reluctant to answer, but when I pressed her she told me he had broken both legs as well as six ribs. A punctured lung was what had done him in.
I rubbed my side.
The list went on: fractures, abrasions, damage to organs, which led to internal bleeding. It was amazing he was alive when the rescuer workers got to him; she claimed. But I didn’t agree. The human body is tough. Too tough sometimes. Sometimes you wish there was an off switch. That you could just blank out. When the pain got too much.
I didn’t say anything for a while, which probably prompted her to speak again. He didn’t suffer, she told me. But I knew that was a lie. He did suffer. He had been in unbearable pain the whole time. He would have drifted out of consciousness, but the pain would have dragged him back in again. Unable to move, unable to breath, slowly suffocating.
Climbing is dangerous, I used to tell him, and he could get really hurt, to which he would smile and reply that if he fell he’d be sure to land on his head so he wouldn’t feel it. Stupid bastard couldn’t even do that right.
The woman asked me if I would be alright. What a stupid question. Of course I wasn’t going to be alright. I didn’t say that. I even thanked her. Then I hung up.
Both my legs hurt. My chest feels tight.
Outside it’s cold, but I get my coat and head out anyway. I have to get ready. I know about pain. I've had more than my fair share. But I know about dying too. The car accident that killed our parents had almost been my last night on this planet too. My brother had been at football practice and we were on our way to pick him up. I was only 11. You always imagine that those sorts of accidents happen on a cold rainy night, when the world seems dark and sinister. You don't think that it would happen on a hot Saturday afternoon when children are out playing and people are sunbathing in parks.
Even now when the sun is shining I think back to that day, trapped upside-down in a tomb of twisted metal with the corpses of my parents in the front seat ignoring my screams of pain. I had been stabbed and broken, I felt my lifeblood draining out and pooling on the car roof below me. Later my brother told me that he had felt it everywhere I had been hurt.
They call it a 'twin thing'. Sympathy pain. But I bet there aren't many others that feel it like we do.
I trek down the snowy high street, taking extra care at every crossing, eyes scanning every passerby for any suspicious behaviour. I live in a good area, but you can never be too careful. Especially today. Life seems so much more precious.
A ‘twin thing’. Ha. One hurts the other feels it.
They've done tests. There's nothing scientific to say that it's true, but what does that matter? It’s real. Who cares if they haven't managed to prove it in the artificial conditions of a lab. It happens in the real world, not in their sterile bubbles.
I can hear him now. I can hear him screaming out in pain. I'm glad I understand how he was hurting. It helps.
He's been so reckless since they died. We were brought up by our grandparents, and they were so good to us. But that didn't stop him did it? Galavanting all over the world, high risk sports and daredevil stunts. He knew what I'd been through and how much I'd suffered from my injuries, but did that stop him? No, of course not. Not him. Not my brother. Always so loud, always so confident - yelling at the world because he didn't have the quiet voice of a mother or a father whispering in his ear to be careful. The day that crippled me, made me timid and scared of the world, made him daring and stupid.
But in the end, had he been scared? Trapped down there, watching the sun set on his life? Feeling the adrenaline make his heart race, pumping his blood out of his veins all the faster. Did he think that he should have played life safe like I do? Or did he just laugh through the agony and think that none of it mattered because, even if he died, I was still here.
I remember when we were young and he would tell me that we were the same; that we were once the same person. We're not just twins, we were once one single cell that was both of us at once. Those protein chains and phospholipids; they remember. They held on to the pattern that made our first embryonic cell and they stayed connected. But the cell itself though became so full of the potential of us that when it divided we split it in two. And though it might have been broken down long ago - still those fragments remember and long for their connection.
I go into the supermarket and get a trolley.
Usually it's just a basket. I make my way around the aisles and fill it with food. More than I think I'll need. It becomes heavy and unwieldy and I fight to get it to the checkout. The flat isn't too far away, but I need to use the trolley to get the food back. The snow has stopped but the air feels colder.
By the time I get to my front door my muscles are shaking, not just from the effort of carrying the food up two flights of stairs, but from the memory of my brother. He had cried many times over those seven hours. I start to cry too.
