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Unwanted

The city spun and leant around her.  Lunchtime crowds filled the pavements, elegant young women with jobs to go to and money to spend, good-looking young men with mates and mobiles.  The chilled breath of air conditioning sighed out from the big shops and offices.

Stella and David fumed at the hotel manager, laughing and grumbling.  Don’t you ever come back, he’d said, when they picked up their bags.  It wasn’t as if they’d trashed a room or thrown a tv out the window.  But the hotel only allowed two to a room and they’d been three, packed in a bed together,  Beth with her back turned in stubborn sophistication while David caressed Stella’s enormous buttocks.

Beth was tired.  The banter of don’t touch me, keep your hands off, I’m not doing anything, can you hear me doing anything Beth? had gone on late into the night and checkout in this cheap hotel was early.  Now she felt cross with them both.

What shall we do now, asked Stella.  They hadn’t come to Sydney just to sleep (or not to sleep) in a fleabitten hostel.  It was sunny, there was Circular Quay to visit, the art gallery (Stella’s idea of fun, as a girl who could appreciate both slumming and the fine arts).  I think we should go to the Cross again, said David, who was bad, so he felt.  We should go and see a peep show.  That’s too expensive, said Stella, and anyway, you’ve been peeping at us all night.  I could steal someone’s card, said David, I’ve done it before.

Have you really? asked Beth.  She hadn’t met many thieves before.  David was also a would-be mass murderer, at least so he said, and she hadn’t met many of those either.  He seemed nice enough though.  Stella’s tame criminal mastermind.

Yes, said David, but sometimes I use my friends’ cards to buy things, don’t I Stella.

How? asked Beth again.  Stella laughed at David’s boastfulness, proud of him.

I’m a genius.  I can remember any number, give me any number, I can remember it.  I learn all my friends’ pin numbers and then I memorise them, it just stays in there – he tapped his gingery forehead – for ever.  Tell me your pin number and I’ll memorise it – doesn’t matter how long it is.  I won’t use it though.

Sometime maybe, said Beth.  She was getting sick of their company, and hungry too.  She had a strong feeling suddenly that she didn’t want to be here, with them, having this conversation about stolen credit cards and angry managers.  The sun and the strangers made it all worse.

I have to go, she said, there’s someone I have to see.

Who, asked Stella, stopping dead, and David like a lean mastiff at her side.

Just someone I used to know.

Can we come?

Better not.  It’s, you know..

A private thing, guessed David, smirking, and Stella smiled you go girl though she didn’t want Beth to leave, it was fun baiting her innocence.

Ok well I guess I’ll see you later then, and Beth made her apologies abruptly and turned on her heel, hiding herself from their teasing following eyes in the stream of people.  Sick at heart, such a good term and so true, was what she was.

She got herself a coffee and a donut and walked down towards Liverpool Street, where she’d used to work, long ago, when Sydney was her home town.  She wondered if he’d still be there.  He used to be kind to her.  That was when she was a shy filing clerk with no one to talk to but him.  Now, of course, she was much changed.  Shy no longer, beautiful and desirable, he would look at her and perhaps want to take her out.  He would marvel at how different she was.  She wondered if he was married.  She’d never asked him.

She went to the floor marked Personnel, to the receptionist sitting behind her smooth clean circular desk, typing.

Can I help you, asked the woman, middle-aged, neutral like the walls.  Beth felt like an exotic butterfly.

I was wondering if I could speak to Roger.  Does he still work here?

He certainly does, and she sat down to wait, and wait, in the cream plush chair in front of the desk, with people coming in from the lifts and walking past into the forbidden doors.

He came, and she stood up.  It was immediately clear that he didn’t remember her.  He stood there half smiling, still the same little soft beard and moustache, a sensitive man, politely nonplussed.

I’m Beth, she said, remember we used to work together, three years ago?

Beth, he said, oh yes…you used to write to me, didn’t you.

Well yes, she said, and to other people I guess…

You used to write to Eric, he said.  Eric liked your letters, he said they were interesting.

She knew he was saying that he didn’t think so.

That was a while ago, she said.  When I went overseas.  I came back and I’ve been at uni for a year and…

You should go and see Eric, suggested Roger, coolly.  Eric always liked getting those letters.

