Short Fiction by Mark Czanik
In her early fifties, Martha began keeping a signed photo of David Sedaris on her bedside locker. She made this confession to me while we were sitting around the campfire at Uncle Ron’s eightieth birthday party. I asked her if any of her boyfriends ever complained about this outsider in the bedroom.
‘Well, Sedaris is gay isn’t he,’ she said, ‘so it shouldn’t really bother them because he isn’t a threat.’
‘That sounds suspiciously like a detail from one of his books,’ I said.
She shrugged. ‘Maybe. But there hasn’t been anyone for a long time, so it’s not really an issue. Besides, there aren’t a lot of men left on the market when you get to my age. Especially if you’ve got four kids.’
I said nothing, suddenly self-conscious of my accent and the men listening to our conversation. I haven’t lived in Hereford for almost thirty years now and have lost whatever local accent I once had. Worse, for the past thirteen years, I’ve lived in Bath working on the reception at a tennis club where customers sometimes make the mistake of asking for a table for four when they turn up for their court. My present company were my family of course – my people as I like to think of them – but I sounded more like the Duke of Edinburgh now than a true Herefordian, and I know I wouldn’t survive in certain pubs here more than twenty minutes without finding myself caught mid-sentence in a headlock. Still, I didn’t need to respond because the next thing I knew, as if to put her theory to the test, Martha asked the man wearing blue shorts on the other side of the fire if he wouldn’t mind letting her feel his legs. It had been so long since she’d touched a man’s hairy legs, and his looked so nice in the firelight. My big sister had never been shy of giving out the message, but this was fast even by her standards.
The man smiled his permission. There was a ripple of knowing laughter from the other men as she knelt on the grass and began running her hands up and down his legs.
‘Oh, that’s so nice,’ she cooed. ‘Oh, you have no idea what this does to me. I could get quite carried away.’ She laughed. ‘Don’t worry, I’ll restrain myself.’ Her hands strayed upwards. ‘I presume you’re married. Thought so. All the best ones are. Not getting turned on, are you? Just tell me if it gets too much and I’ll stop. I wouldn’t want to give you the right idea, or come between you and your wife.’
We men went on feigning disinterest, but none of us were laughing now.
‘Where is this wife of yours anyway? Sure you’re not making her up? She the jealous type? It’d be nice to be on the right side of jealousy for a change.’
I heard Dad laughing with my uncles by the potbellied stove on the other side of the garden and thought of his alopecia. He had lost his hair suddenly a few years before – quicker than a Mulberry tree sheds its leaves, according to Mum – and often blamed it on the stress Martha had caused him. Once she was satisfied she clambered to her feet and stood behind my chair. She began massaging my shoulders. We are not a touchy-feely family, no matter how softened by drink, but now that her sensuality had been reawakened she wasn’t going to let it go so easily. I didn’t move, hardly dared breathe, as if a sparrow had suddenly alighted on my shoulders. She had good hands. Firm and assured and not afraid to dig deep. Only when Uncle Leonard’s chair collapsed under him – ‘This chair’s going down amongst the worms!’ – did she stop and take her seat again next to mine.
I didn’t deserve it. The fact is we’d grown apart by that time and I was not a good brother. I almost took pleasure in the series of disastrous relationships she’d gotten herself involved in since her divorce, the handouts she’d been reduced to asking Dad for, as if I was watching a soap opera rather than seeing my own sister’s life spiral out of control. By her own admission, she was weak when it came to men. Dad often talked of her ‘courting’ during her teenage years, an old-fashioned word even at the time, but one which was ill-suited to Martha who seemed to move from one case of hypnosis to the next, like those hens that sleep in a tree overnight to be safe, but always end up being seduced down by the circling fox. There were a lot of boys who came knocking. I would invite in whoever it was and then call his name up the stairs trying to make myself heard above the music coming from her room. Sometime later, having plucked her eyebrows to within a millimetre of their life, she’d make her big entrance. The two of them would then sit on the sofa staring at the telly with Mum and Dad, until at some preconceived signal they would be released from this purgatory and leave for town – usually about the time the rest of us were getting ready for bed.