Back inside and I begin to cook. I'm not fat. I'm not a big eater, but I have always found comfort in preparing food. It's therapeutic. My brother, on the other hand, he was always lean, a happy side effect of his active lifestyle. I prepare pasta and stew, pizza and cakes. I eat as I cook - snacking on cheese, bread and vegetables. I only stop when the surges of tears force me too.
While the food cooks my fumbling fingers take the towels from the dryer. Then I take a roll of plastic from under the sink and cover the kitchen floor. The towels are then laid on top. I don't call my grandparents. They are old now and my grandmother hasn't been good these last few months. They don't need this. They hated the fact that my brother was always away in far off countries they'd never heard of, doing sports that didn't even exist in their day. To hear that he'd died virtually alone and in pain so far away might finish them off. Besides, I don't think I can even speak anymore. I think if I called them it would be little more than a babble down the phone. I can barely think. The memories of him are now all my brain can handle. His whimpers and cries and screams of pain deafen me. I stumble around the kitchen; a sobbing ball of grief. As soon as the first dish is cooked I shovel it into my mouth. Within minutes my stomach is full to bursting, I feel sick but keep going with the pizza that comes piping hot out of the oven. As the sun starts to set, I lose control of my legs and slump to the floor. Through the fog in my mind I try to think if I've done everything. The door is locked, the oven is timed to switch itself off when the rest of the food has finishing cooking. No one is coming.
I pull off my clothes, fighting jerking uncoordinated limbs. The garments are flung across the room until I lie naked on the warm towels, stomach swollen, pale skin glistening with sweat. And then it starts. And how I hate it. My mind explodes and the echoes of my brother’s screams suddenly fill the room as they issue from my own mouth.
The cell. The atoms. They remember. But we weren't once just the same cell. That would be too normal. We were once the same soul; split in two, but still the same soul. Half a world away, with the whole planet separating us, but still the same soul, still joined and connected.
Mitosis happens exponentially. My skin stretches, my muscles tear and my skeleton splits in two. My eyes divide, my testicles rupture, my heart breaks. When my vocal chords duplicate our two voices fill the air.
There is no pain; only agony and release.
Liquids - red, yellow, white and clear, ooze from every join and orifice, as once again we become two people.
It takes nearly an hour for my brother to drag himself out of me. When he's free we both lie there next to each other, gasping, our bodies drained of energy, starving and emaciated. Eventually he reaches out a thin trembling slimy hand. He takes mine and holds it tight.
His voice is little more than a whisper but he tells me he loves me.
I'm too weak to even reply.
It's him who's up first, scraping himself dry with the towels before struggling to his feet. He shuffles to the sink and switches on the tap before dipping his head to guzzle the cold water.
All I can do is watch. After he's finished he fills a glass and makes his way slowly to me. I cannot understand where his strength is coming from as he lifts my head and pours the water into my mouth.
It is glorious.
He tells me that next time there should be a bottle of water within reach. I pray there won't be a next time.
Within hours he has cleaned me up and starts to take out the cooked food from the oven. He feeds us both until I find the strength to feed myself.
It will take us days to build ourselves up. Days before we are well enough to leave the house.
It always reminds me of that first time, me fighting my way out of him hours after the car crash. Our grandparents hadn’t understood. They just kept it a secret.
As we recover we talk. We'll call the authorities tomorrow. He'll tell them he's in the country, tell them his passport had been stolen months before, he'll be sorry that he didn't report it, but the thought hadn't occurred to him. The body in Australia will be forgotten when the questions become too hard to answer. The real world isn't like Hollywood, there aren't secret government departments looking for paranormal things like us. International investigation would be too much of a headache for a normal hospital coroner. Accidental death; identity unknown. A John Smith. End of story.
He jokes again that we should be super heroes, or spies.
I tell him I just want a quiet life. He scoffs, but doesn't push the matter. He wants me here, safe and sound. I'm his insurance. That's why he won't stay. That’s why he’ll never ask me to come with him. That's why he likes to keep a planet between us. If one dies the other makes sure We are still safe.
I wonder what he’d do if I started living recklessly. But the thought frightens me. Dying once was enough. I don’t know how he keeps doing it.
