Coffee

 

Today I poured cold water on my coffee before hot, and it made me think of you.

It stops it burning, you told me. You had lots of tips like this: chill glasses before white wine, sweat onions slowly.

‘These things take time,’ you said.

Like leaving your wife, I suppose. I believe that’s still in progress.

Brown floaters rose to the top of the cup and wouldn’t dissolve however much I stirred. The romance was short-lived. I poured it down the sink.

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The Wrong Presents

It was the end of term, the day before Christmas Eve, and it was so cold that the teacher, Miss Melly, was wearing her hat and scarf indoors. She put all the children’s paintings and projects in piles for them to take home, and called their names in alphabetical order.

‘Josh Datchit!’ A small boy stepped forward, shivering in his threadbare jumper. Miss Melly smiled at him as she handed him his things.

‘Harry Dooge!’ Harry was a boy with a cross-looking face and heavy shoes he’d chosen especially for stomping and kicking.

‘Bye, Miss Smelly,’ he muttered under his breath. The teacher sighed, pretending not to hear.

‘Merry Christmas everyone,’ she cried, opening the door to a whoosh of icy air and dead leaves, ‘Don’t forget to send your letters to Santa!’

 

Josh Datchit and Harry Dooge both lived on Peabody Street, just four doors apart. Josh walked home as quickly as he could, but he soon heard Harry’s wet footsteps dragging through the slush behind him.

Oof! The bigger boy slammed into his back, knocking the papers out of his hands, and sending the painting Josh had made for his mum sailing face down into the grey-brown snow-dirt.

‘Oh, sor-ry,’ Harry bellowed in Josh’s ear, ‘I slipped.’ With that he laughed and tore past him down the street.

 

That night, both boys wrote letters to Santa. Harry didn’t believe that Santa cared whether children had been naughty or nice, so he demanded a lot of presents. He asked for an Xbox, a TV, a skateboard, every superhero figure he could think of, and much more, until it hurt his hand to write.

Four doors down, Josh chewed his pencil, trying to think about the things he really needed.

‘Don’t forget to ask for something to play with,’ his mum murmured, ruffling his hair. ‘Not all presents have to be useful.’ She went into the kitchen and sellotaped the Christmas painting (which she had rescued with her hairdryer) onto the fridge.

Josh nodded. In the end, he put three things on his list: a scooter (to get him down Peabody St, and away from Harry Dooge, a little faster); a toy robot; and a box of chocolates.

 

On Christmas morning, all the children on Peabody St woke early. The sky was still dark, everything quiet apart from the sleepy houses as they came creakily to life, their pipes filling with hot water.

Harry Dooge bounded down the stairs, flung open the door to the living room, and cried: ‘What?’

Four doors away, Josh Datchit bounded down the stairs, flung open the door to the living room, and cried: ‘What?’

Harry was horrified. Under the tree with its twinkling lights, even though the rest of the room was still gloomy, he could clearly make out…only…three presents. He stood stock still in his pyjamas, scratching his head, and counted again. One…two…three. ‘That’s it?’ he yelled. And then with a terrific stamp of his feet, his face bright red, he boomed: ‘Noooo!’

 

Harry opened the presents, of course. It didn’t take long. A scooter, a toy robot, and a box of chocolates.

‘NONE of these are what I asked for!’ he shouted. His parents were huddled in the doorway, muttering to each other. ‘There is obviously something WRONG with Santa. Stupid, stupid Santa.’

 

‘Santa must have got it wrong,’ Josh was saying, looking at the dozens of presents that surrounded him.

‘Well,’ said his mum, quietly, ‘you have been especially good this year’; but even she was puzzled, because truthfully, Josh was good every year and Christmas morning had never looked like this. ‘You’d better start opening them,’ she added, ‘It might take all day.’

 

Later that morning, boiling with anger, Harry jumped to his feet. ‘I’ve got it!’ he cried, ‘I know what’s happened here. There’s only one boy who would be LAME enough to only ask for three presents. It’s Datchit! Santa has given me his presents by mistake!’ He snatched up the scooter and the robot (he had already eaten all the chocolates, of course), headed out into the snow and marched off down Peabody St. His parents didn’t notice he’d gone.

 

He stood outside Josh’s house, ready to hammer on the door. But something made him peer in the window first, and when he did, his fist fell to his side.

