ambition, beauty, fiction, politics, short fiction, women

Let It Burn

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(http://charmander831.deviantart.com/art/let-it-burn-638659914)

Pam watched the dorm burn. She stood with the crowd of onlookers, phones and tablets held up to capture how the flames licked at the windows, vomiting black smoke, thick from the feast of plastic it had found in every room.

Theresa came over, weeping in a way which Pam found unsightly. The histrionics of someone who saw the world through a filter of utter solipsism. She reached out her thin arms and threw herself into Pam’s arms.

Pam patted Theresa between her shoulder blades, perfunctory gestures interpreted as awkwardness but were about her distaste for physical contact. Pam had built herself an ideology which avoided the messy business of sex through a seething bolus of gender variations. The likes of Theresa challenged her but tonight her drama would prove useful.

‘Who’s done this?’ Theresa said.

She devolved into a series of wet, rough brays before Pam shushed her and kept on patting her back as though it meant anything.

Pam watched the crowd. A news van had parked at the end of the row and she turned Theresa around without speaking. Theresa sniffed and wiped her face.

The Dean of Students, bleary-eyed and grimacing made his way through the crowds. His silver hair stuck up from his head in soft tufts like dandelions, which offset the melancholy raptor features of his face, furrows from a perpetual frown and thin, pale lips. He taught American Literature before accepting the Dean’s position and Pam imagined he would press lots of old white authors upon them. He had changed into a white shirt and sweater, smelled of cologne as he saw her.

‘An absolute tragedy, Pam. I’m so sorry.’

Pam collected apologies from authority figures. This one was not up to the standards of the soft drink manufacturer or the best-selling author of the young adult trilogy but it was a good start.

‘Thank you, Dean. I have prepared a statement.’ Pam said.

He frowned and looked around him.

‘The fire’s not even out, Pam. Give yourself time to process this.’ he said.

Pam’s lips drew back over her teeth before she caught herself. She pushed Theresa aside.

‘Acts like this demand an immediate response.’ she said.

She had practiced it in the mirror, perfected the lift of the chin and the slight turn of profile.

The dean sighed and gave a short, terse nod.

‘But I would argue the use of the word act. It has connotations.’ he said.

Pam pointed to the blazing dorm, fighting the urge to give into her emotions, not from fearing their impact but because it was too early.

No one was watching.

‘The only connotations I see is an old white man playing down an act of ethno-gender terrorism.’

Pam enjoyed how he shuddered.

‘Now I think you should -‘

Pam’s heart leapt in her chest, higher than the flames in the dorm room.

‘You think, Dean. What should I think?’ she said

She raised her voice. People turned, their phones already ahead of them.

The news camera pointed at her. Its lens was a shining white disc, a medal for her sacrifice.

She started into her monologue. The firemen in the background added just the right note of disaster to proceedings. Her face was lit from within, eyes aflame with self-righteousness and the joy of wounded victimhood. In the weeks afterwards, she watched it a hundred times.

Protest footage with clusters of students marching and holding placards.

Aggressive scenes in the library, earphones snatched from ears and snarling challenges into the pinched faces of other students.

An investigation. The arrest.

Her trial.

Pam in orange prison clothes, her face slack with acceptance.

When the dean collapsed with a heart attack, Pam would have celebrated but she was too busy fighting off a bull who wanted to get romantic without having to memorise Pam’s preferred pronouns during pillow talk.

Before sleep, she remembered the orange glow of the flames and the desire to stay and watch it burn away her privilege..

The memory kept her warm. Whether there was enough to see her through ten years remained unknown.

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beauty, fiction, short fiction, women

No Friend To The Sisters

They stumbled onto the fire. The man sat against the tree stump, eating a piece of chicken as he watched them. His hazel eyes glowed with amusement.

Jacqueline stared at him with panicked eyes. Her stomach growled at the sight of a chicken being turned on a spit over the fire. Bren tugged her sleeve and Jacqueline watched her brush a lock of hair away from her eyes.

‘Please sir, may we join you?’

He scratched the dimple in his chin and tilted his head to one side.

‘You look like you’ve been running?’ he said.

Bren nodded, and fat shiny tears welled up in her eyes. Jacqueline’s hand went to the knife on her hip and the man raised his hand.

