Sensitive

I’ve always been sensitive.  Not ‘can’t use soap’ sensitive or ‘cry at Christmas adverts’ sensitive.  Just ‘knowing things without a proper explanation’ sensitive.  Don’t get me wrong; I can’t tell you what the lottery numbers will be.  Do you think I’d be here if I could?  As if! I’d be lying in a hammock on my own island with an endless supply of fresh fruit and the occasional pizza.  I’ll tell you the kinds of things I know: what sex the baby will be, the fact that there will be a baby (before the bump appears or else it wouldn’t be ‘knowing’ so much as ‘seeing’), what clothes people will have on, even if I’ve never seen them before, who’s calling when the phone rings.  Boring stuff, mostly.   Occasionally I know weirder stuff, like when somebody is going to get hurt or die or when they’ve done something terrible.  That’s the stuff I hate because there’s nothing I can do about it, except … know.

The reason I’m telling you this is so you’ll understand why I instantly knew I was being followed.  There was no doubt in my mind; it started when I was on my way home.  I was tired, wet and hungry; I had no hope of a hot meal or a warm bed for several hours and I was in my own little world of irritation, but I felt that buzz … maybe you’ve felt it too … it’s the unmistakable touch of another person’s gaze.  When someone is looking right at you, it can be as though they reach across and lay their unwelcome fingers right onto your skin.  It creeps me out.

Whenever this happens, I try not to be too obvious about looking for whoever’s watching me.  There are some bad types out there and if they know you’ve spotted them, well … that could end very badly.  So, I was discreet and just stopped to look in a couple of windows to check out the reflection of the street behind me.  It didn’t help, to be honest; I couldn’t see anybody who looked dodgy, so I tried that thing where you stop as though you’ve forgotten something and turn around as though you might be planning on retracing your steps.  That tactic bore fruit immediately.  As I turned, I clearly saw a figure come to an abrupt halt and step back into the shadow of a hedge – very suspicious behaviour.  Definitely my follower!  I rummaged in my bag for a moment, watching the shadowy figure from under my dripping hood and then acted as though I’d found what I thought I’d forgotten and resumed walking in my original direction.

You’ll probably understand why I didn’t want to lead this character to my home, yet they showed no sign of dropping back, always close to the shadows, always stopping to wait if I went into a shop or stooped to ‘fasten a shoe’.  What was worrying me most of all was that we were coming to a place where I’d almost certainly be alone for five minutes or more if I continued towards home and I didn’t want that to happen if I could avoid it.  There was a brightly lit road with a steady flow of foot traffic just around the corner and I could head in that direction rather than back myself into the corner of isolation, but it would mean going much closer to the dark figure and I didn’t really feel comfortable about that.  I knew for certain that something really bad would happen if I confronted this disturbing admirer: I could feel it as surely as I could feel my feet making contact with the hard pavement.

Looking ahead, I could see the turn-off that led to the dark little bridge over the railway, which would then lead to a series of small, quiet roads which housed an empty old schoolhouse, some abandoned shops and some severely neglected houses that rarely betrayed any signs of life within.  At the rate I was walking now, I would reach the opening in two minutes at the most and the follower could be across the road and at my side thirty seconds later.  On the other hand, I could veer towards them right now, in full view of other people and cars that were passing by.  There were few areas of shadow as the shop fronts on both sides of the road spewed their lights into the world.  In a way, I felt tempted to risk passing the person more closely for a better look; at no point had I had a clear look at a face and I couldn’t even see clearly enough to say if it was a man or a woman.  Or neither, I suppose.

In a split second, my feet made the decision for me and I swerved toward the bright lights and the shadowy figure at their edge.  Making a point of looking up and down the road, I crossed at an angle that would leave me ahead of him or her by at least ten yards; the largest distance possible.  I didn’t want to get too close.  I could sense the malicious intent building now and as I swept my eyes across the figure’s face, I caught a glimpse of light, reflecting from dark eyes and it sent a deep shudder down my spine.  My reaction would pass for the effects of the cold, I was sure, if it had been noticed at all.  But now, we were on the same side of the road and I didn’t like that; it made me feel weak, vulnerable, controlled.  No!  I didn’t like it at all.

