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Close to strangers
The air around me is dense and stale. My lungs scream for oxygen but my instincts tell me not to gasp. I ignore my body and am careful not to inhale too deeply.
I try to stretch my neck, rolling my head from side to side in the gloomy darkness but in every direction, I am confronted by a head or a shoulder invading my space. Elbow room is a luxury on the morning commute, where the rich and poor jostle side by side. No first class here. It's cattle class all the way.
Eventually, the train surges forward and emerges from the tunnel like a jack springing from its multi-coloured box. When it comes to a stop, the human sardines packed into the carriage around me breathe a collective sigh of relief as the doors open and fresh air pours fills the space between us.
The jukebox sputters a wail of Hendrix, like a smoker's cough.
Two tables over, a six-man game. Thirty-six shot glasses. The men mutter into their cards on a local frequency; 'grngph.'
A group of students occupy the far corner, their bodies pressed urgently into the table. Not like the rummies, with backs clenched and elbows pinched.
A couple lock fingers. Their bottle is empty; glasses too.
Keith looks around the room, smiles, and then slumps on his usual stool. His feet perch behind the stretcher for balance.
'One more, Tone.'
'Sorry, last orders is done. Time to move.'
'C'mon.' Keith motions behind, thumbing from left to right. 'Everyone's having fun.'
'Buddy,' snorts Tony, before catching himself and sharpening up. 'You're the only one here.'
Things We Don't Find in Hotel Rooms
He slips us a few extra quid, to clean up his mess. Bin’s empty, like he wilfully crammed it to splitting point then spattered its guts around the room.
"What’s that?" Denise points under the bed. We crouch and peer.
"It’s a …" I say, hoping the right word will tip out.
"It’s not a condom." We’d recognise one of those.
"It’s not a … baby."
Denise snorts, "Well, obviously." But it needed saying, to reassure us.
I hover my finger closer. The not-baby curls into itself. I think I see a shudder of breath.
The door swings and we ricochet.
"You two, out!" he barks. When he lets us in again, it’s gone.
We’re quiet now. We protect its vacated space, thinking to keep it safe in the world.
Until Denise accidentally scoots the Hoover too far, and we're back. Tucking in our disappointment. Coaxing enchantment from the dust.
The Long Way Home
Rush hour, innit, Bert said, and took Belinda’s fare.
Beside a tartan trolley a large hat bent over knitting and muttered to itself. A gaggle of untucked school uniforms filled the back seats. Legs tangled around seats and spilled across the aisle. A leather jacket refused eye contact, staring vacantly at a phone. Gaz? Baz? Not Daz - Daz would surely be cleaner, Belinda decided. Small, chubby, chocolate covered denim dungarees filled the luggage rack and cried.
Belinda tutted. Everyone remained steadfast in the busyness of filling space. She was beaten to the overhead strap by a sweaty armpit in a nylon suit. Resigned to standing room only Belinda eased her weight onto her left Louboutin in the manner of the queen, grasping at elegance and the nearest seat back.
Beyond a cluster of damp umbrellas and a steamed-up window a Mercedes rolled by on the back of a pick-up truck.
Her mother would not let Mary go back into the hospital room. "You're too young," she said. "And hysterical." She said they would just go home, and they did, the car ride a long, dark crossing into tormented sleep.
If he had been Mary's real brother, if he had not been crippled and blind and dumb with a big, toothy grin, if he had not spent his days in a children's home—would eleven have been too young to cry and watch the numbers of the boy she had known and loved dwindle and fall?
Mary woke late, slumping down to the kitchen to have a bowl of cereal. Her father was there in the clothes he had worn the day before. As she selected a bowl and cereal brand, he kissed her on the forehead, and told her that her brother was dead. She nodded, and poured the milk.
Mr. Mortem's Dilemma
The plumes of smoke rising from an unidentified spot somewhere behind Mr. Mortem’s left ear were, he thought, decidedly allergic.
Mr. Mortem grimaced in self-pity. His job was hard enough -- trapped in this infernal room, no breaks, no exceptions, endless signing of a cursive Approved on the certificates as they came, one after another, with the frustratingly personalized names of the Departed.
There was a sudden ding! from on top his desk, and he paused in his shuffling. There was no bell. Oh god, he must be hallucinating --
Silently, a subtle snow-white paper materialized beneath his hands. Another certificate. It was no different, and yet--
The name. Mr. Mortem blinked once and gasped hoarsely, feeling as if he were choking to death for the second time.
It’s too soon, little brother.
Even so, Mr. Morten took up his pen and signed, leaving behind a splash of blood-red ink.
The Garden Room
At 5.30 every morning, he unlocked his narrow, windowless room and painted for two hours before removing his overalls and going to work.
He started at the beginning of summer, painting flowers in bloom, trusses of green tomatoes, tall sweetcorn, golden apricots drooping from sinking branches. Rows of salad leaves and ferny carrot-tops edged along the wall.
Day by day he covered the walls with plants, flowers, bees darting amongst blossoms, a cabbage white butterfly settling on a leaf. Some days he sat without painting, looking at the garden, watching it grow.
As the months passed, tomatoes turned red, caterpillars nibbled cabbage leaves. Finally, trees reddened and the garden turned brown, bare now the plants had been harvested.
One day the gardener didn't appear, he had gone home. The landlord sent workmen to clean the room; they polished the floor and covered the walls in icy white.
Only room for one.
I wanted to stay, but you only wanted to fight, to make your Mother proud for favouring your brother. We have a baby, I pleaded, as you kissed her downy head, but you were having none of it. I lay awake for six fear drenched hours, praying the last bus out of our hell hole would turn up without being hijacked. When it did, I left our special scent on your neck for the last time, as you dreamt we were still with you. 'There's only room for one,' the guard said, slinging a young boy off his screaming mother like a rabid animal in front of me. I stepped onto the bus stifling a sob, with our baby girl full of sleeping powder, strapped to me like a back pack of love under my coat.
A Cold Place
The crown molding, beveled glass, inlaid ceiling and furnishings of former elegance indicate someone once cared deeply about this space. Now the chandelier hangs askew, the pipes have frozen and breath tumbles visibly throughout the unheated room.
On the carved mahogany fireplace mantle sits a crystal vase, a tea cup with broken handle, a miraculous clock with its cold intricate mechanism intact. Someone may have thought to save these precious items, to take them to a new place, but they were left behind; someone who was talking when I came in, someone who will begin talking when I have gone.
I sit in the armchair leaking stuffing and imagine a roaring blaze, but something resides in a bleak landscape, either the room or I, and these visions do not belong to me. There is a cold place inside me, I think, as if speaking for the house.
In Search of Water
Gesticulating wildly, I attempt to scare off whatever just brushed my face. It would be helpful if my eyes would open but they flat-out refuse. My heart and head are thumping loudly. All I want is sleep, but my dry, foul-tasting mouth has other ideas. I cross the area in search of water, gingerly making my way through the rubble, eyes finally shooting open as sharpness punctures my heel. What the hell happened here?
The previous evening’s events slowly unfold as I scan the room. Streamers hang from the ceiling. Cans and bottles litter every surface. An unfamiliar man is slumped against the upturned sofa, an onion ring dangling from his nose. It moves gently back and forth propelled by each shallow breath. Waking to a belch, he grins vacantly in my direction. I nod, painfully, in silent agreement. It certainly was one hell of a party.
Chutney in the Autumn
There we go, that's better, isn't it? Room to breathe, room to grow. Room to... I was going to say spread your wings but, no, that's not right, is it? Spread your roots and leaves, more like, eh?
I can see Mrs. Timpson looking at me through the fence. Nosy old cow. Yes, I know what she's thinking. There goes old Gerry talking to his plants again. Well, sometimes that's the only way to get a decent conversation around here, isn't it? Especially given that I live in bloody Tory-land. Anyway, enough politics. I don't talk politics to my chums.
You're looking much better in that big pot, Tom. Yes, that's right. Nice and roomy. Grow big and strong and I'll be making chutney in the autumn. My Nellie used to love chutney. She talked to her plants too, you know.
A View From Above
The room at the top is a room with a view, it’s the one from which, I can see you.Sitting on my balcony, high above the town square, I watch the early evening assignations take place. Men and women arrive singly or as couples, kiss, and take their seats at the gaily coloured tables. Waiters and waitresses appear as if out of nowhere and weave in and out of the tables laden down with drinks or pad in hand ready to take an order. Before long, drinks consumed, they move on to dinner. Later, having eaten they will reconvene for drinks once more.I see a man who shouldn’t be there. A man with a woman that he shouldn’t be with. I see her lean towards him ready to receive a kiss, a kiss that shouldn’t be hers. A kiss that until a moment ago would have been mine.
