Harry’s Birthday

Birthday_candles

I wake early and with a sense of excitement, my blood singing in my ears.

What, what day is it? I can’t find myself. Is it Christmas? The first day of the holidays? My birthday?

I feverishly run through a list of dates in my head, searching for the puzzle piece.

Valentines Day, Thanksgiving, New Years Eve…

Then I remember, and my excitement fades away to nothing.

Today is Harry’s birthday.

Memories float to the surface of my mind. This day, repeated back through my life; of cake and candles, of parties and presents. Of his choppy blonde hair, of his obsession with tractors. His swing set in the garden. The love I saw in his eyes when he looked at me.

Of him, toddling around the house, creating wonderful chaos. Without him everything is so cold and echoing.

When will this pain heal? When will this hurt fade? Not yet – it’s still too fresh a wound.

But, one year, I want to be able to wake up on this day and only see the loveliest of lives… and not the hole he left behind.

Goodnight Kiss

Boy in bed

A young child waits alone in the dark
His duvet pulled up to his chin
He waits for his goodnight kiss
But his mother forgot about him.

He can hear her voice, drifting upstairs
She giggles, gossips, drinks tea
And while her son waits alone in the dark
She laughs, obliviously

While upstairs her son is alone in the dark
Thinking, “She doesn’t love me.”

We Were Together

kids
You were five and I was six, and we were together.
You were a princess and I was your prince. Swashbuckling pirates, the fearless captain and mate. A crime fighting duo, superman and catwoman.
We were always together, two halves of a whole. Joined at the hip.
But then your mum began to get anxious. She said that it was time for me to leave. She wanted her daughter to make new friends, better friends than me.
You were loyal. You stood by my side. We weathered the storms, as we always have.
We were together.
_
You were nine and I was ten, and we were together.
We created our own world and made ourselves Queen and King. Our people adored us, and we had mighty battles against dragons and witches and goblin armies that threatened our rule.
We were closer than siblings, closer than spouses. Two peas in a pod. One person in two bodies.
But then your mum realised I was still around and she was angry. She threatened to stop your ballet classes. She made you go round to other little girls houses, girls that liked pink and ponies and parties.
You were loyal. You stood by me. We survived, as we always have.
We were together.
_
You were thirteen and I was fourteen, and we were together.
You were my first girlfriend; I was your first kiss. We went to the cinema together, to school together, shopping together. You laughed at the funny things I said and I told you that you were beautiful.
We were two halves of a whole, joined at the hip, inseparable.
But then your mum found out I was still around, she was terrified. She dragged her daughter to hospital, doctors, shrinks. “You’re thirteen! You shouldn’t still be doing this!” I was labelled as a bad influence.
You began to waver.
We were together less. You kept giving me strange looks and asking questions that were too near to the truth. As you got further away, I got sicker. I was weak, pale, as though I was wasting away. I felt invisible. I was sure I was dying.
I pleaded with you, I begged you, I kissed you, I told you I loved you, but you had stopped listening. I was a ghost, someone you wanted to forget.
I drifted around in the corner of your vision, watching you erase me from your life. But I was never completely gone. You kept me alive, kept believing in me just enough. I was still alive in your memories of me, but barely. Every day it was harder.
_
You were twenty and I was twenty-one. You were strong and healthy and I was nearly dead.
Your mum approached you and asked nervously, “That… boy. Is he still around?”
You turn and glance at me, the translucent ghost in the corner.
“No, mother, I’ve followed your advice. He’s not my friend any longer.” My heart is shattered into so many pieces that it can’t be broken any more.
Your mum nods, relieved. She motions for you to sit down.
“Well… the thing is, dear… he was not a real boy. When you were five, it was okay to have an imaginary friend. But when you were thirteen…” She shudders delicately, reaching out to pat her daughter’s hand in what she probably thinks is a reassuring way. “I hope you understand now. I did it for your own good!”
You pause. I can see your thoughts churning, but you’re too old now for childhood games.
“I know, mother.”
You turn and stare at me. For a moment, the intensity of your gaze brings me to life. For the first time in months I am solid, human, breathing.
But your expression is flint, and I know that it’s all over.
“We were together,” You inform me, your icy voice echoing through your head. “But I have no need for you now.”
I’ve been on the brink of this for seven years, but the finality shocks me to the core. “No! Don’t!” I cry, running to you. I reach for your hand, thinking that if you felt me, you wouldn’t be able to kill me.
But you draw away with a look of pure loathing and turn your back on me.
I know now that I am dead.
Sinking to my knees, I look down at my see-through fingers. A sharp searing pain tears through me as you rip me out of your head. Tears are flooding from my eyes; everything is a watery blur. I can feel myself being undone by you, my seams being torn apart, the colours under my skin merging with the air.
For a brief moment I am suspended in the air. I am everywhere; and then… I am nowhere at all.