Dad would remind the boyfriend to make sure he behaved himself and walked his daughter home in ‘the proper manner.’ He’d try to say this with a twinkle in his eye, but he couldn’t do irony and it always came out sounding fierce. And Dad’s reputation had travelled far.
The name I called most up the stairs was Adam’s. He was not good looking. Bulbous nose. Puggy bee-sting lips. Blotchy baby fat face. Yet Martha fell in love with him at first sight. She was on her way into town that day when she was stopped in her tracks by a duck climbing down the steep steps that led out of the cemetery gates, followed by a long procession of chicks tumbling after her. The duck then proudly led her brood across the dual carriageway under several snarling cars waiting at the lights. They were red at the time but according to Martha this guy in stonewashed denim had rushed out into the busy road and held back the traffic when the lights went green with his arms stretched out and his palms up, until the oblivious duck and her long feather boa of yellow fluff had safely made it to the other side. My sister followed the ducklings and made sure to catch their guardian angel’s eye when she was halfway across. What more did she need to know?
He was twelve months older than her and unemployed at the time. An only child. An ex St Martin’s boy too, so technically the enemy. Martha was in her last year at Evesham upper-school and he used to sit on the grass bank by the tennis courts most days, waiting for her to come out at dinnertime. Mum disapproved of these carryings-on, but could only watch helplessly from her bedroom window. He didn’t have much go in him, was her verdict. Still, it was enough for him to carve their names into one of the fir trees overlooking the school swimming pool. Soon after I noticed a Polaroid by her bed of them standing in front of a big Union Jack at the Silver Jubilee party, taking the place of the winking hologram of Bowie I’d given her.
Sometimes I was still lucky enough to have her to myself. On those evenings I would sit in the living room with her, stealing glances as she brushed and blow-dried her long luxurious hair, tiny droplets of water making me flinch while Mooska lay sprawled out in front of what was left of the fire, Radio Luxemburg slipping in and out of focus. Of the three of us, Martha had inherited the most obvious Hungarian genes from Dad: olive black hair, dark features, fathomless seal pup eyes, and an ease with people I could only admire. If she was vain, as Mum often accused her of being, it was only what she deserved. Fittingly perhaps, when she got married in her mid-twenties, the wedding announcements section in The Hereford Times said that her middle name was Vain instead of Jane.
She told me things during those hours that were no go areas at any other time: who fancied who at school; abortions her friends had had. I was four years younger than her, an unbreachable gulf, and I knew the value of these secrets she entrusted me with. I understood that much of what she said was for effect too, and played my part in this game by always exaggerating how much she’d shocked me in order to spur her on to deeper confessions. The house belonged to us those nights, and only when we forgot ourselves and raised our voices would the familiar buck rabbit thump of Dad’s fist on his bedroom floor above remind us otherwise.
Yet what haunts us most are our betrayals. I can still see her walking the gauntlet between the two playgrounds of our primary school after she’d dropped me off at the infants. Being jeered at by the big kids behind the chain-link fence as she made her way down the path and I screamed at her to say one last goodbye. Perched like a trapped bird on my windowsill after Dad had sent her to my room in one of his furies to teach me how to read. It must have done the trick because by the time I was thirteen there was nothing more important to me than books. One night I was running a bath when I caught sight of one of my paperbacks on Martha’s bed, propped open like a collapsed tent. I found her washing up in the kitchen with Mum.
‘Oh, stop being so melodramatic,’ said Martha. ‘It’s just a crease. You only read them for the sex anyway.’
