Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Time and Place

In the shadow under the grapes, I find solace from the persistent sun—it’s rays, strong and penetrating, like loving fingers unwittingly leaving me tickled into explosion. Did the Romans seek shelter here, under the overhang of these vines—when the heat of the vineyards was too much to bear?
How did I end up here, in Tuscany, this sweltering place? I ‘took the car for a trial run’, I guess—spreading my wings from the restrictive monotony of college study, having so tirelessly ticked on and on and on with erudite ideas (until we reach oblivion?), leaping at the chance for feeding my thoughts with more experience, more substance...
I raise my glass of vino to myself: Way to go, little drummer!

The copyright of this post belongs to Monica Jenkins

The Story of Evan Shunt

Since childhood, engraved on her heart, was the knowledge that the sea was her destiny. It called to her like a silver tongue, waves, salty and insistent, the backdrop to her life.
Eva grew up in Gdansk, surrounded by ships and seafarers inside, outside, around the town, the gruff male voices, shouting, swearing and beguiling. Her biggest obstacle was her femaleness, because although she could always disguise the budding breasts what to do with the inside of the heart’s cave, that secret place that she could not alter?
As she matured, Eva set her plan in motion. She would become a boy and suppress the vortex of any feminine or maternal desires so she could gain the freedom of the seas.
Eva’s parents, beaten down by the privations of war and sullied by politics, had fled into the comfort of their secret Catholic faith, and their love for one another.
Eva, knowing that faith for her was like the damp, cold smell of stone angels, slipped away from home. Dressed like the man she wanted to be, she signed up as Able Seaman Shunt.
Knowing that her parents would hardly even notice her absence, never mind register her as a missing person, Eva, inside the locked prison of her own choosing, swung happily in a hammock, miles below deck.
She became he, from Eva Shuntski to Evan Shunt, destined for far away lands, he quietly played his tiny childhood harmonica and knew that he would never miss the windowpane of home.

The copyright of this post belongs to Valerie Rule
22 January 2015

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Music (1)

Melodies streaming- coursing through the air around;
like ships sailing past in vast ocean: unordered, yet courses set.
Flag one down; Hop aboard; ride it like a current-
Absorb; tunes bubbling up and filling your empty vessel like surf crashing against the sides of the ship-
Solid, yet ephemeral.
No limit to your journey-
Catching melodies.
Oh- never to have written one, but to borrow and possess briefly, and forever!:
Able to turn back the clock with a rhythmic beat of a bass.
A borrowed ship, transport-
Providing an exodus from banality, flat existence, and inertia.
Beyond wingspan.

The copyright of this post belongs to Monica Jenkins

Soul Candle

Soul Candle

The Soul Candle burns in a darkened room
It flickers through life’s adventure
Some days the flame holds low
Slow and orange glow
Like a golden rose a-growing

Othertimes the flame leaps high
Exultant, bright enough to light
Not just this room
Not just this Castle
Of Breath and Being
But the world, the universe and far beyond.

This room of the Soul Candle
Is protected by the Steward of Life, Keeper of Souls
A plated guardian who keeps the flame ablaze
Through illness, despair, the passing of moons
The Steward stands silent
Watching tirelessly through all ages of a life

And at the window of the room
Sings the bird of angel secrets
Who chirps its tales
And tells its truths
To any ear that hears it

The room’s within this Castle
Known to all as Breath and Being
Built into the clouds
Beyond the skies
Dark rooms of amber glowing rise

For here is all humanity
Where Souls flutter ever on
Amid the scent of softened wax
The burn of life is strong

Until finally, inevitably
The candle’s all but gone
The wick full spent to ashen dust
The light beings to dim
And the Steward of Life, Keeper of Souls
Sets down its sword
Unbuckles all its armour
Lays down its body upon the earthen floor
Listening to the fading
Of the angel birds sweet call

And then the darkened room
Which no longer holds some light
Slips into that of the Black Beyond
And the room falls out of sight