Hospital Bed

Hospital Bed

I can’t do this.
I’ll fall.
My foot fumbles forward, the icy floor making gooseflesh crawl across my skin.
My legs are twigs… too thin, too fragile. They’ll snap.
I hold onto the bed with both hands, knuckles white.
Rapid raspy breathing; deafeningly loud in the sterile room.

“You need to let go,”
A jerky, terrified shake of the head.
I am hunchback, trembling, folded inwards on myself.
“If you don’t let go, you’ll never be able to leave.”
My breathing hitches; half a gasp, half a sob.
Softly spoken; “Let go.”

I release one hand. The blood begins to flow again. It hurts.
My toes inch forward.
My feet are concrete, stone, rock. I can’t shift them.
“I’m too weak!”
“You can do it.”

With all my strength, I lift my foot.
My eyes widen. I let it hang in the air, flightless bird.
Lower it. The frozen floor greets it like a friend.
I’ve taken a step.
I’ve moved.
My left foot twitches
I take another hesitant step.
And another.

My other hand is holding me back, gluing me to the hospital bed.
I pry the fingers off one by one, cutting off my lifelines.
I shuffle forwards, tenderly, slowly.
I expect pain;
None comes.
I straighten my spine, standing tall.
Flex my toes.
Breathe deeply, savour the sweetness.

Shuffling, walking.
Walking, striding.
Chin up.
Eyes forward.
I smile, amazed, happy.
I can do this after all.

I don’t stumble.
My body remembers being alive.
I begin to jog,
Air filling the sails of my lungs.
Wasted and dying muscles gaining their past strength.
I run down the corridors, grinning.
Skin-coloured blurs and startled faces
Nurses and patients and doctors and family
Flash by.

I’m flying.

_

Inspired by this song, 3:20 until 4:21.

Spotlight

Ballerina

A thousand spotlights
The fluid babble of the audience
The stage, gleaming like the sun
All that open space
A map, unrolled, just waiting for an explorer
Inside my ballet shoes my feet begin to itch
Everything is holding its breath
My ears ring with unheard silence
I am ready.

Without warning, the orchestra burst into song
And audience are struck dumb in awe
The music swells
The high, sweet notes of the violins
The patient cellos singing softly
The trumpets crying out in pride
All intermingling, blending
Separating and joining
Reaching higher and higher
Soaring above the clouds
A skyscraper of music

I am more than ready:
And I rise on tiptoe
My arms in the air
And fly out of the wings and across the stage
I dance
Mindlessly
The open stage surrounding me,
The audience adoring me!
The spotlights searing my eyes,
The orchestra filling my ears and
Making them throb with music, my heartbeat
And this moment is so perfect
That I must be dreaming…

But then I slip in the mud
Trip, begin to fall
Barely catch myself
And stand upright,
Facing the headlights.

I am not a ballerina after all.
I am a just a girl
Standing, alone, in a muddy field
In the glare my cars headlights
Dancing my solo in my pyjamas.

Headlights

Dreaming Adam

Children
I’m at the beach.

