The Only Child – a short story

Julie watched impassively as Lorraine played. She sang quietly to herself, a song from The King and I, or South Pacific, absorbed during an interminable Sunday afternoon’s detached viewing of her parent’s favourite films. Usually the lonely Sunday afternoon would start with roast dinner and afterwards the three of them would retire to the living room to watch the Sunday afternoon film.

Lorraine’s thick blonde hair, smelt of roast chicken flavour crisps, and was always wet from being chewed, swayed as she sang.

Yesterday, Julie had climbed up onto the window frame and watched Lorraine waltzing up the road, swinging round a lamppost, deep in a reverie of her own secret world. Once, Lorraine and Julie and their friends had had their photo taken for the local paper. Lorraine kept the photo in an envelope in the bottom drawer. She wasn’t allowed to stick anything on the walls, as doing so would ruin the wallpaper.

In the evening, sometimes Julie and Lorraine would lie together on the pink Brentford nylons counterpane and watch the shadows cast themselves over the shiny walnut of the wardrobe. Lorraine told Julie that the shady shape was her paternal Grandmother’s ghost. Granddad had made the wardrobe, during his days as a fiery carpentry Union leader. Lorraine confided to Julie that she had never known her grandparents, that they had died before she was born. She imagined their presence protecting her from beyond the grave. At night, as she tried to sleep at 6pm with the curtains barely blocking the light of a late summer evening, she shut her eyes tightly and envisaged a mediaeval castle floating in a dark starry sky, where Jesus and her grandparents benignly looked down upon her.

Julie was happy to be a terrestrial support for Lorraine, as much as she could. One summer’s day by the seaside, Julie had even been able to save Lorraine’s life. She had only been about 3 years old at the time, and wandered off to paddle by the breakwater. Little did she know that the sea on the other side of the breakwater was a lot deeper than on the side where she was paddling?

As she plunged into the translucent green light, her first thought was that surely the sea was blue? The sky and the sea were meant to be blue, and the sun a yellow ball. Pushing upwards with her face against the pressure of the sea, she looked upwards to see a black and white panda floating on the surface. Lorraine’s first instinct, with an already nascent sense of responsibility kicking in, was to save Julie’s life first. Somehow, she propelled herself to the surface, kicking wildly, gasping for air as she surfaced, wrapped her arm around Julie’s neck and swam to the shore, where a nice man was waiting to help her. At some point, her parents must have been alerted to her fate. What had they been doing? Where were they when she needed them?

All the way home, sitting on the wiry back seat of the Carmen Ghia (meant for two passengers only) that scratched at her eczema on the back of her knees, Lorraine stared at a green Clark’s shoe box. Surely the sea was meant to be blue? What else was not real in the world that she had yet to discover?

Today Julie sits behind the white linen Ikea bedroom curtain, on the windowsill, watching the children playing in the garden. Her black and white fur is a little worn now, but her beady button eyes shine as bright as ever. The youngest loves Julie, because she saved her Mummy’s life.

Lorraine still lies on the bed, drinking tea after a hot bath. Even now, she still disappears into the reverie of her own private world. She tries to read but can’t fix her mind on any one point in the story. Sometimes, she will stare as the trees sway outside the window, buffeted by the autumn breeze. An hour will pass, without her noticing. She won’t answer the phone or the door, but listen to soft, lilting music, birdsong, and waves lapping on the shore.

She reflects that overall she has been successful, achieved more than most kids. Overachieved even. At what cost? System overload. Teddies and imaginary friends don’t help you deal with the hustle and bustle; the political and emotional cut and thrust of the Real World.

She learnt on her own, in the uncontrolled environment of the Real World, with no parents to referee. Now it was time to release control to just be. Lorraine turned onto her side and pulled the quilt up around her and reflected as she had done many times before;

“There hasn’t been a day of my life when I haven’t wished for a brother or sister.”

c> Sarah March D’Angelo,  Aug 2009

An extract from a short story… miaow

Little Black Cat: A Tail of Love

Once upon a time, there was a Little Black Cat. Her fur was black tipped with white underneath it, just as if she was wearing a long dress over a white petticoat. She knew she was beautiful even though she wasn’t a pure Oriental Cat. Her white flashes above her eyes didn’t make an upside down V as they should on an Oriental Cat – instead they appeared and disappeared depending on what angle you looked at her. Sometimes she just looked as if she didn’t have any white at all. Even so, she had a good home with lots of love and food and warmth.

One day her human lady took her to the doctor to have an operation. The doctor put a little thing in her just under her skin so she would be able to be found if she got lost. At first it felt funny but she soon got used to it.

