You are on page 1of 32

The Art of Tying Knots

Rosie Garland Ian Gray

short fiction from Lancashire and Cumbria

Gill Nicholson Sarah Fiske David Gaffney
Click here to open the book

Contents
Foreword Andy Darby Andy Darby 03

Rosie Garland Look Both Ways Ian Gray Hangman
Gill Nicholson Afterwards The Box

04
10

15 18

Sarah Fiske Burnt Porridge at Versailles
Go Forward Go Back

20
25 29

1

David Gaffney You and You Alone Celia’s Mum’s Rat

This edition published in Great Britain by Flaxbooks, 26 Sun Street, Lancaster, LA1 1EW. Tel 01524 62166. www.litfest.org All works © their respective authors The Art of Tying Knots (flax003) © Flaxbooks All rights reserved; no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without prior permission of the publisher and individual creators. Flaxbooks is the publishing imprint of Litfest Lancaster and District Festival Ltd trading as Litfest. Registered in England Company Number: 1494221 Charity Number: 510670 Editor: Sarah Hymas Design and layout: Martin Chester at Litfest Photography: Jonathan Bean

Contents Go Forward Go Back

Acknowledgements ‘Afterwards’ by Gill Nicholson won the Word Market ESSP Competition 2005

2

Foreword
Let’s assume you’re having the usual sort of day and you’re feeling relatively well balanced and The Art of Tying Knots drops as daintily as a computer file can on to your desktop. You open it with a click and begin reading, and as you do so your head inclines slightly. By the end of these stories I find myself describing them, or the sensation of experiencing them, as off-kilter, charmingly imbalanced or unbalancing. Do these stories from writers from Cumbria and Lancashire set out to unbalance? Or are writers who live or work here imbalanced simply by existing in our little corner of England? Or is it Flax, putting books into computer files instead of onto paper? Whatever the reason, being set off-kilter by Rosie Garland’s ‘Look Both Ways’ is immediately invigorating. Then frustration sets in, with Ian Gray’s ‘Hangman’, as we are introduced to a young pyromaniac awaiting judgement with a disturbing lack of hope. In Gill Nicholson’s ‘Afterwards we observe how just one side of a relationship is forced to move on as a consequence of bereavement and in ‘The Box’ another kind of leaving is planned. The title, The Art of Tying Knots, is fully earned with Sarah Fiske’s delightfully knotty ‘Burnt Porridge at Versailles’. And without being spiteful one can only hope that your exs never find love as it is found in David Gaffney’s ‘You and You Alone’, as he takes unbalanced to a new level. As you read the stories in The Art of Tying Knots the characters quickly unravel into your world and meeting them may set you off balance for days. So you’ve been warned, read this and you too will be askew. Andy Darby Artistic Director

Contents Go Forward Go Back

3

Rosie Garland

Read Look Both Ways

Contents Go Forward Go Back

Hear Rosie read from Look Both Ways

4

Read Rosie’s Profile

Rosie Garland

Look Both Ways
Everyone deserves an interesting exit. Better than a bare-gums, blurred-eyes, arthritic-fingers drift into the void. I’m filling the tank with unleaded: shake the drops off the nozzle and head out faster than the five miles per hour I’m supposed to stick to. I slow down on the slip road. Stop and let him in, ignore his ‘Birmingham, please?’ Later, when it’s too late, I wonder whether he said that at all. “Yeah,” I say, not taking my eye off the white lines. “I hate the M6.” “Thanks for picking me up.” “Yeah.” “I’d only been there five minutes.” “Yeah.” “My lucky day. I need one.” He sniffs, picks at his cuffs. “Downwardly mobile?” “Pardon?” “Should have said ‘what’. Posh. Trying to hide it.” “What?” “That’s better. Your camouflage isn’t working. I can spot you a mile off.” His forehead corrugates in the rear-view mirror while I tailgate four drivers hogging the middle lane at exactly seventy miles an hour. One by one they obey my flashing headlights and huddle back into the inside lane. “You said, I hate the M6,” he says eventually. “I do.” “But we’re on the M1.” “So?” “Um. Nothing.” “I haven’t got a problem with the M1. You got a problem?” “No.” “Good. What’s that smell?”