‘Yes, sir, we have. We’ve fled the convent.’ she said.

He whistled and shook his head, gestured to the fire and grinned at them.

‘Well then, you must join me.’ he said

Bren glanced at Jacqueline, gave her a pensive nod and sat down, crossing her legs with care at the ankles.

Jacqueline joined her on the ground.

‘Sorry.’ she said.

He nodded and pulled the spit towards him. He drew a small knife, the blade no longer than his thumb and scored along the breast. A drizzle of clear juice hissed onto the fire below and he sat back.

‘You’re just in time to eat, if you’re hungry?’ he said.

They looked at one another then both nodded. He grinned and reached towards the chicken. The perfume of it made their mouths water.

It would, Jacqueline thought, make for a fine story to tell the others.

2.

He wore a leather jerkin over suede leggings, boots that went to his calf, scarred and faded from use and time. At his feet laid a pair of calfskin gloves, studded along the knuckles with small pitted marks. His head was smooth and he wore a few days’s growth of stubble. He wore fine things but used them until they bore marks.

‘So, how did you come to be running from them?’ he said.

Bren chewed and looked at Jacqueline, a cue for her to tell the story they had agreed upon. Jacqueline swallowed the piece of chicken, spiced with herbs that made her gums tingle and ran her tongue over her lips.

‘We wanted to make our own way in the world.’

Bren nodded.

‘Yes, we were in the kitchens, slipped out through the larder and then the stables.’ Bren said.

He gestured to the knife on Jacqueline’s hip.

‘You got that from the kitchens? It’s got a wicked edge on it.’ he said.

Jacqueline blushed and looked away, feigning embarrassment at the oblique compliment.

‘We were a day away from our Silencing.’ she said.

His face turned pale. The Sisters performed initiation rituals, altering the vocal chords and structures of the jaw to ensure silence and a bite that could cleave through oak. It never left a woman pretty.

‘Where will you go to?’ he said.

Jacqueline shrugged her shoulders, furrowed her forehead.

‘As far away as we can. What brings you out here?’ she said.

He was hunting. Snares because the rabbits grew fat here and the wild chickens had not lost their flavour.

Bren picked up the last drumstick and bit into it. Jacqueline looked at her and wished she could pretend not to enjoy this so much. He lifted his wineskin to his lips, took a deep swig before he offered it to them.

Jacqueline refused but Bren took a deep draught and giggled afterwards. She could not stop competing with her.

‘Spicy though, for wild chicken.’ she said.

Bren coughed and swallowed the last mouthful.

‘It’s superb.’ Bren said.

Jacqueline looked at the man across the fire. He stared back before he raised his hand and gave a slow nod

‘You don’t have to worry about me turning you in. I’m no friend to The Sisters.’ he said.

A guttural note came into his voice. Jacqueline decided not to press any further.

‘We used to keep chickens up at the convent, but they never tasted like this.’ Bren said.

She coughed and fought the urge to spit.

Jacqueline looked at her. Bren gave a slow blink and took the wine from him.

A shudder of foreboding ran through Jacqueline. She glanced at the man across from her as he sat there.

Bren stared at her and went to speak but a low, soft croak came out. She bent over at the waist and emitted a torrent of tan silken vomit onto the ground. Jacqueline’s hand went to the knife on her hip but she stopped. A deep, violent cramp ran through her, up her spine and into her head.

A dark pressure forced itself outwards from the inside of her skull and she dropped the knife from fingers gone dead and cold. She reached for her Sister-in-waiting and found her gone form her reach.

‘It was a good plan.’ he said

Jacqueline turned toward the voice before her legs gave out and she fell to the ground.

‘I chose a blend of things, so it should be quick for you. It’s not your fault.’ he said.

She tried to speak but all that came out was a bloodied plug of tissue and mucus before her eyes rolled back in their sockets and she died.

‘It’s like I said. I am no friend to the Sisters.’ he said.

3.

He dug graves for the pair of them. Asra had found the location of the convent, told him when they had last laid together. She had shown him the scars from her escape and he had traced him with his finger, slow and soft as she reassure him of her health.

He swore his own vow.

He said a prayer over their graves. He found his weapons where he had hidden them along with his armour and tools. He looked through the trees, gauged how long it would take him to make it there before dawn.