The feeling of being watched was now so much more than a buzz … it was a weight, a heat, a force and I could tell without looking that the distance between us was decreasing steadily.  There was no way I could turn around now that we were on the same side; it would be too obvious and I just didn’t want to look into the glinting eyes of this being who meant me harm.  In a panic, I veered into a cafe and stumbled to the counter.  I bought some tea and sat at the back of the shop, looking towards the street.  I couldn’t see the figure now but I knew they would be out there … waiting.  I could feel a draught on my cheek that seemed to come from behind me and I turned to look at the toilet door.  Next to it, was an open door that led into the kitchen … the empty kitchen.  Could I get out that way?  Even if I couldn’t … I had to try!

Heading towards the toilet, I walked steadily, swerving into the kitchen at the last minute and went straight for the back door.  I glanced over my shoulder to see the back of one of the women who was behind the counter; she was talking and unaware of my actions.  The door was unlocked and I was able to close it quietly behind me, but when I tried to leave the small yard I found the outer door was bolted and padlocked.  I looked around for inspiration and saw a large wooden planter, but it was too far from the wall to be of any use.  Pulling at it, I was surprised at how heavy it was, but in my desperation, I was able to drag it close enough to use as a boost to climb up onto the wall.  Unfortunately, the noise it had made as I had dragged it had attracted the attention of one of the coffee shop workers, who opened the door and began shouting and screeching.  I could hear footsteps running through the shop so I launched myself from the wall into the darkness of the alley, jarring my knee as I landed.

Blindly, I ran along the alley, heading back towards where I had come from, hoping to find a way back onto the street and into the light and, hopefully, far behind wherever my pursuer was now waiting.  But I quickly realised that wasn’t going to happen!  I felt his presence before I ran into him.  Definitely a ‘him’.  Strong hands grabbed me and rotten breath drove into my face as I saw in sickening HD everything he wanted to do to me … had done to the others … but as my twitching claws shredded his stubbled face and my growing fangs sank into his bitter-tasting throat, the tears of shame poured from my eyes and onto my fur before I lost all sense of self … again.

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In the Bus Queue

She sat down in the corner of the bus shelter.  The rain pinged off the roof and formed a curtain in front of her and to the side.  Passing cars swished and rumbled through the night, their headlights streaking in front; she didn’t step forward to see their departure, but remained perched on the thin, sloped bench.  Gradually, the bus-stop filled up with familiar faces, workers on their way home, teenagers on their way out, mostly people she’d seen every day for months, but never once spoken to.

She wondered what it would be like to chat.  Just something as simple as “Rough weather tonight!” could lead to so much more: exchanging names, detailing destinations, sitting together on the bus.  Probably not a good idea.  She smiled to herself, imagining the weird scenario of unsolicited contact – of conversation.  Two women had stood in front of her and were talking about Christmas; they were discussing their preparations or, to be more accurate, lack of preparations.

“It’s not even November yet.” Reminded one.

“It will be tomorrow!” Warned the other.

The bus seemed to be taking forever to come – probably because of the weather.  It wasn’t very reliable at the best of times; even though it was supposed to come every 15 minutes, they were sometimes there for as long as 40 or 45 minutes on a bad day.  Some people were starting to grumble and even more were shivering, since most of them had been soaked even before they’d made it into the shelter and the ones at the edges were still getting rained on, relentlessly.  In spite of this, nobody had sat on the bench apart from her.

A bus appeared in the distance, its bright window-eyes visible long before the rest of it.  The would-be passengers thronged forward, creating a squash along the pavement edge, passes and pounds in hands, scarves pulled tightly to block the torrent.  The bus swished past, depositing a dirty wave on the hopefuls at the very front.  An almost synchronised groan of annoyance rose and fell.  A Doppler of disappointment.

“Typical!”

“There were loads of empty seats!”