Contents Go Forward Go Back

5

Rosie Garland

Contents Go Forward Go Back

6

“Pardon? What?” “You smoking?” “No.” “Sure?” “I don’t smoke. It’s a bad habit.” “Just don’t smoke in my car, Ok?” “Ok.” I balance my fingertips on the rim of the steering wheel at ten to two. “It’s always ten to two. Why isn’t it ten past ten?” “What?” “Better.” “Uh?” “Now you’re getting it. Y’know. You said ‘what’ when I asked a question. Then grunted. Even better.” I take the exit to Leicester Forest Services so fast we judder over the hatched-off area. “It makes my lip sweat, doing that.” “Christ,” he squeaks. “You’re not the only one. Is this Deliverance or something?” “No. You sure ain’t got a pretty mouth, boy. Go on, say it for me.” “What?” “Got it in one. I like you.” We get out of the car and I slap him on the back. He coughs the whole time it takes us to walk from the bottom end of the car park to the whooshing doors. I take the opportunity to tell him a story. “These services are the biggest pile of crap in this entire pile of crap we call a country. Bring back Thatcher,” I say, sneaking a look at his response, but he’s still hacking his lungs up. I’m lying, but all artists are liars. “Even worse than Watford Gap,” I continue. “That song may have been true once, but not

Rosie Garland

Contents Go Forward Go Back

7

any more.” He unbends, looks at me with watery eyes. “The song?” I gasp. “You don’t know the song? Nothing like a good tune to cure a broken heart.” I power up as the doors open for us. I love a big entrance, as my grandfather used to say. Watford Gap, Watford Gap, plate of grease and a load of crap. I flick the ends of my footballer perm at the man selling RAC membership. He smiles back. A kid stares until mother slaps its face sideways. “Mum, why’s that man got lady’s hair?” it squeals. “They can’t help themselves,” I say to my new friend. But his head ducks: embarrassed. Suddenly, I hate the way people like him crawl into me. The smile; the thoughtless happiness, the way he’s young and can’t wait to get older. Trickling down my throat, sloshing against the walls of my stomach in an alkaline tide. Makes my knuckles go into overload. You could use me to clamp illegally parked vehicles. I loathe him so loudly he must be able to hear. “Don’t say a word.” I’m still generous. I give warnings. “I wasn’t going to.” “That’s four. Words.” The breeder drags her brat towards the shop. It owls its head at me for as long as it can. I mime wringing necks and it finds its mother’s skirt and takes a good long sniff. “Coffee,” I say, filled with sudden, guilty affection. “I’m buying.” They only have doll’s house size pots, so I get us two each. I ask for real milk, not that shit in plastic thimbles, and the serving bint looks like I’m asking for plutonium. My comradely warmth lasts the first pot and most of the way through

Rosie Garland

Contents Go Forward Go Back

8

the second. He’s pecking at his cup like a sparrow. “What the fuck’s the matter with you?” I say it gently, but it still makes mouths purse up and children giggle. “I just don’t like the taste of coffee,” he whispers. “I’m sorry. Really. Look, I’ll just get another lift. Ok?” He scrapes his chair back. “I’m taking you.” “It’s ok. Really.” “I said, I’m taking you. Don’t rock the boat.” He’s too weasel to make a big fuss. I watch him looking around at the bad-tempered breeders and their suede-headed throwback brats. A boy on the next table starts to bawl. His father hunches over him, clothes-pegs the tiny nostrils shut, clamps his palm over the gaping mouth. The wailing hiccups to a stop. Dad hangs on a few more seconds, then unclips thumb and forefinger. The kid’s eyes dilate in moist adoration. “I’m your only way out of here,” I beam. “You know it.” I look at him for a long, affectionate minute. “You finished?” I nod at his mug. “Oh,” he says. “Yes.” “You’ve got places to be.” “No hurry.” “Well, I have.” “Oh. Sure.” He follows me to the exit, pauses on the ribbed mat no-one is bothering to wipe their feet on. It has started to rain. “You got something against water?” “No. I just need to go to the toilet.” “It’s the rain. I’ll wait.” He’s gone a long time.