The copyright of this poem belongs to Swift Watson

Treasure in Heaven

“My spirit is alive and enhanced with joy!”
My mother-in-law Jill, trailing hippy scarves and asphyxiating perfume, flings the door open, gesturing for us to come inside. Then kisses from her sticky raspberry lips, a matching pair of stains on both cheeks for Kieran and I as we step over the threshold.
“Darlings!” She sing-songs. “Don’t you just sense the beauty and transience of life?”
Well, frankly, no. Kieran and I are going through a sticky patch, one of the ‘downs’ in the ups and downs everyone promised us marriage would deliver. Not Kieran’s fault, really. Not mine, either. It’s just that the temptation to blame - or shift blame - pulls us daily into silent resentment, or guilt-loaded words that escape from our mouths before we can stop them, tearing into the innocence of trust. “If you’d listened to me and slowed down a bit, it might not have happened.” He says to me. “If you’d been home instead of working late again, I might have got to the hospital in time.” I say to him. None of this is true, of course. The doctor told us: “One in three pregnancies end in miscarriage. It’s nothing you did wrong. The baby simply wasn’t viable.” A medical endorsement to try again, perhaps in six months or so, he suggests. A thought to console ourselves with as we avoid the bedroom as much as possible until it’s time to sleep, although, six months having passed, it is time to try again. Maybe in another six months, everything will be all better. The damage of those words healed and forgotten.
Suffice it to say, after a day of petty rows (Kieran said some horrible things), then hiding from one another in our tiny flat, the last thing we needed was an invitation round to dinner at his loopy parent’s. A roast, apparently - that is, a nut one - since Jill won’t tolerate anything that once had entrails in her house. She whimpers when required to chop a carrot, lamenting its lost destiny and all the baby carrots abandoned in some distant field as their mother is being butchered on the chopping board. I picture her leaning over it and whispering, “You had a bright future, my love. But now it cannot be.” while my father-in-law rolls his eyes and gets on with bottling his dodgy date wine.
“Gerald is creating in his studio.” Jill confides as we stand in the hall, her pale eyes bright with an edge of annoyance. Despite the fact that her spirit is alive and enhanced with joy.
“What’s he creating, now?” Says Kieran. “Mulled frog wine? Bat testicle brew?”
“Really, Kieran.” Says his mother. Clearly, Kieran’s jokes aren’t vegetarian enough. “Your father’s not that bad at home brewing. You only had a slightly poorly tummy after the elderberry brandy.” Actually, Kieran was throwing up for days afterwards. But I say nothing.
Kieran’s theory used to be our in-joke - back in the days when we still made jokes - and remains quite plausible. I picture Gerald in his ‘studio’, his bottom of the garden lair, cackling over the latest lethal concoction to slip his wife of a bedtime, a slow, untraceable poisoning of carefully researched substances that is gradually turning her blood to a dark sludge in her veins. I see his witching fingers nipping at the keys of his computer, his eyes greedily drinking in every how-to poisoning guideline Google can provide. Who says the internet is for porn.
My in-law’s house is vast, a shambling damp-trap of multiple rooms, each one thickly cloying with petulli and decay. The living room is crowded with mismatched furniture, odd, ethnic ornaments