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beauty, love, lust, mother, sex, short fiction, women

Maternal Burden

She wore a silk jersey dress, patterned in diamonds of blue and white. Her hair was a blunt bob, cut in around the ears and the back of her neck. She had a slight overbite, which leavened her beauty, vulnerable and approachable, were it not for the fierce, bright light in her eyes. Coltish legs and a small, high bosom.

The date on the back of the photograph reads a single date.

11th November 1975.

She had gone out, nineteen years old, spending the money she worked all week to earn. Her priorities were to have a dance, a few drinks and a laugh.

Simple pleasures, strung together like christmas lights.

He held court at the bar, a tumbler of scotch in one hand, cigarette between the fingers of his left hand as he gestured for emphasis. His hair was thick and black, with long, simian sideburns, a spade jaw and a deep cleft in his chin. She stood in the doorway and their eyes met across the pub with the propulsive force of chemical reaction. He wore a paisley shirt with a wide collar, unbuttoned to the chest, showing the broad, furred expanse like a mating display.

His wink had a seismic impact upon her, a brutish authority leavened by the melodic, poignant burr of his voice. The anecdote continued and she joined her friends in their hurry for amusement.

They danced in a circle, stiff and embarrassed, fending off suitors with practiced humour but with a few drinks and some good music, they found themselves, liquid and alive. It was during Somebody To Love by Queen that he came over and introduced himself.

Billly MacDonell brought them a round of drinks. He regaled the group, ignoring her until she twisted and seethed with his wilful ignorance of her attraction. She touched his arm and he laughed it off, telling her she should not touch what she could not afford. His tone bordered on contempt but his eyes were a slow burn, offering her a test of her character and will.

She dared,

She willed. Billy slipped away from the dance floor, with her heart in his pocket. He slipped his arm around her, suffusing her in a sensation equal parts danger and comfort.

He was a good Catholic boy. She was on the pill.

I never asked the details. It was enough to know they collided, flesh, chemicals and lightning.

The family doctor confirmed it She imagined his delight, the scenario playing out a million times in her head as she rang him from the phone box, asked him to meet her at the cafe on the high street.

His face fell when she told him. She was privy to a rare sight.

Billy McNamara. Speechless.

His glib charm sought to assert itself and failed. He set his mug of tea on the table.

‘I’ll pay for ye to take care of it.’ he said.

The cold edge in his voice cut her deep. He tried to explain that it was just fun, he could not be a father but he could do the decent thing.

She looked away, eyes damp with unshed tears as her insides burned with regret.

‘So, that’s it? That’s all you have to say?’ she said.

Billy’s eyes twinkled and he went to take her hand but she snatched it away.

‘My sweet, can’t you please see the longer picture here?’ he said.

She thought about correcting him. A small riposte to the injury he had delivered. She touched her stomach for reassurance. Her act of courage had been to meet his eye, but there was more to bear, and she had a choice to make, there and then.

I have her eyes.

His chin.

Her courage.

His glib charm but it’s leavened by experience.

She chose me, despite all the doors it closed to her.

When I sat there, running my thumb over the silver blister packs of tablets, mustering the courage to just stop suffering, I remember that girl and her faith in me. I got up, wiped my eyes and flushed them down the toilet before I made a phone call.

‘Hi Mum.’

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beauty, dogs, love, short fiction, women

Chasing Crisp

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Crisp ran before I could put his lead on, his fur slick against my fingers, sprinting towards the back fence we never repaired. Its coarse, treated texture now looked like something infected. With his canine instinct for causing me upset, he went through the gap and out onto the field.

Leo had not wanted him neutered, and when he left, Crisp stayed with us. I cursed him when I had to drag him away from mounting the nearest bitch, including a traumatised Boston Terrier, all to a soundtrack of threats to call the police and aspersions on my character.

I would avert my eyes, mumble an apology and drag Crisp back inside, my face burning with shame and my hands slick with his drool. Mum called from upstairs, voice slurred from sleep and medication and I would tell her everything was fine.

No matter what she said.

