[This is a revision of the story I posted a week ago. The main changes are to the end.]
[This is a revision of the story I posted a week ago. The main changes are to the end.]
Once upon a time there was a boy who had a little door in his belly that he could put things inside. He was embarrassed about it and didn’t tell anyone, even his parents. He still ate food as normal but sometimes he knew he needed something for the door. Usually it was only something small. Once he placed the thing inside, It might disappear, or it might change, or it might wait. The boy worried about being so strange and he didn’t want to be laughed at, but he had to accept this was how it was for the present.
What does she see in him? He certainly doesn’t know. Her mam thinks he must be controlling. Her sister thinks he must be great at oral. Her friends go for pop psychology: he’s the manifestation of her low self-esteem, she doesn’t rate herself high enough to find a fella who’s actually attractive, or funny, or successful in any way. She wants to be wanted and he’s hopelessly needy.
They’re all wrong.
Look at them, sitting together on the bus: he fills a bit more than half of the seat, he’s got a summer cold and keeps sniffing honkily, you can see the roll of belly fat bulging in his blue t-shirt. He yawns, and at the peak of the yawn he also burps. She’s cuddled up beside him hugging his arm, with her blonde dye-job, brown roots, style-statement tilt-cornered glasses. She’s talking in his ear about nothing – oh look, the petrol station’s closed, was that one Maxol, nice new houses there, used to get off here to visit Lisa, did you ever meet Lisa, ah she’s gas, great craic altogether, in Manchester now or is it Bradford. He’s braced against his headache, leaning into the pain: left forehead, left sinus. He kept off the booze last night but at what cost. Trying to be a better man. Which man would that be, then. Continue reading “What does she see in him?”
Her hat and gardening gloves were on the bench, but Granny was nowhere to be seen.
“She’s wandered off again,” called Anne.
“I’m sure she’s fine,” Martin called back from the conservatory, without looking up from the paper.
“I thought you were keeping an eye on her,” replied Anne.
“She’s fine,” repeated Martin. “Stop fussing. She wanted to do some weeding.”
“Well she isn’t weeding and I can’t see her anywhere in the garden. She wasn’t behind the bushes when I went to throw the scraps out. I’ll have to check the back lane.”
“She’ll turn up. Don’t worry about it.”
“Or maybe she’s gone off down the shops. On Tuesday she bought five boxes of After Eight Mints and a loo brush. You could at least help.” Anne had come back in and was standing over him reproachfully.
“Like I said, she’ll turn up. She always does. She’s indestructible.”
“She’s certainly vigorous. She’s stronger than me. But mentally – completely off with the fairies. It’s impossible – and just when I was starting to cook dinner. Look, Martin, she’s your mother. I’ll check upstairs in case she’s – I don’t know, painting magical swirls on the wallpaper with lipstick or something, and then I’ll go to the shops. You do the back lane.”
Sighing, Martin folded the paper. He stood up slowly. He went to the door, opened it, and ambled down the path to the sheltered arbour where, as it turned out, his mother was sitting on the bench with her hat on her head and her gloves in her lap.
“There you are, mum,” he said. “Perhaps you should come in now. Anne is fretting.”
“I’ll come when I’m good and ready,” said his mother.
“Fine, fine,” said Martin. He went back to his paper.
Granny waited a little longer until she was sure the sparkles from the portal behind her were completely gone and it was safe to get up from the bench. She patted her pocket. Wonderful stuff, this magic dust. Perhaps it was reckless to get the habit at her age, but it made her feel brilliant and my goodness she needed it living with that pair. As she walked back to the house she calculated she could nip to the shop after dinner. This time, the fairies wanted Milk Tray.
On Noah’s Ark the ducks had started a jazz band and it was almost unbearable, though perhaps marginally easier to deal with at close quarters than the African Large Mammals’ Morris-Dancing Collective (to whom, after initial resistance, Noah had yielded the use of the foredeck every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon. The rhinos were persuasive negotiators). Mr Duck had recently taken up the saxophone, while Mrs Duck fancied herself as a sultry crooner. They had recruited the moorhens, the geese, the female flamingo and a coot to be the rest of the band, with, on drums, a platypus from whom they would soon part owing to irreconcilable creative differences. They practised assiduously and promised to put on a concert as soon as they were ready.
“Is there any sign of land yet?” Noah asked Mrs Noah, as they huddled in their cabin, doing their best to relax with the Epic of Gilgamesh.
“My budgie had a look around earlier,” said Mrs Noah, “and she says there’s still twenty feet of water over the highest mountain top and aggressive mer-people have colonised the city of Uruk.”
“You shouldn’t believe everything you learn from tweets,” said Noah. “But the dove said the same yesterday about the twenty feet of water. I wish I could get off this boat. The noise is appalling.”
“The hedgerow birds’ choral singing is quite good,” said Mrs Noah, who believed in positive thinking and was also slightly deaf.
“If only they didn’t do it at dawn,” groaned Noah. “Whose stupid idea was this ark nonsense, anyway?”
“It was God’s,” said Mrs Noah.
“I want to do burlesque,” said the hen. “A striptease. I’ll take my feathers off, one by one. Would you like me, like that? Would you think I looked tasty?”
The cat said nothing. Why did she have to say these things? It was the sacred rule of the Ark, the foundation on which everything rested – you didn’t eat your fellow passengers. Look, there was the lion, lying down with the lamb, not even drooling.
“Or a magic trick. Saw the head off the lady. I’ll keep on dancing. Oh, how beautifully I would dance, if I couldn’t think.”