Those letters, posted when she was so lonely, posted from parks in the evening full of chattering strangers, and hostels where everyone else knew so much about life, she felt like one of the flowerpot men.  No one to tell all these things to, but Roger, and Eric of course, and Mum and Dad, but she couldn’t tell them because they were flowerpot men too.

I was wondering if you wanted to have a coffee, Beth said, conscious of the receptionist typing away, her eyes looking and not looking, thinking things no doubt, with a little grim smile.  It was like performing on a stage with just the two actors, and one audience member, who already knew the ending.

It’s been a long time, said Roger.  I don’t have time, really, I’m quite busy.  He looked at his watch.  It was ten thirty.  She hadn’t thought of that, in her bohemian fantasy.

Oh, ok, never mind, I’d better go then.  She wanted to weep then, but that wasn’t in the play.  None of this was, come to think of it.

But you could go and see Eric, he said encouragingly.  Eric likes you, I’m sure he’d like that.  He looked at his watch again.  Eric is on the fifth floor I think, isn’t he Shirley?

Oh, yes, I think he is, said Shirley, quickly, looking back to her typing again, she wasn’t the type of audience to want to participate in the scene, but curious anyway.  She felt sorry for the girl, in her tarty rags.  Some kind of stalker, evidently.  The corners of her lips were indented, though, she could see the funny side.  Poor Roger.

Beth smiled and said that she might go to see Eric.  She wouldn’t, because what if Eric had forgotten her too, and anyway, it was Roger she liked, with his kindness and mouse-like facial hair.

How was the secret lover, asked Stella, back at uni.  David had gone off for a spot of armed robbery, or so he implied.  Good, said Beth.  And how would Stella, with her prettiness, her wantedness, ever understand?  That Beth was not beautiful, not interesting – in short, not changed at all?  But if she didn’t tell Stella, she would never know – she might guess of course.  Let her guess.  Pretty boring really, added Beth, I won’t bother next time.  And she didn’t.

Rose is the author of Deeper (a dark modern fantasy based on Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Mermaid) and A Warm Wind. 

Monopoly

“It’s not fair.”

“Life’s not fair. We’re only three hours into the game.  You’ll get yours back if you just keep playing!”

Zog scowled.

“How come you keep on getting sixes.  The dice is loaded if you ask me.”

“It’s not.  You won the LAST game.  With the SAME dice.  And you walked away with I don’t know how many thousand points and did I complain?  No.  I just said ok, congratulations!  Don’t be such a sore loser.”

“Anyway, there’s still plenty of time,” Horus interjected, looking from Zog to Baal and rolling his eyes.  He covered a yawn.  Monopoly bored him.  Why, he thought, do we play these interminable games?  It’s not as if it achieves anything!  And yet, what else is there to do round here?

Baal threw the die again, and smirked.

“I get New York.  Let’s see now – New York, London, Tokyo and the whole of Africa.  If you land on Africa a million of your lot get AIDS.”

“I’m sick of this game!” Zog burst out, and with one sweep of his fist, the board buckled and the counters went hurtling to the floor.  Horus sighed.  They’d be at it again tomorrow.  And the day after that.  Civilisations rose.  Civilisations fell.  With boring predictability.

A man called Dave looked out of his hotel bedroom window as a wall of water loomed improbably towards him.

“Jesus!” he said, “Oh my God!”

The three deities glanced down and snickered.

“You have to admit,” said Zog, “it IS funny to hear them squealing.  It’s as if they think we CARE!”

Why the Great Wall of China is made of rice

It’s made of rice.  Not many people know that.  It’s very useful, says Hilda, because if the Chinese ever run out of food, they can eat the Wall.  There’s a lot to be said for edible buildings.

Hilda is eighty five years old, though her estimate of when she was born varies, and frankly, it’s irrelevant.  She has the playful, slightly macabre and mischievous imagination of an eight year old.

When I suggest that, given how many Chinese there are, the Great Wall might not last long in a famine, Hilda says they can eat the herbiage growing on top of it.  Because, she says, all the bodies buried in the Wall have composted into excellent nutrients.  She’s philosophical about human tragedy, real or imagined.  She says with some relish that in China, girl babies are thrown in the river and ‘drown along with all the other rubbish’.  Then the fish eat them.  But ‘fish have to eat, don’t they.”

She reminds me of another old lady I met in a ward once, who asked my brother where she could get blackbirds.  When he asked her what for, she said she wanted them to put in a pie, of course.  Hilda prefers strawberries, which she puts under the mattress to avoid sharing with the carers and fellow-inmates.  Better squashed than gone, she says.