and enough hippy cushions to get buried under. (If the poisoning option doesn’t work, Gerald can always suffocate his wife.) There are lots of photographs, mostly of Jill and Gerald on their India and Thailand travels, both considerably younger and thinner, both looking happy. Not pretend happy (“We must embrace the true jollity of life!”), but real happy.
“Can I use your loo?” I mutter. Other than feigning death, it’s my only actual escape plan.
Jill looks delighted. “Of course, darling!”
Gerald has recently been successfully nagged into doing it up, so that it resembles the marble floored bathrooms at the Hilton in Mumbai, where they had once stayed. (“One gets tired of no running water after a while, darling.”)
Locking the door behind me and leaning against it, I let the tears flow. I remember Kieran and I honeymooning in India, the pulse and flow of our days, the long nights of intimacy, sticky with love. The heat, the rain, the card games. (Kieran was a master at Pontoon.) The beginning of our adventure. Back then, we had scoffed at people’s warnings about ‘ups and downs’.
Suddenly exhausted and not ready to return, I close the seat of the purple toilet (where did they find a purple loo?) and sit down. My tears show no sign of slowing down, hot rivers of tension, anger and self-disgust that have been dammed up for the last week. I look up and see, between the statues of a glum-looking Buddha and a maniacally-starring Ganesh, a childishly daubed and strangely old fashioned painting of Jesus. He is smiling gently, apparently at me, His ethnically inaccurate blue eyes are filled with tenderness. Underneath are the words: ‘Lay up for yourselves treasure in heaven.’
Best not think about heaven, or I’ll never stop crying. Our baby had been a little girl. We named her Erin Elizabeth. Was there a heaven and if so, was Erin there? Or was her tiny body just maggot food, manure for the roses? I remember the last lines of a poem I had once read, written for the poet’s dead niece, who had committed suicide: ‘No longer ours. Kept pure for the dust.’ I drag the freshly gathering tears from my swollen eyes with the heel of my hand. Pull yourself together, idiot. I blow my nose and inspect the evidence of my misery in the mirror. Staring into the shattered self I see there, I will my reflection to disappear. Without me, I do not exist. It isn’t the first time I’ve tried to step outside myself, remove myself into forgetfulness. It doesn’t work. I can never get away from me, even in sleep; my dreams are exhausting, frantic and guilt-heavy. When I wake up, I’m hungover with the effort of my starring role. This morning, it took an exhumation order to get me out of bed.
“Lucy!” Kieran calls, an edge in his voice. Time to face the horror of nut roast and in-laws. I’m hardly fit for public viewing. You’d have to be deeply insensitive or profoundly self-absorbed not to notice that I’ve been crying my eyes out for the last twenty minutes. Fortunately, Gerald and Jill are such people.
“What’s the matter?” Kieran hisses at me, seeing my face.
“Nothing. I’m fine.”
“Time to dine!” Jill sing-songs, ushering us into the dusty dining room. She had cleared a space for four on the huge, cluttered oak table, gesturing elaborately for us to sit. The detritus of their everyday lays piled at the other end - magazines, letters, a half-completed puzzle of a unicorn and empty labelled bottles ready to receive Gerald’s latest Russian-roulette brew.
Kieran and I look at each other, fear sparking between us. During the course of the meal either Jill or Gerald - or both - will be bound to mention the unmentionable, because Jill is of the opinion that ‘these things should be discussed openly’ and Gerald doesn’t know what all the fuss is about.
He has been heard to remark that children are ‘a sexually transmitted disease’.