My Family Room
We are all here in my family room, enjoying the delicious smells coming from the kitchen as we talk and laugh and get caught up with each others' lives. My grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles, sisters, brothers, cousins, nieces, and nephews are patiently waiting for the wonderful meal we are going to share and give thanks for. Some of us take turns getting things ready before we all sit down together. We look around at one another, smiling and content.
The image fades as I reorient myself to my surroundings. I am looking out the huge picture window at the brightly blooming gardens from my rocking chair in my family room. It is only me now who spends time here, remembering my family's conversations and laughter over the many years I have lived. Someday soon I will rock myself to sleep and catch up with their lives again.
The Waiting Room
The clock ticks. Lara looks down at her book, unopened. Tears threaten. The waiting room becomes a blur. Instinctively, Kate strokes the back of her hand. The rhythmic sensation soothes her like a baby being rocked.
Another couple are called in to see the doctor. Kate shifts uncomfortably in her seat. Lara can't help but feel she's let her down again. Her useless body won't do what is expected of it. She's always achieved whatever she set out to, until now. She senses time slipping away, her body degrading, whilst they wait to hear confirmation of what they already know. They've been here three times before. Chemical pregnancy. Miscarriage. Unsuccessful. The words are different, the pain is the same. The glimmer of hope grows dimmer with each round.
Then the inescapable question. Can they waste any more life in this room, waiting for a future which may not come?
"I'm so sorry sweetheart". Her sobs filled the empty room a thousand times over.
"But mummy...mummy was in an accident".
The boys confused eyes locked on her broken ones.
"Has she gone to heaven? Like daddy did?".
Words just couldn't help here. All she could do was nod. His small, grey eyes focused on the bright blue cake on the table.
"But grandma...mummy made us all a cake".
Loneliness weighed heavier and heavier on his shoulders, while his tears rolled freely.
"She really wanted to try the cake".
I’ve been locked in this room for weeks, waiting for my non-specific antibiotic-resistant infection to run its course. The doctor stands by my bed. He has the marble-blue eyes of Dr Kildare: ‘Now is the time to write a book. Write about lying here for six weeks with nothing to do. It might help someone else in the same predicament.’
How long can I hold out? If my case is serious enough, will they give me Zyvox? How do they come up with these names?
I’ve already undergone one ‘experimental’ treatment (that’s worrying). Luckily it wasn’t particularly painful, just an odd kind of tickling (that’s worrying too). But now I hear that even Zyvox doesn’t always work.
I look out the window at a murder of crows on the hospital lawn. What’s the collective name for a group of doctors? A funeral of physicians?
One For The Road
"One for the road?"
She lingers in her chair, just long enough to suggest a "yes". I brush her hand and feel the warmth of her skin, committing to memory exactly how it feels, so I might think of it again.
The room merges into a distant hum. A place far from ours.
There are things I'd like to say. Or perhaps they are just things I think I should say. Either way, they are just things. And what use are they? I take a sip of wine and wash the words away.
Hours pass. I look up and she is gone, and I wonder if she was ever there at all. I pour one more for the road.
Soon it will be time to leave but for now this place is home.
The storm had finally died down and all she could hear was the rustle as Mike turned the pages of his book. Not once as the wind had howled and dashed itself against the house had he raised his head, turning the pages with metronomic regularity. Suddenly the room seemed to shrink around her. She went to the window, needing something beyond the walls that were closing in on her. In the garden among the debris a vividly coloured silk scarf lay tangled on a tree branch. A sudden gust caught it and it unfurled, streaming in the wind like some medieval standard. She smiled at the fancy, turned to share it. The words died as she pictured his disinterested, uncomprehending face. She turned back to the window. But the scarf had gone.
We lived, back then, on a small island in the middle of the map. Despite the calm climate, perhaps even because of it, the island was in the grip of civil war. No one alive could remember what had started it, no one dead could explain.
One Spring day, as sudden as a bomb, peace broke out. The ceasefire threatened ruin for my father’s balaclava shop.
“War is money,” he used to say, his eyes fixed on mine, “and it might as well be me that makes it.”
If war was money, then peace was poverty and my father, fearing penury, ran away. Some weeks later, with all hope of his return gone, he was found in the waiting room of a disused railway station.
The police handed him over like a piece of lost property. I stared at his hair and his ears, strangers to me my whole life.
The house arranged the rooms differently every time she went in.
It had crumbling brickwork and peeling paint and an attitude that repelled all boarders. It looked the same as all the others in the street – and the next street and the next. The tiny patch of garden at the front kept itself tidy. The hinges to the gate were well oiled, but no-one lived there.
The usual tingling sensation zizzed through Liz’s body when she opened the front door. There had been no mention of the house in the will. Two years after probate Liz had discovered the door-key in the bottom of a box of her father’s possessions. Attached was a piece of card torn from a cereal box with the address that became her vibranium.
How it usually goes
...dives through it, knife between her teeth, on the way to his watery room...
She had approached them asking permission to take the head of the fish-goat and his lover. Three blind sisters at the very edge of a heather-purple plateau.
...the scales are flaking off of his tail and the stink makes her sick, she vomits out into the water, which vomit explodes in slow motion, disperses in front of her face...
She thinks the sister's must be cackling to themselves.
...the room's been ransacked floating objects and open drawers, a note pirouetting out onto the patio...
What fool was she to love this thing?
...I took his horned head and stuffed it myself. The sisters said you'd come. Don't be mad, love mum x...
Supposed to be shacked up in this deep blue shed with her adulterous mother. Dead already, the premature climax. And her breath getting short.
He opens the door and says it’s not the room he booked. She peeks over his shoulder at the palatial bed scattered with rose petals, the bottle of Bollinger chilling on the table. ‘It’s perfect,’ she says, dropping her suitcase.
He walks to the window and whisks aside the silk curtains. ‘It’s not ocean view.’ She says it’s dark anyway and shouldn’t tonight be all about what goes on inside the room?
He says he was promised ocean view. I was promised happily ever after, she’s starting to think.
She says he has a choice: he can pour the bubbly or complain about the room. He says he’ll do both; that it’s not just women who can multi-task. He argues with reception on the phone while she finishes the champagne. Then she twists her twinkly diamond wedding band, wondering why it feels so tight.
His ears flop backwards, as if ironed to the pillow, and his milky eyes look sleepily at me. He’s trying so hard not to let the lids close completely in this warm room. At the moment, they’re resting halfway down.
“If I don’t let them close entirely, I won’t fall back asleep,” I can imagine him promising himself in his mind.
His legs are akimbo and he tilts his neck upwards, looking drowsily at me as if to say “Where are you going?” when I get off the settee to turn the thermostat down.
He plonks his head back down. “I don’t care if you leave,” he tries to say with a small huff through his nose and a glistening droplet flies out.
I know he’s faking it though, he wants me to come back to the sofa for cuddles.
He’s a lap dog, after all.
Just a Key
Daniel looked at the small metallic object on the palm of his left hand, its jagged teeth biting his skin.
"It's just a key," he thought.
Except it wasn't.
It was a dream interrupted, a life that would never be. He had painted every room in the house pink for her yet now all he could see was grey. Her career would always be her one true love, the rest mere trinkets she could easily live without. It's funny how she could live without a heart, too.
Standing under a blanket of rain, watching the taxi dart off to a destination unknown, Daniel bit his tongue, felt the warm, thick blood sliding down his chin.
"It's just a key," he repeated to himself. He threw it at the porch, watching it bounce like a confused puppet. "It's. Just. A. Key," the words rolled down like tears.
Except it wasn't.
Dust on the attic sill, thick enough to write signatures with your finger. The little ceramic shepherdess, a crook in her hand, a floral bonnet on her head, but no sheep. Old portraits with people faded into namelessness, austere yet bright-eyed, always looking at something just beyond the camera lens. You wander around the room and you want to touch everything, to explore everything kinesthetically, the way blind people learn faces; to bring it out of half reality into full.
Some minutes later you find yourself back in the car and you hear, far off, a voice asking you, “Well? Did you find anything?” It reminds you of echoes coming from a cave—not yours, but somewhere in the next mountain. “Yes,” you say, and as the car drives away from your parents’ home you open your fist and find there the shepherdess.