‘Oh, right. Actually, James Herbert is only the finest horror writer this country has ever produced!’ I stormed out, snapping the door shut after me. I was furious. Halfway up the stairs, I turned and went back. I pushed open the door. ‘Well, at least I don’t go rolling over the youth club floor with Nigel Palamountain having sex all the time!’ I slammed the door and went back upstairs. That was good. The killer blow. I couldn’t let her get away with that kind of loose talk. In front of Mum too.
In the bathroom, I turned the water off, catching it just in time.
‘What did you say, Grant?’ It was Mum at the bottom of the stairs.
‘Oh, work it out for yourself. It’s obvious, isn’t it?’ I called back. I went across the landing to my room, flung the book on the bed (narrowly missing Mooska, who was asleep there), and returned to the bathroom, closing the door behind me. I would have liked to lock it but Dad had broken the lock after our last encounter, so I had to settle for jamming a towel against the bottom. Still, as I stirred in the bubble bath, I felt the heat going out of me as quickly as it had come. I got into the bath. They were still shrieking away downstairs. Mum following Martha from room to room, Martha crying. I hated it when Martha cried; it twisted me up inside. She’d brought it on herself this time, though. I didn’t mind people borrowing my books as long as they were careful. All the same, I was glad Dad was working tonight.
I went under. When I came up I heard Martha’s door slam shut. Practically the same instant the door opened again and my younger sister, Tabatha, came out.
‘Satisfied now, Grant?’ she said, going downstairs.
‘Take a hike, evil beast!’ I shouted back. There was an almost silence after that but for the sound of Martha’s muffled sobs. I shampooed my hair. I’d had enough of arguing. Why did we have to argue all the time? If only people could live in peace. Was it too much to ask? But then Mum was coming up the stairs in that slow, deliberate way of hers I knew meant business. She went into Martha’s room without knocking. I did my best to ignore them. I was about to rinse my hair when the bathroom door burst open – the towel just slid away.
‘Now, tell me again. What was Martha doing at that youth club?’
‘Get out! Can’t you see I’m in the bath!’ I cried, squeezing my eyes open to see Mum glaring down at me.
‘Not until you tell me what your sister’s been up to.’
‘I told you already, din I?’
‘Tell me again.’
‘What I told you. She was rolling about on the cloakroom floor with Nigel Palamountain.’
‘I dunno. Ask her. That’s what she told me.’ I mumbled this last bit, hoping Martha wouldn’t overhear. I’d never seen Mum like this before. Normally she was such a pushover.
Martha came to the door with black stained tears. I was horribly exposed, the bubbles already having deserted me. I sat hugging my knees to my chest, my hair a thick wig of foam-like some tabloid shamed barrister from Crown Court.
‘Tell her. Please, just tell her the truth.’
‘I am telling the truth! You said you were rolling on the youth club floor with Fatheaded Nigel.’
At some point in all this, I was vaguely aware of the back doorbell ringing. Tabatha must have answered it, and only later did it occur to me it must have been Adam.
‘Did she? Is that what she said?’ Mum demanded. ‘Is that what she said? I’ll have to tell your Dad, mind.’
Tabatha was out there now too, arms folded, enjoying the show. She smelt blood. I said it was, and Martha denied it. ‘It is!’ I screamed. ‘You said he does it with all the girls.’
‘Oh, no, no, no, no …’
And so it went on until I could stand it no longer. ‘Yes, I made it up! I made it up, okay?’ I cried. ‘Are you satisfied? Now that you’ve completely humiliated me in front of that … thing,’ I glared at Tabatha. There was a pressure building up behind my eyes, but fortunately, the door closed then. Martha’s door clicked shut and the sobbing stopped. Mum and Tabatha went downstairs. A freakish, unnatural silence settled on the house. I got out of the bath, into my pyjamas and went to my room. Mooska was gone but The Fog was still on the duvet. It bobbed up and down like a piece of driftwood as I got into bed. ‘For goodness sake, don’t leave this on Aunt Edna’s chair,’ said the blurb on the back in big yellow letters.