To distract myself, I look around the familiar dark room. On the equally vast sideboard (which hasn’t encountered a duster for a while), next to the Tibetan singing bowls, is an old school photo of Kieran’s sister, Matilda. She is never mentioned these days, having upped-sticks to Canary Wharf, utterly betraying her Egalitarian roots by becoming a Hedge Fund Manager. So much for ‘discussing these things openly’.
With a flourish, the nut roast is presented. It sits in the middle of the table, looking defeated and deeply reluctant. I know how it feels.
Jill is talking again, a monologue that doesn’t require much response - something about Indian head massage and aligned chaqures. Certainly, no response is forthcoming from her husband and Kieran’s head is down, concentrating on serving himself nut roast. As Jill’s one remaining listener, I make some appropriately polite noises while my attention - and my gaze - wanders. I find myself looking at the framed print just above Jill’s head, a sombre, pasty portrait of Edward Plantagenet. He has a combative glint in his eye, staring me out across history. Jill tells us every time we come round that she is descended in a direct line from this nasty-faced monarch, while Kieran and his father roll their eyes.
She follows my gaze now and says: “When you two do manage to have a baby, he can be proud of his heritage, can’t he?”
I stare hard at the nut roast, aware of Kieran’s eyes on me. He is watching my nails scraping at the edge of the wooden table, a thought in translation. He is afraid that what I’m thinking may become words, words that shouldn’t be spoken, exploding out of my mouth. I look up and gaze blindly at my mother-in-law, her face an unseen blur, hearing only her casual dismissal of our baby girl, replacing her as if she’d never been…
I’m afraid of those words, too - so I scrape back my chair and run out of the room.
And then I find myself out in the garden. The day is easing itself into the spectral light of dusk, the sun burning low on the horizon. The trees are silhouetted against a luminous sky. My heart still pounding, I breathe in the drowsy, maddening scents of late summer, the mown grass, the low-hanging buddleia.
A weary peace settles on me like dew, drenching, penetrating. I sit down on the grass.
And then I see her, Erin, our little girl. She is young, maybe four or five. Her ash-blond hair bobbs about her shoulders as she plays and her blue eyes twinkle with delighted anticipation. She is smiling at me, telling me everything is alright. The words sound in my head: ‘Lay up for yourself treasure in heaven.’ “Lucy!”
It’s Kieran, come to find me. I stiffen, waiting for his rebuke. He hates it when I flounce off. Instead, I hear him sigh as he sits down beside me. He slips his arm around my shoulder and says, “Sorry about my mum. She doesn’t mean any harm.”
“I know.” I turn to him, smiling into his darkened eyes. “It’s alright, Kieran. About Erin, I mean.” That name has lain between us like an open grave for months, now. The air seems to quiver with the shock of hearing it spoken, before absorbing the sound back into its peace.
Kieran smiles too, uncertain. “What do you mean?”
I tell him what I’ve seen, what I now know. “She’s waiting for us. We will see her again.” I’m not sure if he believes me, but he picks up my hand and kisses it. He rests his head on my shoulder as we watch the last bright traces of the day disappear into the horizon, until there is no stain left of its memory.
A sudden sharp bird cry stirs us both out of our trance. We sigh, get up, hug.
“Sorry about today, Lucy.” Kieran whispers. “I was a pig.”
I smile ruefully. “Sorry about every day for the last six months.”
“Start again?”
I cast one glance back into the darkness, where I saw Erin. “Let’s go and face that nut roast.” I say.