The baby was whinging again. Sarah screamed. She used the tea towel that she was using to dry the dishes to muffle the sound so as not to disturb the neighbours. Her worst fear was that someone would enter her house and see the unopened mail and weeks’ worth of crumbs on the floor. Four walls. A room. It didn’t feel as though there was anything beyond. Sarah’s resentment grew as she lifted the baby out of his highchair and strapped him into the stroller. He babbled cheerfully as they walked, taking in the world around him. She had grown used to the guilt. It would fade by tomorrow.
She worked confidently in the dim gaslight, inserting pins into the mechanism feeling her way. The lock gave and she slid the drawer open. Nothing. It must be here, but where? One wall was lined with leather-bound books – the papers could be slipped between the pages of any. It was impossible.
Then she saw it. The old portrait of her grandmother, young, dark eyed, vibrant, the keeper of everyone's secrets. Silently she crossed the room and slid her hand behind the picture. A brown packet clattered to the floor, spilling documents.
Footsteps in the corridor drew close then stopped. She froze. The rattle of the door handle. The rustle as a hand searched a pocket and failed to find a key. A curse. The footsteps retreated. She breathed again.
She gathered the papers, proof of her parent's marriage, and left. Tomorrow would be soon enough to reclaim her birthright.
It’s a shabby room, with a bathroom attached, plastered black and lacquered shiny to cover the mold. The wood floor all scratches from decades of move-ins. Half the fixtures explode outwards into sprigs of tangled wires, vibrant tangles in the dingy gray. Combined with the tiny motes of dust drifting in the air, Doug felt like he was standing in center of a new storm cloud, still pregnant with rain. It reminds him of their first place together. He wonders if she’d been unhappy back then too.
He can hear the shower running; he waits on the edge of the bed for her explanations.
The walls, water damaged and warping, were so soft he could have poked his fingers through the rotting pores and pulled them wide to see the things living behind the paint. They’d gone moldy in the middle too.
The shower stopped as he loaded the chamber.
I dream of articulation, fired from Broca's area where words can still cross synaptic trenches and trip off the tongue.
During Sunday visits, the grandchildren forget and speak as if Wernicke is also down. Incoming: slowed words rain as bombs and shells.
'Take cover!' I wish I could yell.
'Tea?' Granddaughter's bright offer. Her hand brushes my shoulder in a bid to blanket the shock.
A head shake is as good as a nod.
Grandson brings Band-Aid in a cuppa-shaped fix. The lukewarm brew is infused to soothe discomfort and infects the room with its herbal mix.
I hunker into my personal Anderson. The chair, encircled by a biscuit-crumb scatter of used ammo is entrenched, whilst I'm buried in this silent ambush.
Sand snakes and dust
A room in a corner, covered in cobwebs. Mariyaa sat quietly behind the door in her chair. She was a very quiet girl. Well-behaved. At least, she tried to be. The burns on her wrists showed the few times that she hadn’t been. But with spiders on the walls and snakes beneath her feet, she was determined that she would be a good girl from now on.
The only light in the room was the line underneath the door. This showed red, glinting off the sand-packed floor. It had scared her at first, but now Mariyaa knew that there were worse things.
Listening very closely to the world outside her room, she felt her nerves strain for any sound. But there was only the sound of the blood through her ears, and the creak of the chair legs. Mariyaa could not know, but the world outside her room, was deserted.
No room for dark thoughts
While a suicide bomber killed whole families in Kabul and Hindu men raped a Muslim girl in Jammu, while Boko Haram kidnapped young women in Chilbok and US diplomats shared porn in Phnom Penh, while Assad gassed his people in Douma and five rangers were killed in the Congo, I walked my dogs over Bathwick Fields and watched the bloodied sun set over the city and breathed the soft English air and allowed no room for dark thoughts.
Thunder roared in a pattern she could predict, but the sound now was a muffled shriek as rain thrashed the tropical trees; the heavy rains, the remote wail of thunder.
A thin, grey mattress lay squeezed between her and the plywood bed. It was torn from the top that her yellow-stained pillow barely covered. Patches of dried grains from puke adorned her maxi. The blue blanket looked pristine except there was a hole in the middle; her womb, growing. A windowless room. The punishing stench, not of the mud floor or the brick wall.
Under the bleeding sky outside, children's shrieks were like faint taps on the door. "Whose children are these?" she sniffled, waiting.
Four-year-old Jim dreaded to step into the study room. His mother, Ally, wondered why. He would kick a fuss and even peed in his pants.
"He's not done that almost a year," Ally thought. "What scared Jim that warranted such a reaction?"
By chance, she found out the answer. Jim threw away a dinosaur figurine that an aunt gave him. In fact, he hated dinosaurs since young. He had walked into the room while his elder sister was watching a show. He shrieked when he saw an evil T-Rex crushing young children with sharp teeth, crimson dripping ihis blood-filled mouth.
From then on, dinosaurs of all shapes and sizes terrified him. Ally recalled the framed Jurassic Park movie poster on the wall above the computer.
"No dinos now," said Ally, assuring Jim.
Jim beamed as he played merrily in the study room.
It wasn’t the collection that he had hoped. Mostly junk, with the odd piece likely of interest to the more outlandish of his clients; but now he was here he thought he might as well look in the other room.
That was when he saw it.
Discarded shamefully amongst more of the same dross.
At first he couldn’t believe what he was seeing. 40 years in the trade and never had he come across anything that was so mesmerising.
He stared down at it enthralled for what seemed an age, before realising he was being watched.
“That’s not for sale I’m afraid. Belonged to my Uncle, he said we must never part with it.”
“Even for a fair price?”
“Not even for an unfair one.” His host chuckled. “It’s very old and has a murky past.”
“That’s a terrible shame.” He replied, reaching to his pocket for his silken handkerchief.
Carol Vorderman, Laughing
My place was on the hairy rug in front of the fire. Penny chews, exchanged for an empty glass bottle, pulled the teeth from my gums as the sunrise flames roasted one side of my face, as the gas whispered in my ear.
She sat in the chair right in front of the TV, propped on a jigsaw of overstuffed pillows with wiggly seams. I’d arrange the cushions, hold them just so, as she carefully lowered herself.
We watched Countdown then Fifteen to One, stripes of blue and green fluorescents dancing across her lenses. Keeps you sharp, she said, tapping the side of her head, smoke curling like a genie from the end of her Superking Menthol.
Ma says the whole house will need fumigating, especially this room. The dictionary says that means getting rid of pests.
I know I should feel lucky to be alive.
Villagers had run to the trees when the mob came with sharpened bamboo sticks. Mother and I escaped to the rice fields, upwind of smoke from our burning house. Now, eight months in No Man’s Land, we fit into our clothes with more room. We are no man’s problem.
We take turns to sleep on a raised crate to avoid the human waste running through our shelter, rain on the plastic sheet roof, louder than the noises of the night.
Earlier, the woman had told me to wait in the old stone building. Two boys, probably my age, pulled me to the ground. One sat across my chest, knees pinning my shoulders down. He unzipped his crotch in my face. The other waited his turn. Afterwards, from a fold in her green saree, she produced two fist sized bags of rice.
“Room for a little one?” she cried, her eyes begging mercy of us there in the carriage.
No, there wasn’t “room for a little one”, there was hardly room for us as it was. Unable to even sit, some squatted on benches, some on luggage racks. Most stood, chest to chest, hardly able to breath, certainly unable to move, to squeeze up to allow her the room she asked for.
“Of course there is, Miss,” said an elderly gentleman, seeming to make himself smaller, slimmer, requiring of less space, as he responded, ignoring the glares of those around him.
“Bless you,” she said. Then then it happened: she thrust a tiny baby through the door and into the arms of the old man. “Her name’s Hannah. Please look after her for me.”
That was it. She turned and ran along the platform, chased by the baying mob calling “Juden, Juden.”
He creeps into my room nearly every night and tells me how beautiful I am. I freeze, knowing what's going to come next. My eyes are shut tight and I try not to move hoping he'll go away. He doesn't. It's become all too familiar. Where is mom when all this is happening? Does she not know what is going on under her own roof? Does she not care? I feel a weight fall on the side of my bed and he begins to stroke my hair. Tears well up that slowly stream down my face. I put myself in another place, another time until he is finished. He is finally done with me for the night. I must get to sleep. Tomorrow is a school day.
Love Hotel Lobby
We keep the front desk unmanned unless necessity demands.
The first woman doesn't care either way. She treats me like the machine I've replaced and pays for two hours. A man follows, folding his umbrella until he notices the blank computer screen. He unfurls it again, blinding his way toward their usual room.