The sea is slurping at the sand, toying with small pebbles, pushing them back and forth. The smell of salt is in the cold wind coming off the sea. Children dressed in bright clothes, the only colour in sight, dig and play in the sand. I feel like I’ve been here before, like this has happened before: but I can’t remember when.

“You came.”

I turn.

Behind me stands a young man, his chestnut hair wet from swimming. He’s barefoot, his jeans rolled up to his knees. I know him. He’s Adam. I’ve definitely been here before, I remember this! My sense of deja’vu is making this whole thing feel a little surreal.

“Of course I did,” I tell him, smiling. “You know I can’t refuse you anything!”

He smiles back, but his eyes are worried. He looks like he’s about to say something; but nothing comes, and he closes his mouth.

I feel as though I’m in a play, reading out my lines. This has been said before, done before. “Are you okay?”

He stares at me, his eyes intense and so deep I feel like I’m at the bottom of the ocean.

I feel like I know what should happen next. He’s going to smile, shrug. His line is, ‘Don’t worry, it’s nothing’. And then he will take my hand, pull me into the shallows, and we paddle and laugh and get soaked.

I’m so sure what will happen that when he blurts out, “Jenny, you’re in trouble,” I freeze.

Why isn’t he following the script? An odd feeling of fear slides into my heart; by breaking away from the script, he’s broken a rule.

The words jump from my throat without permission. “Don’t say that!” I cry. “Don’t!” If he does, if he does, something terrible will happen, this world will break down…

He speaks over my frantic pleas.

“You thought you’d escaped Dan after New York, but he’s close. He’s right on your tail and closing in. You’ve got to get out of there, now!”

This is wrong. The Adam from this memory couldn’t possibly know these things. This was Adam before any of this started, this was Adam from before New York…

The world feels like it’s spinning. The sound of the seagulls, of the lapping of the sea, children screaming; everything seems to mute. My vision tunnels so I can only see Adam.

“How can you possibly know that? You don’t even know where I am!”

He smiles sadly. “No, I don’t. And I never will. Wake up now, get up and get out! I don’t want you to end up the same as me.”

I’m so dizzy, the world is flying away from me. The bright clothes of the children are so colourful they make my head ache. Adam’s face blurs. The world is pulsing to my heartbeat.

“What are you talking about?” I cry, feeling suddenly alone. My voice echoes in the emptiness of the void.

I can’t see Adam anymore, but his voice is as clear as if he’s talking in my ear.

“I’m dead, Jenny.” He whispers. He speaks haltingly, emotion snapping and splintering his voice. “Daniel killed me. Now stop dreaming and wake up before they get you too!”

The beach disappears; I’m falling through black space, tumbling in empty air, my fingers raking through nothingness for something to hold…

I wake up with a start and tears on my cheeks. Adam’s voice echoes through the emptiness of my head.

Get out… before he kills you too.

Seedling

Seedlings
 

When did you become so important to me?

 

Your name was such a small word. A pill, easily swallowed

Only it didn’t leave me; travelled to the epicentre,

Burrowed itself in my heart

A seed taking root in fertile earth

 

I didn’t notice for so long; it was only when

The pain of being around you became unbearable

I couldn’t see it, I didn’t know

But the seedling had grown and grown and filled

All the space. Nowhere left to go

 

So it split my heart wide open

I noticed then, but too late to do anything:

Already an unstoppable force

Bursting through my flesh, ripping me to shreds

Splintering my bones. Ruining me.

 

I am broken by you, you have undone the tendons

That knitted me together

My skin peeled off, my tender flesh exposed

For the world to see.

These wounds I bear belong to you.

 

You’re making me live, and you kill me slowly.

Military Brats

Military Brat 3

My seventh school

The sea of strangers surrounds me

I introduce myself to a girl in the lunch queue

“Why did you join in the middle of the year?”

I tell her my parents are in the navy.

“Oh.”

She says, her face calculating.

“You’re one of those.”

 

Mother’s eyes are stone.

“Later, I’ll inspect your room.”

Look down, nod. “Yes, ma’am.”

 

Every night, we watch the news.