As she grew up she felt the urge to find a Tom Cat so she started to go outside for longer and longer, looking for her Tom Cat. Her human man didn’t like the noise she was making so Little Black Cat began to spend most of the time outside, only coming in for food and a few minutes with her lady. As soon as Little Black Cat started Calling out, she was sent outside. It wasn’t fair.

Then one day she went out for a wander and covered many, many paws-length in search of a Tom Cat. She was out all night and kept on wandering and wandering until she realised she didn’t know where home was.

The Little Black Cat was lost.

After more walking, she found some friendly cats and toms and asked them if they knew where she lived.

“Do you know where my home is? It’s got lovely big warm things on the walls and a very nice human lady who feeds me lots of times,” 

“No little one,” one big tabby cat answered. “We don’t live in houses any more. Some of us left our homes to go exploring, and some of our little cats were born outside or put outside without their mamas, so we don’t trust humans at all,”

“Oh,” Little Black Cat said. “I didn’t know humans could be like that. Mine isn’t.”

“In that case, why are you here?” asked a cheeky little kitten who had beautiful cream fur and a splodge of brown on her face.

“I was Calling and wanted to get outside,” Little Black Cat said, not wanting to say she had been put outside.

“I think you annoyed her,” observed an old, thin tom. “When I was your age I had a human lady and yes, she gave me lots of food, but I was shut out when I started fighting and spraying. Its so much easier out here,”

The tom stretched his back upwards till Little Black Cat couldn’t see the middle of his back, before lying down again.

“Stay here with us, little one, you look as if you would give me some nice kittens next season, and I’d love to have some nice-looking kits before I die.”

“Oh sir,” Little Black Cat said shyly, “if I had met you when I was Calling I would have loved to have them for you, but now I just want to go home,”

“Oh well, your loss,” the tom said. He got up and sauntered off into the night.

“Where can I look for someone who might know where I live?” Little Black Cat asked the tabby cat.

“There are humans over there,” she replied. “Maybe some of their cats might know.”

So Little Black Cat touched noses with the tabby and set off again.

c > H A Aveling, Aug 2009

Villagelife

An empty playground overlooked by a derelict block of flats. Not exactly paradise, but its what we’ve got. Its in the country, its got houses, but no shop, no church, no centre. Bill says someone died in them flats, but he’s full of shit, he said his dad used be a gangster, but everyone knows he was in the army. Anyway, I’m going in and I’ll see what’s really there.

The door is open. It wouldn’t have been much of a problem, the glass has been smashed and someone’s nicked the locks. Inside is a short corridor with several doors coming off it leading to the ground floor flats. At the end I can make out the stair well, with what looks like a shopping trolley wedged upside down and halfway up. Inside all the lights are gone, the daylight doesn’t want to come in much past the door. I flick on the torch that I found in the park, it’s one of those wind up ones. It lets off a dim glow that brightens when I wind it, revealing that he first door on the left is open a little bit, I look in there first. This is a bit scary, but everyone’s been in here and now it’s my turn. The place is getting knocked down soon, so I better do it. I can feel my breathing getting faster and as the door gets further behind me and I hear it bang shut losing a bit more glass and sending a flicker of light down the hallway. It’s okay, I knew one of them was going to shut it, that’s what we always do. I’ve done it plenty of times. The difference is they all thought I’d been in here before. The door sticks a bit as I push it, its only hanging on one hinge, but I manage to get it open enough to squeeze through. Don’t think the others have been in this one before, most of them just peak and run out quick, but I’m doing the whole thing.

The wallpapers peeling off and I can see green stuff underneath. It stinks so badly of piss, I’ve got to put my t-shirt over my face to breath straight. In one of the corners I can see a broken armchair, the seat is ripped and a rusty spring is jutting out of the middle, the walls are all stained and bits of the ceiling have fallen in where the older kids have got in and been lighting fires. I’m gonna go a bit further, but I’ll be careful because its dark in here. The windows are covered by thick red curtains you can see from outside. Think I might have smashed one of them a while back; all the windows are smashed on the outside. The floor is covered in junk, cup plates and bits of food, cans of beer and fag-ends. Its horrible. There’s a crushed up blue beer can in an empty space near the middle, one good kick and it pings off the wall. I throw another kick, harder, hitting two at the same time, they crash and spin about. A scratchy rustling noise comes from under the settee sending me running back to the door, where I see a thing rush out across the floor like a bullet. It makes a painful screech, as I try to squeeze back through, the handle catching on my trousers. Trapped in the door I hear the scratching again, its coming from behind some crap in front of the fireplace. I’m squashed and its hurting my shoulder, I know I’m bright red and can feel the tears running down my face. The thing runs out again and this time I see it properly. A stupid fox. It stops and scratches itself and shoots back behind the settee. I laugh and manage to free myself. I want to get out of here, but know I can’t go back now and if they see me all red and crying they’ll think I was scared, so I wipe my face and pull the door shut. I don’t fancy the other rooms much, besides I said I’d go up, so I’ve got to go up. None of the others got this far. The stairs go round in three landings like all the blocks round here. Nothing to worry about, just keep away from holes in the floor and hope no more foxes are up there.