I don’t know why I picked Fatheaded Nigel to get my revenge. Perhaps I meant it as a compliment? He was much more like the kind of boy Martha usually went for. Arrogant. Athletic. Watching him play rugby was like watching a threshing machine pass through a field of wheat. Martha and Adam split up soon after that. He went on dutifully waiting for her in his usual spot in the school playing fields, but she didn’t come. I heard he got a job in the plastics factory. Eventually, his picture disappeared from her bedside locker, and it wasn’t long before I started answering the door to somebody new. There was a failed engagement, after which she grew increasingly frantic. Like Dad, she had this awful energy about her sometimes. There were terrible rows. Fierce battles to stop her going out that would draw me from my room onto the landing. I can’t pretend I didn’t get a kick out of these struggles, although it did seem to me even then Martha was judged by a stricter code than I was. I was never told to be back by a certain time on those all but nonexistent nights I ventured out, and the most I was ever inconvenienced by housework was when I had to lift my socked feet six inches above the carpet while the hoover jabbed away at the space beneath them. I never saw anything unjust in this disparity. Besides, other things would be expected of me in the fullness of time I was vaguely, sometimes ominously aware.
When she was seventeen Martha left home and went to live with a bull-necked soldier of twenty-three. Mum and Dad objected to her shacking up with a squaddie and living in sin, but there was nothing they could do to stop her. I didn’t much like Milton either – his rock-star leather jacket creaked like an old tree whenever he slid his arm around Martha on the sofa – yet I still blamed them for hounding my sister away. For weeks afterwards, I played ‘She’s Leaving Home’ loudly on my stereo, and went to her room whenever Tabatha wasn’t around to stoke the fires of my melancholy by gazing upon her unruffled bed with its orphaned soft toys bunched up at its foot, patiently awaiting her return. If ever I spotted one of her rippled brown hairpins camouflaged on the carpet, I’d pick it up full of longing. Yet a good part of me was only acting. Like the time I tried running away from home myself, Dad’s spare work flask poking out of my backpack like an oxygen tank, but only got as far as a bench overlooking the river Wye before turning back when the lampposts flickered on and I realised I’d forgotten my flannel bag.
I almost didn’t recognise her when I saw her next. It wasn’t just the perm and the Deirdre glasses. She had phoned to ask me to stay the night in her new flat. I was reluctant. I had a social studies exam early the next day. But there was something peculiarly insistent in her voice and she assured me Milton wouldn’t be there. She just looked all wrong in that soulless shell with its barren kitchen, high ceilings and posterless walls. Not herself at all. Next to a scorched lamp on her bedside locker was a photo of Milton in uniform. Not far from a hole in the wall that reminded me of the one in Psycho. I said nothing about the photo, but when I pointed out the hole she didn’t laugh which should have given me a clue. Just said it had been there when she moved in.
She started coming home for Sunday dinners. Oddly formal, over-careful occasions with everyone on their best behaviour. Not raising your voice for fear you’d crack the silence and fall through and drown. And then after we’d finished eating, to ease her conscience, Mum would let her watch Eastenders instead of helping with the washing up. And to ease his Dad would give her a lift back when it was time, while I went to my room to grieve afresh over my banished princess. The strange thing was when I finally got my wish a year or so later, and she came to live with us again, it didn’t take me long to realise I preferred missing her to having her around all the time. I’d grown attached to my sense of injustice. Fortunately, unlike me, Martha didn’t bear grudges. She forgot them as easily as she seemed able to turn a blind eye to men’s faults in her search for someone to save her from the straight and narrow. The man she married two years later was the kind who thought it was clever to unscrew your lightbulbs each time you moved house, yet she always kept a torch burning for him. Even Owen, the pathological liar she fell in with after she became a scratch on her ex-husband’s car, who hid her letters under the washing machine and brought the bailiffs to her door, was looked upon compassionately after his sudden death. Her new house became a shrine to his memory. She’d see him again soon in a better place.