The war footage is hellish and with every death they announce a fresh terror seizes me.

I keep checking the photos, but it’s never my Father.

Relief fills me… but then I feel guilty;

Somewhere in the world a family is mourning.

What right do I have to feel relieved?

The news theme tune is the soundtrack to my nightmares.

The cycle never ends.

Merry Christmas

Christmas Presents

Christmas Day.

At lunch, the little boy squirms, impatient to escape from the dinner table. He pesters and pleads with his father until at last, worn down by the endless complaining, his father sets him free.

His gleaming new toys beckon him from underneath the Christmas tree, and the TV guide lies open, slyly showing all the marvellous movies that are currently on. The boy ignores them both.

He sprints upstairs, switches on the clunky computer and goes on Skype.

As promised, she is online, waiting for him. He double clicks on her name and her face fills the screen, smiling at him from the other side of the world. He hasn’t seen her for seven months.

Her khaki uniform is covered in dust. She smiles like a star in a distant galaxy, distant but warm.

“Merry Christmas, Mommy!”

Driftwood

Driftwood

She has been dislocated in time.

Her bones are made of stone and anchor her in place. Without them, she would have escaped long ago. She is the eye of the storm and everyone else is frantically busy with their own lives, all around her, but she cannot leave.

She’s been washed up on the sea of humanity and lies abandoned on the tideline, like driftwood.

Rules

Jade glanced surreptitiously over her shoulder, then leant towards me.

“Rules are made to be broken, are they not?” She said, her low voice not disguising her sly grin.

Alarm shot through me like adrenaline. “No!” I exclaimed. A couple of heads flicked in our direction. I swallowed, lowered my voice and spoke firmly, “No, Jade, not this one. They’ll find out, and then they’ll never let you return.”

She raised her eyebrows and leant back.

“Jade, I mean it! Can’t you see they’re just longing to get rid of you? Any excuse and-”

Cutting me off with a dismissive wave of her hand, she said lazily,

“Stop your fussing, they’ll never know. Trust me. I’ll be back before lock-up so nobody will even notice I’m gone. And if they do…” Her words ran off significantly.

“Don’t get me involved!” I blurt hastily. Her expression makes my heart shrivel up, but I take a deep breath and say, with as much confidence as I can muster, “I’ve helped you in the past but this is beyond anything you’ve done before. It’s not going to work and I’m not going to end up in prison with you.”

Jade stood up and looked down at me. Half of me wanted to shrink into a tiny ball. The other half was screaming at me to stand up for myself.

“Fine,” She said, her voice oozing contempt. “If you’re going to be a coward, I can manage perfectly well without you.”

She turned on her heel and walked briskly away, her long hair swishing from side to side like a swinging blade.

I squirmed where I sat. My mind buzzed with worries. Worries that she would be caught; worries that she wouldn’t. She might be overstepping the line, but she’s my only friend…

“Jade?” I called hesitantly.

She turned around with raised eyebrows and a question in her eyes.

I bit my lip. “Just… be careful.”

Her smile didn’t hide the malice in her eyes. “Oh, don’t worry – I will!”

And with those words she marched away, leaving me with a twisted stomach and horrible decision to make.

Refugee

I sip the hot drink and feel the skin on my tongue tingle from the burn. It’s heavenly; so rich and strong, the consistency of syrup or melted chocolate. I clasp my hands around the mug and shiver as the warmth rushes up my arms. Raising the mug to my burnt lips, I take another sip.

I close my eyes, and allow myself to think about the others. How cruel this world is, that luck decides who lives and who dies. If one of a million things had happened differently, Randy would be sat in this refugee camp drinking too hot, too strong hot chocolate and I would be the one buried beneath our high school.

If I look back now, I can trace back the cause and effect.

My sister was two years older than me and amazing at everything. My parents adored her and I grew up in her shadow, doing exactly the same things that she had done two years previously; but I could never do anything to her standard.