I tell him to take care. For me.
He tells me to take care.
For both of us.
The Incident on the Number Thirty Six
by Ceri Lowe-Petraske
It’s been six days and ten hours since it happened. The Thing. It happened on the forty first day and forty-one is not a good number. But I’ve started taking the bus again and things are almost back to normal. I like it when things are normal. Things are normal but not the same because I take a different bus now, not the thirty-six. But the seventy-five is okay. Both buses go to the Waldorf Centre and I can get on at the same stop. My stop is the Stop with the Circus Posters. They used to be cancer posters but someone took them down and now they are circus posters. The circus will be happening between the twentieth of March and the twentieth of April but I won’t go because I don’t like circuses.
When I first started taking the number thirty- six bus I drew a map in my book so I knew where to get on and get off. I liked travelling on that bus because thirty- six is a lucky number. You can divide thirty-six by one, two, three, four, six and other numbers. Seventy-five is not as good although it’s not a seventeen or one of the really bad numbers. I don’t think I could ever catch a seventeen.
My journey used to last twenty two minutes each way, every day except Saturday and Sunday.
In my book I have the old list:
1. Stop with the Cancer Circus posters (Get on)The fourth morning I ever took the number thirty-six, Peter Knowles came to sit next to me at the back. Four is quite a good number because you can divide it by two. I asked him if he knew about the marble statue. He said that he didn’t really. I liked Peter Knowles and his badge with his photograph on because he smelled like my grandpa and had a voice that sounded like walking on gravel. I wanted to sit next to him every day. But that’s not how it goes on buses.
2. Stop by the River (6 mins*) (Mr Specs)
3. Stop with the Iron Bridge (5.5 mins*) (Red Jacket)
4. Stop with the Coffee Stand (4 mins*) (Peter Knowles)
5. Stop with the Two Tall Trees (2.5 mins*) (Bingo)
6. Stop with the Marble Statue (4 mins) (Get off)
*Times between stops
On the morning the thing happened, I wish he’d sat next to me but he didn’t. He sat in the seat behind Red Jacket. If he had sat next to me I would have talked to him. But he didn’t. I even put on a special smile and put all my fingertips against on the windows and counted to ten. I pressed them hard all at the same time. But he still didn’t come.
The Thing happened six days ago. Six is an okay number but six sixes are thirty-six so now I’m not so sure. But I think days are good things; they always begin and end in the same way, but the bits in between are different. There are different things like The Thing happen. And this is how everything is measured.
Sometimes days are good and sometimes days are bad. You can usually tell if a day is going to turn out bad because something bad happens first thing in the morning. It might be something like you forget to touch the door on the way out or the bus jerks and you don’t get a full ten of fingerprints all on the window at the same time. Or you spill coffee over someone. Or you trip over something when you should be breath-holding or clever-stepping. But sometimes a bad day will come out of nowhere for a test or a surprise. I like to make a list of good days and bad days and all the things that are the same, whether they are good or bad.
In my book I have:*These bits of the day are the same for everyone except for policemen and doctors who have to work at night. They sleep in the day. But for everyone else it’s either a good day or a bad day, based on the bits in between. The most interesting thing is that one person might be having a good day and someone else a bad day; it’s not the same for everyone. And you can’t always tell by looking.
Get up in the morning.
In between bits
Go to bed at night*
On the thirteenth day I took the bus, I talked to Mr Specs about it. Thirteen is not a good number for anyone. Margaret in the Waldorf Centre says that this is common knowledge when I told her what I thought about thirteen. Mr Specs gets on at the Stop by the River and looks a bit like Austin at the Waldorf Centre. Both of them have stripy suits and blue ties. I told Mr Specs about finger-pressing and about good days about how there’s always five days in a row and then two days in a row. But Mr Specs wasn’t really interested, not like Austin. He looked at me through his big, thick glasses.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I don’t quite understand what you mean.”
“There is a pattern, five days two days. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday…And they’re all different. And you just don’t know if it’s going to be a good day for you or a bad day for someone else.” Mr Specs looked around the bus and not really at me. That’s when I could tell he wasn’t listening.