Crisp would stare at me, panting until he had deposited a good puddle of drool on the uneven laminate flooring. He gazed at me with the adoration that my mum had spent her whole life chasing, giving more and getting less. Leo had broken her with a callous indifference which her in bed for days. The house held the echoes of raised voices, drunken giggles and fragile chirps of joy which made me feel sick to listen to. It was a horrible, valuable lesson to learn so young. Someone you love can break you by leaving.

I took care of her as best I could. I guessed she was asleep and it was a beautiful day. It was a dream of mine, one good, selfless act plucked from all the others which would make my mum recover from her bleakness and just be my mum.

Crisp knew. He loved us without guile or reserve but Mum pushed him away. She hated messes even when she became one.

I ran after him, my vision blurring at the edges as I flung open the gate with enough force to make it rattle on its rusted hinges. Bolting after him onto the fields behind our house.

The land was unused, scarred by the seasons. In winter, the soil would crack and harden like the broken scales of an ancient, giant lizard. This time of year, the poppies grew tall, tangled and twisted together. Crisp charged through them, making the heads lilt and sway.

I breathed rather than call him. He would stop when he found something interesting. Mum said I took after her, built for pleasure not speed and gave me a knowing wink. Those were glimpses of a womanhood irresistible to men but never enough to make them stay.

This was my world, much like hers, helpless and desperate to catch up with someone who would have been easier to manage without testicles.

Crisp yelped. It was a sharp, ugly sound which punched a bolt of nausea into the back of my throat.

A deep, chilling growl.

Tearing cloth.

A shout of surprise then a cry of pain.

I parted the poppies, breathed in the smell of recent sex and spilled blood.

‘Mum?’ I said.

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beauty, grief, love, short fiction, women

Baby, It’s You

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Tomorrow would have been a day of splendid heraldry. Five years to the day, and I’m here to talk to you. We had picked out every last detail, lost in the tremendous, anxious excitement of a day celebrating our love.

The start of everything.

That last evening was full of mundane details which tragedy lent a mythic resonance

I had undercooked the spaghetti.

You complained for forty minutes about your job then started work on a spreadsheet.

The headache was down to stress; you said. We kissed, your eyes were dull with fatigue but you whispered for me to wake you in an hour and cupped my crotch.

I still feel the squeeze of your fingers against me.

You did not wake up and the world ended. If the devil had come and asked me to trade places, I would have in a heartbeat.

The flat became unbearable. Selling it was like chewing a limb off to escape a trap, and it hurt as much.

I could recite the memories, large and small, but I need to say this without crying.

Let me have my stoicism. Just once.

A smaller apartment, but being sentimental, I carried things of yours with me. Your family became feral in their grief, but I asserted my primal, mourning authority and was the first to take the share of the treasures your passing made of simple things.

They are in the spare room. Boxed up with the lids unsealed so I can torture myself and mourn in one visit.

Lying there, last night, I had left a light on. Which I don’t do, do I?

It used to irritate you how I would turn off the lights when we were not in the room. My way of showing you I had your security in mind. I figured you knew, but it got lost in translation.

The light came from the spare room. I had spent the evening reading the blizzard of post-it notes you left around the place. A possible oversight, but I got out of bed and check.

I opened the door, expecting to turn off the light, see all I had left of you and go back to bed, wounded and feverish.

Lights strung along the ceiling. Bunches of willow branches dusted with glitter hung on the walls. Throw pillows piled in the corner.

It brought me to my knees and I laid there, fetal and sobbing until my pills kicked in.

In the grey light of morning, it had all gone. Wiping my eyes did not make it any better.

The lights still coiled into a wreath. Pillows mummified into a vacuum sealed bag. Branches resting in a pool of glitter.

Madness would be a relief. I could discount it as my imagination. The gesture, though, baby it’s you.

I am seeing the doctor later. I wanted to run it by you first though before I say anything.

Are there rules over there? Are you twiddling the dials on a celestial radio, looking for a song you need to hear?

Sitting here talking to a lump of Italian marble with your name carved into it makes as much sense as anything else these days. It all boils down to a binary decision.

Pills or poltergeist?

I will leave the things where they are tonight.

I hope it’s you rather than me.

OK, got to go. I love you.

I will look for you, baby.