And yet, the book hardly exists that Hilda hasn’t read, from Dostoevsky to Robert Fisk to Germaine Greer.  She doesn’t like to socialise in the nursing home – the other women talk only about their health and the staff make her play silly games, involving balls and bingo.  Other people’s grandchildren bore her.

Her memories have become a story read long ago and half forgotten.  Did she spend twenty years in a Russian gulag? Was she a British prisoner of war?  A slave in Byzantium?  A spy?  She says she was.  Who knows.  She talks of many admirers, doing the hokey pokey when it was fashionable, flirting with the handsome victims of motorcycle crashes as a nurses’ aide in some hospital, somewhere, singing anti-Russian songs in Finnish, and her mother, a Polish aristocrat’s concubine.  It would make a better novel than most, if she could be bothered with the details.  “Of course,” she says impatiently when I ask when and where, “of course! Don’t you know that!”.  I’m trying to put down anchors in this plot, Hilda is floating free as plankton.

When I get home from visiting the nursing home, I google rice and the Great Wall of China, and guess what, she’s not wrong.  Well, not entirely, the bricks were stuck together with rice and sand, a kind of mortar.  Hilda’s little joke, not so confused after all.  Never underestimate old ladies.

You wish…

The first time it happened, I was sitting in my car at traffic lights, looking across into a man’s exploding face.  He had the window rolled down and he was in the middle of an expletive.

“You fucking cow you stupid motherfuckin whore why don’t you f…”

His mouth opened and shut but no sound came out.  I watched him gasp and cough desperately, hawking for words, while his female passenger gaped and scrabbled.

I knew then that I should not abuse this power of mine.

Alright, maybe just a little bit…

Strange Stories: Where do they go, all the lonely people?

She kept her face in a jar by the door.

The others she kept in the basement.  Filed away, by year, by memory.  The face she’d raised to her mother as a child, and had slapped for her pains.  An open face, closed thereafter.  The face she’d brought to school, expectant, wondering.  The face she’d graduated with at thirteen, fearful of nuns, gates and most of all, knowledge.  The face she’d offered to her first lover, eyes closed, hoping at last for a kiss and not a cuff.  The face she’d offered to her last lover, eyes fast shut against the boredom in his eyes.

Who was it for?  She looked for him out the window, in the long hours between setting out the roses in Father McKenzie’s empty church, dusting the pews at mid day, and whispering to Mary in the cold evening, too deaf to bother with a reply.  She looked for him in the postman cycling – and later gunning his motor bike – to the letter box on the right side of her tiny ground floor flat, then cycling past without a glance to the letter box on the left side.  She looked for him in the young men waiting on corners to whistle at the bare-stomached, grinning girls, and to spit curse words at the old women pushing their wheeled shopping carts.  She looked for him in the eyes of the young mothers and their pink and blue labelled, blank-eyed babies.

She looked for him in Father McKenzie.

“Have you got enough socks for winter, Father?”

“Yes, thank you Lily.”

She knew he hadn’t, saw his skinny ankles under the long black gown, blue-white with cold in the dull English weather, felt an odd, proprietary tenderness for him.  She stayed up late making thick woollen ones out of purple wool from the thrift shop.  He didn’t wear them.

She saw him in her dreams.  Dreaming, she walked to the corner shop and bought a can of baked beans and some dried food for the cat.  Dreaming, she knelt in the church and repeated prayers that had lost their meaning.  Dreaming, she laid her body on chill sheets and turned out the light.  Dreaming, he came to her.

“You’ve waited all this time,” he said, drawing his hand down over the face that she kept for the darkness.  “Haven’t you given up yet?”

Awake, she was afraid, and struggled.

“Don’t fight me.  Lily.  What a passionate, graceful name you have.  All the love that’s locked away in that name, Lily – you can let it go now.  After all this time, you can feel safe.”

She looked into his night-dark face, fingers interlaced with his, and took a long, deep breath.

Father McKenzie wiped the dirt from his hands as he walked from the grave.

No one was saved.

Strange Stories: Boy meets Girl

Yep, this is a love story like any other.

He first saw her at a cocktail party.  She wore a black dress, short, and pearls. So did all the others.  She had long, corn-gold hair and blue eyes.  So did all the others.