In my book I have:Then the bus stopped at the Stop with the Iron Bridge and Red Jacket got on. Mr Specs looked around and shook his head and pointed to the papers he was always carrying.
Sometimes when people are not looking at you, they are still listening.
Most times when people are not looking at you, they are not listening.
There are also times when people are looking at you and not listening.
Austin says that it is helpful to write down things that are confusing.
“Sorry, need to catch up on some things here,” he said. I didn’t like that. He never spoke to me again, although I did try to talk to him a couple of times. I don’t think he recognised me, even though I wear the same jacket every day. Margaret says I am a creature of habit. This is someone who likes to do the same thing all the time.
“Morning,” I said as he got on at the Stop by the River. The river runs all the way through the city but this is the only stop where you can actually see the water. Most days it’s just brown like dirty tea. I don’t say Good Morning because I don’t know if it is a good or bad morning for him. He looked over at me and then looked around the bus. I’m not sure he knew it was me, so I said it again. “Morning.”
I think he must be quite short of sight. That’s probably why he wears those massive spectacles. Margaret says glasses make people look clever but I don’t think Mr Specs is clever as he is very forgetful. Maybe he should keep a book, like me.
Before The Thing I thought Red Jacket and Mr Specs were friends. They’re not friends - they just always sit near each other on the bus. Not next to each other, just near each other. Margaret would say that they are creatures of habit too. But they’re not friends. Red Jacket gets on at the Stop with the Iron Bridge. That’s one of my favourite stops, even though it’s the third stop after I get on and three is not the best number. I wish I got on there. The bridge is for trains and sometimes when it’s a very good day a train goes over the bridge at the same time that we go underneath it. If you hold your breath as the train and the bus cross it will definitely be a good day. The bridge is black and crackly. Even though I don’t see her anymore I think she probably still wears the red jacket, only now it has a coffee stain on it.
My least favourite stop is the Stop with Two Tall Trees. The look like they might be the tallest trees in the world but I know they’re not, they’re just pretending. This is stop for liars. The tallest trees in the world are in America, not here. It is stop number five, which is a terrible number. And it’s where Bingo gets on the bus.
“Return please, Drive,” Bingo says. That’s what he used to say every morning. The bus driver isn’t called Drive, he’s called Roger, I have seen his badge but Bingo always calls him Drive. Drive is what he does, not who he is. Austin laughed at me when I told him that but it’s true. Bingo sits right at the back on the other side from me. As he walks up the aisle he gets a good look at what everyone is carrying so he can steal things. When the driver gives him his ticket, he always says: “Bingo.” Bingo isn’t his real name - it’s a game of numbers. I don’t like the word bingo because it ends in an O. Nothing should end in an O; it’s not a real ending, it’s not complete. And it has five letters.
The day of The Thing was a bad day. It was the forty first day I caught the number thirty- six. Forty one. Four and one is five. I could only clean my teeth with two brushes because I was running late and I can’t miss the bus. If I miss the bus then I am on a different path for the whole day if that happens, it’s nearly impossible to get back to the day you should have been having, whether that was supposed to be a good day or a bad day. So I had to run to catch the bus.
When I got there they had changed the posters at my stop from Cancer Research posters to the Circus posters. I didn’t like that. Now I couldn’t press my hands against the cancer sign to stop me from getting it. But the bus came quite soon. This is the first stop except for the bus station, for the Number 36 so I could always sit in the same seat. It was at the back of the bus on the right hand side as you look from the front. But on that day it was different. When I got to my seat there was someone already sitting there. It was Bingo.
I sat on the other side, at the back. I thought it was the next best seat on the bus but I didn’t know for certain. My hands were shaking when I got to my seat and Bingo was playing music really loud and laughing to himself. I wanted to ask him if I could sit in my seat but I couldn’t get the words out. I stood up and went over to him. He lifted up his headphones and there was still music streaming out onto the floor. I tried to say it a few times but it wouldn’t come out. It’s like when someone new starts at the Waldorf Centre.
“W-w-w-watcha want?” said Bingo and then he laughed. I’d never heard him stutter before. I stutter sometimes when I am nervous. I still couldn’t get it out so I went back to sit down.