The copyright of this post belongs to Alison Stickings. 22.1.15

The Weaver

Sir Ruidgaarg had come to see her just as her brother had promised. Miya had never seen his like before. He was dressed in a fine linen shirt with heavily laced collar and matching tooled leather doublet and hoes. He bowed deeply as he introduced himself and she felt awkward at the gesture but she curtsied to cover the blush that worked its way from her bodice to her bun and he and his roguish grin seemed well satisfied as she stood again.
Miya had never left the Flatlands. She had thought to live forever in this wooden shingled dwelling,paddling the pattern into her cloth and creating an architecture of threads. She knew every gnarled bump of the wall panels, every crack that needed to be stoppered come winter. The earthy smell of fungus from the damp corner by the washstand was her constant bed fellow. She had a world in her head coloured by imagination from all the stories her Father and Brother told but she could not have imagined this turn of events.
Her brother, Friedl, had broken the news of their fathers shipwreck and her unexpected joy at seeing him home had vanished like a ghost and she sunk to the floor and wept in horror as much for the loss of him as for her tattered future. She was not yet betrothed and had no dowry. Without her Father to represent her Miya felt all of her dreams slipping beneath the unforgiving waves and rotting along with the cargo in the sunken merchant's galleon. But a month later her brother had returned with almost incomprehensible news. By some strange turn in the wheels of fortune some of the cargo had washed up on shore and among the goods was their fathers trunk which was taken to the merchants guild for identification. In it had been the fine smoking jacket she had woven for him and the matching slippers. They were of such fine work that they caught the eye of the Mayor and Master of the Guild, Sir Ruidgaard. He was of marriageable age and a fine prospect eagerly sought by many a toady social climber for their daughter. He had resisted the 'marriage trap' as he called it and found his fun elsewhere. He did not need to be anchored to a family wishing to climb on his back for a free ride. He did not want for connection.
When he saw the finely woven cloth in the Merchant's trunk he was intrigued to meet the lady capable of such artistry and architecture. Friedl was glad to acknowledge his sisters skill but would not see her used. It would be easy for the Sir Ruidgaard to bring her to the city and turn her head. Instead he told Sir Ruidgaard that if he liked what he saw when he met his sister Miya then he could bring her to the town and set her up in her own business. If he chose to try for her heart as well and his sister showed an inclination towards him they would talk again. It was a bold move on Friedl's part but he was learning fast that a man must make his own luck in this world. He could no longer hide in his Father's shadow and he wanted what was best for Miya. If his sister was as desirable as the men of the Flatland suggested she would have a chance of happiness and marriage and if not at least she would have a secure business and future prospects. So he went back to the country to tell Miya what he had proposed and to expect Sir Ruidgaard before the next moon waxed full.
Two weeks had passed since Sir Ruidgaard had arrived to convince her of the move. She wrapped her travelling cloak about her and climbed on to the dray that would transport her and her loom to their new start. The same daffodils that bowed to her as she passed along the road had bowed to him when he had left a week earlier to secure her use of the light North facing room on the upper floor of the guild as working premises. As she was lulled by the rhythm of music created by the wheels and the hooves on the track she drifter into her imaginination as she did when she was seated with the lullaby of her loom. This was not the domestic life she had pictured before with a bearded Lord of the Woods and a glowing hearth in the winter with five bright faced babies competing for love, that she could watch and feed and teach as they grew her in to old age but of courtly rustling skirts, fine buildings, new place and faces and a feast for the senses and a valuable independence. Maybe she would have love too. She had enjoyed her time with Sir Ruidgaard . He was intelligent and had shared generously in conversation and laughter as well as being attentive and interested in her. There was much she would like to learn from him and much more of him she wanted to know. Could he be as interested in her as he seemed? Or was that just the manner of men in the city? There was no cost to her dreaming of what a kiss from his sweet bearded face would feel like as it brushed against her neck, or reliving the heat she had felt from his gaze as their hands grazed each other's in farewell. Some invisible force seemed to be pulling them together before decorum was forced back in to play. She could dream on that for free.

The copyright of this post belongs to Holly Khan

Strickland's Dilemma

The night of the Winter Solstice Concert was drawing near, and Strickland gave himself permission to indulge in a fantasy of being on stage with his hero Benjamin Brittain looking on. A particular favourite fantasy of his began with them walking together along a moonlit beach, rapturous applause ringing in their ears, and Ben whispering “…because you deserve it…”
Buoyant now, Strickland made his way to the concert hall for the final rehearsal.
Looking out across the jumble of instruments and faces, the orchestra tuning up and fiddling with sensitive strings, his excitement died. He spotted Theo.

Theo, sporting a chrome yellow cummerbund and a matching jaundiced facial expression of sulk and stir, looked for all the world like a spoilt teenager. Theo liked to imagine he brought musical provocation to the staid orchestra with its dress code rules and frumpy rituals. His outlandish solo take on Elgar had once brought Strickland out in a rash, but mostly the conductor forgave Theo, as the constant search for gifted musicians proved more difficult with every new season. Strickland felt himself to be locked in so many battles these days, what with provincial attitudes of Board members, the unrealistic expectations of the locals, the fundraising committee and the restrictions of the local authority.
Now there was Theo and his liking for chrome yellow.
Distress filled Strickland’s stomach. How to resolve the current dilemma?

