Reader’s Choice (Stranger): Familiar Strangers

Familiar Strangers

by Verity Sayer

“Okay now, one last push!”

She escapes my body so quickly, crying out just a little. She seems happy though. I hold onto her body, furled up like a hamster that can fit in one hand. I say hello and goodbye in the same sentence.

In eighteen and a half years we will meet in a café that neither of us know. She will order a caramel latte and a chocolate brownie, I will have a pot of breakfast tea. She will look nothing like I expect. Her spiky black hair will have turned into thick golden waves that rest just below her shoulders. Those tiny fingers that couldn’t even extend out of a fist will have stretched and hardened, decorated by a colourful collection of rings. I will examine her face for traces of that baby, as she examines mine for traces of herself.

She will comment on my eyes, “They’re blue, just like mine,” and I will respond with a smile and nod.

She will ask me about my life, my career, my interests. She will look for anything that she can latch on to, and ask no further about those things which differ from herself.

Her mother – her real mother, will be nearby, perusing the latest releases in an independent bookshop. She will be there simply as a safety net; her daughter will be too scared to come otherwise. At this point, I will have children of my own, two boys who I will adore with my whole heart. I will have memories of singing them nursery rhymes and blowing them kisses on their first day of school. I will have bad memories too: of them drawing on the walls in the kitchen and slamming their doors screaming that they hate me. And I will have all the boring, everyday memories in between. But there will be no memories of me and her.

I will only have this. I will have kind conversations about how beautiful she is, how talented. I will have harder ones when she asks about her father, and I will bow my head because I have no answer for her. I will love her, but not like I love my own children. I will offer her money if she needs it, even though I know she would never ask. In between the awkward silences, we will make each other laugh as I retell stories from a life that I chose to remove her from, and she will describe a happy childhood that I wasn’t in.

At the end of our meeting, her mum will thank me and I will see in her eyes she means more than just for today. I will smile at her daughter; my eyes will brim with tears that I will be embarrassed about later. We will shake hands because we aren’t quite ready for more. And I will say, “Well, Abby, it was lovely to meet you.”

Verity Sayer is a graduate from the University of Edinburgh and has started writing for fun in her free time.

Our Reader said:

This bittersweet snapshot into two lives is so beautifully written. I really enjoyed how the huge gravity and strangeness of the moment described, didn’t dally or overstate; a moment in life, where life was before, and would continue after.

Reader’s Choice (Stranger): Blood Orange

Blood Orange

by Freya Dolby

Lacey left the hospital on a hot day in August. The sliding doors parted and she stood still, blocking the door slightly so a young couple had to break hands to walk around her. Cut grass and heated tarmac dislodged the smell of antiseptic that sat at the back of her tongue. She looked to the top of a row of plane trees that framed the road ahead of her, furry clumps of tanned pollen fell from their branches and piled at the sides of the pavement. A blackbird hopped to the end of a fragile branch, assured that the spindly wood would take its weight. With no place to be, she waited, watched as it opened its beak eager to add its song to the chorus. Behind the bird, the sky was a vivid blue, littered with clouds that lay flat and transparent like ice forming on a sheet of glass.

A stall was set up outside the hospital, selling fruit, oranges in perfect prisms that made her mouth water. She hadn’t eaten anything since the night before. One please”, she pointed at a blood orange on the top of the pile. Her voice sounded unfamiliar and she coughed with her hand in front of her mouth, checking that she was still breathing. Searching her pockets Lacey found that she didn’t have 20p to pay for the orange that was already weighing heavy in her palm. Her cheeks reddened and when she tried to say I’m sorry,” the words caught in her throat and her voice was lost. The grocer waved her hand and told Lacey to keep it.

As she walked, Lacey passed the fruit back and forth between her hands, running her fingers over the dappled skin, trying to ground herself in its pores. She felt like a stranger in her own body, with every step that took her further from the hospital bed she was coming undone.