Ten minutes later, they leave just the same, opposite ends of abashment.
The technological troubles challenge another couple's tryst. Whispering and pointing at the displays adorning the desk, blush rushes up their cheeks. They take to the rain, their laughs chambered in my booth.
An elderly pair soaked through their bones walks straight to me, unaware of contemporary customs. They smile and nod at my tinted glass before claiming their two hours to wait out the downpour.
But two transforms to four, then six, before I see them again, hand in hand skipping across still filling puddles.
"She lived here?" Jen asked as she waded through piles of miscellaneous junk. Piles of clothes, stacks of papers, a table covered in old toys and broken gadgets.
The room smelled of cat piss and dust, as if the door hadn't been opened in decades. The carpet was stained and torn. The floorboards were showing in one corner, which Greg avoided for fear of falling through the rotted wood.
"It would be easier to just burn this place down," he said.
"We need to find at least a few reminders of her. The rest can be trashed."
Reminders. That was why they were there. To find an untarnished object to induce memories. Good memories of his mother. Before she moved here. Back when she smiled and he would visit her. Back to good times.
"I can't believe this is how she ended." His voice caught as the guilt set in.
Fulham, December 2017.
As she sweeps up the fallen pine needles, Sister Agatha calculates that it is approximately 2021 years since the Holy Nativity.
Sometimes, she has doubts about the virgin birth. She sees instead a teenage mother, ground down with backache and the bitter revelation that there is no room at the inn, just the promise of blood and straw.
Outside, a woman huddles in a shop doorway, squat as a bullfrog and bundled in blankets. Revellers spill from a nearby bar, and names fly past like shrapnel.
Sister Agatha takes the banknote out of her pocket, the one Monsignor gave her for safekeeping, and folds a line down Jane Austen's face. Better than Darwin, or the breast-plated Britannia of her youth. But still, she wonders, where all the mothers are.
Gently, she pulls the porch door to, puts up the closed sign and steps out into the night.
I guess every room has a history: I became a part of a certain bedroom's drama.
Darren's the name, painter and decorator, honest as they come and a good worker. I was half way through the papering at the' Blake's' master bedroom when I had shift the chest of drawers, to paper behind it, when I spotted a shiny gold bracelet glinting through the dust and fluff.
'That'll make the punter happy,' I thought as I cleaned it of and layed it on the bed.
Mr Blake clattered through the front door, "how's it going Darren? " he sang as he climbed the stairs
"Fine thanks chief" I said, nodding towards the bracelet on the bed, "I found that behind your drawers."
The poor old chap went quite pale, sat down heavily on the bed, tears forming.
"I threw my son out, eight years ago, for stealing that," he murmured.
From the living room doorway, I see my dad in his favoured armchair by the fireplace. He’s reclining with legs outstretched, cat on his lap: a gift from a kindly neighbour who hoped it would provide company, a distraction.
He’s listening to his music, always listening to his music. Today it’s Nat King Cole, Autumn Leaves. A tear escapes, rolls unchecked. Yes, he has a whisky close at hand, and yes, of course alcohol and a sad melody can stir the emotions, but that’s not it.
The click of the front door registers. He tries. Turns to look at me and smiles. Hello pet, he says. Gets up to embrace me.
He’s back with her now. Where he longed to be those last six years. Sheltered by that stone wall, with the gentle, Welsh hills of his childhood within touching distance, and birdsong ringing out. It’s a peaceful place.
Not Quite Enough
"Room for improvement."
She'd never hated those words more.
She had poured her heart into her craft, twisted her soul into knots that she thought were just the right shape. She didn't smile too wide, she hadn't frowned in years, she laughed at jokes that weren't her own and at the fear that was.
Perfect wasn't real, but still she fought to come as close to the ideal as possible.
And yet, they told her again, she'd never make it.
Room to Grow
‘I just need some room.’
That simple statement altered my life. I took him at his word, hoping that space and time would heal the rift between us. I didn’t realise it was his way of saying there was someone else. How stupid and naive I’d been. How blinded and still full of faith that we could survive anything. And what a coward he was. He knew if he uttered those words, things would never be the same again. If it didn’t work out with this younger version of who’d I’d been when we met, was he hoping to come back then? Back to the home I’d lovingly tended all these years. Back to my bed, to the warmth of my arms, the province of my love?
He had come back. He wanted to resume where we’d left off. But it was too late. I’d glimpsed a life without him.
The ladybirds arrived in September. They do this - find somewhere to lie low until spring. Unable to kill anything, I watched them. One. Two. Three.
I can count them at first, the polka dots they decorate the walls with. They scatter like beads on the lino and scuttle, colouring our tasteful paintwork in red.
I had wanted something else for a while. Birds, perhaps, dandelion wallpaper in the lounge. You convinced me Oatmeal is better. Classic. You sanded each surface, preparing. When the room was perfect, we put little back in.
There was a pause in the conversation when the insects started appearing. I sat on a linen chair staring at clusters, the hard knots of their sleep, the dark gloss of legs.
You looked up. We looked at each other. Without a word, I walked to the window and opened it wide, letting the flock all fly in.
On another of our night escapades, I drive, and you sit shotgun the way you always do, with your feet crossed on the dashboard.Behind us is the world, a puddle of lights and box houses gathered in the dip of a valley.The pleather of my family’s sedan plasters to our legs in the August heat and you motion for me to open up the sunroof and windows. Just to feel the wind push by like something tangible enough to rip you out of the seat and sweep you away.Your head lolls out of the car.“I’ll get an apartment,” you say. “Two rooms. Nothing big, but it’ll be something.”“With plants on the balcony?”“A whole forest.”I speed up, imagining the road goes somewhere away from this ocean of hills.Faster and faster, before the waves break over us.We sigh when I turn back.
The Third Door on the Right
I have my instructions – third door on the right.
It’s a long corridor, painted a particularly sad yellow. Or maybe not, it could just be these lights.
The room holds a lot of abandoned equipment that doesn’t look serviceable.
It’s not dissimilar to my shed ‘system’ and I learned from the best.
Someone sits scribbling at a desk. They don’t look up, just another day at the office.
I remember how Dad would affect his most Germanic shrug before explaining to Mum there is no word in German for ‘mess’. There was barely room to hold her exasperation in that cluttered garage. She would attempt to stomp back to the house, trailing paint tins and rolled up sandpaper.
It’s a sterile space with a painfully tidy sign, ‘Mortuary.’
What I wouldn’t give to hear some more of Dad’s lousy excuses.
"It's not real", Lucy whispered as she completed the last fold of the paper butterfly. Her fingers rode over the edge of the butterfly, admiring how a piece of paper can be woven into a work of art. Ignoring it's inanimateness, she threw the masterpiece across the room, hoping it would come to life.
The two perfectly creased wings sliced through the air, fighting for existence. The glorious vision of the butterfly fluttering across the room drew a fragile smile on Lucy's face. Her smile was so delicate, that it shattered when the paper butterfly kissed the floor.
Roberta woke up lying in a room. She did not remember having been there previously. All she was aware of was that she must have done something wrong to end trapped inside these four walls. Although the room was covered with luxury items, among which she discovered a dagger embedded with emeralds, and what it seemed to be a Persian carpet, she did not feel safe. There were no windows nor doors, and the only company that Roberta had in that room, was a large mirror hanged on the wall. Hence, Roberta got up and looked at the mirror, just to observe herself completely naked, except one golden necklace and a simple crown adorning her reddish hair.
Someone calls out your name
You walk into the room, see the candle on the table. The light’s flickering around, the shadows jump at your feet. On the far wall’s a photo in a golden frame, you’ve seen it somewhere before. Someone coughs and you realise you’re not alone. Someone calls out your name.
You look for the person who called your name. This time there’s two of them, a man and a woman. The man looks away, the woman beckons you forward.
You can’t see where she’s pointing. Maybe it’s a chair, maybe it’s the enamelled box on the table. But the woman beckons and the box glistens and the man keeps looking away. You pick up the box, it’s so hot in there. The box slips from your fingers, it bounces once, then is gone into the darkness. The woman laughs, the man points to the photograph. Someone calls out your name.
‘A Touch of Evil’ The Sanchez Apartment Scene.
Four heads, four prisms refracting sight-lines, laser-sharp, each man’s focus on the next. Except for Welles. He’s in the foreground, his bulk takes half the scene, his gaze off-shot, his jowels creased in satisfaction.Two steps across the room is Heston; eyes on Welles, intense, accusatory; his lockjaw clench constraining protestation.The little man with parted lips in profile, appeals to god-like Heston. Though centre-stage, the patsy doesn’t understand his role. He’s fixed from behind by the sergeant, who doesn’t need to view the evidence.He knows what’s there.