Rosie Garland

Contents Go Forward Go Back

9

“I couldn’t go,” he says. The car welcomes us by opening the first time I point the electronic fob at it. “It needs new batteries. These are fucked.” I show my teeth to him so he knows it’s a joke. “I worry about you,” I say as he squeezes into the back seat. “Like, you’re not even putting on your seatbelt. Clunk click. Though you’re too young to remember that one.” He fiddles with the strap. Stops. “Look,” he says. “I need to walk around for a bit. Carsick.” I lean into the back and snap the buckle shut. “I’m taking you to Birmingham.” “But we’re on the M1.” We leave the car park and glide down the slip road. Mirror, signal, manoeuvre. “I don’t want to go there,” he whines. I pull onto the hard shoulder. Stretch over the passenger seat and push the door open. “You’re not a prisoner.” He snatches air in small tight puffs. I lift the handle at the side of the seat and it leaps forward on metal runners and hunches into the footwell. “Go on then.” “It’s raining,” he says. “I know,” I say. “It’s not like I’ve got handcuffs.” He crumples into a corner of himself. I wait for the length of time it would take to drink a can of cola, then pull the door closed. There is a scatter of raindrops on the inside of the window. “Birmingham,” I say, and put the car into gear. “It’s a good place when you get to know it.”

Ian Gray

Read Hangman

Contents Go Forward Go Back

Hear Ian read from Hangman

10

Read Ian’s Profile

Ian Gray

Hangman
Last lesson of the day I was to supervise the Unit. The Unit fulfilled a number of functions. Most days it was a punishment room where kids who had misbehaved spent a few hours doing mundane writing tasks. Other times it was a ‘cooler’ where kids who had lost control, temper, a fight, were held for half an hour to calm down, lick their wounds and consider their place in the universe. Sometimes it wasn’t used at all. So, an hour supervising the Unit could either be a blessing or a curse. Supervising one kid, no matter how challenging was never really a problem, but the Unit held a maximum of six kids – five in enclosed cubicles and one at the supervisor’s table – and in the last lesson of the day, that was a unique kind of purgatory as the sixty minutes crawled by. On this day I’m talking about however, I wasn’t expecting much trouble. The senior kids were out on some visit and it was still too early in the term for the others to have kicked up much of a fuss. I opened the door to find a young Biology teacher sitting at the table with a small boy with wild eyes and a flushed face. Clearly he had just arrived from some crisis. “He won’t sit in a cubicle, but he’s a bit calmer now, aren’t you Cain?” said my colleague. Cain simply glowered. “Mr. L will be back for him in a while,” the young teacher went on, looking intently at Cain, “he has to make some calls first.” Mr. L! Nick Leonidas, also known as Leo, Nick the Greek or Old Nick, Pastoral Head and hatchet man. Nick normally only dealt with the Upper School so Cain must have stepped out of line in a big way. I looked at him. As if sensing my unspoken question, Cain spoke up, with a hint of bravado, “I set fire to the gym, didn’t I.” “I’ll leave you to it, then.” The young teacher picked up some folders and left the room.

Contents Go Forward Go Back

11

Ian Gray

Contents Go Forward Go Back

12

Cain sat back in his chair, stretching his little legs in front of him. He exhaled loudly and appeared to relax. “Alright Cain?” “I’m gonna be perm’nently excluded ain’t I?” It wasn’t really a question, but I answered him anyway, “dunno, Cain. Not up to me.” He looked at me balefully and shook his head in disbelief at my naivety. “Got form fer fire startin’ ain’t I? On a red card an’ all.” He stood up, pushing the chair over as he did so. I straightened up, expecting him to make a run for it, but he just wandered over to the window. There wasn’t much of a view, just the boiler room. “You have to sit down Cain, you’re not allowed to leave your seat. You should be in a cubicle really.” He turned away and flung himself into a cubicle. He began to drum his feet against the wall. It was very irritating. But that was the Unit; kids were sent there because they were irritating. “He’s takin’ his time ain’t he?” he said at last. “Who?” I said. “Him! Leo, Mr. L!” “Like Miss said, he has some phone calls to make.” “Nah, he’s lettin’ me sweat. Thinks I’ll start to get scared.” He lifted his head to look at me. “You won’t get out of here when the bell goes. We’ll both have to wait for ‘im. Like I said, he likes to keep yer waitin’.” I nodded as if I were complicit in the arrangement, but began to wonder, like Cain, just how long would Mr. L take to make his calls, and whom he was calling. Suddenly, Cain was out of the cubicle and was rummaging in some drawers.