The copyright of this post belongs to Valerie Anne Rule

19 December, 2014.

Monday, 26 January 2015

A Special Place

A Special Place

The stone cottage by the sea with its sparkling solid granite block walls is where I can feel all is right with the world. The clocks stop. Time stands still. The cares and worries of everyday peel away into silence. The world will keep on turning without my input for this short while and I can feed my soul from the murmur of the tide washing on the shore, the ring of bicycle bells as people pass by in friendly salute, the chattering demand of gulls bickering over crab remains thrown out by the fishermen.
This is a dream world. Solid and yet unsubstantial. Time will no longer stand still than the melody in a piece of music. You can hold the pause but eventually you will be swept along to the next phrase, the next crescendo.
I put on my swimsuit and walk down on to the beach picking my way over the dry rolled seaweed of high tide. I walk the sand of the tide line noting the entry and exodus of each wave turning a fresh crop of pearly shells in its wake. The sand bubbles in places where sea creatures hide, breathing unseen. I bend to pick up the tiniest delicate shell the size and shade of my babies fingernail. This is substance. This I can hold and take and keep in the cut glass pink salt. It can be mine always. My own dear heart quietly contented.

The copyright of this post belongs to Holly Khan

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Still, in Two Parts

Part 1:
They sit, smiling: laughter caught on their faces, in the corners of their mouths, the crinkling of their eyes, a spontaneous embrace—
If joy can be captured—frozen, yet warm—aglow in the patina of the fading photograph—continuing beyond the brief click of the shutter—lasting beyond the years of growth of the young children into adults…
They sit: animated, but still; quiet, peaceful; on the edge of their lives, but in balance for the moment.
In the retirement home, she sets down the photograph and thinks, “what’s at rest, stays at rest”, and closes her eyes.
Part 2:
In the cold, stillness of winter, good fortune frozen on the wind, the remaining leaves hanging lifeless from glittering twigs, a man sits, static, like an oil painting, framed by the icicle-bejewelled window edges. His battered, dusty cowboy hat lies on the floor beside him, as if dropped a season ago like the Autumn leaves by the wind and left to decay. His eyes, unfocused, as if he would see through people and not see them.
He remembers the wind of winters long ago: the snow spiralling down, her love bright like glitter, a picture of kindness, a warmth like summer, stilling his hands with her own.

The copyright of this post belongs to Monica Jenkins

The Sign for Corney Reach

I wasn't sure if I could find the path.  I had seen the sign, Corney Reach, five miles, about 30 minutes ago; but it didn't feel like it was within reach.

Why was it that even in my panic, I found myself singing: "the only man who could ever reach me, was the son of a preacher man"?  It must have been to do with the sign for Corney Reach.

I saw a pub sign in the distance with its sign swinging to and fro in the wind. That must be The Little Drummer pub, I thought, but with the wind blowing, it seemed quite a way to go to The Little Drummer.

I felt angry with myself for taking things at face value. When I met the bearded man in the bar, I knew that he took the car for a trial run, but I never thought he would steal it.  That was my only possession and now I was stranded out in the wild, windy countryside, trying to find the path.
The copyright of this post belongs to Jane Kunna

Sunday, 11 January 2015


Part One
There’s always a price to pay. So she had been warned, many times, by many people - some more sensitively than others. Her mother had invited herself round, cornered her in the kitchen and called her recent romantic choices ‘depraved’. Her gentle friend Rosie, meanwhile, confined herself to asking: “Are you sure you know what you’re doing?” Depraved. Well, that was love for you.
Into the slumber of Monday to Friday mortgage-paying, weekend Garden Centre-visiting grey predictability, he had exploded his kaleidoscope of colour, his vivid, irradiating energy. He lived a different kind of life to everyone else, as if he occupied some other, glorious dimension where unknown rules applied. Or none at all. Wild seas and dangerous currents were his everyday, his high-octane reality.
As she lay with her head on his chest, the sun’s glow burning through the curtains, the pulse of his heart raged against her cheek. Even at rest, his heartbeat was twice as fast as hers. “It’s like you’re constantly running from the law, my love.” She teased.
He gave an ironic laugh.
“He’s a bit flamboyant.” Rosie had remarked. “Not at all like Steve.”
“Hence the appeal.” She replied. Steve was her dull, non-communicative, chain-smoking ex-husband. Closing her eyes against the memory, she saw the small places of their life together, the nicotine-stained walls, the closing net of debt, the bickering arguments where nothing was really said.
“Anyway, what’s wrong with flamboyant?” She said. “Michel just knows how to express himself.” He certainly did.
“He’s a bloody frog.” was all her dad could say.
While she didn’t agree with her mother’s histrionics or her father’s blatant racism, honesty compelled her to admit that she had her doubts. It was a darker sense of caution violated, of somewhere entered where there was no guaranteed exit. It wasn’t even the worry that he might actually eat frog’s legs. She knew something of his history, the trail of women left for dead in his wake - at least in an emotional sense. Perhaps he was so alive that he couldn’t possibly live - in any normal way - and took with him anyone who stepped into his orbit. Then they found themselves stranded in a land far from home, kaleidoscoped into oblivion, hungover from the intoxication of him. She was next.
Perhaps it would be a glorious way to go. Or maybe it would be better to stay in comfortable slumber with a dull husband.
And then she would look at Michel and know that behind the radiant image was a darker reality.