“Bingo,” he said and carried on playing his music.
After six minutes the bus stopped again and Mr Specs got on. The river had a shopping trolley in it which was not a good sign. He sat in his seat and pulled his papers out of the bag. Then he pushed his face into them until his eyes were all crinkled under his glasses. Five and a half minutes later, Red Jacket got onto the bus. She sat in her seat at the front near Mr Specs and looked out of the window at the iron bridge. There were drips coming down from the bridge and hitting the windows of the bus with a splosh, but there was no train.
At the Stop with the Coffee Stand, Peter Knowles got onto the bus with a big cup of coffee. He always has the lid off the coffee and cradles it with both hands. He got into the seat behind Red Jacket. It was only two and a half minutes until the stop I liked the least, the Stop with the Two Tall Trees. Even though Bingo was already on the bus, it was still my least favourite stop. I could see him standing up and getting ready to get off the bus even though it was too early. He was getting off where he should have got on. Everything was wrong and backwards. Then, really quickly, it happened.
It looked like nobody was getting on at the Stop with the Two Tall Trees and then Bingo pressed the buzzer really quickly. The bus jolted as it stopped and Peter Knowles jerked coffee over Red Jacket. He looked at her red jacket and tapped her on the shoulder. Red Jacket looked at Peter Knowles. Bingo looked at Mr Specs who was reading important papers. I looked at Bingo. Bingo looked at the bag next to Mr Specs and took something out while no one was looking. Then he got off the bus. Everything was wrong.
In the distance I could see the Marble Statue. It is eight feet and six inches high and weighs four tons. It is a statue of Queen Victoria. I wanted her face to get closer more quickly so that I could get off the wrong bus. I ran to the front and waited, even though there was a minute left to go.
“Hey mate, what’s the rush?” said Roger the Driver. Mr Specs looked up from his papers and into his bag.
“I want to get off now,” I said. “This bus is all wrong.”
“My wallet’s gone,” said Mr Specs in a loud voice. “Don’t let him get off.”
When I looked through the window, Queen Victoria had stopped getting closer and the driver had locked the doors.
“Hand it over,” said Peter Knowles. “Just do it and we’ll let bygones and all that?” Someone started touching me all over.
“Stop,” I shouted. “Please stop.” Red Jacket was rubbing the back of her hood where all the coffee foam was, and making an eergh sound. Then it got all hazy and shiny all at the same time. Someone put a red mash in my face with their fist and took all of the things out of my pockets – my lucky buttons, my book, my ham sandwich, my photos of horses and my money. And then I was lying on the floor with loud noises happening in my ears. I told the police all of that, and that I didn’t really remember any more.
Peter Knowles waited with me until my Austin from the Waldorf Centre came to collect me. He spoke to the police for me because my face was hurting. Someone kicked my lucky buttons out of the bus and the police said they couldn’t find them, but they did find my book which was good because it has all of the confusing things written down. I told the police that the bus was wrong. They asked me if I got on the wrong bus and I said no. But I won’t get on that bus again in case it goes wrong.
I haven’t drawn a map of my new route yet I will do that on the way home tonight because I don’t know all the stops yet. But there was some good advice on a poster near the bus stop and I wrote it in my book.
In my book now I have:I can still get off at the marble statue and it’s the eighth stop. Eight is a good number because you can divide it by four and by two.
Don’t talk to strangers.
Report any incidents.
I like it when things are normal.
Saving the Goss
by Ian Chamberlain
You shuffled the final canvas into the back of the car and pulled a strap across them. At the traffic lights you twisted and checked again. They looked safe enough. Waiting for the green you noticed a man on a bike, looking at your car. No – looking into the car, at you.
Instinctively, you looked away. When you glanced back you found he was still watching you, focused on your face, making deliberate eye contact. You wondered if you’d accidentally cut him up in the traffic, annoyed him. His mouth was open, not showing any particular expression, just gaping as if that was his habit. He was missing some teeth. The lights changed and you pulled away.
The gallery people went through the canvasses, hung them with care, adjusted spotlights, printed off title slips and price lists. They could see how tired you were and sent you off home.