Ian Gray

Contents Go Forward Go Back

13

“Cain, you’re making a real mess. Can you put all that in the bin please?” “No. I didn’t put it there. I’m not picking it up. It’s not my mess.” “I know it’s not your mess, but you threw it on the floor ...” “People shouldn’t put rubbish in drawers. That’s what the bins are for.” For someone who tried to burn down the school, I thought, he’s very fussy about litter. “Can we play Hangman?” “Yeah, if you like.” He riffled through some sheets of notepaper and selected one that wasn’t creased or covered in scribble. He drew the dashes, and the beginnings of a scaffold. “Hey, whaddya doin’?” I protested. “You get a clue and I can start to hang ya.” “Ok, what’s the clue?” “It’s a film star.” “Man or woman?” “Man. That’s two clues.” He drew another stroke on the scaffold. I began by working through the vowels, and he entered an e and an o. I suggested some common consonants – t, s, l, and he gleefully finished the scaffold and began work on the condemned stick figure. None of my letters fitted, apparently, and he went on drawing the unfortunate figure, even adding extraneous detail, such as a beard and spectacles and somewhat whimsically, a top hat. At last, he couldn’t think of more details to add to the drawing and none of my letters seemed to fit. I could sense him getting restless, frustrated with me. “What time is it?” he asked. “Quarter past. Ten minutes to go.” A kind of lethargy seemed to settle over him, and he sprawled across the table, apparently sulking. I wanted to keep things light.

Ian Gray

Contents Go Forward Go Back

14

“Ok, I give in. Who is it?” He filled in the gaps, but I couldn’t read what he’d written. It made no sense, but Cain was used to people being unable to read what he’d written. “It’s James Bond!” I looked at the piece of paper, the crude drawing and the reversed letters – cheyms bon it seemed to say. “Of course!” I exclaimed, “but does he count as a film star? He’s not real is he?” Cain frowned. This was clearly too much for him, so I decided to move on quickly. “Ok, my go.” “Do a footballer.” I thought for a moment, then drew the dashes, “Stevie Gerrard!” said Cain almost before I had finished. I shook my head. “Wayne Rooney, then! Joe Cole!” “Whoa, whoa! You’re supposed to get the letters, not guess it in one go!” “Is it though?” “No! You’ve had three guesses. I should hang you for that. Now, go for the letters. Try the vowels first – a,e,i ... you know!” Maybe he did, and maybe he didn’t. But he made a stab at it, every so often guessing wildly at the name of a player as it came to him. The little drawing of the scaffold and its victim accumulated more detail. Much to Cain’s delight I added struts and trapdoors, fingers and buttons. At last, as I could think of nothing more to add, and was about to draw the fatal rope, the door behind us opened. We both turned to see Nick Leonidas standing in the doorway. “Right Cain, come on lad,” said Nick briskly, but not unkindly. Cain got to his feet and walked towards the door. Nick looked at me over Cain’s head. “Thank you sir, I’ve got him now, you can go.” Cain turned to me and smiled nervously, “See ya, sir.” “See you, Cain,” I replied. I wondered if I would.

Gill Nicholson

Read Afterwards Read The Box

Contents Go Forward Go Back

Hear Gill read from Afterwards
Read Gill’s Profile

15

Gill Nicholson

Afterwards
Afterwards Steph knew she had to think about clearing out his things. Everybody said it was a necessary part of moving on, what you did once the ashes were scattered. She’d taken Will in the urn, tipped him into the tarn when no one else was around. To make sure the current caught him, she waded in wearing beach shoes, staggered up to her waist holding Will aloft. The ashes floated away, their trail of scum like cast willow blossoms. She filled the urn with water and sank it too but wished she hadn’t, because after she clambered out she saw it lying there. She hoped it would sink into the mud, the evidence buried. But no one had seen her. She squelched back to the car sobbing unrestrainedly, dried and changed out of her wet clothes wailing and cursing. Then she drove home with the radio on full blast. Steph was still undecided about getting rid of Will’s stuff. Why shouldn’t she just leave everything until she needed space for something else? People would not like it; the embarrassment of a dead man’s jacket, his baseball cap and panama on the hallstand. Steph did not want empty pegs. Will’s shoes were kept on shelves in the utility room. They were going mouldy. She couldn’t take them to Oxfam. His slippers were imprinted with his toes and heels. It would be easier to start upstairs. She tackled his wardrobe, hearing his exasperation at its old-fashioned awkwardness as she wrestled with the hangers. Without sorting them, she bundled shirts into a bin bag for the charity shop. The boys wouldn’t want any. Will’s medication, stored in the bottom, she popped from their foil blisters, not looking at the calendar of future days they had promised. She poured them into the lavatory bowl expecting the gushing water to sweep them away but it took three goes. Then she peered inside the wardrobe for a final check. But for fluff it was empty. Though it matched their bedstead, Steph wanted to be rid of the wardrobe. That night she climbed into bed just as conscious of Will’s absence