When she moved up to high school, she joined the school gymnastics club. Soon she was being entered into county, and then regional, and then national competitions and winning everything she tried. She was amazing. When she came home with all her medals and trophies my parents would turn to me and tell me that “if I worked hard that could be me”.

When I moved up to high school, I didn’t join the gymnastics club. I joined the basketball club.

I was the only girl on an entirely male team. At first, I was terrible. I knew nothing about the rules and the boys teased me mercilessly, but every time I felt like giving up I thought what my parents would say. They would compare me to my sister and wonder why I had turned out so badly. So I put my head down and worked like hell. I improved slowly, but a time came when I was officially a member of the team, and we would go and play games against the other schools, and gradually we began to win them.

I wasn’t at school on that day because of a game. It was huge; if we won, we would be entered into the South West tournament, further than we’d ever got. We’d been training for months. I more was terrified than I’d ever been in my life, but somehow, when I stepped into the court, everything fell away. The match was infinitesimally close but we won, and were in the coach on the way home when our coach driver turned up the radio and we heard the news report.

I am alive because I didn’t want to be my older sister. Is that fair? I decided to rebel and my reward is that I get to survive, while my sister, who never did anything wrong, is dead.

Or maybe it’s not my fault at all. Maybe it’s not my fault but pure luck. Maybe an earthquake on the seabed a thousand miles away caused a small disturbance out at sea that became a giant wave that came and swept away our city. Maybe the world is just randomly evil and cares not for who it destroys.

Or maybe we did something wrong. Maybe our city was evil and didn’t deserve to exist, and some God somewhere decided to sweep it off the face of the earth, like a spring cleaner carelessly ripping through the delicate cobwebs of spiders.

Or maybe this was going to happen anyway. Maybe nothing we could have done would have changed the changed the pattern of events. Maybe, in the future, people will look back on this day and say that this was when everything changed, the pivot point on which everything rests. Maybe this was necessary. Maybe all this death and destruction has some ultimate purpose. Maybe there’s some lesson to be found from this mess.

If there is, I can’t see it from here.

 

 

Autumnal Haikus

Buttercup, golden

Brown and burgundy; the leaves wave

From the trees like hands

In the darkness, the

Orange grins of pumpkins are

Glowing eerily

Parents light bonfires

Sparklers spell names, draw pictures

Cold toes, hot coffee

Fog

fog

I remember, when I was little, my Mamma sitting me down by the fire and telling me stories before I went to bed. They were stories with reasons behind them, like “Don’t be cruel to children younger than you,” and, “Always eat what you given.” But I remember, one night, my Mamma telling me a different kinda story. She sat me down on a stool in front of the fire and began brushing out my hair gentle and real slow. Even now, I still remember the feeling of it tugging lightly at my scalp.

“Once there was a valley and in the valley everything was perfect. The grass was green; the soil was rich; and the weather warm and wet. But not many people lived in this valley. Despite it being so nice, people were afeared of it. Because the valley is surrounded by dark, gloomy mountains. And the mountains are cursed.”

Mamma had my full attention now. I stared into the golden fire, my eyes unfocused, focusing on her words.

“The mountains would spew fog that would drag itself down to the valley and swallow the town whole, till everything was grey. Then the fog would play tricks on people, showing them their dead loved ones and whispering words into their ears what turned their minds to soup. If you listen, then you gone for. It take hold of you, the whisper sickness, and you go mad; you try an fight your way out, into the fog, and the fog would swallow you whole. The next morning… they never find any bodies. And then next time the fog come, it got one extra loved one trapped in its belly, whispering lies.”

I was shivering by now, despite the hot fire flickering at my feet. Mamma turned me round to face her, and her face was so serious I was scared. Her voice was low and urgent.

“This is why you can’t go out at night, you understand? This is why you’ve got to hurry home from school. Because I don’t ever want to lose you and see your face in the fog.”

I nodded, partly out of fear for the fog, partly out of love for my Mamma.

She smiled and sighed with relief. She turned me back round again and carried on brushing out my hair.

“You’re a good girl,” She said softly. “Such a good girl.”