Next day, driving to the launch party – wine and nibbles, past buyers, friends, local bigwigs – you were having trouble parking. Backing into a sudden space you briefly held up the traffic. A bicycle stopped and waited, patient. You weren’t certain, but it looked like the man who’d stared at you yesterday.
As you turned off the engine the cyclist pulled slowly alongside, staring down at you as he passed. Yes, the same wretched man with the open mouth and the black gaps in his teeth, still apparently intent on catching your eye. You watched him pedal unhurriedly away: old-fashioned bicycle clips round his ankles, plain shirt tucked into generous trousers, black hair that straggled damply, a chunky canvas bag dangling from the handlebars. The bike was old; the man sat on it quite upright. He didn’t look back. Strange coincidence, one of those things…
You talked to a woman from the BBC; a photographer from the county magazine took pictures and you wished you’d spent more time on your face. The local rag breezed in and flashed off a barrage of shots, scribbled a few names and rushed out again. Friends talked to you and about you, a man in evening dress uncorked bottles flamboyantly; an unpractised girl interrupted conversations with white plates of bright canapés. Afterwards, drained, you sat with the gallery owners in the wine bar over the road. A lovely atmosphere, they said, genuine interest, three pictures now had red ‘Sold’ stickers; an encouraging start to a four week exhibition.
The nursing home rang next day: your mother had picked up another infection. They were trying a stronger antibiotic but… They thought you should know. You said you would call in as soon as you could.
The Care Manager said she’d seen your picture in the paper, shown it to your mother, wasn’t sure if she’d taken it in – the poor thing had been away with the fairies for a day or two. She spoke fondly, smiling - you had come to know each other quite well, three years now.
You sat with your mother for an hour. Her latest obsession was with the small collection of Goss china in the cupboard on the other side of her room; twice she cut into your news to remind you that the Goss will be yours after she’s gone, that it says so in her will - that you must have it. And each time she talked about it she wandered off into memories: Essex childhood, village life, a wartime teaching job in a school no bigger than a shack, rain on the tin roof, jettisoned bombs landing in the marshes, Home Guard uniforms drying in her mother’s kitchen… Her voice faded sometimes; you had to lean close to hear what she was saying.
Twice more before you said your goodbyes - between helping her with tissues and putting in her eye drops and cutting up diabetic chocolates you knew she particularly liked – twice more she reminded you about the Goss.
It was five o’clock when you left the nursing home. Pedestrians scurried past, preventing you from nosing out of the drive. Then a bicycle swung towards you. That same man! The wreckage of his teeth was unmistakeable. He rode past at walking pace, his face expressionless - no sign of malice or recognition, no surprise at the coincidence, just that wide open mouth and the uninterrupted stare.
You sat there as he pushed steadily away, perhaps a full minute. Hypnotised, you watched the boxy bag swinging erratically from the handlebars. Then somebody hooted and you clawed your way back into normality.
It was crazy. He wasn’t following you - it was too random for that. But three times in three days, the same man... Dressed exactly the same each time: shiny high-waisted trousers which might once have been half of a suit, a long-sleeved dark top with no collar, those bicycle clips, dark socks. This time you had noticed the shoes: black brogues with thin soles, shoes which might once have been fashionable, between the wars or during the revivalist ‘nineties.
You were unsettled, felt threatened – as if there was something over which you had no control.
The next few days were busy but without incident. You cleared up the studio mess. Your daughter texted from the airport: sorry she hadn’t been round but she knew you’d been frantic; she’d catch up with you when she got back, and say hi to Grandma. Your son rang to tell you he’d split with Becky so he was flat-hunting. You bought canvasses and paint, fiddled with montage ideas, made uninspired sketches for an overdue commission, talked to clients sent round by the gallery. Your mother grew weaker.
Sunday was a release. You caught an early train, spent the day with a some-time boyfriend in Cornwall. You walked the beach beneath his cottage, photographed rock formations in the cliff, ate supper in a no-nonsense pub, made love under uncurtained windows as the sun inched out of the sea next morning. By the time you’d finished breakfast in the glorious tangle of his garden the day was half-way through. You hadn’t mentioned the bicycle man; you knew perfectly well that - under logical male scrutiny - those three encounters would become no more than a shrugged-off set of coincidences.