Contents Go Forward Go Back

16

Gill Nicholson

Contents Go Forward Go Back

now as she had been the night after he died. His pillows were stacked up on his side. It was no use jettisoning them to sleep with cold space on both sides. She would part with the whole suite. In the morning she would ask the boys about the unwanted furniture and find herself a single bed. There was a mess after the removal men took the bedroom furniture to the auction. Dust was no problem but the unpainted space revealed on the wall was. Will had not been able to push the paintbrush behind the wardrobe. If you’ll clear everything out first, I’ll shift it when I feel better … finish the job off properly, he’d promised. She had agreed but the moment never arrived. There was no paint to match the ice-blue walls; she’d checked all the tins stacked in the garage. She set about Will’s bedside chest of drawers next, stuffing his underclothes into plastic bags with the KY jelly, and cufflinks he’d never used. There, underneath his socks, she found more pills; not a few day’s worth, but beta blockers going back months. Her heart thumped and a cold clamminess filtered into every pore of her skin. She shook her head; refused to allow the questions entry. Swiftly, she went downstairs and out into the garden. This time it would have to be burial, under the carpet of grass. She dug ferociously making a small deep pit, not caring about the mice and moles. Her single bed was delivered just as she stamped the last sod into place. She made it, struggling with double sheets and duvet. Steph had thought the blank where the wardrobe had stood was a sign of Will’s optimism. Now it shouted another story. She stared at the patch of old wallpaper: huge pink and red roses, gaudy, sentimental. They had both hated it. She would have to see to it; cover it up somehow.

17

Gill Nicholson

The Box
Nat was panting, his face only inches from Christopher’s. “You okay?” he whispered. Christopher opened his eyes and rolled away still clutching the cowslips from the cliff-ledge. “Fuckin’ hell! Your arm!” Nat was kneeling, pointing. Christopher looked. A dirty cut oozed blood. “Better not let your mum see that,” he said. Back home, Christopher thrust the flowers at his mother but she saw the blood and gripped his wrist instead. “You’ve been climbing again with that Nathan.” She fingered the wound. Christopher bit on his lip. “This needs cleaning. Stand still, I’ll get something to put on it.” She rummaged in the cupboard for tissues and disinfectant. “Didn’t I tell you to be careful?” “It’s nothing,” Christopher said. “It’s not nothing. I can’t do with it, not any more. You and Nathan … God knows what you’ll do next.” She looked distraught. Christopher gnawed at his fingernail. His mother threw the dirty tissues in the pedal bin and turned to face him. Christopher stepped back. “You haven’t forgotten we’re going to Grandpa’s?” she said. “Your father wants to leave straight after tea. Go and get the things you want from your room.” The cowslips lay wilting on the table. Jenny’s bedroom door was locked. None of the games he used to take to Grandpa’s would be any good without her, although she’d been a crybaby when she lost. If only Nat could come. The journey took hours. There was too much room on the back seat. Christopher leant forward, close to his mother’s head. He studied the first grey hairs. Nat’s mother had hers dyed. Blonde. His father cleared his throat. “Your mother and I have been thinking ... it’s time you got away from home ... met up with boys from different ...

Contents Go Forward Go Back

18

Gill Nicholson

Contents Go Forward Go Back

backgrounds.” He must be talking about staying at Grandpa’s. “We’ve decided it’s time you went to a really good school; you’ll get an excellent education and mix with … well, interesting and intelligent boys … and girls come to that.” His mother’s shoulders were rigid; she did not turn her head. Christopher sank back. Next morning Grandpa was in the workshop sliding his hand over junky pieces of furniture, making paths through dust. “Your mother says you’ll need a big box, with a good lock, for boarding school. How about this?” Stains and scratches covered an old mahogany sideboard. Christopher said nothing. “Well, have a look at this.” Grandpa held a tiny box. Christopher stroked the wood. “Beeswax,” Grandpa said. Christopher looked inside and sniffed. It smelled of pencils. “That’s neat,” he said. “Keep it.” Grandpa closed the lid. “It’s yours, just to remind you that this ...” he patted the old sideboard, “will look as good as that when it’s made into your big box.” Christopher frowned. “Can you make it so’s it’s light inside … when the lid’s fastened down?” “Light inside! Hadn’t thought of that one.” Grandpa cleared his throat. “Tell you what, ventilation holes … each side. That should do it.” He put his arm around Christopher’s shoulders. “And you’ll have the key, to open it and shut it just as you want.”

