118. Family Matters

Photo by Joshua Sortino on Unsplash

This is a story I wrote specifically for the brief of ‘GLASS’ for a competition, but it was not longlisted.

Some things that people assume are fragile, are often the most resilient, because they have to be to survive. If I’d never tapped that screen, then I wouldn’t know what happened and Mum would still be here.

When I was little, I stood on a chair, climbed under the net curtains and tiptoed precariously on the window ledge, between the photographs. I remember stretching up my arms like an angel. That window was bigger than I was. Mum was so happy to see me waiting for her, that she forgot to tell me off.

In my first year, almost everything I made broke, so I reused the smashed shards in my other work. By year four, I instinctively sensed how glass flowed. I could control my breath and feel the stresses and tensions. There was always a risk that kiln shock might crack a piece, but that was part of the process. People only saw the results, not the work leading up to it. Failure to produce or anticipate the market, meant I couldn’t pay my bills. It was all or nothing.

As the car drew up to what was left of Mum’s house, molten lead dripped into my stomach, and fizzed. I howled like a dog left home alone. A flapping stripy ribbon was the only barrier keeping strangers out.

I knew we would bicker over the scraps. His wife never appreciated the sentiment of unfashionable stem crystal, kept safe for best in a velvet-lined box, but she didn’t want me to have them either. I pretended that a new dandelion clock paperweight was Mum’s pride and joy and reluctantly gave it up for the wine glasses. If they had ever visited my shop, then they would know that the bowl they loved was one from my ‘Empty Vessel’ collection.

I hadn’t been a little sister for years but I still needed my big brother. This may as well have been a closed visit with a 6mm invisible barrier between us. I tried to reach out but I still couldn’t touch him. I think we both knew this would be the last time we didn’t speak.

He poured Mum’s ashes onto the sand. I picked up a muted, green pebble from the shoreline and sucked it like a travel sweet. Mum used to call these ‘mermaid’s tears’. Everything that fused us together was gone. I looked at the frosted, weathered sea glass nugget and wondered what it once was. I think I’ll make it into a pendant and wear it next to my heart.

When I got home, I wrote him a letter and pushed it into a bottle. I thought about throwing it into the sea, to be with Mum, but decided to slump it in the kiln. Flat bottles were always my best-sellers.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

111. 1471

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Photo by Marco Chilese on Unsplash

By the time the police arrived, Mrs Jones was sat on a low garden wall, next to what was left of her car. A couple of kids on bmx bikes were watching from a short distance away. The man who saw it all happen was sat in his car still talking into the handset. 

That beautiful red union jack mini was a write-off. Crumpled against a concrete lamp post, a perfect arc of skid marks visible in the road. People drove slowly past, phones ready, craning their necks to see if there was any blood.

As she was being breathalysed, a teenage girl briskly walked up, held out her phone at arms length, took a photo, then ran off. Her friend followed, shouting, “Was that Mrs Jones? Was it? Wait for me!” 

Still gently sobbing, Mrs Jones was grateful for the quiet routine of the police station. She listened patiently whilst the Police Constable spoke to the Custody Sergeant. Fortunately, he was one of those rare officers still working in a public-facing role in his fifties. Mrs Jones was relying on his age and experience for his empathy of her situation.

“Arrested for dangerous driving. She said she saw a mouse in the car and panicked. Drove through a red light and into a lamp post. Breathalyzer negative. No injuries. Car towed. Scene clear. CCTV requested,” said the PC, closing her pocket notebook.

The PC then lightly touched Mrs Jones on the arm and said, “My Sarge will look after you now. Don’t worry. It’ll get sorted out.”

“The Duty Solicitor has just gone into an interview, so it will be about an hour. I’m going to have to put you into a cell for a bit,” said the Custody Sergeant.

“Um. Ok. Oh, I need some things from my bag though,” she said.

“What sort of things?” asked the Custody Sergeant. He’d heard it all before.

“Um.” This was no time to be coy.  “I’m going through the change and I’m flooding, so I need a few sanitary towels. I need to take my pills in an hour and I have to eat a biscuit soon because stress makes me hypoglycemic and I can’t take tablets on an empty stomach or I’ll vomit.”

The Custody Sergeant studied her face for a moment. He remembered how it was for his missus a few years back. How the bleeding got so heavy that she couldn’t leave the house some days. When she sneezed, it looked like a crime scene.

“What pills do you need?” he asked.

“I’m due to take two ibuprofen, two paracetamol and codeine and two tranexamic acid in an hour,” she replied.

“I just need to make a quick call to the Doctor.” he said.

A few minutes later, he handed her a clear plastic evidence bag containing four sanitary towels, six tablets, plus the remains of a packet of hobnobs from her handbag.