The Yellow Room
‘Room for a cot, perhaps?’ the estate agent, all slick hair and shiny suit, says with a wink. Ben and I smile at each other. How did he know? It’s still so early.
We paint the little room yellow, a bright, sunny hue. It seems right somehow.
A week later, Ben finds me in there, resting against the wall. It’s ok, we say, we’ll try again. We keep trying. Five more times, each harder than the last.
‘Do you think we should—‘
I cut him off.
‘Don’t say it.’
Three years pass. We don’t go into the room anymore. The door stays shut, as if we can contain our pain inside.
One day I come home to find Ben has painted the room white. There’s some sort of bench press equipment, two dumbbells on the floor.
‘It just seemed such a shame,’ he says, ‘for it to go unused.’
Dream Come True
She had always wanted to kill someone. And now, after weeks of bragging about her jewelry collection on social media, posting pictures and videos of herself with her house and her street in the background, and leaving her front door slightly ajar, she would finally get her chance. She waited calmly in the darkness, but as they entered her sightline, her smile lit up the room. Then she opened fire.
Six months ago I contacted Bill Derr. I had a growing family we needed a bit more elbow room, room to manoeuvre and the ideal thing would be an additional room. .
Could he add a bedroom on top of our garage? A room at the top I joked, a room with a view. My feeble attempt at humour was lost on him and as I was to discover so was any sense of urgency.
My extension fell foul to extenuating circumstances so I had to give him leeway, allow him to work within a certain capacity. Often I told him the speed of his service left room for improvement. Every time he answered, patience is a virtue..
Satisfactorily completed at last I knew exactly what he was going to say. patience and virtue.. Pointing up he said, “It’s true what they say.. Room was not built in a day.”
I become aware of my surroundings. Complete darkness. I hear, almost feel, the swish of a broom. Rhythmic, constant.
Whoosh, whoosh, whoosh.
I have a sense of deja vu. This place seems familiar. It's warm, snug and though I can't see, I feel safe, cocooned, tranquil.
Have I died? Been entombed? I don't feel a sense of doom.
I try to call out, my voice sounds muffled. Have I been drugged?
I listen for any sign of company. Nothing except the swishing of the besom.
Whoosh, whoosh, whoosh.
Unexpectedly the atmosphere changes, becoming fraught with hidden tension.
I feel movement but still see nothing. A familiar pressure building around me. A tsunami trying to push or perhaps pull me from here.
And then I realise I have been here before.
The light looms bright as I cry out.
Not a room, a womb.
I love you.
I let the words trickle like an intravenous drip in to your veins.
You are starved, sick, and desperate for attention; you drink me in, devouring my senses.
I am blinded by you. Your brightness in my bleak world outshines all that is close, and I am consumed by light. My only desire is to be near your warmth, to feel the fire in you that has ignited.
I am deaf to the warnings from my friends and family who fear for my safety: my sanity. They can no longer reach me. There is no touch that could calm me or reassure me that I am whole without you.
We are one.
If there was room, I would crawl inside your skin and feed there.
There are potholes in my mind, memories slipping through my grip like sand. The clock in the corner ticks, filling the room and my mind with its steady rhythm. White coats come and go. They look at my notes, my eyes, my readings. They break me down into facts and figures, using terminology I don't understand.
"Be calm," they say. "Be patient."
The clock strikes and people pile into the too-small room. Crumpled photos and treasured trinkets are presented like offerings. I sit on my crisp, white throne and pick through them. There's a ring, scratched and dull with age.
"Ah, yes" I say. Their faces shine with oblivious hope.
My life is a puzzle without a picture, without edges, and I'm blindly forcing blurred pieces into shapeless holes. The people leave, optimistic, and I head to the shop. Perhaps I'll send myself a postcard: "wish that you were here."
“It’s happening again.”
“The walls are moving away from me.”
“Don’t be silly, they can’t move.”
“They are. I can feel myself getting smaller. Maybe I am shrinking.”
“You need to stop taking whatever it is you’re on.”
“I can’t see the window – it’s faded into the distance.”
“Where are you?”
“In the staff room. Nobody else is here. I had a free period and marking was my afternoon escape.”
“Look I’ll have to call back, there’s someone at the door. Get yourself checked out, love.”
“Bye mum. Thanks for listening,” Serena doubted her mum would notice her sarcasm.
She continued to stare at the phone after her mother had disconnected the call. The phone appeared to be feet away but she could feel it in her hand. She had looked it up online and she knew she needed to get help for this ‘Alice in Wonderland’ syndrome.
A New Chapter
The space of 6 by 8 feet in size was lit by enlightenment. A room of bare facilities: a metal bed with a hard mattress, sink, toilet, writing desk and chair. Here, the seventeen-year old boy was called by a number: 4110. He was also called by other demeaning names which he hated. What he hated the most was making the wrong choices in life that had confined him in this room.
The writing desk had served as a heart-rending booth where he wrote pages and pages of his inner turmoil. The tear-stained pillow was a testimony of the nights he longed for freedom.
The morning light trailing like a ribbon filled the room, refreshing his mind and he began writing on a new white page - a new beginning.
Consider the Other Half
He always sleeps on one side of the bed. When posing for photographs he stands on the right. Lays two places at the table every evening and tries to not hog the sofa when watching television. From the gaps that are left, he predicts the size and shape of her but wonders what colour the toothbrush will be, when it stands in the glass on the sink. In conversation, he lets silence hang; a good listener. Pauses before doors; after you, ladies first. Years later he hobbles along the promenade, elbow out at an angle, just enough room for an arm to slip through. He rests on the bench by the pier.
Two dog walkers approach. ‘I’m sorry,’ he says, ‘but this seat is taken. They’ll be here soon.’
Sunset. River bank. Bring Fred.
Jess screw up the note and scowled.
Sunset was not far off. She checked on her phone. 19.36, to be precise.
What did he want Fred for anyway?
It started raining halfway to the river bank. Fred pulled on her to turn back.
Sam sat under an umbrella. She couldn’t see his face. A passerby would have thought him a fisherman but Jess knew better. The weatherproof box beside him was not full of tackle and bait. It was an artist’s toolkit.
‘Quick, get under here.’
Fred bounded onto his lap, but there was no room for Jess.
‘What’s going on?’
There were noises in the night that shouldn’t be there. She crouched down beside his easel. That was when she saw the painting.
Fred started howling.
‘What’s going on?’ she repeated.
But Sam and Fred were no longer there.
"Run Abeba. And don't stop running," Beshadu had said.
Abeba adjusts her eyes to the darkness of the small room. Dust particles swirl in the glow from a small lamp sitting on a make-shift table made from an old packing case. There is a smell that Abeba doesn't recognise and the gathering saliva in her mouth makes her want to vomit. Lumpy silhouettes edge toward her and her eyes prick with hot tears. As she turns abruptly to leave she collides with her mother who is standing directly behind her, obstructing the exit.
"They cut you Abeba. They cut your women's parts so that you can't lay with men. I've seen them. After."
"You're wrong Beshadu. My mother wouldn't let that happen to me. She wouldn't."
"I don't understand Emaya a," sobbed Abeba as she saw her mother's flashing eyes. She thought of Beshadu, pushed past her mother and ran.
A littlebit more
'Just a littlebit more,' says my mum, as she always does. She says it as if it's one word.
'I can't, Mum. I've no room for anything else.'
She's plump, my mum, with round pink cheeks and dimpled hands coming out from the long sleeves she always wears.
The kitchen is full of delicious smells, but I really can't eat any more.
'A little strudel,' she says hopefully. 'With cream?'
'I'll die if you make me eat any more,' I say, as I always do.
I've regretted those words ever since I was old enough to understand the little numbers on her arm.
She’s addicted to me.
She leads me inside her small yet quaint room. She carefully cups her hands around me and welcomes the radiating heat. She forms her lips to a pout before letting her mouth touch mine. She likes the heat I bring to her insides, how her chest heaves slowly whenever she feels the warmth.
She took me during day & night and I fear she’s already dependent on me.
She never complained about anything; she denies I’m bad for her.
Her friend finally said, “If you experience palpitations, it means it’s bad and you should stop.”
“I know, but who can resist freshly-brewed espresso in the morning?”