You were settling into your seat in the train when you saw him again.
You were going mad, you thought. A single-platform station at the end of a branch line, 150 miles from home, and a freaky guy from the city where you live was standing watching you, staring at you, willing you to meet his eyes through the dirty double-glazed window as your train gunned its engine and began to move.
You sat in a form of shock until your mobile rang. Back in signal range, Vodafone told you there were two voicemail messages. Sunday afternoon the nursing home had wanted to speak to you; this morning they wanted you to call them urgently.
You rang the number. Your mother was not responding to the antibiotics and she was quite confused, probably because her temperature was up. Distressed too – something about the china she kept in her cupboard, but they had checked and nothing seemed to be broken or missing. Could you perhaps come in fairly soon? Yes, you said, you’d come straight from the station, three hours or so.
You tried to read a magazine while Cornwall scooted past, but failed. You called your brother but he didn’t answer. Your son’s phone was engaged and then rang unanswered. Your daughter was in Thailand. You would have liked someone to talk to but the carriage was almost empty.
You changed trains at Plymouth, found a seat at a table. There was a pad in your overnight bag, charcoal sticks in a plastic case. You scratched out a quick sketch: an old bike, a man leaning on it, straggly hair, baggy trousers pulled in round the ankles. The way you drew his open mouth made him look like an idiot. You took another sheet, tried to do the face in detail, how you remembered it: tightly focused eyes under angry brows, big nose, black holes where teeth should be, lips drawn back in a gape which made him less idiotic-looking – made him look as if he had been about to shout and had changed his mind.
You worked on the eyes for some time - the intensity, the focus. It calmed you, setting it down in the way you knew best.
Your mother was weeping, lying back, red-eyed, her skin tinged with grey and yellow. You kissed her and held her hand – cold, and dry as kindling. It was the Goss china, she said in a crackling whisper, she wanted you to know about the Goss, over there, in that cupboard – it might get lost when her things were cleared, after she’d gone.
You tried to calm her but she started all over again, how thinking about it made her so unhappy. You changed tack, asked how she’d come by the Goss. You’d heard the story a hundred times before but thought the telling might pick her up.
There had been an air raid, and by sheer bad luck a farm cottage miles from anywhere had received a direct hit. The only item not totally destroyed was a china cabinet, not a single piece inside it even cracked, a strange miracle of the sort which falling bombs sometimes wrought. The farm labourer and his wife had died. Their son - her first beau your mother supposed, now she came think about it, long before Dad - was found sitting in the lane, hiding his face, unable to speak. Later in the day he had turned up at your mother’s parents’ house, pushing a bicycle on which he was somehow balancing the cabinet, its contents wrapped in a scorched blanket, and had simply left it there. He hadn’t said a word, hadn’t even seemed to recognise her. She had never seen or heard of him again.
When you kissed her goodbye she was exhausted, arthritic hands like small dead lizards on the quilt, skin as thin as last year’s leaves. The Care Manager said she had put so much emotional energy into the last few days that the poor thing had almost nothing left. It was not unusual, once a person knew...
At home you ate a quick supper and left a message for your brother. As you unpacked your weekend bag the charcoal face of the bicycle man slid out of its folder. In the morning you looked critically at the sketch. The stare was frighteningly direct, the face desperate but curiously empty. Despite what it represented, you were strangely pleased with it.
At the gallery they welcomed you effusively - it was going brilliantly, prints were doing well and two more originals had sold. They had emailed you the details of what looked like a lucrative commission.
Your mobile rang. The nursing home said you should come. They were trying to get in touch with your brother. When you arrived they said there was little they could do except make sure she was comfortable. Your brother rang - 300 miles; he would be there by seven.
You smiled hello and your mother responded feebly. Had she told you about the china, that Goss from the farm, which William had given her? It was the first time you had heard the name, ‘William’.
You should know about it, she said - that it belonged to you, the Goss, that it was rightfully yours. She tried to sit up in some kind of fervour, made you promise that the Goss would be safe with you. You reassured her yet again but it made no difference.