After an hour in the cell, a different police officer brought her a cup of tea. “Your solicitor won’t be long now,” he said.

“Oh it’s ok. I don’t want to be a nuisance. I know you’re busy,” she replied.

The police officer turned to leave, then paused, “You don’t remember me do you? I was in your class at Hill High School and in the army cadets with your Davey. How is he these days?”

“Oh, I’m sorry love, my Davey passed away two years ago. He had a few problems with heroin and ended up homeless,” she said. Mrs Jones was used to this, having to offer comfort to those who only just found out.

“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that. I really am. We were good friends for a bit, me and Davey. We got up to all sorts, like teenagers do. I joined the army straight from school and we lost touch. I remember he was well into his music and motorbikes. I did 12 years and then joined the police,” he replied.

Mrs Jones already knew this.  

A couple of hours later, she had been interviewed, charged, bailed, and was home in time for Emmerdale. She surprised herself at how little shame she felt.

The next day, Mrs Jones was walking through town and saw Fred, one of the homeless guys she often chatted to, sat on a bench near the fountain in Town Hall Square. His worldly possessions were neatly packed into a rucksack on the ground. He was watching the pigeons scratting around for bits of discarded food, as he absentmindedly picked at the edges of a paper coffee cup.

“Hi Fred.” She said, cheerfully.  No matter how many problems she had, they paled into insignificance with what was going on in his life. “You’ll never guess what happened to me yesterday?” she said.

“No, what?” said Fred.

“I got arrested for dangerous driving.”

He sat up straighter. “Are you ok? Was anyone hurt?” he said quickly.

“No, I’m getting a bit of a bruise and my neck’s a bit stiff though.” She drew a diagonal line from neck to waist to show where the bruise was.

She stuffed her hands into her pockets, then said hesitantly, “I saw him though. I talked to him. He remembers Davey from before….” Her voice trailed off, then almost immediately she composed herself.

“He’s on afternoons all week. You still want to do it?” She asked.

“Yep. I’ve made up my mind. I can’t spend another winter outside. He’s as good as anyone, and he deserves it. Those who think they haven’t done anything wrong when they have, deserve it more,” said Fred.

They held each other’s gaze for a second longer than they usually did.

“His collar number is 1471” she said. “They never even searched me, probably cos I’m a doddery old woman. They even put it in a bag for me. It’s in the mattress, in the seam at the top. Cell number two.”

“Well, then,” said Fred. “Consider it done. For Davey.”

“Well then, yourself. Take care,” said Mrs Jones. “Oh, I got you these.” She pulled out a new packet of cigarettes and a lighter from her coat pocket and offered them to him.

“Thank you. That’s really kind. God bless. See you, Mrs Jones,” he said, as she turned away, her hand raised in an it’s nothing/don’t worry about it/goodbye gesture.

Two months later, Mrs Jones and Fred are sat at a table in the visitor’s room at the local prison. “This is nice, isn’t it?” said Mrs Jones, “to be out of the cold.”

Fred’s cheeks have plumped out and his limp is less pronounced than before. Even though he’s just about to officially start a life sentence, his spirits have lifted. 

“Three meals a day, a room to myself with a telly, no-one kicking or pissing on me while I’m trying to sleep, hot showers, proper toilets, books, people to talk to. I might even get some qualifications. This is luxury. If I’d have known what getting lifed off was going to be like, I’d have done it years ago.”

She smiled. They both got what they wanted.

The one who gave her son his first cigarette. His first can of beer. His first joint. His first ecstasy tablet. His first wrap of speed. His first shoplifting spree. His first joyride. His first fist fight. The one who started it all. He was gone now. 

Killing a police officer meant that Fred was given a longer sentence, but the tariff didn’t matter. It would be a life sentence. Years of living on the streets had taken its toll on his body. Fred would die in here, but it would be in the warm with a full belly surrounded by people who were paid to care. He wouldn’t be alone.

“They put me in cell number one at first, so I puked on the floor, and they moved me. I think after the sentence next week, I’m getting transferred to a prison up north,” said Fred. “Will you still come and visit me?”

“Course I will, love,” she said, having absolutely no intention of ever seeing him again.

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Photo by Patrick Hendry on Unsplash

102. Tony’s Theme

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Photo by Florencia Viadana on Unsplash

“History, as they say, will always be written by the victors.” 

Anthony Bordain, Medium Raw

I knew I’d have to introduce myself and talk at some point. I’d planned what I wanted to say, written it down, tried to practice it. I didn’t want to wing it. That wouldn’t be right. He’d been gone for longer now than the for the whole time I ever knew him. There were people in there who’d lost a lot more than I had.