By the time she reached their street, she had begun to convince herself that her mother might be waiting for her but when she turned the key only emptiness hung behind the door, filling the air like smoke. In the kitchen she went to open the window but couldn’t, her thumb had worked through the skin of the orange and into its flesh, it was stuck. The juice stung the bitten skin around her cuticle, the round orange a bulbous extension of her body. She lay her hand on the rim of the sink looked at the four smooth fingers and the engorged orange thumb. If she removed it would she return to herself or would she always feel like something was missing?

In one sharp movement, she pulled her thumb free, letting sweet red sap spurt over the countertop. The damaged orange rolled into the sink and she found her mother’s voice in her mouth, “Wipe it up now or it’ll get sticky.” She reached for the window and pushed it open.

Freya Dolby works in TV and spends her spare time writing stories, scripts and making pots. She has also written a novel and is currently in the painful editing stage. 

Our Reader said:

The simplicity of this story – its everyday-ness, its subtle, permeating sadness – slips straight to the heart of everything we’re experiencing during COVID-19. The detail is so beautifully, heart-wrenchingly dropped in – it’s only there if you look for it, much like in real life. A reminder to be more kind, as in the words of Plato, everyone is fighting a hard battle.

 

 

Reader’s Choice: The baby with skin the colour of walnuts

The baby with skin the colour of walnuts

by Margaret Gallop

Once upon a time in the land of Paspatou there lived a woodcutter and his wife. When their first son was born they planted a hazel tree, when their second son was born they planted an apple, but when their third son was born the midwife said, ‘Who’s this stranger?’ for his skin was the colour of walnuts. So a walnut tree they planted. His mother whispered, ‘My grandfather was the King’s champion from the land of Sassafras. Your name will be Antarah.’

Antarah grew slowly but continued to grow. One day the King’s hunting party passed by. ‘Who is this tall man with skin like the walnut?’

Antarah knelt.

The King said, ‘I have a task for you. The Princess Betony who is to marry my son has been shipwrecked in the land of Sassafras. Go and fetch her.’

‘There is really no rush, father,’ said the Prince, and galloped off into the woods.

Antarah bowed. He wanted to see the wider world. He climbed hill and dale and came to the Land of Sassafras. In the palace orchard, he saw a maid with red hair who offered him a drink. ‘How do I know it is safe?’ asked Antarah, smiling. ‘I will show you,’ she said and dropped in a slice of apple. The apple flesh stayed white and he drank the water.

‘Welcome, Stranger,’ said the Duke of Sassafras. ‘Come and share our table and tell us where you are from.’

‘I am from Paspatou.’

‘Then why is your skin the colour of walnuts?’

‘My grandfather came from Sassafras and left to become the King’s champion.’

‘Then you are of royal blood.’ His eyes flicked. ‘A drink for my guest. What brings you here?’

‘I am sent to aid the Princess Betony on her journey to Paspatou.’

The Duke’s eyes darted towards a curtain. The maid with red hair came through with mead and filled his cup.

‘Do try our local spice.’ The Duke tipped something into the mead, then called for song. The maid dropped a slice of apple into his cup. It turned blue. Antarah took a sip.

He awoke in a dungeon with the maid wetting his face. ‘I am Betony. The Duke wants to keep me for himself. And you are in danger, as the rightful heir.’ Together they stole out of the palace.  ‘My horses, my dowry, will take us swiftly to Paspatou.’

Outside Paspatou the Prince was riding out with his huntsmen. When he saw Betony’s red hair he sneered and galloped away shouting to his huntsman. Betony stared.

The King was delighted with Betony. ‘Wait until you meet my son.’

The huntsman came back trembling. The Prince had tried to jump over a deep ravine. The King’s grief was great. ‘What have I to offer you? I no longer have a son.’

Within a year, Betony whispered in his ear.

‘Very well, you shall marry my champion, Antarah.’  That day the King took Antarah as his heir. His mother smiled.

Margaret Gallop: As a teacher I enjoyed reading stories to children, as a writer I love seeing where the story takes me. I live on the edge of Didcot and experiment with different forms of writing.

