A short story by Regi Claire
Behind the hedge a bird shrieked, then fell silent again. Small shadows skittered to and fro, the ghosts of leaves perhaps. Voices floated in the stillness until a sudden wind hurled them over the wall into the forked arms of trees and beyond, into what seemed a sheerness of space. The boy shivered. He thought he could hear the sky cry out. Could feel it contract and expand like a giant, beating heart. As the sun sank lower, the tenement windows were set ablaze, glaring from honeyed stone. The faces of the few pedestrians began to glow and the boy knew the glow was false, knew instinctively, despite being a mere raggedy fag-end of a child. Their heads looked like the pumpkins outside the house he had just passed, two pumpkins with bright-burning candles. Soon the wax would melt and the light fizzle out.
And yes, the tall woman walking with him was one of them: hollowed out, a half-woman. She was broken somehow – broken, then put together again, but wrongly. Like her right arm was where her left should be and the fingers of her left hand really belonged to her right. Was this why she was slightly cross-eyed and why her feet kept tripping over each other? Was she holding his wrist so tight to balance out her jerkiness?
The boy couldn’t tell. And didn’t care. All he was certain of was that their journey wouldn’t end today. Maybe not tomorrow either. Not even the day after. School was out, for him at least, and the half-woman had promised to teach him everything there was to know about the world. ‘This world and the next,’ she’d said with a high, giggling laugh as he scoffed his lemonade and wolfed down the fish and chips she’d bought for them both but hardly touched, leaving all the more for him. His was a gnawing hunger, like he hadn’t eaten in days, though that couldn’t be. Because he had a home, didn’t he, back on the estate? Had older brothers and sisters called this or that – Katie, Keira, Len or Ben – most of them drifting in and out, then disappearing again. Had a mother, various fathers, aunts and uncles. Not that he was always sure who was who. They seemed to morph into different people at different times. Like he was dreaming his family. Replacing them whenever they did things he didn’t want them to do or when their voices grew so red-hot loud they throbbed and pounded in his ears. He always knew when the time had come to find a new family, find a new home.
The boy glanced up at the woman and for a moment saw bones and a rictus of bared teeth. Then she was smiling again, her lips the faded pink of the plastic coral in his aquarium, her cheeks soft and powdery like something he could barely remember, perhaps the touch of someone’s lips.
Suddenly a dog lunged at them from within the scruffy, tree-lined enclosure parallel to the pavement. Not a big dog, just a dirty grey mop that snarled.
‘There, there,’ murmured the woman, bending down. Gail was her name, she’d said in the café earlier, though the boy hadn’t asked. What was the point? Long ago he’d learnt that life was a vast transit lounge: everyone, everything always on the move, simply passing through. It wouldn’t do to try and hold on to things, least of all people and their names. As if on cue the dog ran off into the bushes.
‘Hiya.’ A young man in a jungle jacket emerged from a tunnel of willow branches. They’d been jammed into earth-clogged tires – no doubt an experiment by the nearby primary to demonstrate the wonders of life. Well, the boy himself preferred his fish, which multiplied quite happily without any interference from teachers. Jungle Jacket had two more mops in tow, filthy black ones.
The woman flinched and set off, walking rapidly with lopsided steps, the rucksack on her back bobbing up and down so the boy had trouble steadying her. But he’d seen them too, held on thin leather leashes: two cats with yellow eyes.
All at once he remembered. The woman had told him she used to own a dog and a couple of cats, but they’d died one after the other, bang, bang, bang, within a few months, and left her quite alone. It was the loss of her dog, she said, that had started it all. Started her ‘decline’. She found herself bawling in front of the customers at the shop. ‘Boots of all places, just imagine! I’d be working the till, ringing up a packet of suppositories, for God’s sake, and burst into tears!’ She’d giggled and he’d downed his lemonade so fast he swallowed the wrong way and she ended up slapping his back. Slapping and slapping until he stood up to make her stop. When he’d looked, her face had been silently crying, the tears falling out of her black eyes like a scattering of beads.
The boy became aware once more of the streetlamps up ahead, a string of pale miniature suns in a sky that wasn’t yet dark, its blues and mauves swollen with white clouds, unholy somehow. High up a tree a plastic bag flailed and whined in the wind.
‘Keep walking,’ came the woman’s panting voice. ‘We must arrive there before the rain starts or you’ll get all wet.’
The boy shrugged his shoulders, grimaced. Rain? Across the street, a solitary sunflower stood with its dusky head resting on a garden fence. The sight of it made him feel tired too, dead-beat tired. A sudden gust scrabbled the gorse bush next to him. In the twilight the last few blooms looked pale among the dusty leaves and thorns, as if their hearts had been sucked dry. The boy shut his eyes for a moment and listened to his own heart. It seemed to be going slower and slower, like a clock winding down.
‘I’m t…t…tired,’ he said, dragging his feet. Abruptly he let his knees buckle. The woman gave a gasp as her arm was jerked downwards and her rucksack swung out, pendulum-heavy.
‘The b…b…bus. Why can’t we t…t…take the b…b…bus?’
‘Because.’ The woman clutched his wrist even tighter and pulled him along slovenly, like a too-full sack of potatoes.
‘I want ch…ch…chocolate.’ The boy dug his heels in. ‘From the sh…sh…shop over there. S…S…Smarties, a p…p…pack of … Smarties.’
‘Only if you promise to be as quiet as a church mouse.’