Part 2
Zebra in the room.
The water of the Thames was dark and oily by night, lapping with rhythmic suggestion against the side of the punt. It had been Michel’s idea to steal one (or ‘liberate’ it, as he maintained) from the Oxford boat-house and have a midnight adventure.
“It will empower you.” He had whispered in her ear, his big, warm hands resting on her hips. “This is ‘Morse’ and ‘Lewis’ territory, you know.” She replied, laughing. “Are you going to murder me?”
“Perhaps.” His strange, light eyes - very un-French eyes - glinted at her in the semi-dark. “But no blundering English Pig policeman - that is correct, you say the Pigs? - will solve this murder. You and I will be the only witnesses to this unreported crime.” He had held her hand in his strong, certain grip as she climbed unsteadily into the punt. Amazing how much she trusted him when he was telling her he was going to murder her.
He climbed in beside her. “You will simply disappear.”
She leaned into him, the boat shuddering beneath them, breathing in the dark, maddening smell of him, feeling the pulse of his neck vibrating against her lips.
“Would you disappear with me?” She whispered.
She closed her eyes, sinking into his enclosing arms as he began lazily to propel them away from the bank.
“I know this is not the proper English way to punt along the river.” He said, a smile in his voice.
“No. You don’t have a cup of Earl Grey in your hand. And you’re not moaning about the weather.
Still, I rather like the French way.”
“It is not the French way, either. In France we would be crashing the other boats, blowing our horns and shouting, ‘Salaude!’”
She laughed, the sound echoing across the water, getting lost in the dark undergrowth. An owl screeched, as if in reply.
“Michel?” “Yes.”
“I think you’re already disappeared, aren’t you. On the run from the French authorities?” “I do not run. I never run. I evolve.”
She nestled more closely against him, feeling the working of his chest muscles as he pushed the punt. “Well, I’m on to you.”
“Then I’ll definitely have to kill you.”
He let the punt drift again, pulling her up so that she faced him. His eyes were steady, unblinking, the pupils so huge that they had all but driven out the light, the long, child’s lashes casting shadows on his cheeks. With one finger he traced along the bones of her face, across her brow, to her cheekbones, along her jaw line, as if he were creating her, moulding her shape. Slowly, he lifted her face to his, tasting her lips.
She had never been with anyone who kissed quite like Michel. Sometimes like this, sensual and unhurried, as if he was fine-dining; sometimes playfully, laughing against her open mouth and ruffling her hair. Then, when the mood took him, he would push her hard against the wall with explosive, ravenous kisses, trying to swallow her whole. Fee, Fi, Fo, Fum, I smell the blood of an englishman. Or woman. After he had eaten her up, he would spit out her bones.
He sighed dreamily and began to punt again, as she re-nestled.
“Have I hit on the truth, then?” She said. “Is Michel not your real name? Are you an exile?”
He didn’t laugh. “Just like Lord Byron.”
“Have you driven dozens of women to madness, too?”
“Are you going to drive me to madness, Michel?”
She saw his wide smile in the dark, the glint of his teeth. “Only if you want me to.”
She laughed. “You already have, my love. Can’t you tell? It’s after midnight and I’m in the middle of the Thames in a punt we just knicked.”
“You’re a bad man.”
Again, he let the boat drift, covering her eyes with his large hands. “Guess what.” He said. She felt his hands tighten.
“I have something for you.” His voice sounded close in her head, like one of her own thoughts. He took his hands away slowly. She felt a warm pressure and looking down, she saw a dark shape in her lap. “Open it.” He said.