“It’ll be over soon,” he said, without looking at her. “The waters are already receding. You can lay your eggs and raise your chicks and be happy.”
“Oh yes, of course. Repopulating the earth. The brood-mother of nations. What an honour.” She laughed bitterly.
“Look, we didn’t ask for this,” said the cat quietly. “We aren’t to blame for our luck or for what happened to the others. What kind of a world is it going to be if all we do in it is mourn?”
“I don’t want to mourn. I want to dance. I want to die of music.”
There were songbirds on the gunwales, blackbirds, starlings, swallows, finches, rising and calling and fluttering over each other with a constant rippling motion; below them, the sunlight dazzled on the water. There was no sail, because there was nowhere to go. Noah and his family were busy with the work of the ship, sluicing and scrubbing and tending their stores.
“I was a temple cat,” said the cat, “in the city of Uruk, at the temple of Ishtar. The front of the temple was faced with coloured tiles of white and blue and the white steps to the gate were washed each day. The statues were gilded and the temple women wore circlets of gold wire and gold rings in their ears. Men came to couple with the women, in honour of the goddess, and to make sacrifices. They killed doves and lambs. Then the bones and scraps were thrown on the refuse heaps at the back of the temple, which grew bigger every year and stank, swarming with rats and buzzing with flies. The dark ooze seeped from the rubbish and ran down to the river. There was always sickness in the city, but the people went on worshipping Ishtar, who brought them prosperity and made things grow.”
“It sounds horrible,” said the hen.
“It was a good life for a cat,” said the cat. “There was plenty to eat and the women were kind to me. There was one I remember. She would stroke me and share fish with me when she had some. She was trying to save the trinkets the men gave her so she could buy an inn when she was too old to work in the temple – she’d put them in an old oil jar she kept in the corner – but she never managed to save very much; she kept shaking the trinkets out again and exchanging them for new sandals or wine.”
“Was there music in the temple?”
“Oh yes, lots. Voices, flutes, drums, harps. Formal music for the goddess, worksongs for cooking and washing, lullabies for the babies, story-songs for the fireside. But mostly love-songs, because Ishtar is the goddess of love.”
“Will you sing me one of the songs?”
“My singing was never encouraged. But my point is, it was always going to end. They knew it. The woman I told you about knew she couldn’t live that life forever, that her youth was passing; and everyone knew that the stink and the filth were getting worse and worse. They talked about cleaning it up, they had a lot of quarrels and arguments, but they never changed anything. So, in the end, the change simply happened. And I suppose we have to make the best of it.”
“All my life I’ve loved music. I used to like to sit at roost and hear the people singing in the evenings. Entertainers would come to the village and I’d dream of all the places they’d been to that they were carrying in their music. I’m really not suited to be the mother of all hen-kind, you know. I’m dreamy and impractical, I was always quite low down the pecking order…”
“You’ll be fine,” said the cat.
“I wonder what we’ll find to eat, when we get off the boat? I just used to follow the flock, before. I guess there’ll be loads of, what do you call it, alluvial mud, and that makes things grow, doesn’t it? And bugs coming up, like after the rains? Well, it is after the rains.”
“I’m planning to stick close to the humans. There’s always something to scavenge where the humans are.”
“Yes, all the mice and little birds and things will stay around the humans. Have you ever had a bird as big as me?”
“To be honest I was more of a mouse man. And just stealing things and getting treats from the women.”
“Don’t you want me?”
“You’re a very fine hen.”
There was a silence and then the hen began to speak once more.
“It’s going to be hard, starting again. I’m frightened but I’ll simply have to try, because there isn’t any other way. There won’t be much time to think, I suppose – the humans will be building and sowing and chopping and making, and I’ll be fussing over my chicks and learning to forage for whatever there is to eat, wherever we end up living. But I want you to promise that one day you’ll come to me, when the sun is setting, and you’ll sing me the songs of Ishtar. I’ll dance for you, and then I’ll lie down, I won’t struggle at all, and you’ll eat me all up.”
“I promise. I’ll savour every bit.”
“I’m glad we’ve had this time together.”
Noah’s family had finished their chores and the sons sat down to rest on the deck while the women went below to cook the evening meal. Noah had gone into his cabin. Now he came out with a dove on his hand. He whispered in its ear. Then he raised his hand and sent it forth, and it went out to search the face of the waters, looking for the first rebirth of land.
At the waning of the year I gather my ghosts. This is their time, in that dark pause, when between the bustle of Christmas and the trudge of January the memories return, drifting from familiar walls, pooling under lamps. Like the living, the dead want to be heard, but they are more confused than the living and fainter, thinner – shreds of old love and pain. I try to listen and piece them together. I give them four walls to stop them wandering.
There’s the lost child. “Mother, mother,” he calls, from very long ago. “Here I am, dear,” I say. It’s all he wants. It quiets him for a while. And then there’s the angry ghost who cries “Justice!” and makes his case to me – oh, it’s only jabberings now, and the dream he gives me of the scaffold and the noose – but there is no justice, only time. Some are faded to whispers with the centuries; some have stories I’ve tried to complete, with discreet researches in the newspaper archives. The detective side is fascinating, though I don’t like to travel and go into the city rarely. The poltergeist shook itself into nothing in the pantry when I gave it jars to throw. I swept out the glass and was glad this is such a big house, so far back from the road.
It was in the road I found some of them, chilling the hollows or rattling in the hedges, or rather they found me and followed me back. The ghosts recognize a listener. A sensitive, as some would say, though I’d almost say an insensitive, for they don’t frighten me and never have. I can comb through their pangs and terrors and stay apart. I confer a little order. It is my work now.