“I’m sending them the cleaning bill!”

“You’re lucky you were at the back!  Didn’t you want that bus?”

She looked up, shocked!

“Sorry?”

“Wasn’t that your bus?”

The woman had her head tilted as she asked the question.

“It’s just I noticed you didn’t move when it was coming and everybody else pushed forward.”

“I, I just … I was waiting until there was space.

“You’ll never get on that way.”  She smiled.  “People take advantage!”

“I don’t like standing at the front while the bus is moving.  It seems dangerous.”

“That’s true; I’ve heard of accidents happening because of people pushing to get on.  Not very nice.”

The woman sat down next to her.

“It’s very cold for October, isn’t it?  Feels more like January!  You don’t look like you’re dressed for this weather at all.  Aren’t you cold?”

“Not really.  I don’t feel it.”

“You’re lucky.  I’ve got four layers on and I’m still chilled right through.  Can’t wait to get in and soak in a hot bath.  If this damn bus ever comes, that is!”

The woman turned to look along the road.  There was no sign of a bus and the stream of headlights was beginning to dwindle as the rush-hour travellers would probably be home by now, leaving just the few unlucky stranded, like those in the sodden huddle at the bus-stop.

She was feeling a sense of unease.  Something she didn’t even realise was possible.  This was completely unprecedented.  In fact, it was so unexpected that she’d been convinced for several seconds that the woman hadn’t been talking to her, but she obviously had; it had been a proper conversation, making sense and everything.  She looked at the women from under her fringe.  She just looked normal, but she couldn’t be … maybe she was a ghost too.  No.  She’d said she was cold and in all the months she’d been dead, she’d never once felt any kind of cold or heat.  In fact, until she’d been shocked by the woman being able to see her, the only thing she’d really felt was the compulsion to come to the bus-stop and get onto the bus.  It even had to be the right one … the last one during rush-hour: the one that had killed her.

She realised that the bus had come, as she was inspecting the woman.  The passengers were filtering onto the bus in ones and twos and as the woman climbed aboard, she turned and asked her “Are you coming?”

She shook her head.  She didn’t want to be on a bus with somebody who could see her.

“Okay then” shrugged the woman “Happy Halloween”.

Down by the river

The bench felt cold against his back; his thin jacket serving little purpose beyond modesty.  In the bag at his feet there was a rug: threadbare, damp, filthy.  When the weather grew colder, he would wear it as a coat, but for now it was just his bed, coming out after dark, if he could find somewhere safe enough to close his eyes.

He watched the river spread its arms to touch both towns with rippling fingers, joining and separating in one bold sweep.  He’d loved the river for as long as he could remember; all his important moments seemed connected to it, somehow.  As a tiny boy, he’d come here with his mum and his sister so often that it felt as though this had been their real home.  If there was any money, they’d all go on the ferry and rush straight up the stairs to the top deck, hoping to find a seat where they could see the important sights as the ferry followed its timeless course, and eat the sandwiches and the inevitable bananas that their mum would have packed.  They seldom stayed in the hard-won seats once the food was finished, preferring to play among the benches and ropes, rushing in and out of the warm, inner area, tripping over bags and prams belonging to the nesh passengers who’d claimed a comfy seat out of the wind, sticking their heads through the holes to look at the foamy water below.

When there was no money, they’d walk along the prom, standing on the rails to see into the grey depths, with their mother’s concerned warnings bouncing straight off them.  One time, he’d climbed through the gap to see better and his mum’s shrieks had scattered the hopeful gull clan that had thronged behind them.  All he’d seen, for the pain of the slap that waited, was the green slime, climbing the bricks and chains and some rubbish, floating on the top of the water.

As he’d reached his teens, he’d started to come down to the Pier Head with his friends, staying on the bus until it reached the terminus, then hanging around in front of Mann Island, shouting at girls, laughing when they shouted back, terrified in case they came over.  The inspectors and drivers from the MPTE would sometimes tell them to clear off, but not in such polite terms and they’d move ten yards if they could be bothered or argue the toss, if they couldn’t.