He knew she was 25.  In that year, the year when she’d been born, Griselda Dansk was Bollywood’s number one screen goddess.  All the girl babies born in that year had golden hair and blue eyes, just like Griselda, and small cup sizes, which Griselda had made fashionable in her classic role as a flat-chested, gloriously naked Virginia Woolf.

He got there late, and tripped on the hostess’ welcome mat.  As Debonya held out a pale hand to help him up, and waved with the other for a maid to clear up the mess, all the women looked at him, and looked away again, embarrassed.  All except one.

She smiled, then, and there was no trace of mockery in her joyful grin.  She held his dark, long-lashed eyes – born in 2062, all the boys had them – and winked, slowly.  He grinned back,  let go Debonya’s hand, and came to her like a cat comes to sit by the fire.

He told her she was beautiful, in bed, later that night.

“You’re so warm, I could lie beside you in the snow and not feel it.”

“Flatterer!” That wink again.  It was entrancing.

“I’m not!  And you’re so gorgeously clever.  I bet you’ve got a PhD.  Tell me, you have, haven’t you!”

She nodded.

“Historical anachronism, from Harvard.”

In the morning he woke up to find her awake already, her windows wide and open on the world.  He searched for last night’s scene within them: she continued as if they’d never moved from there.

“Do you find my intellect attractive, then?”

“Of course!  Doesn’t everyone?”

She wrapped a long, lightly tanned thigh around his waist.

“Some men would rather make the jokes than laugh at them, you know.  And then, some men ARE the joke.”

He smiled uncertainly.

“Do you know, in my grandmother’s day, THIS would have been the candy to attract the flies.  THIS is what you would have found beautiful.”

She ran a hand over her peach-like behind, flicked the golden hair in disdain.

“Yes but everyone – I mean everyone from 2058 – looks the same.  It’s just a shell – why would I be interested in a shell?  It’d be like falling in love with your dress!”

She sat up.

“Did you say ‘falling in love’?”

He brushed the glossy, careless curls from his eyes.  Was it his imagination, or was he starting to feel the cold?

“I only meant..”

“I don’t do love.  Come to think of it, you’re not really my type.  I prefer the 2040 crop -much less naive.”

He looked into the sea-blue windows of her soul, and saw that he had mistaken the fires of lust for abiding warmth, and cleverness and superficial charm for a complex intelligence she did not have.  She was not, after all, beautiful.  He was not the first man who’d woken up to that conclusion.

Strange Stories: Different

I don’t miss my brother Joshua at all.

“Ask nicely.”  Joshua’s gingery hair blazes like a helmet in the evening sunlight.  He’s eight.

So I say, “Please don’t, please.” I’m only four. But Joshua holds Ted tied onto a stick out over the barbecue, which we’re not allowed to light by ourselves. I can smell his yellow fur beginning to smoulder.   I’m crying, pulling at his arm.

“Ted’s been bad. He has to be punished,” says Joshua sternly, shrugging me off.

Like Joshua.  Joshua’s been bad. That’s why he’s not around any more, hasn’t been for years.

Mum misses Joshua, in a way.

“What else could we do?” Mum asks Dad, late at night.  Dad pretends not to hear and goes on reading a book. “He just couldn’t change.”

The doctors put Joshua on a plane. Mum packed a suitcase, all the things you might need for a lifetime away, although of course there were weight restrictions to be taken into account. I  wonder if he screamed and cried, like I did when he burnt Ted.  I wonder if he still likes to hassle ants.

Something’s missing from my life, without him.  I don’t have anyone to sneak up behind me and stick both fingers under my ribs to make me jump. No one calls me bitch and moron any more.  No malevolent presence looms beside me as I walk home from school.  No one there to scare the other girls off just by looking at them and swinging his arms in that certain way.  Ok,  I didn’t mind too much when he knocked Tracy Bucknall’s front tooth out for calling me an ugly slut.  I admit that.

When Joshua was taken away, the ants must have thought their golden age had come, free from inexplicable natural disasters – flash floods, scorching death rays from the sky, acid rain.  They prospered and multiplied and infested the kitchen, where they ate mum’s carefully preserved plum jam.

Joshua was always looking for trouble.

“Let’s throw the football through Froggatt’s front window!”

“But why?”

“Don’t like her. Anyway I want to see how easy it is to smash. We can always say it was an accident.”