The room was empty apart from two chairs and a table. The walls, floor and ceiling were white but I got the impression that someone might be watching me.
A voice commanded me, 'Sit down,’
I moved forward and took a seat at the table. The wall facing me turned into a screen. I could see Colonel Bantry.
'Were you part of the plot to kill the Emperor,’ he asked.
I almost said 'No’ but stopped myself.
'I didn’t know there was a plot to kill the Emperor !’
'Nevertheless you knew Captain Diamey.’
'Yes, I did, ‘ I agreed,'but we only discussed our work.’
Bantry seemed to consider my answer and then said, 'Very well. You may go for now’
The wall went blank. I stood up to leave the room but the floor beneath me opened. I slid down a chute into the holding pen full of the others.
With a View.
How strange, she thought, as her eyes sat transfixed on the tiny, emerald box. Pristine, and clean, it had appeared anonymously on her front door-step without alarm, or fanfare.
Just a box. Though it was beautiful.
Curiously, she lifted it up, and peered closer. No latch, or hinges.
Just a box. Beautiful though.
It smelled of lavender, and something else entirely. Something familiar. She spun it in her hands gently, inspecting.
Just a box. Special.
In the real world, the sound of the television echoed loudly behind her. Or was the noise coming from within? Holding it against her ear, she listened. Sound. Muffled, yet there. Her breath caught. In a moment of madness, she dashed it onto the stone floor, desperate for the secret to be revealed.
Inside, two tiny people looked up at her. The familiar smell strong on the wind.
Was there room for her?
Visualisation – a brief respite
She walks along an endless white corridor. She halts instinctively and locates a paint-pot, brush ready. With slow strokes, she paints upwards, across and down, makes one deliberate dab. Before her now stands a door. She knows what lies beyond. Reluctant, she hesitates to commit herself but she must venture further, so she turns the handle and steps into her room, a room no-one has seen, nor ever will, a visualisation of serenity and safety.
After a time, she will re-emerge, wipe away the paint traces and return to reality. Her eyes will refocus. She will mentally scan her body, finding no tension, just a soothing blanket of calm. Her watch will say she’s been gone eight minutes, not hours. As neurons fire across synapses, her brain will connect corridor – room – peace – escape – fear. Fear is her trigger. Resigned, she will reach for the inevitable tranquillisers again.
A Different Ending
Patterns are fading from the walls.
Bedtime stories, ghost stories, haunt this room, disappearing, reappearing where your woolly voice once blanketed me to sleep.
“More story?” you’d ask.
I’d pinch my thumb and forefinger together, “A little bit.”
You were my Scheherazade, but stories couldn’t save you.
I pull curtains from the window and scrawl a heart across its grimy pane. I struggle to open it, but it doesn't budge. My bare hands scratch layers blistered on the frame.
“One more story!” I cry and smash my fist through the glass.
Wind howls through me as I lift a book from the nightstand and read, Once upon a time .…
For more than 1001 nights, you told stories, each a little different, each the same.
Each one ended happily ever after - except, of course, the last.
smoke & mirrors
The smoke filled our home like echoes through a cave. She cried out my name, but for what? She was a prisoner in her own bedroom, locked up by the iron bars that were pencil marks, tracking my height ever since we moved here. It was kind of funny, actually, how the place she was supposed to feel safe was now keeping her from safety. And as I through the matches into the napalm that was consuming my house, I couldn't help but smile.
Rooms of My Imagination
While playing, I happened upon rows of abandoned military-barracks, cut in the middle lengthwise. A half-barrack room served as the grandstand from where I gave all my awe-inspiring speeches, a wall became the meridian of Hannibal that I used to conquer invading forces.
It wasn’t long before the invaders came. The first MP startled me when he banged on the door with his baton.
“Hey you, little girl. What do you think you are doing?” he yelled at me.
I jumped to attention and tried not to eyeball him when the second one put his hand on my shoulder. Should I stand and defend my find, fighting to the death, or obey and submit?
When the senior MP demanded, “Name and rank, soldier!” I couldn’t answer without condemning myself and my father to the gates of military purgatory.
I took the only option I had, I cut and ran.
As my body fights the oppressive night-time heat I close my eyes in hope of sleep to come. My mind races. I focus on the sounds of outside; the distant shouts of night revellers fill my ears. My thoughts instantly drift to that summer.
I see the numbers in their tarnished gold. I hear the sound of the lift arriving on my floor; feel my foot catching on the lift threshold. The patterned carpet of a decade long passed. Mine was the last room on the corridor. My hand reached out at another stagger; the effects of the night materialising. My fingerprint prominent on the gold numbering.
Suddenly, my body jolts from its sleepy efforts as I stumble to opening of room number 57. Once again it is to no avail; I awake to find myself in the same place and remember the events of room 57 all over again.
She could no longer tell
There was a time when she could feel when he was about to walk into the room. She didn´t even have to see him, she just knew. She felt it in every fibre of her body.
She found it slightly embarrassing, while at the same time finding joy in it. If she had been into New Age, she probably would have said that they vibrated on the same wave length, but she wasn´t, so she said nothing at all.
She would later regret her silence, because there would come a day when he no longer walked in to their mutual space, and the room - the inner and the outer - went dark. She should have told him. She wasn´t quite sure of what. That she loved him?
She could no longer tell if someone was coming and going. She didn´t care, he that mattered was already gone.
Whale Meat Again
CALL ME, ISHMAEL, OR TXT WHEN U GET BACK FROM UR TRIP. WE'LL GO 4 A JAR OR 5 @ UR LOCAL, DA WHALE&ANCHOR - AKA DA ALE&WANKER LMAO.
UR TXT ABT SHARING A BED WITH A MUSCLY BLOKE COVERED IN TATS HAD ME ROTFL! DID HE SHOW U HOW HE USES HIS HARPOON? SCNR.
BTW G%GLED UR CAP'N. IMHO HE SOUNDS LIKE A TW@T; SOHF & OBSESSED W "MOBY-DICK"... WTFIT?! FC U DON'T CATCH IT! LOL.
2BS4AM U GOT ALL THE LATEST GEAR&GIZMOS ON BOARD SO WOT CUD GO WRONG? SOUNDS LIKE A BILL&TED JOB!
SOZ, G2G. (@WRK - IHTFP! CUM W U NXT TIME; ROOM 4 AN XL ONE?)
Butterflies and Muffins
'What can I get you?' Well, a figure like yours would be a start. I mean, is it fair that someone should have a face that would launch a thousand cappuccinos and a body to match?
Still, I'm not here to attract the barista. I'm here for him. Just thinking about him gives me butterflies the size of light aircraft. If you could only see how his biceps try to make a dash out of his shirt sleeves. How he orders a no eggs, no flour, no sugar muffin and makes it look normal. He's the reason I religiously cleanse, tone and moisturise. Why I'm here at all. I want to share everything with him. Well, except the muffin perhaps, I prefer triple chocolate myself.
Right, there he is in all his rippling glory. The time has come to make my move, no room for error. Wish me luck.
Spice of Life
Every weekday morning I call for a chocolate bar and to say good morning to Mr and Mrs Patel. Mr Patel was proud of his name, it means landowner in Gujarati.
‘I am the owner of all I survey,’
Sweeping his arms in a circle, indicating his cosy shop selling all manner of interesting things.
My favourite place is the spice aisle. Here, there is room to ponder people, who, in the main, I don’t understand.
All pervading, intoxicating aromas and colours. I wanted to paint with those powders but when I asked, Mrs Patel laughed, saying cheerfully they were for edible purposes only.
That was where I stood when the man shot my friend, three times in the chest. Mr Patel dropped to the ground his blood draining away, as red as the Kashmiri saffron in the tubs at my side.
The first few nights he was happy. He said the comfort was bliss.
'It's like sleeping on a cloud in heaven,' he purred like a cat.
As the nights passed by, I could feel him fidget and hear his restlessness. There was a troubled aura about him and I knew he was frowning.
About a week in, I heard him move to the floor with a pillow. He slept on the hard space between the bed and the chest of drawers.
He rose every day at 6.30am, searched the papers for jobs he wouldn't get and wandered through the hours like a little boy. Whatever he was doing, he was never really doing it. Without limits, there is just too much room for some people.
The night he didn't come back, I knew what had happened.
My Happy Place
I've never told Jason about the special room I escape to. My happy place. I know he'd trash it, just as he's wrecked every dream. He'd say it was stupid - another sign that i was neurotic and needed him to look after me.
I've been going there more often since our relationship deteriorated and he got more controlling, stopped me having any money of my own.