He’d met his wife down here.  She’d worked at the insurance company that was in the main building: the one with the birds.  He’d been working at a local paper, further up into town and coming down to eat his lunch by the river and he’d spotted her.  She’d made the mistake of throwing a crust to try to get rid of them and now the greedy birds wouldn’t leave her alone, so she kept flapping her coat at them and saying “Shoo!”  They’d back off a few feet for a minute, then pour back in like treacle or like teenage boys sent packing by the bus drivers.  He’d laughed and she’d looked up and seen him.  He felt bad, but then she’d laughed too and that was that; he was hooked!

Although he hadn’t spoken to her that day, he’d placed himself nearer to where she had been sitting so that when she’d turned up the next day, he was close enough to ask “No pet seagulls today?” and from then on, they’d had their food together there every work day for the next year and a half, going to the pictures and to see local bands at weekends.  They married on a Saturday afternoon at her church and had their reception in a pub close enough to the river to hear and smell it.  They’d been happy for eighteen years.  When she’d died at the age of forty-two, he’d taken her ashes to the river and scattered them in the dead of night, barely stopping himself from following her into the hypnotic ink.

Slowly, at first, and then more and more quickly, his routines had fallen apart.  Without her, he didn’t care about work or talking to people or leaving the house and it didn’t take long for the knock at the door.  No work, no rent money, no home.  Family members tried to talk him into staying with them, as he shrank before their eyes; a youngish man, ageing like an apple before their eyes, drinking to keep the memories at bay.  Falling.

Trouble followed him like a predator, ripping the last pieces of his life to shreds.  Arrests, fights, hospital wards.  And always, the only peace he could ever find was at the river.  Until today, as he clung to the cold comfort of the Mersey, he heard a laugh that had been absent for years and he turned his head to look for his wife.  She wasn’t there.  There was just a group of office workers, protecting their food from the gulls.  She would never be there again, but he understood in that moment how much it would hurt her to see him so beaten.  He pulled himself to his feet and looked at the crowd around his feet.  He flapped his hands … “Shoo!” 

When

When all the lines are smudged,

When all the pieces lost,

When all the threads are loose

And all the wires crossed.

Then will I find the time

To sit and mend the hole

That life has made within

This broken, tattered soul.

 

When all the lights burn out,

When all the songs are sung,

When all the steps are trod,

When age claims all the young.

Then will I find the time

To answer to the call

That only can be heard

When silence covers all.

 

When all the words are said,

When all the truth is known,

When all the flames have died,

When all the breezes blown.

Then will I tend the plants

That grow without the light

That send their fragile leaves

To spread across the night.

The girl.

The first time I remember seeing her, I was probably about four or five.  I was playing in the hallway, tracing the Greek key patterns of the carpet with my toes; I was so engrossed in this game that I didn’t even notice her until she was halfway up the stairs.  I thought she was my little sister.  She was small and her blonde hair was straight and long, just like my sister’s.  Much as I had been enjoying my obsessive pattern tracing, I liked the idea of playing with somebody else, so I followed her. 

She walked into the bedroom I shared with my younger sister and an older one; we weren’t rich and as we were still relatively small, two of us shared a bed, sleeping top to toe in surprising harmony.  I wasn’t far behind the girl so I entered the room a few seconds after she did.  She was gone.  Of course, thinking she was my little sister, I presumed she was hiding and began to search, calling her name in case she would do me a favour and come out.  My sister was great at hiding because she was really small; not just ‘young small’, she was ‘small small’.  With very little between us in age, I towered over her and she could fit into places I wouldn’t even attempt to get into.  One time, she hid behind a sewing machine and it took me ten minutes to find her – that’s how good she was … and how little.

But she wasn’t hiding, because two or three minutes into my exhaustive search, she came up the stairs and asked ‘What?’  She had heard me saying her name and come to find out what I wanted.  I told everybody about the girl: what she looked like, where I had seen her, how she had just vanished.  Mostly that!  How she’d just vanished. 