… it was when the bomb fell on the farm. And there was William, the love of her life, struck dumb, with the Goss on his bicycle. And there it was in the cupboard now, good as new, all this time. Dad such a wonderful man, so lucky she had been, fifty years with hardly an angry word and he never questioned it, the Goss, just accepted it, how it had to be kept and cared for, so precious, the Goss…
You sat in the car for a while, motionless, tears running down your face, feeling yourself unravel as surely as your mother was unravelling.
Your brother was grateful, apologetic, impatient to go to your mother, contrite that he had neglected both her and you. When he went upstairs to change, something made you look out of the front room window.
The man was there, leaning on a wall on the other side of the road, gap-toothed mouth stretched open, just the way you’d sketched it. The bike was propped beside him. He was watching you.
You shouted. Your brother came downstairs quickly, asking what was wrong. You told him - there was this weird man, kind of stalking you.
When you opened the door the man and his bicycle were nowhere to be seen. Your brother hugged you close – you’d been working so hard, were so worried about Mum; stress could do strange things to people. You should both go to the nursing home now, sort this other thing out later. And yes, obviously, if the bloody man appeared you would tackle him together and find out what was going on. You slipped the folder with the charcoal sketch into your shoulder bag; you would show it to him later, to prove it was true.
At the entrance to the nursing home you saw the bike. It seemed to have been roughly thrown into the low shrubs at the far corner of the car park. You pointed, speechless. Your brother said it was just an old bike someone had abandoned. It looked as if it had been there weeks.
The doctor said your mother’s frailty meant there were no options left. She was not in any pain. It was unlikely she would wake again, but if she did you should press the bell. He looked at you both, watching you process what he had said. Your brother looked at you, then at the tiny comatose figure of your mother, desperately grey, desperately old. He nodded, turned quickly away.
A care assistant brought in two cups of tea and you sat down to wait. You and your brother talked quietly, catching up with each other’s lives, both knowing you were merely filling the silence. After a while you took the folder from your bag, showed your brother the sketch. He pulled a face, said it looked like some kind of mad desperado. Were you sure that was what he looked like? You said yes, you’d seen him so many times now.
Towards midnight you needed air and stood in the entrance porch. The floodlight above the door barely reached the corner of the car park but you could still make out the rusty bike in the bushes. A movement caught your eye. Beyond the shrubbery was a single massive tree. Someone was standing at the foot of it. No more than a dim outline, but you were certain who it was.
Feet crunched on the gravel path and you jumped as if you’d been stung. A security guard in a dark uniform said good evening. You asked if he had seen that bike. Yes, he had logged it; the maintenance guy would deal with it. You told him it belonged to the man who was over there, by the tree. The guard looked puzzled – he’d just come round that way and there hadn’t been anyone there. He lifted a huge torch, pointed it; the bare beech trunk was the colour of pewter.
You felt foolish, but you knew what you had seen. You could tell by the guard’s face that he was used to dealing with people in distress. He was sorry, he said, he had to finish his round - everything was timed for security.
Back in your mother’s room the bicycle man stared back at you from the seat where you had been sitting. Your brother must have taken the drawing out for another look.
A different doctor arrived. She was warm and kind and smiled gravely. There was nothing more to be done - nature would take its course.
At three in the morning, desperately tired but determined to show solidarity with your brother, you went to the front door again. The security guard was filling in a form at a low desk. He asked how you were doing. You said nothing, stepped out of the porch. The faint shape of the bike was still there. It didn’t seem so important now, but you turned your back on that corner of the car park.
And screamed. You heard yourself making the noise. Even as the scream came out you were surprised by it - that it should be so loud.
The door behind you clattered and the guard rushed out. You pointed.
On the ground, almost at your feet, starkly monochrome under the floodlight, was a man, sitting. His head was in his hands. Matted hair clung to his neck. He was naked, and stained and streaked all over with blood and black dust.
The guard glanced at the path and scanned the car park. He asked what was wrong. He put his arm round your shoulder and took you back inside. Still holding you he picked up a phone and pressed a button, spoke quietly. A nurse hurried in, then the kind doctor. They sat you in a chair. One of them knelt in front of you, holding your hand.
Your brother appeared. He said, “I think she’s gone.”