Margaret’s work has been published by us before: on this site you can read her winning story, Mariella and the Singing Flute, and her poems, Bees, Sour Harvest, April Wayside Blues, and Permission. Other of her works appear in our paperback and ebook anthologies, The Most Normal Town in England, CompositionsFirst Contact, Museum Collection, A Night at the Railway Inn.

Our Reader said:

This was such an enjoyable read: fantastical relief which managed to mire itself – light, somehow –  in the necessary shift of worldviews in the wake of the latest iteration of Black Lives Matter. And who doesn’t enjoy a short, sweet fairy tale?

Reader’s Choice (Stranger): El Camino del Peligro (The Road of Danger)

El Camino del Peligro (The Road of Danger)

by Amy B. Moreno

The mountain goat bus rattles along, pushing us on bowed legs, towards Huanallo, air as thin as threads. My sloshing stomach reprimands me for forgoing a steading yerba maté[1] and gulping down two cups of sugary black coffee for breakfast.

The canyon is jagged and deep, its lowest secrets hidden beneath canopy and clouds. The bus tyres scrape the very edge, sending dust and pebbles off in a scuttling freefall. The patchwork terraced fields offer a comfort blanket for my fear of heights, but I breathe uneasily. I shift away from the window, sitting on the edge of my seat, cowardly backside hanging into the central aisle.

We stop, and a passenger enters with rolls of woven estera matting under his arm. It smells sweet, like dew. He lies it down on the floor between his feet; a peaceful sleeping giant. Chickens fuss at their feathers, sending up fluff. I force my gaze forward, not down.

From the back seat, metallic music peaks out from a handheld radio, telling tinny tales of lost loves and poison and mysterious mountain words. Passengers crunch canchita[2] and chifles[3]. Hand-rolled stones filled the large gaps in the road and my vocabulary.

The rainbow lady in the seat behind strokes my fine hair, as fly-away strands whistle out through the gap-toothed window.

The bus struggles on crutches, a size too small, and limps to a stop: a row of broad men with cabeza clava de Chavín[4] faces block the road. Their formidable presence doesn’t need their accessories of glinting black guns.

At the arrival of the strangers, passengers flick their eyes from side to side and rustle their pockets of coins and worries. The radio is hidden under a shawl. A chicken squawks. My insides are liquid, and vertigo forgotten.

Two of the men force open the quivering bus door. The tallest boards, face first and shark-like. His face is featureless in the shade, like the inside of a leather bag. He points a gun high and shouts instructions I don’t understand. He walks up the aisle, staring at each person, taking his time, as if selecting – one by one.

My hands are shaking, crushed between my freezing knees.  He looks me up and down for a week and a half. My mind is like the clatter of old keyboards. His steps move on to the back of the bus. Finally, he rolls back; a steamroller in a leather jacket, crushing popcorn and pebbles. The door shut behind the men and the air returns.

“Ay, pobre gringüita, esta asutdadita,”[5] says the rainbow lady behind me, addressing everyone, and patting my shoulder. She tells me they were looking for someone – someone lucky enough not to be on this bus.  Someone unlucky enough to be the one the men are looking for.

And so, we roll on towards our destination – scraping past rocky cliff faces, along a road with hole-punched pieces missing, aware of skirting the abyss, on El Camino del Peligro.

[1] A traditional tea used to treat altitude sickness

[2] Toasted corn snack

[3] Dried banana chips

[4] Fierce stone-carved warriors

[5] Translation: “Oh, poor white girl, she’s scared.”

Amy B. Moreno writes poetry and prose for adults and children, in English, Scots, and Spanish. Twitter: @Amy_B_Moreno

Our Reader said:

I loved the description of this (to me) foreign, faraway place – the alluring strangeness of it. The adventure and the apprehension. It unpicks the theme in numerous ways, all to great effect.

 

Winner (Stranger): Stranghers

Stranghers

by Sergio

Mawddach’s mouth’s port town. George’s froths blows bless ma own. Yards over years of free explores, discovery, works, steps, journs, life shares. Not alone, always someone around to be known. On the darkest, hopeless moments left behind, ever on own, even where deep felt so. Where there were no humen, an insect, a moth, a lifeform veiling own’s, upon Hers. Above, beyond any human judgement, law or God damned known. Airs, weathers, waters, fruits, life conditions fair shared with any life form around, arounds aware, fund else’s interests, subjected to fortune’s offers, wherever meant fighting, working towards next breathed ale.

