Short Fiction by M A Packman
You hate your work. This is the first thing you’ve painted in a year. If you were back at college, you’d smash it where the other girls could see or leave it outside the rec room to be stolen. But here it is, tucked under your arm while you edge along the harbour wall, mid-morning, eyeing shapes that move beneath the water. The painting is a present for your runaway mother. A view of dawn from the slip, across the fishing boats towards a clifftop tangled with heather and scrub. The doctor you spoke to from the pub payphone yesterday said it’s important to keep things as normal as possible until she settles down. You hope it will trigger something in her, a memory to explain why she ran away two weeks ago and ended up here, at a cove, miles from anywhere, shouting through strangers’ letter boxes.
There’s a scar on your eyebrow you pinch while you think about her. A ridge of skin hardened around a dent, where she threw a wooden block at you when you were little. Teddy, your older brother by two years, had just died. You still remember the flash of the impact, white then black, like a door being opened and slammed. Your mother gawping and yelling, ‘Anna, don’t whine,’ as the first blood trickled from your eyebrow, down your cheek, and settled at the corner of your mouth. She carried you through the rain to the car, pressing a hand towel to the cut. Sitting in the front seat. The first and only time she made you feel like a grown-up. For a moment, you forgot about the blood and pain and while she drove, you pressed the buttons on the dashboard one after the other, then all at once. You cried when the fan blew hot air in your eyes but not about the cut on your forehead. And your mother, leaning over to whisper nicotine breath, ‘Tell the nurse you fell off the swing.’
Your father, who you’ve always called Gerry, searched for her from his armchair. The same one he’d spent your childhood defending against felt-tip pens and chewing gum. On normal days, he buys his peace and quiet from you with bribes of cash for gallery trips, paints and brushes. Money you spend on dope and fags and bottles of vodka small enough to hide in your coat at college. He dug out her book of phone numbers and spent three days stuttering his embarrassment to women she’d shared university digs with over two decades ago. Delivering breathless apologies to distant cousins who haven’t so much as sent a Christmas card in the seventeen years you’ve been alive. On the third day, you snatched the receiver from his hand and called him a cunt. A word you’d chosen for the complete impossibility of it being ignored.
‘Pardon,’ he said.
‘You’re being a cunt.’
You wished he’d say, what the fuck, Anna. Or hit you or ground you. Anything that meant he had his hands on the steering wheel.
Instead, he said, ‘Maybe you should try the train station again.’
And when you slammed the phone down, he cried, and you pulled him to your chest. The thinness of his skin and bones surprised you, made you wonder how long it had been since you held each other. His tendons, shifting, pressed into your hands like ties around some precious bag that might tear open. His sobs and wet breathing left a patch on the black of your t-shirt, right over your nipple. You helped him to his feet, and he set off, shuffling across the lounge. Through the patio doors into the sun, trouser hems dragging the heels of his shoes. He slumped onto the garden bench, hugging his stomach. When you sat next to him, he whispered about a Japanese man he’d seen on the news, who’d lost his wife and home in a tsunami and dived each day into the sea near where they lived. He knew she was dead, but he had to find a token of her he could keep. Something that connected them, and proved she was not just a figment of his imagination.
A week later, on your third trip to station, a woman in an orange dress remembered seeing your mother.
‘She’s so tiny,’ the woman said. ‘That’s what stuck with me,’
‘Which way did she go? Did she look upset?’
‘And her hair was all frizzy.’ She laughed. ‘You know, like a dandelion fairy.’
That afternoon, you unfolded a paper map on the waiting room table and counted twenty-two stations along the line, in the direction the woman had said. You skipped all the tiny ones with no guards or toilets, and names like Corkallick or Great Nympton. Limbo stations where young girls chasing runaway mothers waited for their turn to be murdered.