I rehearse over and over what it would be like to live in that room - just like the counsellor told me to. The view from the window overlooks fields full of wild flowers. It is full of light, love and the scent of roses.
I practise closing the door on this life and taking the pathway through the woods to freedom. One day soon this dream will come true.
In the Steps of Mankind
Gone astray on the mountain three thousand years ago, he lies face down in a puddle of melting ice.
We carefully dig him out of the rubble-strewn glacier. I want to touch his hand. I want to tell him I know what it’s like to be lost. I want to connect to something far away from my own fractured life, something that doesn’t hinge on a father with dementia, a best friend with cancer, an acrimonious divorce.
He is stretchered into the refrigerated truck like an accident victim into an ambulance. I know the next time I see him a handful of scientists will be touching his leathered naked body in a sterile room, their excited voyeurism belittling his stature.
As he is driven away, I wish I could curl up in the hollow he left behind in the glacial moraine and go back to his world.
Little fingers stroke her mother's hair as she suckles curved in her arms. She's pure, innocent and vulnerable. Does she need me? The festering rows, the insincere apologies, identified faults but no absolution between parents. Those melting blue eyes haunt me. They want reassurance not the sight of a disappearing daddy.
How can a young woman be so sad? There are wrong signals; acquaintances but no friends. A loving daughter in an unaccepting world she doesn't understand. She survives but our hearts break. We stay together and share the pain. Her confused blue eyes don't recognise our sorrow.
Years of separate lives, living together, our daughter is all that binds. She blames us for her condition and taunts us with our dishonesty. Her vengeful blue eyes see two old, lonely people with lives no better than hers. There is no room for forgiveness.
In the Attic
You'll stay in here, he says, locking the door.
My room has a single bed, a writing desk, a chair and a small window. In the garden below all the pretty girls in their beautiful dresses clink glasses and the men take off their jackets and roll up their shirtsleeves. They smoke cigarettes and all the while they watch the pretty girls who turn this way and that and the chatter and laughter grows louder and louder.
He stands apart, not seeing the plain young woman who will be his new bride. His eyes stray to my window. She thinks him proud. She's wrong, but what can I tell a young thing like her about passion?
I pace my room and I scratch the yellow wallpaper until the crouching woman with wild hair comes out and prowls beside me.
He thinks he's safe now, she says, and we smile.
We had to spend a lot of time in waiting rooms. You edged around the crumbling brickwork of the fireplace, and later examined, wide-eyed, the faded charts above. In our pre-history, I may have crushed you, but your smaller size guaranteed warm chatter from the strangers seated around the walls.
I much preferred the corners, where there were reams of crumpled paper.
Later, I needed space. I fantasised about converting the airing cupboard, and in those same waiting rooms leafed through palatial expanses of glossy floorboards and custom-built bookshelves. They seemed to demonstrate a way out.
You had grown interested in different routes: intricate passages and transactions of biological matter – matter that had once joined us, perilously, together, before we were knocked through. And so it emerged that, in spite of our careful divergence, I spent my days making rooms for others, while you made room for them.
Woe is Walter
Inhaling the appetising aroma, his mouth watering, Walter wobbled into the dining room leaning heavily on his walking frame. Surveying the table, he shouted.
‘Ethel dear, where are the napkins?’
The sounds of utensils clattering and his wife’s cheerful humming continued unabated.
Walter muttered in frustration, took a few faltering steps closer to the kitchen and yelled as loudly as his weak lungs would allow.
‘Ethel. Where did you put the napkins?’
The oven door banged shut.
Irritation etched on his face, Walter shuffled into the kitchen on painful legs, his walking frame clacking on the floor. Halting directly behind his wife, he tapped her on the shoulder and bellowed directly into her ear. ‘Ethel. Napkins. Where are they?’
Ethel turned, sauce dripping onto the floor from her ladle. For goodness sake Walter. For the third time, they’re in the sideboard drawer.
In a gap in the pain, I thought of when we first met.
I couldn’t believe my luck, crammed in the back of my brother’s Capri between ‘dreamboat’ Gaz and one of his mates.
The door was wrenched open, curtailing my fun. ‘Room for a little ‘un?’
Carol launched herself into the car and wedged her hips between me and my quarry, squashing me against the other guy. He gave an ironic grin and raised one eyebrow, like Lieutenant Spock.
I was hooked.
Twenty years on, he hasn’t changed much, unlike Gaz and Carol. He’s wearing blue scrubs as is the woman on the other side of my hospital bed. I’m scared, but he takes my hand, squeezing it gently.
Another contraction starts. They exchange glances.
‘Ready to go where no one has gone before?’ he asks.
So proud. My best friend, the hospital’s first male midwife.
All will be dust
I lie down on bare boards and stare up at the ceiling of the old cottage. It shows an age that has past, a future, until now, uncertain. Crazed with jagged cracks, brown stained and undulating from haphazard repairs, it’s as cratered as the moon: and awaits its end, as outside a bulldozer starts its howling engine in a deep-throated roar.
This was my room. I was born here, in a bed long since gone. I spent my youth here, amongst posters and soccer scarves and hanging spaceships, silhouetted at night against that ragged moonscape. I had my first hurried love in here. On this same floor, carpeted then. I mourned in here, at the loss of my grandparents; my parents; my brother: one by one.
Now I mourn sturdy walls that soon will stand no more. I must leave: tomorrow, all will be dust. As soon will I.
A room with a view
I watch as she touches up her lipstick, straightens her suit. Slowly, I release the curtain. It falls softly into place, the movement so slight it's unnoticeable. She's home late again. Before long, the shouting starts.
Obscured by lace curtains, I sit at the window and sip my tea. Tommy runs past, his mother trails behind, pushing his baby sister, tethered, their dog runs alongside.
I love my room with a view. Although I can't get out much any more, I know what is happening in my street.
Across the road, wrapped in her flannelette dressing gown, Nancy takes in her milk. She thinks her husband is at work. She didn't see her husband disappear into the arms of another neighbour.
It's past midnight when the slamming door wakes me. I peer out for the last time and see my neighbour close the boot on his wife's body.
“The Room Without Walls (closed weekends)”
“In the Big Bang’s afterglow, the primal civilisation arose. Resplendent in a young cosmos, their power grew to the point they were as gods. All matter was subject to their whims and space-time was theirs to manipulate as they saw fit.
In their arrogance they decided to create artificial life, an agent that would enforce their will across the galaxies. They crafted it not from base matter, but from the quantum foam that is the very essence of reality.
They made their creation too well. As the origin myths of a million cultures will attest, it rebelled against its creators. The conflict lasted millennia and it was only with the final energies of their species that the Adversary was imprisoned here, in the room without walls, the singularity of a super-massive Black Hole.
Tours cost 20 zarsecs and don’t forget to visit the gift shop on your way out!”
Tit For Tat
I leaned over the edge of the cliff, looking down on my husband clinging to the root of a bush and dangling in the air.
’There's a ledge to your left. Is there room for you to get your foot on it?’
’I need a hand.’
A few crumbs of rock patterned downwards. That comes of bird watching, I thought. And he'd left his binoculars in the car. What was he thinking about?
And thenI knew.
’If you stand here....’ he'd said. But I didn’t have a head for heights and I hung back.
’You'll have to call the emergency services.’ His voice drifted up the cliff.
’Where's your phone,your silly bitch? Hurry up, I can’t hang on forever.’
My fingers closed round the shape in my pocket.
‘ I left it in the car.’ I called.
With his binoculars.
The Waiting Room
Whitewashed walls and an aroma of disinfectant greeted me when I was shown to the waiting room. I obediently sat down on one of the plastic chairs, staring obliviously at the magazines on the table.
I snorted a brief laugh at the irony of being here: the waiting room. For years, I had waited to fall in love; to find someone to spend the rest of my life with. I had waited for him to ask me to marry him and make my dreams come true. I had waited to conceive a child, despite being told that my chances were poor. And now here I was, waiting to be told whether the father of my child, the man who had given me everything I had ever waited for, would live or not.
The door opened. The doctor stood in the frame.
“I’m sorry for the delay. Thank you for waiting.”
An Unexpected Guest
‘This is our best room overlooking the garden.’ The landlady spreads her arms in a theatrical gesture.
‘It’s perfect.’ I say, count out some francs and get rid of her as quickly as possible.