With this philosophy worked out healthier lands and seas, wherever found among Hers, life itself, so worked own wisdom, sharp smart roused wits against. Known my roots: do own best, for ever better nexts. Got often over Death, as sciences advances, Her hopes and will remain. So believed, trusted and relied, deep rooted since before made, done, born and birthed in this human shaped and dressed form I’m homed.

Despite history, human empires, wars, conquers, fights… yet found Her, submitted, exhausted, rendered to our rage, sick, sad, undervalued, betrayed from most, for God damned’ s sake… too often, too long Hers dismissed, forgotten. Wards are meant to work healthier lands and seas, not to fight Her, but to work needs and meets, out of every single mistake, aggression, offence, harm, loss … Yet we learn to share our best by assuming us among, not beyond or above Hers. Not away, apart, unknown, or long kept lost.

Last 3 years went through Hell’s, saved a good friend’s life from death, after went deep involved in someone’s troubles. She got to accept, answer and deal with outer forces calls, so high were her needs, as got to know afterwards.

Learners, we’re all learners in this always changing world we share, using own senses, not abusing but ever abused from any else’s meanwhile, Wrong’s therefore… yet to find, judge, once found their own mistakes’s prizes. Strange to Hers, “Stranghers” around, among, amused, lost, framed & marked or not… behaving as they do, while finding pure acts of natural fair wild life forms… No ones but humen get lost among false wealth and luscious, money and power based on, polluted on polluting Hers… Sick & lost they get, to longer, shorter death… yet we find new ways to help, prevent and work new ways to save.

So inmared finds me an old met mare mate, a Northern friend, long met ago on else where’s port, under elsewhere’ s Moon lights and tones.

“Hi Gio, enjoying your drink? Good to meet yah, in this terrace, no longer vesseled, old sea journed?”

“No, Jon, left seas long ago, shared table?”

He agrees chaired bag and search for services. A waiter comes closer to note last order: “Sea & Lands Omn Home Meal served for  two, please, with whole bread rations…”

Sergio: Born in1974’s Barcelona, Highlanders’ s Grandson, having moved to the North after the last Spanish Civil War. Brilliant student, international works, green projects promoter, sailor… 

Our Reader said:

Immediately, I needed to know whose voice this was. Strange and stranger, nostalgic and matter of fact, sweeping and deep. This prose-poem, which flits around so many linchpins of whole lives and stories, so many snatches of truth and memory, leaves you no time for breath, no time for pity – only curiosity, only a thirst for life with all its cud and hardness and light.

Reader’s Choice for March-April (Fundamental Change): When We Lost It

When We Lost It

Wherein the ‘fundamental change’ is loss.

by Nora Nadjarian

The time when my mother lost her wedding ring at the beach: it sank into the sand and we looked and looked and couldn’t find it.

The time I lost my virginity and had to hide the pain and everything, even the blood between my legs.

The time we lost the cat, meaning that the cat died because it was poisoned.

The time my nephew lost his tooth.

The time my father started losing his memory and asked more questions than he could handle.

The time my grandmother lost her vision and walked blindly down narrow alleys.

The time we lost a great leader.

The time I lost a library book and had to pay a fine.

The time I lost my mother tongue.

The time the world map lost a few of its countries.

The time we lost our freedom.

The time we lost our peace of mind and a piece of our mind.

The time the author lost the plot and started writing things we couldn’t follow.

The time they lost their job and their income.

The time a woman realised she’d lost her looks.

The time we lost a court case.

The time my friend lost her will to live.

The time a colleague lost a battle against illness.

The time we lost God.

Nora Nadjarian is an award-winning Cypriot poet and writer. She has had poetry and short fiction published internationally.

Our Reader said:

An unusual entry, I was moved by this catalogue of items lost. It offers a relatable mixture of personal and societal losses punctuating a person’s life. Reading it felt like an act of remembrance.

