The Other Side

A short story by Regi Claire

Recorded in lockdown 2021 for Ambit 242

I walked out on a clear rust-gold afternoon, no goodbyes, no nothing. I shut the front door behind me, then the garden gate, and turned left towards the woods. I had no desire to bump into any acquaintances who might interfere with what I perceived as my destiny. And it’s been quite a trajectory, hasn’t it? From being no-one to becoming something, someone?
      Just then a little girl with a swish of blonde curls came running round the corner and for a moment her smile, so bright and joyful, almost made me turn back. ‘Hello, Paul,’ she cried. A strand of her hair blew into my face, and she was gone.
      That’s one beginning only. The other starts with a row. ‘Fuck off,’ Paula said. ‘Fuck off, you bastard.’ I can’t remember now what it was all about, or maybe I don’t want to.
      Of course there’s also a third beginning. There would have to be, wouldn’t there? The beginning before, or after, the first two? This I leave to your own imagination.
      The woods that September day felt dim and dense despite the sunshine. The trees grew too close together, as if they were passing secrets through their leaves and needles, their network of branches, the fir cones serving as micro-connectors and amplifiers. Perhaps I was being paranoid as Paula always claimed. But later they weren’t trees so much as a mass of upright posts trying to fence me in, stopping me from getting away. By then it was dark and I seemed to have lost my glasses. I’m hopeless without them.

Who am I? And who is Paula? you ask. Your lover? Your twin? Your hippydippy mother? And the little girl, what about her? Is she a childhood friend? Your once-upon-a-time self? Well, these days it doesn’t really matter, does it? Paula. People. A few pigeons here and there. Feeding them (and myself, on occasion) from my doggy bag. I always seem to have a doggy bag and it always, miraculously, refills itself with bits of stale bread, even broken biscuit.
How did I get to be so lucky?

The morning after I walked out I awoke on the other side of the wood. I assumed it was the other side since I didn’t recognise any of the houses in the village nearby. But my glasses were still gone, so I couldn’t be certain. I knew it had to be a village rather than a town, and a small village at that, because there was only one church bell to clang the hours.
      Several days later I reached the main valley, much wider, more gentle, where people spoke in a softer accent and they themselves were softer – kinder and more generous, for after asking around I found someone who gave me a spare pair of glasses. They were a little strong at first, but my eyes soon adjusted to them. Then I found a place to stay and factory work, nothing fancy, and everything seemed to be going right for me at last. Just picture it: no daily struggles, no anxiety, no fights with Paula. No fights with anyone, orat least none that I care to remember.
     Yesterday I heard that two other men from my old village have also disappeared. They haven’t made it this far yet, and something tells me they never will. No-one has mentioned Paula. Perhaps she is still there in that house, in her frilly pink apron, baking apple pie with whipped cream, cooking lamb chops and T-bones oozing blood, the way I like it. Perhaps. There are all sorts of endings really. And hope is such a fierce, such a wretched thing.

Swiss-born, Edinburgh-based Regi Claire is a fiction writer and poet. Shortlisted for the Forward Prizes 2020, she won the Mslexia/PBS Women’s Poetry Competition 2019 and a UBS Cultural Foundation award. She has twice been shortlisted for a Saltire Scottish Book of the Year award. This is her third story to appear in Ambit.

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