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art, beauty, love, short fiction, women

Found Art

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Christine saw the stencil, tucked into the corner of the decaying billboard that loomed over her on her walk to work. A pair of red lips, eyes and white gloved hands, essential components, presented in primary colours. The lack of art in her everyday life compelled her to seek it out, so she took random photographs on her phone, kept in a folder to amuse her during breaks at work.

There was a caption underneath.

MAY LOVES FORTUNE, WAIT NOT IN VAIN FOR YOUR CERTAIN ATTENTION.

She saved it and kept walking. Ten minutes late and she was summoning the will to affect she cared. The job paid rent and overheads, but left little else. Christine fed her soul from what was around her, but it was an appetite of overwhelming demand. When life was a series of numb grey and mauve washes, she sought sips of brighter feeling.

On her break, she sat in the corner of the room, deleting the last anonymous penis pictures that marked her attempt to find a relationship on the internet. Legions of disembodied genitals, offered instead of purpose and character. One or two had looked threatening. She opened her art folder on her phone, looking to cleanse her soul’s palate with something beautiful.

The writing remained but otherwise there was no trace of the image. Christine frowned and swiped through, wondering if the light had been bad until she saw the next picture. A willow tree, heavy with blossom and there was the clown, stood beneath it and his hand gestured towards the screen.

She shut her eyes to force the image from her mind.

‘Chris, you’re needed back on the shop floor.’

Ben stood there, peering over his glasses and his jowls wobbling with repressed irritation.

The rest of the shift passed in a chill fog of unease. Christine ignored her phone, detaching herself from the shifting unease through the routines of her day. She left off without speaking to anyone, reaching in her pocket to see if it had all been a trick of the light.

He had moved deeper into the folder.

Stood next to a graffiti mural, studying it with a deep interest. He wore a suit, muted and tasteful despite the choices of green and purple. He looked less like a clown each time she saw him.

Sat on the side of the road, watching the carnival parade with a gleeful grin on his face. Clowns terrified her, but he had become more substantial, more certain and less deranged. She slipped her phone away, wiping her eyes with a sudden, feverish panic.

Her flatmates were out, marked by a sink full of dishes, a shipwreck amidst a sea of grease-saturated water. The mundane disappointment of the real world proved to be a panacea to her gibbering imagination.

Her phone trilled and she answered it.

‘Hello.’ she said.

A soft, low male chuckle.

‘So, it’s you I have to thank, Christine.’

Her stomach roiled at the mention of her name. The sole of her shoe stuck against something embedded in the carpet.

‘I’m sorry, who is this?’

He cleared his throat.

‘This was not a deliberate release.’ he said.

A tinge of sadness washed through his words. Christine fought the impulse to apologise.

‘No, I think you’ve got the wrong number.’ she said.

He sighed with a melancholic acceptance.

‘It looks right from the inside here.’ he said.

The hairs went up on her arms and she shivered.

‘OK, I will go now.’ she said.

He sighed.

‘I’m sorry. Could you do me one last favour?’ he said.

She pulled the phone from her ear, looked at the screen. Her number.

‘If it’s a picture of your cock, then no.’

He chuckled and took a deep breath.

‘No, I want you to put me on speaker. Then I am done.’

She frowned.

‘How are you on my number? Why should I put you on speaker? You will not masturbate’ she said.

He met her breathless litany of questions with a sigh.

‘Please, to do such things without a partner is beneath me. Just a press of the button, then it’s done.’ he said.

She pressed the button. He sighed with pleasure, whispered something in another language, rich with endearment.

The call ended.

Christine went to bed, wrestled with insomnia until her eyes burned with fatigue. She dialled her own number, and it went straight to voicemail. Surrender was the best option, so she went with it.

The next morning was bright and full of song. Christine was awake before the alarm, pleased that she would be five minutes late rather than ten or fifteen.

He stood on the corner, in a suit of immaculate tailoring, vermillion and green material. He had washes of greasepaint across his eyes but nothing across his full lips. A battered hat sat next to his feet like a loyal pet, brimming with coins and notes. She stopped and smiled at him.

He mouthed three words from across the street.

She started to walk across the road but he raised his hand to stop her, tapping his wrist with his index finger and giving a mocking frown. Christine checked her phone, saw that she was already late but five minutes made no more difference than ten or fifteen.

Her heart raced at the sight of him. He grinned as she started to walk towards him.

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