Reader’s Choice for March-April (Fundamental Change): It’s All in the Mind

It’s All in the Mind

Way back in the mists of time, the medical world explored the brain intensively, too afraid of the complexities of the rest of the physical body, so modern medicine evolved and thrived around psychiatry, psychoanalysis, psychotherapy, anything psycho, to the detriment of physical ailments.

by Jan Brown

She seethed as she left the surgery. It was that or cry. In the safety of her car, Sarah allowed herself the brief comfort of banging her head against the steering wheel before taking a deep breath, mentally giving herself a shake and heading home, teeth gritted.

She should have known. This happened too often so why return for more humiliation? It was obvious: she was in pain and needed professional help. She couldn’t fully grasp why they wouldn’t help her.

She felt like a time-waster. Attention-seeker, hypochondriac… it was implicit in the system. No one should be made to feel like that. Once again, she sensed her GP was out of his depth and simply didn’t know how to treat her when so few options were available.

Dr Franks had greeted her warmly. She’d picked at a nail, reluctant to meet his eye. A wave of shame flushed her face and she’d stumbled on her words, saying little of what she’d planned about the severe pains in her joints, which had been getting worse over the past months. When she tentatively mentioned arthritis, he warned her against self-diagnosis so she offered her hands for him to see. Of course there was nothing to see, it was all hidden pain, and he gave her aching joints only a cursory examination, much to her frustration. After a few generic questions, he concluded it should go away, given time.

When she’d asked about a referral, they reached the crux of the matter. Had it been an eating disorder, depression, there’d be an immediate referral for NHS two-week triage to get the right treatment quickly. But it was difficult with physical matters because there were so many variables and there just weren’t the resources. Yes, he could put her on a waiting list but it would be a good six months – by which time he hoped she’d be feeling better.

She didn’t share his optimism and dared to ask why things were so skewed towards mental health but she didn’t expect much of an answer. In fact, Dr Franks ignored the question, suggesting instead that she try paracetamol and warm baths. He even suggested mindfulness might help. After the usual exhortation to focus on exercise and good diet and a half-hearted invitation to return in three months if she didn’t feel any better, she retreated into her cocoon of misery.

This was exactly why she hadn’t come earlier. If she’d had a panic attack, she wouldn’t have hesitated, but doctors had no real idea how to handle physical conditions. The injustice made her despair. How ironic that, if she reached the end of her inner resources and resorted to drastic measures, she’d soon get admitted to hospital. It seemed like only then would someone listen.

Defeated, she fled through the waiting room, praying no one would notice her, fraud that she apparently was.

She would not cry.

Jan Brown enjoys toying with flash fiction and has had some success, which keeps her trying. You can read her past work published on this site as follows:

Finding the Light in the Dark – Reader’s Choice for our 2019 life-writing competition, ‘All About Me’

Once in a Lifetime – a flash fiction piece on the theme of ‘key’, from May 2018.

An Unforgivable Act of Generosity – a piece short fiction that also appeared in our 2018 anthology, Compositions, available to buy here.

Our Reader said:

I thought this was a really insightful premise. Its sheer implausibility, and the subsequent parallels with our own reality, serve to highlight the limitations of current attitudes towards mental health.

Reader’s Choice for March-April (Fundamental Change): The Language of Flowers

The Language of Flowers

Wherein unrequited love makes one fatally ill.

by Shehrazade Zafar-Arif

When Layla finished vomiting, the toilet bowl was swimming with flowers.

Her throat ached from choking out fat red petals and fine sharp thorns. Pebbles sank into the water, glittering in the harsh bathroom light like some macabre art installation.

She imagined vines ensnaring her organs, thorns stabbing her lungs – like the diagrams in biology textbooks, the silhouette of a garden growing in the body.

It had been inevitable. She belonged to the most at-risk demographic for unrequited love: twenties, single, living alone. She was destined to be another number in the death toll.