It was a small bag, made of stiff card, with cord to close it. Peering at it, she read: ‘Maria’s antique jewelry, St. Aldates, Oxford.’
She gave a small gasp. She had often admired the jewelry in the window for its dignified
Edwardian pieces and an pearl and garnet ring in particular that would fit very nicely on her ring finger…
But the bag felt too heavy for that.
“Open it.” He pressed her.
She drew out a statuette, a cat deep blue as she lifted it to the moonlight, a cool, smug look on its face. Its sightless eyes stared into hers. It was strangely warm in her hand and so heavy - dence with the weight of secrets.
Puzzlement fought with disappointment and won. “Did you get this from Maria’s, then?”
“Pas de tout. I stole the jewelry bag from Cafe Nero. Somebody left it on their table.”
She shook her head. “You’re a very bad man.”
“Oui, c’est moi. Le voleur.” He reached across and took the cat from her hand. “Do you like her?” Her hands felt naked, released from the strangely comforting weight. She didn’t quite know what to say. “Yes, of course.”
“You want to know things about me, yes? Well, she could tell you a story, if she could talk.” He stroked the cat with a slow, sensual rhythm. She experienced a ridiculous pang of jealousy.
“Why don’t you tell me?”
There was a long pause. His breathing sounded loud in the darkness.
“D’accord.” He shifted away from her, looking out across the water. “ I grew up in a nothing little town near Reims. My father ran the bakery, until he went out of business. He liked drinking more
than baking bread. My mother loved this cat. She put her on the on the window sill and there she sat, for years, watching. Always watching.”
He told her about his violent father, his annihilating rages, his pathetic tears, afterwards.
“My mother always seemed to believe him when he told her he would never do it again. Even after he made her clean the blood off the walls.”
“Did he ever hit you?”
“Sometimes. When I tried to help her.”
She could picture it: the watching cat on the window sill, its fake lapis smoothness serene and undisturbed, absorbing the family secrets. The helpless little boy in his bedroom, the muffled sounds of pain vibrating the walls. “My poor love.” She said, stroking his arm.
“It was much worse after the bakery closed. We had to move away. I remember looking back as we left, seeing my mother’s pretty blue dress crumpled on the floor. We had to leave things behind, because we left quickly. It made me sad that she would never wear it again.” “But you took the cat.”
“Mais, oui. I put her in my pocket as we left. She was the witness to what no-one ever talked about. It was going on all the time, but it was - how do you say? - the ‘zebra in the room’.”
She couldn’t keep back a smile. “Elephant.”
“Yes, elephant.” He shook his head. “My mother wouldn’t leave him. I told her he would never stop.” He turned to her suddenly and said, with a slow smile, “But he did stop.”
“How... Why? Did he leave?”
“He died. He was killed.”
In the heavy silence that followed, the owl screeched again.
She jumped. “Why did you give me the cat, Michel?”
“I wanted you to know things... that I’ve kept hidden from everyone for years. Years. I thought she would help me tell you.“ He took her hand, opening it and placing the warm weight of the cat in her palm. She almost thought she could feel it purring. “I feel safe with you, my darling.”
But did she feel safe with him? There was another ‘zebra’ in the room, as he would say. But she didn’t know if she could form the words.
“Well,” he said, after a while, “Aren’t you going to ask me?”
She took a deep breath, letting go of his hand. “Did you kill your father, Michel?”
He drew her back into his arms, whispering: “Only the cat knows. Perhaps one day she’ll tell you.”

The copyright of this post belongs to Alison Stickings 11.1.15