I assemble my gun on the dressing table. The Wolf of Lyons always takes his evening tipple at this guest house. He is a fat man so that should make my job a lot easier. Escape after the assassination won’t be an option, unfortunately. I want to look nice when they find me so I put on my red Coty lipstick. Its perfume makes me light-headed. Jasmine wafts in from the garden and the trees' shadows lengthen as I stand at the window. Whisky is what I need right now, to steady my hand. The amber liquid burns and cools my throat, and I know that I am ready.
It felt as though I had been waiting for an eternity, and when the sleek, black bus finally arrived I could dimly make out a crowd of faces crammed behind the tinted windows, pale, distorted flesh squashed against dark glass.
“Get in,” the driver said cheerfully. “Always room for one more.”
“Upper deck for wrath, pride, lust, greed and envy. Gluttony and sloth are down below; they can't manage the stairs,” he confided with a wink.
“I think I'll wait for the next one,” I said. “Besides, I don't belong in any of those groups.”
“Aha, a hypocrite,” cried the driver triumphantly, his red eyes glowing brightly. “I've saved you a special seat. You can ride up front, next to me. On you get.”
The heavy doors thudded shut behind me with a sound of finality.
Flashbacks, hypnagogic hallucinations, apprehensions and now, seclusion in a room with upholstered walls - sadly, this is the chapter and verse of my hero.
The mental health specialist says he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of the war.
The million-dollar question is: will he ever find peace in this padded room?
The gorgeous brunette needed a room. I was looking for something more. She wasn't so she's gone.
The window sign is coming down again.
This time my flatmate's a redhead.
Here's hoping we both have better luck than the last one. Such a shame. She could never have known what I was capable of!
Eve poured the coffee; Richard cleared the dessert dishes away. They’d celebrated the first day of summer with dinner on the patio. Shadows lengthened, the sun slid behind the flats that overlooked their garden. This was their first house together after the trauma of two divorces. He returned from the kitchen with a plateful of mint chocolate wafers. Eve smiled; she needed to tell him something.
‘Can we adjourn to the sitting room? It’s chilly out here now.’
‘Certainly darling, I’ll take the coffees, you take the mints.’
He set the cups on the nest of tables.
‘Shall I put some music on, darling?’
‘No, not just yet.’ Eve sat on the two-seater settee and patted the next cushion.
He sat down; she took his hand and looked into his baby blues.
‘Remember we said we’d wait a year or two before thinking about children?’
I know these hands intimately, have watched them age. Watched mine echo their progress, presage my future. Now I realise we're not the same. Stripped fingers clasp my arm revealing, in clarity, an indented white band. I see only what is missing.
Mum tightens her hold, seeking reassurance as anaesthesia kicks in. I stroke courage, softly, into aging skin. Her grip relaxes as she floats away.
Back in the waiting room, Dad looks up, brimful of hope, and fear, and decade upon inseparable decade.
'She's in good hands,' I say, looking at my own. Monochrome, smooth for my years. Telling the gentle tale of a vanilla life: all mine, all fine, unshared.
I wrap my arms around my father, cherish their love.
In the bombstill night, they fled, their children’s sobs deadened with scarves wrapped around, for warmth and comfort and silence, leaving a long-lost but muchloved home, to travel in the back of a lorry, huddled together between pallets stacked with fear and tins of preserved fruit.
Then an ocean-
A memory of sunny days, their babies at the seaside, in sand with buckets, spades, the frozen roses of Éma’a on their lips.
But instead- the horror of a dinghy cresting blackened waves as tall as Mount Hermon, the vomit, death, the screaming and loss, loss of it all, before catching sight of a new shore, the sand shining with their hope.
But then those that come to meet the boat, instead of blankets or food or love, bring only papers, and call out ‘There is no room. You must go back.’
I wish he would die.
The thought floats up from the depths of Val’s consciousness. She takes a breath to extinguish it and looks to see if anyone in the crowded room senses her thinking this terrible thought. They are all sipping their wine oblivious to her perfidy.
‘How are you, Val?’ says Miranda. ‘We haven’t seen you for ages. Know you’re awfully busy with… you know. An absolute angel – that’s what you are. An angel.’
They no longer visit now but when she crosses their eye-line, they ease their consciences by calling her an angel. They don’t know what else to say. Their etiquette books don’t have a chapter on making conversation with a woman whose husband is semi-comatose. He isn’t considered worthy of visits from people busy gilding their lives with artifice.
They don’t want to know how she really is. She doubts they could handle the truth.
Her room is just as she left it. Clothes hang in the wardrobe. Marilyn Manson leers from a poster above the bed.
She even left her guitar. Sometimes, my husband picks it up and tunes it, keeping it ready in case she changes her mind and gets back in touch.
He taught her to play, at first. Later, he outsourced the job to a man with straggly hair and more patience than my husband ever had.
I picture her sitting on the floor, guitar in her lap, muttering as she tries to remember a riff. Her dad overhears a curse and aims a kick, from which she jerks away, dropping the guitar with a discordant twang.
Later, I lectured her about respect. She used to wind her dad up something shocking. After that, she bit her tongue, and we were happy, most of the time.
A World Away
The conference is dull and badly organised. Why have I left my sulking husband and travelled halfway across the world for this? Because it's what my job demands. And if I'm honest, I welcome time away, the luxury of having my own space, even if it is only a hotel room.
We gather in the bar for a drinks reception. I notice him immediately: tall, craggy faced, slightly stooped, with a crown of startled white curls. He's seated next to me at dinner. Over the course of the meal I glimpse his wit and kindness, pooled in his fierce eyes and deep, dark-wood voice.
'The evening has flown,' he says. 'May I walk you back to your hotel?'
I nod and my mind starts to race. Will I, won't I? When we arrive, the words come easily, unadulterated by guilt,
'This is my room, would you like to come in?'
More to Life Than Money
There is little room in his hectic life for love. Money is the all important factor. Making money. Counting money. Spending money.
Turning pennies into pounds. Buying low. Selling high. His evenings are a swift balancing act sandwiched between a pie and a pint at his local. Watching but not seeing the smiling beery faces around him. Hearing but not listening to the laughter of ordinary folk out after a day’s work.
The flat is stainless steel stark. The air cold and stale. The silence colourless in every way.
On Wednesday, on impulse, he leaves the flat and goes back to the Dog and Duck. Miranda is perched at the bar in a red off the shoulder dress.
She turns. Smiles at him. At that moment he knows he must make room in his life for love.
With thanks to all the writers who have made this issue possible.Abigail Rowe, Akindu Perera, alison woodhouse, Allison Lamberth, Andrea Case, Angela Lanyon, angela readman, Ben Pearson, Benjamin Olsen, Bill Cox, Camilla Johansson, Carol Leggatt, Catherine Gaffney, Ceinwen E Cariad Haydon, Celia Jenkins, Charis Fox, Chloe Ewart, Christine Nedahl, Claire Jenkins, Clara Mok, Colette Hill, Colin Alcock, CR Smith, Crystal McNeil, Damhnait Monaghan, Denice Penrose, Edel Williams, Elaine Dillon, Ellen Kirkman, Emma De Vito, Ergene Kim, Fern Bryant, Franca Basta, Gayle Andrews, Geoff Holme, Gill Kirkland, Hannah Whiteoak, Harry Covert, Helen Z., Hilary Ayshford, Ibrahim Salihu, Irene mackintosh, Jack Klausner, Jan Brown, Jay Bee, Jeanette Everson, Jenny Woodhouse, John Cooper, John Murphy, Joyce Wheatley, Julie Goodswen, Julie Johnson, Kate Chapman, Kathryn Evans, Keelah Rose Calloway, Laura Geall, Laura Ward-Smith, Lesley Anne Truchet, Linda Grierson-Irish, Lindsay Bamfield, Lola Barron, Louise Mangos, Mahesh Nair, Malcolm Richardson, Mandy Thorley, Maria Oceja, Marissa Hoffmann, Mary Davies, Michael Ewins, Michael Pickard, Michael Rumsey, Michelle Clark, Nancy Zielinski, Natalie Pearson, Nicole Powers, Oliver Tong, Paul Jenkins, Peter J.Corbally, Reid W. Pickett, Richard Kemp, Robson, Ronnie Calithilben, Rozanna Alfred, Ryan Yarber, S.B., S.B. Borgersen, Sally Cotton, Sally Davies, Sarah Hill Wheeler, Shaun Grean, Shirley Golden, Steven O. Young Jr., Stuart Atkinson, Sue Johnson, Susan Carey, Thomas malloch, Tim Hawkins, Tim Hayes, Vicky Nolan, Woody McBain
25th April 2018