19

Sarah Fiske

Contents Go Forward Go Back

Read Burnt Porridge at Versailles
Read Sarah’s Profile

20

Sarah Fiske

Burnt Porridge at Versailles
My mother, Lady Jervaux, ran a circus, and her mother before her, and greatgrandmother Le Dodo before that. I have been tracing this maternal line back. Back to times when female circuses were performed in the throats of caverns, the hum of forests – even the swashy brine of seabeds. But this is no time for imparting mysteries of the female psyche. All I will say is I have information in my possession that is older than the Dead Sea Scrolls – older than theory, or time. Evidence of my genetic inheritance which testifies to the fact that my own family – my female line – are descended neither from the pink and white chastity of Eve, nor some glubby life form. I have no wish to challenge the concept of evolution. Quite the contrary. It is clear to me that the bulk of humankind did crawl from the sea. And – oh so slowly, barely an ounce of initiative between them – mate with monkeys. I just happen to know that my own ancestors did not. My family stepped straight – fully formed, upright and breathing – into immaculately vowelled life. When Mummy’s great aunt, Dolly Bognor, reached the summit of Everest in 1900, equipped only with a knapsack, Thermos flask, and the plus fours of a man she had slain at the source of the Nile in 1860, she was overwhelmed by such an acute sense of dullness, she took out a scouting knife and etched the word ‘bugger’ into her palm. This incident played dreadfully on the minds of three generations of Royals. Old Widow-Weeds dying of envy in 1901. And thirty-five years later grandson George rasping “Bugger Bognor” as his embalmers unpacked their bags. Dolly Bognor had winning ways, nutcracking thighs and unstoppable appetites. In short, she could twist any man, woman, or beast of the field around her little finger. At the Great Exhibition

Contents Go Forward Go Back

21

Sarah Fiske

Contents Go Forward Go Back

22

of 1851, she had pole-vaulted Crystal Palace naked, with three hundred pink flamingos salivating in her wake. Have you ever considered how much more economic and efficient it is to be a person of small stature? Dolly Bognor was fifty inches in her stout shoes. My family are all compact. We can sit four to the back seat of most jalopies – and still have oodles of legroom. Mummy always used to say that the tall should be taxed in times of war. They cost so much more in spam and shoe leather. She wrote constantly to The Times about it. And I think I would have to agree with her. When I watch cat-walking models today, I think – all right, you’re tall. But what’s the point of you? What does your height have to do with the price of fish? So much of life as we are taught it, is back to front or inside out. Mummy always insisted we wore any clothes Nanny Gravelax had made for us, inside out. She said gratitude depended on it. That to conceal those hours of painstaking stitching would be a gross disservice to an old woman already half blind and crippled by arthritis. We girls were thus the butt of constant ridicule. And my father forever complaining that his daughters wore rags and looked state-educated. Each Michaelmas, Daddy would hoist us down through the pantry hatch into the thundering bowels of the house, to meet the boiler men – a precaution against them mistaking us for their own offspring, and perhaps mislaying us in the complex central heating system. Mummy confided in me, quite recently, that Daddy also wanted to acquaint them with our inordinate plainness – hoping it would deter any thoughts of beastliness, or profiteering from white slavery. When I suggested a little huffily to Mummy that Jocasta and Cornelia might be somewhat stodgy, but I had never thought of us younger ones – Imogen, Lilith and myself – as entirely plain, she roared with laughter. “Darling!” she cried, embracing me, “you’re simply hideous!”