The trolley is jammed tight in the first set of stairs, but I’m skinny enough to crawl past. Kyle’s too fat to get through and Si’s too big, but I can get in anywhere. I slide underneath and get up. The stairs are safe and still solid, but I can see where the older lot have had fires on the first landing, more beer cans and fags. The trolley was probably to stop the Police getting at them. I’ve seen them jump down to the garages when they get chased off. They’re stupid and make loads of noise and always get caught; no one gets us lot, we keep it quiet. I’m not bothering with the second floor, waste of time, gonna go straight to the top. I said I’d get out on the roof and chuck some football down. The stairs twist up, it doesn’t look like the older lot have been here, there’s less rubbish and it don’t smell so bad.

At the top I can feel a breeze blowing down the corridor from the flat at the end. The are doors closed and the walls and floor are clean and something else, something odd, it looks like a different building. The lights are all on, yellow strips along the ceiling and the green lights that stay on in power cuts. I’m going slow, feeling my way through the light. There shouldn’t be light up here, but I keep going, the flat at the end is number 39. The door is dark blue and I can see brighter light coming from underneath. I should go back, but my legs keep walking on their own. I want to go back, but I can’t help it, so now I’m standing right by the door. I can feel myself not breathing and make myself take a gasp of air before I pass out. This isn’t right. I reach up and feel the spy hole, tracing a circle and feel my hand going to knock the door. It bangs a dull thud and the door moves easily as I hit it, swinging open.

The flat looks untouched. No, more than that. The flat looks like a flat, quite a nice flat. The floor is laminate with a two black leather settees and a huge glass coffee table. In the corner is the biggest TV I’ve seen outside of a shop. A kid is sitting in front of it playing Xbox. I’ve got that game, the sound is turned up quite loud, but I couldn’t hear it outside. If I had mine that loud Mum would kill me. The boy doesn’t look round and I’m standing stock still, frozen. Its like I’m somewhere else. I can see his hands flittering on the controls, but his face is locked on the TV. It looks great. I have to play on the little one my sister used to have; Dad won’t let me have it on the big telly.

‘Come in then’ comes a female voice from the next room. ‘You must be one of John’s friends. We don’t bite. I’ve got some dinner on if you want some.’

Not sure what to do now. I can’t move my legs and my head is screaming to run, but it looks so normal, so nice.

‘Come in then, and shut the door; were you born in a barn or something?’

Then my legs are moving again, but in the wrong direction. I’m walking in and can feel the door slipping shut behind me. I don’t think I even touched it. I can’t help myself, I step over to the settee and realise I want to sit on it. Its not like I can help it, more like I want to sit down more than anything else in the world. Its far too big for me and my legs hang over the edge, but its so comfy. John keeps playing the game, he’s really good, I watch him take out one of the guards with a sniper rifle, I can never make that shot. He knows every inch of the level, his hands are dancing on the controller so fast that I can barely follow his movements. My eyes are locked on the screen, refusing to look at the rest of the flat. It can’t be real and the game feels normal.

‘Do you like tomatoes?’ Comes the voice from the other room. ‘Will you stop playing that game, its rude when we’ve got guests.’ Her voice flutters between a singsong and stern, but the boy keeps playing without taking notice.

‘No I’m allergic.’ I hear myself say, but don’t know why. None of this makes any sense. A tall grey haired man in a red cardigan and grey jogging bottoms walks in with a serious, ugly face, places a tray on the coffee table then folds himself down into the armchair. His impossibly long arms reach out and lift the tray onto his lap in a mechanical motion. On the tray is a covered plate and a brown mug. The man doesn’t say anything or even look at me; he stares at the TV, the game stops and the local news comes on with the sound off. The presenters are joking with each other in front of a picture of a goat and two cats. The boy remains sitting and staring ahead, his fingers still gripping the control pad, motionless, but sprung as if ready to burst into play at the first opportunity. The man lifts the microwave lid off his dinner plate and places it carefully on the coffee table. Something is moving on the plate. I pull my eyes from the TV and force myself to see it in full. A red steak with chips and mushrooms is covered in maggots and worms that crawl through the food making the meal seem alive. He cuts into the steak with a black handled knife, his fork pinning it to the plate, it oozes blood, the maggots bundle the cut piece as he raises it to his mouth and starts chewing the lot. I can feel sick in the back of my throat and and want to run even more, but still can’t get myself out of the seat.