When our cousin Archie died suddenly last winter Martha and I found ourselves alone in our parents’ house after the wake. Mum and Dad hadn’t been able to attend the service because they had already booked a holiday in Lanzarote. It was unnerving being there without them, like a dress rehearsal for a play neither of us wanted to be in. With Martha beside me though, I still felt protected, sealed off from the rest of the world. We sat in the kitchen eating pizza, laughing as people do after funerals, and opened up in a way we hadn’t since those long-ago evenings.
‘Did I ever tell you about Mr. McBride?’ she asked.
‘I remember him introducing us to Mr. Wackadoo,’ I said.
‘He used to keep me and a few of my friends back during playtime and ask us to lift our blouses and vests, so he could run the back of his hand over our tummies.’
‘Did you ever tell anyone?’
‘No. I didn’t think anything of it.’
Not to be outdone I told her about a dream I’d had a few days before; how I’d gone back to the old house and there’d been some kind of party going on. Everyone was there: Aunty Marge, Uncle Henry, Aunty Joan, Mum and Dad; even Mooska whose hot-water-bottle-presence at the end of my bed I missed to this day. The living and the dead together. Archie had been there too, looking slim again like he used to when he was young. Not all red-faced and bloated by drink and misfortune the way he’d ended up. I’d gone to say hello. Only I couldn’t quite catch up with him. Every time I got close he would slip out of sight into the next room.
Martha was moved. How could she not be? It was one of those dreams that come as a gift. But like I said I was not a good brother. No sooner had the words hit home than I went and spoilt it by telling her I was an atheist and didn’t believe in the afterlife, and she turned her face away just as if she’d been slapped.
Not long afterwards I saw a message from Owen on Facebook which he’d apparently sent her from heaven. He was very proud of her he said, for being so strong and dealing with things so well.
‘Why does she keep chewin’ over the same old bone again?’ Mum asked me on the phone when Martha first met up with Adam again.
I shook my head. Like most people, I had gone in search of old flames on social media myself, but it would take me weeks to pull myself free again from the Lyle’s Black Treacle of the past. Martha’s heart was made of sterner stuff. On the day of her and Adam’s reunion the two of them had gone looking for the tree he’d inscribed with their names when they first met. But they had been unable to climb the fence that now surrounded their old school, so instead had gone to the old primary school and took a selfie in sorrow’s playground – a recreation of that old Jubilee Polaroid. A few weeks later she brought him to my parents’ house for an unannounced visit – Martha had lost none of her fondness for shocking people. I was there that day, in the conservatory with Mum. He came in wearing a light brown ‘sheriff’s hat.’ Like Martha, he’d put on quite a bit of weight in the almost forty years since I’d last seen him, and his hands bore the telltale dermatitis scars from the plastic factory he was still stuck in. I recalled what a lonely figure he’d cut waiting on the grass bank for my fifteen-year-old sister to come out and meet him at playtime.
‘I heard you talk posh now,’ he said as he shook my hand.
But I forgave him when he said he’d heard I was a writer now, realising how Martha must have put those words into his head. Me, a washed up never has been!
Mum wasn’t so easily taken in. ‘Look at those silly blackbirds,’ she said after they left. ‘Flying in and out of that hedge with bits of twig in their beaks. They always build their nests in silly places. That hedge is not very high and it’s right next to the patio table. Some old tomcat is probably watching them right now, thinking to itself: “Oh, that’s nice. Table level. How considerate.”’
Martha began seeing him about once a month. He was recently divorced and lived alone just around the corner from Mum and Dad’s in one of the redbrick chicken coups on Watery Lane. I assumed Martha being Martha, was seeking comfort there, but it was a chaste relationship I later discovered. A cuddle on the sofa. A kiss at the gate. They were just two little lonely people, she said. Childhood sweethearts seeking solace in the lost certainties of the past. Making the usual promises about what would happen if either of them won the lottery.