Sarah Fiske

Contents Go Forward Go Back

23

My sister, Imo, has carried on the circus line. She performs around the Bermuda Triangle in the ark she excavated in the Caucasus. Sadly her troops of performing pigs keep expiring on her. Her whole life is one long neardeath experience. Mummy’s philosophical, saying in one breath “poor old Imo” and the next “well, she won’t go short of bacon. And if she pops her clogs before the pigs – I’m sure they’ll clean her up.” But we all know that the circus spirit is dying. The female genetic line about to expire. Daddy sold our elder sisters to the CIA. Americans! Mummy was appalled. And Jocasta and Cornelia, still puffy with puppy fat and pubescent shame, were nudged up the aisle by the barrel of a gun. Daddy’s little joke. He was cock-a-hoop. Couldn’t wait to be shot of them. After the weddings, Mummy called us younger sisters into the nursery and bound our bodies with bandages. “A precaution,” she said, believing that Jocasta and Cornelia’s bumpy bodies might have upset Daddy’s equilibrium. Within eighteen months both married sisters had produced big-footed sons with evangelical teeth. We younger siblings didn’t altogether take to being aunts. On the odd occasions they visited, we used to unravel our bandages, scamper up the lime trees and catapult the little yanks as they lay screaming in their prams. Never managed more than a split lip or two! They don’t visit now of course. Too embroiled in the War on Terror. Mummy calls them “the braying mules” – so little chance of heirs. We younger sisters have no children. Imo’s up her armpits in pigs, Lilith – poor love – still idling time in Broadmoor for stabbing Daddy. And me? I am – as I keep trying to tell Mummy – pure fiction. But she just won’t have it. Calls me a defeatist. Chases me with the garden fork, screaming, “if you’re not real, why the buggeration are you running, Girl?” I’ve tried going through the photograph albums, pointing out my absence, and standing beside her in front of the Queen Anne mirror in the

Sarah Fiske

hall. But she simply accuses me of being pert or tricky. And as a last resort, she always says, “What do you know about Versailles?” And on cue I reply, “the porridge was burnt.” Which makes her laugh delightedly. Presumably, she reasons, I couldn’t know that the porridge was burnt at Versailles, if I hadn’t tasted it. And I couldn’t have tasted it if I wasn’t real. I don’t actually remember ever going to Versailles. But I would suggest that a chateau in France would be quite unlikely to serve porridge. When I put this to Mummy this morning, she tapped her nose and winked. “Exactly!” “But I have been to Versailles?” “No,” she said. “So I can’t have eaten burnt porridge there!” I exploded. “Which means, Darling ...” she licked her lips, “that you told a little porky-pie.” “And why on earth should me making up some gibberish about porridge prove my existence?” “Because you did make it up,” she said. “Think about it.” And with that, she raised the rifle to her shoulder and started shooting conkers hell for leather off the chestnut tree. I think a lot about mortality these days. Mummy’s in particular.

Contents Go Forward Go Back

24

David Gaffney

Contents Go Forward Go Back

Read You and You Alone Read Celia’s Mum’s Rat Hear David read Celia’s Mum’s Rat
Read David’s Profile

25

David Gaffney

You and You Alone
Angela and Rowan loved each other. Utterly, thoroughly, completely. All was love. Angela was crammed to the brim with pulsating pink jelly; Rowan was on a speeding motorbike screeching down a long curving road. But there were small imperfections: a fraction of time when the speeding motorbike shuddered and gasped, a tiny fissure in the pink jelly. And the cause of these wrinkles were the ex-lovers. Neither Angela nor Rowan was young, so over the years they had collected an assortment of exwives, husbands, boyfriends and girlfriends. Not to mention the many flings, flirtations and encounters they had each enjoyed. Although they rarely met any of the exs, the knowledge of their existence and of the intimacies their partner had shared with these strangers oppressed them. At night Angela would wake up and imagine she could see the ex-lovers swaggering up and down in front of her, pointing and laughing. Rowan said he sometimes felt as though he was lying under many thick, heavy blankets, and the blankets were all the exs. This went on. Dark cavities appeared in the pink jelly. The speeding motorbike coughed and puttered, threatening to stall. Something had to be done, and the solution was simple. They would kill all of their ex-lovers. When the ex-lovers were dead, the couple would be utterly content and it would be jelly and motorbikes wall-to-wall. They agreed on the definition of an ex – you had to have slept with them more than once, spent a whole night together, and shared drinks or food. This criteria helped reduce the list, but there were still a lot of people to kill. They agreed that Rowan would kill her exs and Angela would kill his. That way it would be harder for the police to trace the murderers. And to make it even more difficult to connect these suspicious deaths – twenty-six in total – each of the killings would be carried out differently. Rowan listed the various ways available and matched the victim with the method, based on his knowledge of that person’s preferences. A certain ex-lover hated water, so