By the next day, you had a plan written out on graph paper, stuck with scraps of train map. A way to visit every station in two days. There would be some doubling back, a few lung-busting sprints across railway bridges, but it could be done. And you’d stick up posters, a recent picture taken at her forty-fifth birthday party, an event concocted by Gerry to show everyone how difficult she was becoming. You went upstairs and scoured his study for the photo album. That was when the police called.
The boy with one crutch is on the harbour again. He should look out of place in the painting, but he doesn’t. Eighteen or nineteen, the age Teddy would be. Balanced against the slipway railing, across from you, stacking lobster pots passed to him from a boat by an old man in a real sou’wester. On the road, a woman wearing a thick jumper unloads crates of bread from the boot of an estate car. You can’t see more than the boy’s silhouette, but somehow you know what sort of lad he is, salt-rough hair, the mineral scent of his skin. You watch for longer than you should, delaying the bus journey to your mother. Seagulls swoop into the boat and he waves his crutch at them, skittering sidewards like a crab. A breeze brings beer and food smells from the pub across the road, and you realise how long it is since you ate. There’s still half the money Gerry gave you screwed up in your pocket. You pull it out. Fifty pounds in tenners. A ball of possibility that crackles against your skin.
When you were little, you daydreamed that there was a way to scuttle unseen beneath the floorboards. The idea came from a TV series about men in a prisoner of war camp, how they’d hide down there and be called ghosts, and not come out until the guards thought them long gone, so they could stand-in for the real escapee. That’s what you wanted to be, a ghost. Slip beneath the boards. Go missing. Peer through gaps, ease plugs of wood out of spy holes with your thumbnail. Watch as concern about you turned to panic. Your mother searching the house, checking all your favourite hiding places: the wardrobe, the washing basket beneath bundles of linen, even inside the spin drier. You’d spider your way up gaps behind walls. See her panic turn to grief and outpourings of love. No one comes into their own like the dead.
But there was no hiding place beneath the floor or spy holes in the walls. Instead, you punished your mother’s coldness towards you by stealing money from her purse and burning holes in her clothes. Once, she caught you pouring scouring powder into her tea. She snatched the cardboard tube off you and upturned her mug into the sink. The water spiralled away, leaving a slurry of toxic granules in the plughole, which she poked down with her finger. She rinsed the mug and insisted on teaching you to make tea properly. Warm the pot, measure the leaves, pour the water. Spoon sugar, not poison, into the cup. And when the tea was brewed and tasted, she praised you, as if the whole incident had been some terrible mistake.
The boy is three or four steps away now, leaning against his crutch, sweating in the cold breeze. So close you can see the broken skin on his knuckles.
‘Hard work,’ you say, but not loud enough for him to hear over the wind, which catches the painting and nearly yanks it from under your arm.
At college, you speak to boys all the time. Last New Year’s Eve, you followed the singer from Jonny Sax to a party. You’d bought condoms from the chemist in town, a box of three you dropped on the counter with lip balm and a chocolate bar. When the elderly woman serving scanned them, you wanted to tell her that he, the singer from Jonny Sax, was going to be your first. At the party, you pushed him into a bedroom. He put his hand in your knickers and threw up down your top. Told his friends that you were crap in bed, and they told everyone else. Someone posted it online and for weeks girls at college called you a slag to your face. People make their own reality now, you thought. That’s where we all live, in the world of the singer from Jonny Sax.
You want to reach out and feel the tightness of the boy’s neck and the way muscle shifts in his arms when he lifts. The rhythm of heave and push, stacking lobster pots on the slipway. You want to wrap your arms around him like Gerry, the wetness of his breath on your nipple. Instead, you walk away, while he hauls the last of the pots from the old man’s hands, leaving the silent understanding between them to play out again and again. One day, the old man will be gone. The boy will be old, and another will take his place. You see the ends of things. This is how you are.