*

The NHS website advised: if you are suffering from Agape Distress Syndrome, see your GP. Symptoms include stomach pains, breathing difficulties, and vomiting plants, dirt and stones.

If you cough up blood, call 999 immediately. 

She left home feeling like Ophelia in her final scene, spitting out flowers and distributing them: there’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance…

*

A poster on the train showed a woman throwing up violets. ONE IN SEVEN PEOPLE SUFFER FROM ADS, it read, with a helpline number.

Funny, Layla thought, how it was always a woman in the awareness campaigns, when the disease itself didn’t discriminate. Everyone loved the scene in Pride and Prejudice where Mr Darcy coughed up thorns while confessing he loved Elizabeth, though back then they’d believed only weak men caught ADS. Flower Sickness, they’d called it. A pretty name.

Her stomach turned. Suddenly she was on her knees, coughing and spluttering, a shower of dirt and pebbles. Passengers gave her a wide berth, as if love was contagious.

*

Lying in her hospital bed, Layla thought about Renaissance paintings of Christ, petals dripping from his lips out of love for humanity. Reality was uglier. She was hooked to an IV drip, unable to eat on her own, on a cocktail of painkillers.

Her organs were failing, strangled by leaves and stems. Soon her lungs would stop functioning, and then her heart.

Layla glanced at her phone.

“Expecting someone?”

In the next bed, Ellie was reading a magazine; the cover model held a rose scandalously between her teeth. Social media was probably lambasting the appropriation.

“Aren’t you?” Layla retorted.

Ellie had woken up spitting leaves and realised that her husband had fallen out of love with her. He visited daily, would sit staring helplessly at Ellie as if willing himself: I love her. I love her. It was the only cure.

Prevention was the best precaution. People took antidepressants to dull the neurotransmitters in their brains that triggered love. There were villages in East Africa where adolescents were blindfolded until they married. Love was humanity’s biggest enemy.

She’d asked about the other possible cure. Unlikely, the doctors said.

Adrian hadn’t texted to ask after her. And here Layla was, dying over him. She willed herself with every fibre: I hate him. I hate him. 

For a moment, she dared to hope. Then she doubled over, gagging, and it landed in her hands: a perfectly formed, blood-stained orchid.

Shehrazade Zafar-Arif is an aspiring writer who grew up in Pakistan and moved to London to study English Literature.

Our Reader said:

This story was really in the spirit of the theme and the vivid, absurd imagery hammered home the aching and consuming pain of unrequited love.

Winner for March-April (Fundamental Change): It came from a far-off land

It came from a far-off land

Wherein covid-19 has reached the UK.

by Paul Chiswick

It came from a far-off land. Days after Christmas. You can’t see it, smell it, taste it. It can find you no matter where you are. It has a name, a name I’ve never heard before. One I will never forget as long as I live. If I live much longer. The experts who know about these things insist it is not to be taken lightly, not treated disrespectfully, certainly not ignored. The politicians (who are but children in the matter) sensing how headstrong Homo Sapiens can be, have instructed: stay home.

So I have. In my one-bedroom flat, high above the pitted tarmac and scorched grass. With my rescue terrier, Rambo, dodgy fridge, widescreen TV and Peter Kay. Lots of Peter Kay to make me laugh.

Now that I’m locked down, I’ve become more observant, taking time to enjoy what I see from my window.

Like . . .

The sky. Cloudless blue and intact. Normally it’s crowded with aircraft leaving a web of white cotton vapour trails. The nurse tells me she hasn’t seen or heard a plane in weeks.

The birds. Collared doves, blackbirds, magpies and ravens chasing each other, flitting from penknifed ash to wild hawthorn to twisted oak. They’re a rare sight on this estate. The nurse tells me she’s never seen them as bright.

The river. Snaking through the nearby park, cutting it in two. A dumping ground for plastic bags and bottles, beer cans, crisp packets, sweet wrappers, and things too disgusting to mention. The nurse tells me she’s never seen it so clean, so self-healing.

Up here, the building has no opening windows. (The council fears the suicides, you see.) The air inside has become a little stale. I’d like to open the flat’s door, let in a little fresh air. Not for too long mind, you never know who might walk in. Not that anyone would now I’m self-isolating. The nurse tells me she’s never tasted such pure air outside.