I didn’t like her much either but I wouldn’t have dared do it. I watched though.  Mrs Froggatt came boiling out ready to screech but when she saw Joshua standing there smiling she said “Oh it’s you again,” and went inside to make a phonecall.  Joshua never had the sense to hide, afterwards.

There’s going to be a war. I don’t like war.  At least, I don’t really know what a war is, but Mum says her grandmother was in one and she said it was terrible.  People killed one another for some reason nobody can remember. I can’t imagine it, any more than I can imagine why Joshua needs to pinch me when I’m walking past him on the way to the bathroom.

“Really? How could they do it? Didn’t they feel terrible?” I ask my mother.

“People were different in those days,” she explains.

“Before selective gene screening,” adds Dad.

“More like Joshua?”

“Yes. There were lots of people like Joshua then.”

They’re not allowed to write.  Dad says he’s sure Joshua’s alright though. It’s not a prison camp. It’s an island. There are no guards, only the ocean.  It’s a permanent holiday by the beach, really.  Dad says Joshua’s probably happier with people just like him.  It’s a place where people who are different can be themselves.

Joshua fancied my friend Casey. Casey didn’t like him though, she said he smelt too strong and showed off all the time,

“Your brother’s not normal.  He’s always hanging off that tree outside my place doing pull ups to show off his muscles. Like I care!”

“He is SO normal!” I said, even though that morning he’d put his hands around my neck till it left a big red mark.  But he wasn’t, of course.  When I asked Dad why he said,

“Well, you know, the doctors do their best to make sure all babies are born with the right attitudes. But sometimes things go wrong, nobody knows why.  Maybe he’ll settle down.”

Mum and Dad tried to hide Joshua,  pretend he’d grow out of it.

“He’s just lively,” they’d say to friends and neighbours. Or “It’s just a phase.”

Joshua liked to look at himself in the mirror, flexing his biceps, weightlifting with mum’s tomato soup cans.

“Your friend Casey’s hot.”

“Why don’t you ask her out then? She can only say no.”  I say.  Which she would.

Joshua knows that.

“I’m not going to ask her!  When you want something you have to take it. No wonder this is such a crappy boring shithole.  This place needs a shake up. I wish there WAS a damned war!”

So he took Casey, in the woods behind the boat shed.  They came for him the next day, with needles and pills.   Mum said he looked just like he had when he was a baby, being carried out on a stretcher. Peaceful and sweet.

When the war comes we hide in the boatshed, with another family from the street.  Everyone hides where they can. What else can we do? Casey has hysterics because being in the boatshed reminds her of Joshua.

“If I’m killed I want you to know how much I love you.” Mum pulls my head down to her lap so I can’t see.  She shuts her eyes too.

We hear the roar of engines driving too fast in our quiet streets, glass breaking, booted feet running, explosions like when lightning hits a tree.  I smell smoke.   I wonder if they broke Mrs Froggatt’s windows, again.  Mum and Dad curl together like two caterpillars.  So this is war? No wonder my great grandma didn’t like it much.

Men smash the locked door in with boots and the butts of rifles.  When they see us cowering in the dark among ropes and crayfish pots they all jeer and point.

“Look at them, they can’t even put up a fight!”

A man pulls me out by the hair. I don’t struggle, I just try to keep up with him, because otherwise it will hurt even more.  Joshua taught me that.  Mrs Froggatt and Mum are lying on the ground, wailing.

How can they do this?  Why would they want to? Can’t they feel our pain? What did we ever do to them?  I can see in Casey’s eyes, as she crawls at the feet of her captor, that she’s shocked, confused.  Can there really be so many Joshuas? Where did they all come from?

Then there’s a white flash, like the burning beam Joshua used to aim at the ants with his mirror.  I’m on the ground, my head resting in entrails, soft and slippery, my ears ringing.  Familiar biceps pull me up.  All around men lie tossed about like red salad.

“Get up, we have to be quick,” says my brother. “Follow me, into the woods.”

Casey whimpers. Mum is being sick. Dad has wet his pants with fright.

“We won’t!” wails Mrs Froggatt. “You’re worse than those.” And she points at the scattered pieces.

“Suit yourself.”

I run with Joshua to the forest.

Joshua is still different. But now I’m glad.  I don’t know why he’s here or how he escaped.  Perhaps people like him always work something out.  But we need someone now who understands pain and likes it.