Contents Go Forward Go Back

26

David Gaffney

Contents Go Forward Go Back

27

drowning was out. Another was afraid of heights, so the push off the cliff was not possible. Someone hated blood, so the knife was not an option. One had a fear of being buried alive so suffocation would be unkind. On a big sheet of paper they worked out a detailed plan which indicated the dates of each of the ex-lover’s deaths. Next to the date of completion Angela drew a big pink star and scribbled the word hurray. Six months later the ex-lovers were all dead. It was summer and Angela and Rowan were sat on their patio holding hands and drinking sparkling wine. “Are you full of pink jelly?” he asked her She was. And was he speeding round the bend on his motorbike? He gripped invisible handlebars in his fists. “Vroom vroom.” There they sat in the gathering twilight thinking about what they had achieved. It had gone well. It had been hard work, unpleasant often, but all in all, worth doing. Their world was now perfect. Until they began to discuss what had happened to their ex-lovers bodies after they were killed. Three had been buried (Angela and Rowan attended one of the services) but they had no idea what had happened to the others. Apart from one, who had made it known that he wished his ashes to be shot into space in a small capsule. His new wife had loved him deeply and was certain to have made this happen. His name was Roger Farringdon. The capsule containing his ashes would be circling the earth now, even as they spoke. Angela and Rowan looked up at the sky. It was a clear night and stars were twinkling. It bothered them that Roger Farringdon was up there, spinning in space. It was as if Roger Farringdon still had power over them, as if he was looking down on them, laughing. Typical of a man to want to live forever. They scoured the sky for evidence of the capsule, and after a time imagined that they could see a tiny pinprick reflected off the moon, drifting balletically.

David Gaffney

As they watched this speck of light circling the earth a thousand miles up, abruptly they felt powerless. Was it only Roger Farringdon? How many of the other ex-lovers had chosen this option? They didn’t know. It could be more than one. What should they do? Suddenly the sky was full of dead souls, strangeeyed constellations looking down on them, mocking their puny lives. The jelly inside her trembled as though it were about to melt. The motorbike slowed down. There was work to be done, and the options were clear. It was love or the universe – one of them had to go.

Contents Go Forward Go Back

28

David Gaffney

Celia’s Mum’s Rat
I was alone, away from home, and bored, so I lay on the hotel bed and scrolled through the names in my mobile phone. It was then I came across the strange entry. Celia’s mum’s rat. I had no idea Celia’s mother owned a rat. And if Celia’s mother owned a rat, why had she felt the need to buy it a mobile phone? And why had I at some point needed the rat’s number, and needed it frequently enough to enter it into the phone’s memory? Or, rather, felt a need to know that if the rat called, I would know who it was. Maybe at some point I had decided to avoid the rat’s calls or at least wanted time to prepare an excuse as to why I wouldn’t be able to assist the rat. Yet surely, if Celia’s mum’s rat were important enough to own its own phone, the rat would have a name? After all, we didn’t call Celia’s mum’s boyfriend, Celia’s mum’s boyfriend. We called him Raymond. I imagined the sleek, smug-faced rodent lying on a miniature chaise longue, the mobile clamped to its ear, squeaking away to other rats with similar luxurious accessories. Budgies have mirrors, hamster have wheels, what do rats have? They have phones. But how do rats communicate to humans on the phone? Was there a computerised system to translate their squeaks into rudimentary requests? Like food, bedding, water? Handling maybe? I looked about me at the bleak hotel room. The clock said 11.30. Celia’s mum’s rat might feel a sudden desire to be handled at any time. Celia’s mum and Raymond might be out. My phone would ring and the robot voice would say I WANT YOU TO HANDLE ME NOW, PLEASE. It was a chilling thought. I turned off my phone and tried to get to sleep. But the fear of the rat ringing wouldn’t leave me. I switched on my phone again to see if I’d had any missed calls from the rat. Nothing. Then I remembered – Celia’s mum had bought a holiday home in Stratford. The phone entry meant Celia’s Mum Strat.

Contents Go Forward Go Back

29

David Gaffney

I tried again to sleep. Yet the idea of the rat was adhesive and wouldn’t leave me. Celia’s mum’s rat was real. For the rest of my life the creature would exist and at some point the phone would ring, the demand would be made, and I would drop everything. To assist Celia’s mum’s rat in all its endeavours had become my purpose in life.

Contents Go Forward Go Back

30

Close the book

Related Interests