I haven’t spoken to a neighbour for weeks. The nurse is the only person who talks to me. Short statements, simple answers. She’s from Glasgow. It’s hard to understand her through her white face mask. A bonny lass, as they say in those parts. A key worker.

Since it came, I’ve learned new words and phrases, ones that make me shiver with fear. I wish the nurse would put a reassuring arm around my shoulder, but she won’t. Not until the curve peaks.

Yesterday, the nurse said more that I have heard her say before. She said to every downside there is an upside. That this disease, terrible as it is, is giving humankind some overdue lessons. Vehicles have almost disappeared from the roads; children and parents are rediscovering each other; people are learning how to cook and entertain themselves; personal hygiene has become important; money and status don’t seem so significant anymore.

Then she coughed. A jagged, body-shaking cough.

She’s late. Two hours late.

I wonder where she can be?

Paul Chiswick: After two careers retired in 2009. Now writer of fiction and independent publisher helping others to publish their writing.

Our Reader said:

With the theme of “fundamental change”, it was not surprising to find so many stories expressing the one we are all currently living through. For me, this piece stood out among them as a gentle, understated snapshot of the story of the moment. We get a strong sense of the protagonist’s voice and their limited, second-hand experience through the eyes of the nurse.

Reader’s Choice for Jan-Feb (cloud): Wave Cloud

Wave Cloud

by Jessica Joy

Consciousness tugs at the hem of my dream, an impatient child. I feel warm breath in my ear. The reality of another day seeps into my thoughts like an oil slick. It contaminates my dreamworld with sticky, smothering devastation.

“Mummy,” she whispers, her fingers stroking my cheek. I want to bury my face in the pillow until it suffocates me. But I open my eyes and smile at her.

She must be quiet in the mornings. I can sense her need to talk. She simmers like an old-fashioned kettle and I brace myself for the shrill whistle of all her thoughts. I bribe her with promises of my time. She skips out of the room. Squeaky voices of a cartoon crescendo and diminish as she fiddles with the TV remote.

I phone my mother. I have interrupted her. The rapier-point replies stab at my heart. I have no energy to parry. If I plead, she would concede to a couple of hours respite from the child. But I will not beg. I resent her inability to hear my silent screams for help behind the small talk. She’ll see me another day. More bribery with promises of time.

Dragging myself out of bed, I pull on some clothes and slouch into the kitchen. The cloying walls of the musty flat make it harder to fight the compulsion to go back to bed, curl up foetal in the warm embrace of a duvet and just listen to the ringing in my ears.

The child waits already dressed. Her expectation is palpable. Resigned, coat and keys in hand, we take the short walk to the beach.

The sea is calm and the smell of seaweed bitter and briny. Tiny waves glint in the sunlight and mimic the shine of the wet pebbles at the shoreline. The uniform ripples tease us. It is as though we could walk out, ankle-deep, for miles until the seabed drops away. I wonder how it would feel to invite the salty water into my lungs, like a welcome guest.

My child slips her warm hand into mine and points at a beautiful cloud formation, like waves, moving across the horizon.

I tell her the sea and the sky are best friends; such good friends, it’s hard to tell where the sea ends and the sky starts. Often, they wear matching outfits and sometimes their colours are so different yet so beautiful together; like today’s brown sea and grey sky.  Occasionally, they rage against each other with spits and blusters, but they never leave each other. They are always together on the horizon.

Today the sea was just too tired and the sky said to her, “Don’t worry, go back to sleep and I’ll make the waves for you.” And that’s what she’s doing. Lucky sea. To have a friend like that.

We crunch back up the beach, hand in hand.

“Mummy,” she says, “When I grow up, I’ll do the waves for you.”

I squeeze her hand.

Jessica Joy is a fantasy writer with stories (various genres) published in several anthologies. She has won Faber Academy’s Quickfic competition.

Our Reader said:

Beautiful, poignant, it feels very real. Well worth a read.