I watched out for her for ages and didn’t see her, but my bedroom didn’t feel like a good place to be in anymore and I couldn’t get to sleep if I faced the wall.  I would read for hours using the light from the landing to avoid the darkness of closed eyes.  My reading improved in leaps and bounds; my ability to sleep soundly was destroyed permanently.

Yet there had been nothing sinister about the little girl, other than the mysterious vanishing act.  If I hadn’t followed her, I probably would always have assumed she was my sister and just forgotten seeing her go up the stairs.  As it is, I know I’ll never forget her.

Years later, perhaps when I was 10 or 11, I was sleeping in a different room, with two different sisters.  One night we heard the unmistakeable sound of a ball bouncing against the wall.  It was the adjoining wall to our new neighbours, who had a young boy and girl.  They were younger than me by a little and didn’t play out.  Certainly not with us, at any rate.  The noise kept us awake for ages and sounded really loud, with the hollow of the chimney breast magnifying every bounce and we grumbled about the terrible mother who couldn’t get her children to go to bed and sleep when they were of no age at all.  We had no room to talk, since we were more likely to read or secretly listen to a tiny portable radio that one of my big sisters had smuggled into the bedroom than we were to go to sleep at a reasonable hour.  Still!  At least we weren’t actually out of bed playing ball.

The bouncing went on for days and seemed louder than ever.  Our parents heard it and also grumbled about the new kids next door, right up until the day they were leaving the house for work at the same time as the woman next door had come out to do the school run.  She asked my mum if she could have a word with us, because the ball games were keeping her awake.  The bouncing sound was actually coming from our room.  To bounce a ball against that wall, someone would have to be standing at the end of the bed, just next to where my head would be.

The bouncing didn’t stop, but it didn’t happen all the time and sometimes it came from different places in the house but always upstairs. 

Still, I didn’t see the girl again until one night when I was about 15.  Only me and my little sister were in the house.  She was watching the telly and I was in another room, drawing.  The door to the hallway was open and something made me look up, just in time to see the girl walk past, as though she were heading for the stairs or for the room where my sister was laughing at some comedy programme.  She still looked like my sister, but she had aged.  I didn’t know what to do.  I actually felt too scared to look where she had gone; I couldn’t even get out of my seat.  She was just a girl, who’d never so much as looked at me or said a word.  Maybe she’d kept me awake with her ball games, maybe not.  Eventually I got up the courage to look out of the room and was very relieved to see nobody.  I went and spent the rest of the evening in the same room as my sister, leaving every light lit up and casting little glances to the hall every couple of minutes.

I saw her one more time.  I was an adult, with three children and fast asleep in my bed.  The insomnia she had caused had continued to plague me, but I’d had a busy day, visiting my sick brother amongst other things, and had fallen into bed, exhausted.  A single word woke me up.  Just my name in a voice that sounded like family, but I knew I’d never heard it before.  I knew it was her even before I saw her.  Still blonde, still looking as though she could be my sister, but grown up.  She didn’t say another word, but I knew that she had come to bring me bad news about my brother and she had.  The news came by phone in the morning, but it was just confirmation.  I don’t know how she told me, but she did.

I think I’ll see her again.  I don’t know when or where and I don’t look out for her, but I know it will happen.  One day … and I wonder if she’ll still be blonde or will she be grey, like I am, like my sister is.  I’m not afraid any more, but I am curious.  I just want to know who she is.

How to Handle a Wombat – A song for @oldladybishop and @RigidBones (Apologies to Alan Jay Lerner)

“How to handle a wombat?
There’s a way,” said the wise old man,
“A way known by ev’ry marsupial
Since the whole rigmarole began.” “Do I flatten it?” I begged him answer.
“Do I poke it with a stick?” I plead
Do I dress it up in tiny pants, sir?”
Said he, smiling: “No indeed.
How to handle a wombat?
Mark me well, I will tell you, sir:
The way to handle a wombat
Is with gloves, sir… leather gloves, sir…
Workman’s gloves, sir…gloves, sir…gloves, sir.”