“I wish I’d told him how I felt. I thought there’d be the perfect opportunity, that I’d find the right words, then we’d look right into each other, and we’d know. But we didn’t, and now it’s too late. I’ve been over it a thousand times and changed the outcome but it’s still there all the time. The first thing I think about when I wake up, the last thing at night. I’m so stuck and I don’t want to live in my head any more. I can’t change what happened no matter how much I want to. We all get the same amount of time as each other every day and I want to make it matter. I try, I really do make the effort to look people in the eye. I give them my full attention. I smile at strangers, I hold a gaze, I’m affectionate and I share the moment. And it’s really fucking hard to be brave like that. It’s scary to give yourself like that. And I’ve never cried more in my life these last few months – with people I don’t even know. I’ve shared really private stuff with people I’ve just met. Held hands and hugged people and I don’t even know them. Just look at me now. Look at the state I’m in. It’s worse now than at the time. I need help. I can’t go on like this. This isn’t living. But it’s too fucking hard to do it on my own. Um… God.. I’m sorry for swearing”

I’m way too hot, what’s left of my heart is screaming. I want to get up and run out but can’t. This is the safest place for me right now. I lean forward in my chair, elbows on my knees, hands covering my face and sob. There’s a beat of silence then the group leader says,

“Thank you for sharing.”

Someone is rubbing my back. My breathing slows. I look up, sniff loudly, wipe my nose on the back of my hand and take the crumpled tissue from up my sleeve. Snivelling, I take a huge breath, purse my lips and let it out with a long, quiet “whooooo” that sounds just like the wind on a blustery night. There is no dignity in this rawness. I turn to smile at the woman who was rubbing my back and she opens her arms to me as an invitation to hug.

After the group, us two go to the wholefood cafe near the park. As I sip my thick acai smoothie and pick at a malted flapjack, Angie tells me bits of her story. How her life is either ‘before’ or ‘after’ her husband and child died in a car accident. That people she knew for years now treat her differently, how they avoid or pity her, how being a widow defines her. Some would rather not talk to her because they feel uncomfortable, and can’t stop saying how sorry they are and that they think they can’t talk about what happened because it might upset her. Consequently, none of the good times are ever spoken about either. That her life was full of children and now there are none. So she wants to meet new people who understand, and will get to know her as she is now, not then.

There’s so much they don’t tell you about loss. That time is fluid. You waste hours thinking about just one moment. That you have to make a real effort every single day to eat proper food.

Angie tells me that she can’t yet look at old photographs or videos because those images might record over the memories she has inside her own head. Those pictures of them as a family with so much promise for their future life together, make her feel bitter and resentful with hindsight. Then she feels guilty. That she cannot ever imagine meeting anyone new, and doesn’t want to, but still wants to find a way to live now. She used to refer to it as ‘her afterlife’ but realised that was morbid, so now calls it ‘Version 2.’ She says she’s writing letters that will never be read, and feels sorry for people whose entire lives are captured on social media, being replayed over and over again. How she’s had to change her online presence because their ghosts live on inside the machine. They pop up from time to time to remind her of ‘on this day two years ago…’ or ‘it’s Sam’s birthday soon’, and how an algorithm will never replace human interaction.

I say that after the initial shock, I felt like I craved human contact. That I’d deliberately go out of my way to attach myself to people who needed rescuing. I wanted to help, to feel needed. I was so vulnerable that I think I numbed myself with compassion fatigue, which is how I ended up in the group. It’s too soon to know whether it’s helping me through, but I’m prepared to put in the work to try. I don’t want to become lonely, but I also don’t want people to feel obliged to be in my life out of duty, guilt or pity.

Incredibly, as we swap numbers, we both realise that we each have two phones for the same reason. Our old lives and our afterlives. I didn’t have to explain it. She’s the first person I’ve met who not only gets why I’m still paying every month for a piece of outdated tech that I can’t bear to lose, but she’s also doing it too.

When ‘Life on Mars’ comes on in the cafe, I sense a prickle and her mood changes. I say, “Too soon for Bowie?” She nods.

I say, “I’m the same with Anthony Bordain. Tony and me used to watch his programme together every week. I hate that I can’t even do something I used to love anymore. I even went to Cambodia and Vietnam after… y’know, because we’d always planned to go and Bordain made them sound so beautiful. If someone who travels the world for a living finds a place they could live in forever, then it must be good. I think going there helped. The people have nothing there and they’re so peaceful and contented. I dunno. Sometimes, I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m just going round in circles.”

As we walk towards the park, we both stop at the same time to look in the window of the gift shop. There’s a display of bright plastic storage boxes that look like giant Lego pieces. “Sam would have loved those.” She says, and we link arms and stroll on.