Hungry

The meal had been cooked to perfection.

For hours now I’ve been slaving away in the kitchen, washing, chopping, steaming, cooking and roasting. Now, at last, it’s ready. The table is laid and the drinks poured. The joint of beef sits proudly in the center of the table, glistening with herbs. The smell is delicious. I scan the table for anything I’ve missed, then call up the stairs;

“It’s lunchtime!”

By the time I’ve walked round the table and taken my seat, I can hear the thunderous footsteps of the twins racing down the stairs. Charlie bursts in first, with Dan hot on his heels. They laugh breathlessly and throw themselves into their seats, talking and joking raucously.

Those boys, I think, partly in amusement and partly in bewilderment. Where do they find all their energy?

The heavy tred of my husband comes down the hallway from his study. As he enters, he sniffs appreciatingly and smiles.

“This looks wonderful, Mary.”

A smile springs to my lips. “Thanks.”

He takes his place, pulls the joint towards him and carefully begins carving the meat. The twins begin to bicker about who was going to get the biggest piece.

The last seat at the table remains empty.

“Where’s Andria?” I ask over the twins argument.

My husband raises his head from his carving, and pulls a ‘I don’t know,’ face. The twins shrug. “In her room?” Dan suggests.

“I’ll go get her!” Charlie exclaims.

“No, I will!”

“I said first!”

I interject before it turns into another argument.

“Charlie, you go.”

He jumps up triumphantly and rushes from the room and up the stairs.

Dan turns his puppy eyes on me. “Awww, Mum!”

I smile inwardly and give him the plate with the largest slice of meat to shut him up. It works.

Moments later, Charlie charges down the stairs and sits back down. Andria follows more sedately, sitting down noiselessly. I notice she’s wearing a large knitted jumper despite the temperature. I pass over her plate and fill my own with potatoes, carrots and peas.

Soon everyone is piling their plates, passing round the gravy dish and digging in. Charlie begins talking about some football game he and Dan are in next weekend, with my husband occasionally interjecting with questions.

I turn to Andria and watch as she cuts her meat into smaller and smaller pieces.

“Hey, aren’t you hungry?”

She glances up, then continues to stare at her place. “Not really.”

“But Sunday roast is your favourite!”

Her voice has an edge to it I don’t understand. She sounds… defensive. Almost angry. “Yeah, well, not today.”

I watch her in silence, my brow creased. What’s wrong? Why is she upset?

“Are feeling okay?” I ask quietly.

“Yes,  Mum, I’m fine!” She says, and now the anger in her voice is unmistakable.

I raise my eyebrows. “Don’t bite my head off, I was just wondering why you aren’t eating your favourite meal-”

“For goodness sake!” She says loudly, standing up.  “I’m just not hungry! Why do you have to make such a big deal out of everything?”

The conversation grounds to a halt and four pairs of eyes stare at Andria. I look closer at her, and my thoughts start travelling on a path I don’t like.

Baggy jumpers. Cutting up her food. “I’m not hungry.” And other things as well… changing from packed lunch to school dinners. Going to other friends houses for tea. Going out running every night, on top of Gymnastic training. Weighing herself. Looking in the mirror all the time. And how quiet she’s become…

How can I have missed this? How can I have been so blind?

I stand up slowly and look her in the eye. I feel like I’m seeing her for the first time. Her cheeks are concave,  slightly hollow, making her look gaunt and a little skull-like. Her hands, in fists by her sides, are so bony I can count her tendons and her wrists are worryingly thin. The silence in the room is ringing in my ears. I hold onto my chair to keep upright.

“Honey… Are you eating normally?”

For a moment I think I’m wrong and my heart flutters with relief.

Then I see the anxiety flood into her eyes. Her face creases like a paper bag left in the rain and she begins to cry. I go to her and hold her in my arms, sorrow like an undigested meal lying heavy in my stomach. I stroke her hair as she sobs, wishing that now we had found out it would all be over… but knowing that this was only the beginning.

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