The red wine at the pub is better than it should be. You sit at the bar sipping from a glass, the painting leant against your stool, trying to dredge up your mother’s sophisticated air. The landlord stares at your mouth when you drink. You worry he will ask for ID. He mumbles to the barman, thickening his dialect enough to hide the words from you. It’s only late morning, but they chuckle in a way that makes you think of the unlit lane between here and your B&B.
Out of the door, slipping off the step. Running through drizzle, following the boy onto the bus. You pay the driver through streams of diesel-fume tears and he returns a handful of change which you stuff into your pocket. Staggering down the aisle with the painting under your arm, weaving between people and their dogs. The bus pulls away. Four stops from the cove to the hospital where your mother is being kept. You counted them on the timetable this morning. A breeze from an open window. When you settle on the back seat, you see the boy, three rows in front. You must have lumbered right past him.
At the top of the road, brakes squeal and the bus stops at a junction. The woman in the seat behind him stands and rushes forwards, holding her mouth. She pleads for the driver to let her out. You’re in the empty seat before he can answer. The doors hiss open and she staggers off, throwing up into the gutter. People sigh and grumble. The bus doesn’t wait.
You’d smell the boy’s hair, taste his skin, pick the fish scales off his knuckles. You never want to show anyone your work, but you need him to see the painting. He is loose-limbed, like you, cobbled together from parts that don’t match. He could be your brother. You feel a terrible certainty in this, as if a new truth is hardening in your gut.
He lifts his lame leg over his good and winces at the pain. You want to stroke his hair and tell him everything will be okay, even though it won’t. And you wonder where he’s going. Is he coming with you to find your mother, see the whites of her eyes, hear the hard truths you will tell? There’s an endless cycle to your thoughts about her like that picture of a snake eating its tail.
The driver shouts abuse out of his window at a motorbike that cut him up. I don’t have time for twats like you. He jerks the bus to a halt behind a stream of stationary traffic. You can see in the rear-view mirror how he clenches his jaw, barely restrains himself from punching someone. The boy is off down the bus, with you behind him. You can’t remember how many stops there have been.
On the pavement. The rain has passed and sunlight peers between the houses opposite. Cars and lorries creep up the hill, by kebab shops and discount stores. A man wearing bright clothes has music blaring from a portable stereo and sells tiny cardboard figures that seem alive and dance on wool-strand legs. You know the con, seen it before. There’s no life in them. They’re joined to the stereo by an invisible wire that bounces their bodies around. He’s dropping two in a paper bag while a grandmother counts change from her purse. She goes away with a smile on her face that’s completely different to the one on his.
You feel in your pocket for the scrap of paper, a map to the hospital. A gaggle of female students, two or three years older than you, crosses between stationary cars. The way they walk and hold their bags, with a lightness, as if the air they breathe is ripe with possibilities. There’s a part of you that wants to slip into their ranks. Laugh and joke as if you’ve always been there.
At school, there was never any doubt you’d go to university; the quality of your work was something everyone agreed on. You even caught your mother telling the neighbours about it once. Now you spend your college days drinking vodka in the park. You always wanted your art to mean something. Last year, you smashed three months of assignments and submitted the pieces in a bin bag. You worried that everyone would think you were being contemporary and clever, but they didn’t. Your tutor says he’s past caring and you believe him.
A guard at the train station scrawled this map for you on the back of a taxi receipt. It’s scrunched at the bottom of your pocket. You fish it out, almost dropping your painting, while the boy lurches on. Either the man drew it wrong, or this isn’t the right road. You don’t have time to stop. The boy walks with his crutch as if one half of him is dragging the other, yet somehow, he’s getting away. The cord between you tightens. Car and lorry horns sound in volleys, each blast longer than the one before. On a bus next to you, passengers have abandoned their seats and stand in the centre of the aisle shouting at the driver to let them out. His mouth moves, his hands plead calm. A woman pulls the emergency release, the doors sigh open, and a crowd of men, women and children weave into the traffic. Two guys argue over the roof of a mini. Frantic pointing about who should be in what lane. And you want to tell them it doesn’t matter, that nothing matters. Not Gerry, not your mother, just the slackening and tightening of the cord that yanks your gut and pulls you elbowing through the crowd.