What he saw was a living room very like his own: the same size and shape. But something was different.

In the centre of the room were Josh, and his mum, and his brother and sister, playing a board game. They were laughing, their voices ringing through the window like a song. The presents – his presents– were in the corner, some opened, some still wrapped. Harry noticed that they had been split into three piles. Every now and again Josh, or his brother or sister, would pause in the game and open a present. Harry watched the superheroes he had put on his list emerge from the shiny paper. Iron Man. Hulk. Thor.

He realised Josh was sharing.

And they all looked so happy.

The snow pricked Harry’s eyes. That could be the only reason they were watering. Harry Dooge never cried. He turned to walk away, but there was a tap on the window from inside the house. Josh was waving, his mum standing behind him.

Then the front door opened and four faces appeared, wearing matching wide smiles.

Josh spoke first. ‘Hi, Harry,’ he said. ‘Would you…would you like to come in and play for a bit?’

‘No, thanks,’ said Harry, kicking the snow with his boot. But before they could go back in, he looked up and quickly said, ‘Santa brought me a scooter.’ He held it up. ‘I thought…I thought you might like it.’

Josh grinned. ‘Hey, that’s really cool.’ He paused. ‘He brought me a skateboard. Wanna swap?’

 

And as Harry walked towards Josh’s door, both boys thought they heard the jingle of bells and a merry, tinkling laugh.

 

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The Curse of Time

One particular October, it was decided that an extra hour would be added to every day.

At first there was a lot of excitement about this. Haven’t we all been saying for ages, the people cried, that we need more hours in the day? And now we’ve got it! Everyone agreed that the government were really very clever to come up with this.

For a while the people used the hour really well. They did the things they’d always said they didn’t have time for: they read books, went for walks, called their mothers. An hour isn’t very long, it’s difficult to squeeze in anything too life-changing but it did seem as though the world was becoming a bit of a nicer place. Well done us, people said.

Eventually, of course, the novelty wore off. The extra hour became not extra at all, but just part of the twenty-five that people took for granted every day. The people started having more lie-ins. It’s okay, they would say, hitting snooze and rolling over, we have plenty of time. And for all the people who had used their hour to call their mothers, there were also people who took their hour in the dead of night and used it to mug, fight, or murder. There were a whole seven hours a week in which to be unkind, intolerant, and greedy.

In no time at all it seemed the world was becoming a bit less nice again. It’s all the government’s fault, the people said. They should never have given us that extra hour. They should have known we couldn’t be trusted with it.

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The Sweetest Thing

I’ve bought 5lbs of modeling chocolate. I’ve got something important to make.

 

I always loved chocolate, and was rarely allowed it. Mum locked the cupboards. Chocolate was a treat or a reward, and had to be earned. The next day she would make me stand on the scales and show me my shame in numbers.

 

As soon as I left home, I was free to eat all I wanted but it seemed I was never full. I buried myself in layer on layer of comfort. Mum said I was a disgrace.

 

‘I don’t care,’ I said, ‘I’m done trying to please you.’ But it wasn’t true. Her approval and her disgust were all mixed up in my head.

 

I met a girl. I thought she saw the real me under the folds of my disguise. We were friends. Until one night I misread her kindness and tried to kiss her. She recoiled.

 

I immediately saw my advance for what it was: the clumsy lurch of a greedy child. I tried to apologise but the words got stuck in my teeth.

 

It was later that the anger took root. It was when I saw her moving around, unaffected, still smiling and existing, as though I’d never touched her. Hot rage grew in me like a gnawing hunger.

 

It has to be chocolate. You can’t easily make the same kinds of shapes with buttercream, marzipan, or fondant. You can’t mould a person.

 

I make her beautiful. I carve her hair, shape the curves of her body, pinprick her eyes. I don’t give her a mouth, so she can’t tell me I’m not good enough. She can’t tell me no.

 

I stand her on the kitchen counter and look at her a while.

 

Then I smash her, and swallow her piece by piece.

 

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Ashley at the the zoo

I took my nephew Ashley to the zoo the day his parents divorced.

His mother, my sister, was celebrating her officially-recognised freedom by taking a plane to St Lucia with the photocopier repair man from her office.