‘Are ch…ch…church mice q…q…quieter than other m…m…mice?’
She made no reply and, staggering a little, her legs all in a scramble, began to cross the street towards the newsagent’s.
As she handed over the money for two tubes of Smarties, the Pakistani shop owner said, ‘Ah, Smarties. They’re my favourites too!’ And, looking at the boy, he rattle-shook the carton he’d brought out from under the counter. ‘All those button eyes are good for company, eh?’ He laughed, then picked out two blues and three reds, arranging them into a smile on his outstretched palm. ‘And good for eating.’ He nodded. ‘Go on!’
The boy helped himself without a word.
Afterwards the woman gripped his shoulder and, limping, steered him back across the street towards the shadowy dark of the trees, away from a group of noisy nurses by the gates of the children’s hospital.
The boy smiled to himself. He tilted the tube the woman had given him, letting the Smarties skitter into his mouth like pebbles down a chute. If he stuck around a bit longer, maybe he could demand an XL pizza? Or he could shout and make a run for it now? His hands were free and his scabby fleece would be no great loss, mere sloughed-off skin – too much old skin on him, anyway. He sneaked the woman a glance. And her cross-eyes stared right back. Her fingers dug into the softness under his collarbone. ‘Just keep walking.’ She sounded irritated, but her hand trembled a little. A man feeding coins into a parking meter turned round and for an instant the boy felt his eyes on him. Saw what he thought was a wink before the stranger turned away again.
‘S…s…so, Gail,’ the boy said, twitching his raggedy face into something between a smirk and a droop, the way he’d seen Len or Ben do, ‘how’s it g…g…going today?’ He threw away the empty tube.
The woman made no answer. Only grabbed his wrist once more, hard.
On the other side of the street the lighted windows of a townhouse looked solemn and church-like. Tree branches swayed over a wall, then were stilled in mid-motion as if by an unseen hand. Late fruit hung heavy and spoilt.
On an impulse the boy tried to pull away. This was all wrong. Wrong. Wrong. The woman had looked wrong from the start. The weather, too. That floating, heavy air, those funnelling spools of wind. All wrong. And the too-soft voices. The too-high, cloud-blown sky. The bloated plastic bag. It had looked wrong. Felt wrong. Smelt wrong. Sounded wrong. Tasted wrong. Even the Smarties.
‘You’re coming with me,’ the woman said, her fingers like a clamp around his wrist. ‘You promised. And a promise is a promise.’
The streetlamps now didn’t resemble miniature suns so much as stakes that set out their path, keeping it within the strict parameters of what was possible and what wasn’t. How the boy wished he could escape their regimented lines, up and down, converging, veering off in different directions. Which way to take? To the right across the darkening park towards the city centre? To the left towards a hill that rose massive and hostile in the gloaming? Straight ahead was best, probably. That’s what the teachers always said, wasn’t it? Forge ahead. Cleave the waves. Cut a clean swathe. Onwards, ever onwards and upwards. But why worry? The woman had too good a hold of him and it was true after all: he had promised to go with her wherever. ‘To the end of the world as you know it’ she’d said.
They had just reached a corner when the woman yanked him away, reeling with the effort and getting her legs in a tangle. All in vain, of course. The boy had seen the spray-painted message on one of the waste containers: we the pigeon family, m’fucka.
He snickered. Yes, her fingers might be hurting him, but soon his growing-boy grip would outgrip hers – and make her wince.
‘What is it?’ Her black eyes were even blacker, like holes. He wondered where she was from originally. Italy? Spain? The Balkans – one of those countries with girl-sounding names like Croatia, Bulgaria, Romania, Slovenia?
He shook his head, but she insisted: ‘You must tell me. We need to trust each other.’
Why? the boy felt like saying. Who are you really? He pictured his room with the aquarium that burbled through the night, the fish patrolling the waters lazily, steadily, keeping him safe. He didn’t want to go on this walk to nowhere, didn’t want to leave his fish by themselves. What if he didn’t get back in time to feed them? How soon before fish starved? Would they begin to nibble their own fins – or nibble the fins of the baby fish?
The woman’s fingers tightened on his wrist. ‘I was th…th…thinking of y…y…you,’ he replied. ‘I was s…s…smiling at … you.’
Her gaze flickered, like she maybe believed him.
‘How much f…f…further?’ He deliberately hung back so she had to haul him along.
‘Just a little. Here, have some more Smarties.’ Out came her own tube, her hand trembling again. She was bribing him, he realised as she let the colour buttons slide into his palm like so many coins: blue for Scotland, red for Russia, green for Ireland and the four-leafed clover, white for the places where the saints lived, if there were any saints left. Pink for the lands of love, or fresh blood… But he didn’t want to think about that now. Not at nightfall when everything got bleached so nothing remained but spectres of grey that themselves dissolved then re-formed into more spectres, thin as puffs of smoke, sly and artful as spiderwebs that caught you unawares, trapped you like a sudden sickness or a blind rage boiling up out of nowhere.
To continue reading and see the illustration by Nina Carter buy a copy of Ambit 236
Regi Claire is a Swiss-born, Edinburgh-based novelist and short story writer twice shortlisted for the Saltire Scottish Book of the Year award. Her work has appeared in Best British Short Stories, Litro, Edinburgh Review and elsewhere. She was a Royal Literary Fund Fellow from 2012 to 2015. regiclaire.com/