I was home one of those times she was at Mum and Dad’s preparing to go around to his place. She and I were both without our families that day. She was getting ready in the spare room. Passing her door on my way downstairs I stood on the landing, the sweet and heavy scent of déjà vu perfuming the air as I listened to her sing along with ‘There is a Light that Never Goes Out.’ If I felt sorry for her now or embarrassed she showed so little pride in herself, I was envious too. The precious paperbacks I was carrying would fall apart eventually, the pages come unstuck whether I read them or not, but my sister would go on feeling the glow of magic appointments into her heart until the end of time.
She looked terrible the next morning. All pea-eyed and puffy. Mega moody. She sat down opposite me at the kitchen table while Dad set about making her a cooked breakfast. To lighten the atmosphere he turned the radio on and a snatch of ‘Good Vibrations’ blared out, before he switched to a classical station. The phone rang. Mum went to answer it and we listened. A nuisance call. She shuffled back.
‘I’ve heard it all now,’ she said. ‘He said, “Have you got a minute to spare?” I said, “Not really.” And he said, “Well, why did you pick the phone up then if you haven’t got a minute to spare.” Real nasty.’
‘Ignorant pigs,’ said Dad.
‘Sunday morning too,’ said Martha. She began telling us about her night out then. ‘I thought we were going into town but he pointed to the two bottles of wine he’d gotten in, one of which he’d already started, and suggested we stay in instead. He said we could order a pizza if I was hungry. I felt really overdressed too. He hadn’t dressed up at all.’
The bacon began crackling like a scratched record. Dad put a mug of tea in front of her and went back to standing like a butler with a tea-towel draped neatly over his arm.
‘All we did was sit and watch telly. Nothing I was interested in. It stank of dogs in there too. His garden is a rubbish tip.’
‘No wonder his wife divorced him,’ said Mum.
‘Bone-idle,’ the butler said.
‘We had nothing to say to each other. I’ve never been so bored.’
‘I dunno what you expected,’ Mum said.
‘Neither did I.’
‘He’ll stop breathing one day because it’s too much effort,’ the butler said.
‘Yeah, probably. Pass me the sugar, will you, Grant.’
There was none on the table so I went into the utility room and found a packet in the cupboard. Opened it and poured some into a bowl, making a bit of a mess in my desperation not to miss out on anything. Hangover talk, I thought as I slid the bowl towards her. I hoped no one ever paid such close attention to mine.
‘He wasn’t gonna let you walk back down that old ash path by yourself was he!’ Mum was saying, pleasantly aghast. This was a short cut on the way back to Mum and Dad’s, a back lane along which Uncle Leonard was fond of saying you had more chance of slipping over in dog shit than you had of being mugged.
‘He was going to,’ said Martha. ‘“It’s quite safe,” he kept saying. He just sat there.’ Whereupon she had been forced to use the words she had not been reduced to speaking since she was a sixteen-year-old girl: ‘I said, “My Dad said you gotta walk me home.”’
And so he had, their twin shadows stretching ahead of them as they went from lamppost to lamppost along that lonely back lane, gradually growing weaker before they were replaced by another set of shadows that would start pulling away from them and fading in their turn.
Adam came into some money soon after that. More than David Bowie left behind after a lifetime spent changing the world. Luck happened. His champagne photo was on the front page of all the tabloids, between pictures of our downcast prime minister and the floods in Africa. Three sackfuls of begging letters arrived in the post for him in the first week alone. Five proposals of marriage. One of the Estonian women living next door took off all her clothes and got into his bed.
Adam slept downstairs on the sofa.
In the morning he rang Martha up and promised to buy her a house. He asked her to give up her job and travel the world with him.
‘Don’t worry, Martha. I’ll see you right. You and your kids won’t have to worry anymore,’ he said. ‘I wanna help you out because I love you.’
And with that once again he strode out into the middle of life’s treacherous highway and stopped the traffic for her.