I helped Ashley climb up onto the viewing platform so he could stand eye-to-eye with the giraffes. His little face was pink and streaked with snot, and utterly serious.

‘You are very tall indeed,’ he told the animal lumbering towards him, and held out his chubby hand to be sniffed.

I thought of his mother, on the beach by now, strawberry daiquiri in hand, and hugged Ashley to me as we watched the gathering clouds.

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Celery

I hate celery. I’m annoyed about hating it, since I generally pride myself on being an unfussy eater. But really, what’s the point of it? It’s like corrugated cardboard. It looks as though it should taste of nothing, but in reality it’s revolting, and the worst thing is that its appearance does nothing to warn you of this. It’s the disguise I resent the most. At least porridge, the only other thing I won’t eat, looks like something you don’t want to put in your mouth.

It was the third date. Everyone knows the third date is The One, the pivotal moment. We agreed I would go to his flat and he would cook, and we both pretended I would get a taxi home (my toothbrush and spare pants were, of course, stashed in my bag). The smells from the kitchen were divine. Onions, garlic and white wine. He was cooking risotto, and as I watched him stirring in the butter and cheese at the final stages, generous, indulgent handfuls of parmesan, I thought, I like this guy.

He lit candles. We sat down and tucked in. I smiled at him as I brought the fork to my mouth.

And that’s when I saw it.

You can’t pick celery out of risotto.

I’ve trained myself to eat olives, and raisins. But I won’t do that for celery. Celery doesn’t deserve my time and effort.

I ate the risotto, I felt it was only polite. But there was no fourth date.

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The Hiding Tree

 

The tree I can’t stop looking at stands in the middle of the green, in the middle of a village whose name has too few vowels for my English tongue to properly pronounce.

We’re here for a wedding; Mike’s old school friend is marrying Agnieszka, at last. We’ve been promised three days straight of vodka and dancing, so we decided to rent a small house a little way from the venue, so that we can duck out if we need to.

The secret no-one but us knows yet is that I’m pregnant, so while the dancing will probably be okay, the vodka certainly will not. Mike will switch my shot glasses for water when no-one’s looking.

There is a plaque, brown and gold, in front of the tree, commemorating its success: it was recently named International Tree of the Year.

I never knew there was such a thing.

Don’t get me wrong; it’s a very nice tree. I imagine it was surrounded by others, once, others that were felled to make way for what they call the ‘new’ half of the village, built in the 1960s. But this tree was spared. It has a fine thick trunk, and branches that stretch like worshipful arms towards the heavens.

 

But its history is the reason it was commended.

In the early 1940s a Jewish family hid in this tree for two years and so avoided deportation to Auschwitz. The villagers brought meat and bread in the night, paper parcels laid as offerings next to a hole in the trunk from which a thin white arm would emerge in the darkness to gather them.

Two years.

I imagine the curled bodies, matted hair, dirty skin, lying among the crawling creatures and rotting mulch. A life lived in silence and shade. I wonder how many they were, whether they held hands, prayed, dreamed. I think of them finally, finally, coming into the light, unfurling their limbs and blinking, spitting dust and leaves as their tongues rolled in their mouths, remembering at last how to form words.

 

The hole they came out of has been filled in, now, and I move closer to try to see or feel the difference in texture that belies the once secret doorway, but find no obvious clues. The deep ridges of its belly are as beautiful as wrinkles on the face of a lover. I lean into the bark, inhaling its scent. I reach my arms around the trunk and find that however hard I stretch, the tips of my fingers won’t meet around the other side. I imagine that the tree breathes and moves in my embrace. Turning my head, I press my ear against the wood and listen, the way you might hold up a conch in the hope of hearing the ocean. I am listening for voices, for heartbeats. There is a faint rustling, nothing more, and I wonder what lives this tree continues to contain, what beauty and hope now grow inside it.

When I step away, there are traces of bark, of damp moss, clinging to me, little slivers of brown and green on my clothes.

 

I place a hand on my still-flat tummy, fancying I can feel the shape of the life that we have already dared name in hushed conversations under covers, a tadpole, a bean, a tiny thing doing nothing but the business of becoming.

The tree stands, steadfast as a mother, yet ever changing, edging skyward in imperceptible shifts.

Its roots chart a course beyond anyone’s reach, whispering their secrets to the earth.

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