A junction. A cross of main roads. This isn’t on your map. An articulated lorry has jackknifed across the middle of the yellow-painted box. Passers-by are stopping to look. Where is this? Did the guard who scribbled the map misremember?
The lorry’s trailer is off-kilter, some structural failure. You glance at the cab. The driver’s seat is empty. Emblazoned on the side is a huge photograph of a grinning mother serving ice cream to a little boy and girl above the word, Chilled. People in cars shout and swear through a cacophony of horns. A man wearing overalls gets out of his van, strides over to the lorry and slaps a palm on the trailer, as if this small act might make a difference. The hollow sound brings a smile to his face. He slaps it again. You try to see around the lorry, but you can’t.
A window cleaner working at a pub on the corner leaves his bucket and squeegee and joins the van man. He slaps too and you think that any minute the lorry driver will appear from somewhere and hit these men. They beat the trailer with their palms, matching each other’s rhythm. One-by-one, women and men climb out of cars and make the short walk to the junction, passing between blinking traffic lights that have lost all meaning: red, amber, green. Joining the crowd of drummers. Hell-to-pay, you think.
You push through, breathless and sweating, with straggles of hair stuck to your face, clutching the painting. The drumming fades as the men nearby step away. One, a tall man wearing an estate agent’s suit, holds his palms up to you in surrender.
And there you are, no car or truck of your own, smashing the painting of the boy against the side of the lorry with everyone else until your hands burn and turn numb. The map to your mother is still pinched between your fingertips. Other people climb from of their cars to watch as more drummers join: twenty, thirty, forty, until the pounding on the lorry all but drowns out the horns, and shouts, and distant whine of a police siren.
The drummers grin at each other. And on the road, drivers who’ve stayed with their cars cheer and applaud. You read in the paper there are people who pay others to follow them around, to watch everything they do. That makes sense.
The boy is Teddy. You gasp his name out loud.
No one speaks of your older brother. No one in your family speaks of anything painful. Only the trees and birds in the wood behind your house know what he was thinking when he tied the rope and jumped. You see it now. A new Teddy, not dead, but hidden away. A fraud. A piece of theatre. Some woman in a headscarf points at her phone’s camera lens. Her palms are red from pounding the metal trailer. She photographs you standing against the lorry, the map fluttering in your hands. She’ll forget you soon like your parents forgot Teddy. No, not like that. She has no malice for you. Theirs is a form of murder, erasing him from the world. You wish you could crawl beneath the floors of their minds and spy on the memories they keep locked away. Instead, you made a profile for him online. Scanned photos. Wrote posts. Each day, you update it with the things he might have been doing. Going to gigs. Getting drunk at a university bar and missing his lecture the next morning. Realising he’s gay. Being surprised how his friends accept him but worrying about telling his parents. Tears fill your eyes. You throw the last pieces of the painting beneath the lorry, where you don’t have to see them.
Some of the people who wandered off are staring at a bank of TVs in a shop window. The same programme on every screen: a bunch of lads lounging around on brightly coloured armchairs, casually throwing food at each other. Even when you stand on tiptoes to see, you can’t make sense of it.
The map blows from your fingers and flutters across the road, past the window cleaner and estate agent, towards the university, where the student girls disappeared. You chase it into the gutter, bending over to pluck it from wet tarmac. Ants scuttle around a crack in the kerb, retrieving the tiny black bodies of other ants who died underfoot. Their endless back and forth makes you dizzy. Your fingers move towards the map. The drumming stops. No shouting or car horns. No police siren. Behind you, the woman who took the photo is smiling, beckoning to you, pointing at the lens on her phone. She wants another picture. The two of you together with the lorry. She could be your friend. Your sister. You are bent double, a breath away from the map, staring at her, wishing you knew what to do or say.