‘Here it is.’ She appears as a silhouette holding two mismatched trays, the kitchen light flickering behind her; I can feel chair’s leather sticking to my legs. She moves closer, still a shadow. Not a shadow, as she moves closer the light shows black leathery skin, naked and burnt, rippling across her body, her features are gone, her eyes empty holes. I’m shaking and wriggling in my seat, desperately trying to rip myself from the settee and get away.

‘No tomatoes.’ She says with no lips or recognisable mouth. The air is prickling with heat rising from all around. My body is tense all over, I can’t shake for fear.

A loud knock shatters the moment. And again. The door. It jumps me to my feet and I feel control flooding back to my legs and body. The family seem frozen as the door falls open revealing a man in a brown uniform holding a large parcel. His face hides any surprise or emotion, I rush to stand behind him, wanting to run, but not wanting to be alone. Peeking from behind the delivery man I see the man in the armchair nod towards the door.

‘Thank you.’ He whispers in an almost silent voice. The boy next to him turns to stare at me with the same hollow eyes and burnt skin as his mother.

The man in brown places the parcel on the floor and shuts the door. I feel his cold fingers gently grip my neck as he leads me away.

c > Roy Smith, Aug 2009.

Don’t drink and drive… a tale with an unexpected ending.

Geoff sits at the bar on a stool, shoulders hunched, elbows in a thin pool of beer on the counter, his grey suit jacket sleeves moistening to black as the beer seeps into the fibres. His friends have long gone – wives, families to go back to. Geoff’s home life isn’t exactly the happiest, so the pub is a welcome retreat. Tucked in just off the road in a tiny village, the black beam and plaster Kings Arms offers up its boozy Tudor charms temptingly, half way through the drive home from work. Geoff will have to take the car back now that his friends have left. It’s late and he’s nicely over the limit, but not impossibly so: he’s made it home in worse states than this.

Home – the wife cold and angry (that affair. With her from the office), two teenage kids (hate me more than the wife does). All in all, not an appealing thing to go back to. Much better here – quiet, beer on tap, no-one to remind me just what a bastard I am.

“ ‘Nother beer here, Al” Geoff calls to the barman.

“Don’t you think you’ve had enough now Geoff? You knocked the last one all over the shop.”

Geoff bristles at this: “I’ll let you know when I’ve had enough. Long as I’ve got cash and I fancy a pint, you keep serving OK?”

Al takes this calmly – he’s had the same conversation with Geoff many a time, too many times.

“Alright Geoff, have it your way. It’s your funeral after all.”

Geoff takes the beer without acknowledgement, slopping the head over the wooden floor, his trousers, the bar. He slowly necks the pint, grunts and throws a pile of crumpled notes onto the counter. Stumbling out, Geoff passes the blackened fireplace and the last remaining drinkers at their tables, then walks out into the chill night air. His car isn’t in the car park. As far as everyone knows, he’s getting a taxi home, or so he told them (I’m not a drink driver, not me. Drink drivers are scum.)

Flicking up his jacket collar against the cold, Geoff steps into the narrow, hedge lined road outside the pub, makes his way towards the village green. The windows of tastefully quaint, care worn houses wink with lamplight as he passes them. Be nice to go in there, sit down in front of the fire, put my feet up. Wake up the next day and everything’d be different. Not an option for me though. Never an option.

The road widens, splits, snakes around either side of the green. Geoff steps on to the khaki-green grass, damp with the first dew of the night. He passes the pond, with its water still and silver in the moonlight, the hushed quacking of the resident ducks just audible. Shu’up. Stupid ducks. Geoff steps off the green and onto the path on the other side. His car is pulled in next to the kerb, parked under a tree. Reaching inside his jacket for his car keys, Geoff notices there’s something wrong with his car. The staid, expensive shiny black bodywork of the BMW is discoloured, stained with thick, grey-white blotches. Bird droppings. Some bloody BIRD has SHAT on my car. Geoff stares at the mess, tries to scrape some off with his car key, succeeds only in scratching the paintwork. Right. That’s it. He stomps to the boot, opens it and pulls out a tire iron and marches back across the green. From the pond, muffled by the trees, there’s the sound of ruffling feathers, then splashing, then two soft cracks. Geoff returns to his car, flings the bloodied tire iron onto the back seat and drives off.

Back at the pond, the limp body of a duck, its head and bill smashed, floats limply on the water, blood turning its green feathers to black. Other ducks watch from the reeds around the pond, quacking quietly, conspiratorially, to each other. One by one, they step on the bank, raise their wings and flap their way leisurely into the night sky.

The next day, the police called at Geoff’s house. His wife answered the door in her dressing gown, to be told solemnly that her husband was dead. The policemen explained that Geoff’s car had been found half way out of a hedge, with him choked at the wheel, the door pulled open and his mouth filled with green feathers.

Copyright: Andrew Day, 2009.

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