he is risen

‘You and me, girl, we’re one and the same.’ That was among the first things he ever said to me. He was sitting astride a large motorbike, red, blue and white. In his leathers. All black. When he pulled off his helmet, his pink head looked all sweaty, like a large wet radish. He wore glasses. Not very attractive, if you know what I mean, but somehow charismatic. ‘We’re in the same business, you and me,’ he said. ‘We find out about other people. What they’re up to.’

A few weeks later, the same bald head appeared over my garden fence. ‘Hey girl, you alright?’ ‘Sure,’ I said. ‘What’s up?’ ‘Some bastard’s tried to smash in a couple of doors on the road. Just wanted to check you were alright.’ ‘I’m alright,’ I said. ‘Didn’t hear anything then?’ he asked. ‘Nothing, I’m afraid.’ Then I said, ‘Sorry. And thanks.’ His head disappeared and I heard him running up the road, shouting in a deep voice.

We’ve never really looked back since then. He’s told me about his love life. ‘I had a woman, but she left me. Never really understood why. But that’s life isn’t it. Just gotta keep going, girl.’

Today we met at the bottom of the market. ‘Hey girl,’ he said, ‘what you up to for Easter?’ ‘Making eggs,’ I said. He winked, ‘That sounds fun.’ ‘Chocolate ones,’ I said. ‘Good for you,’ he replied. ‘And what about you?’ I asked, ‘What are you doing?’ ‘I’m going to Ashdown Forest,’ he said. ‘Know it?’ I shook my head. ‘You don’t know Ashdown Forest?’ He laughed. ‘AA Milne! It all happened there, girl! Winnie the Pooh! There’s a bunch of us going. Thirty-eight, in fact. Hell’s Angels, most of us. We’re going to spend the day playing pooh sticks. I love pooh sticks.’

Advertisements

a delivery

When the van pulled up outside ours, I noticed a shiver in the net curtain across the road. I stood up and looked down from my window. A tall man with trim ginger hair was walking towards our gate. He was a man who paid attention to his appearance,  and I wondered if the usual driver had called in sick. He had a box in his hands. He looked up. I pulled back. I noticed then that he pretended he hadn’t seen me. He knocked on the door as if to emphasise that, as if to make me feel better. I could still see the shadow watching me from number thirty. Why feel ashamed of The Wine Society? It’s got nothing to do with me. I ran downstairs to open the door. What a surprise, I said. We haven’t ordered anything. We don’t really drink wine. He looked embarrassed, as if I was reprimanding him. I apologised. He saw me trying to look over his shoulder, and so he stood back and then turned to look with me. Neighbours is it? he said. I asked him where to sign. He held the piece of paper on top of the box he was about to give me. I could feel the breathing from his nose on my cheek. It was only after he’d gone that I was struck by that, and when I returned to my desk to continue my work I watched him from the window, filling in the rest of the form in the front of his van. He looked content and calm.

Purple Rain

When she came to, she was still in the cave. Simon McBurney was there. He was dancing with Werner Herzog. There was a clever young academic with them called Alice, who had managed to nail her hedonism such that she produced more papers than any one else in the department. She researched children who hallucinate during mathematics classes. Jen didn’t like her. But she liked Mr McBurney and Mr Herzog very much. She had watched all of Mr Herzog’s films and had developed an interest in Mr McBurney’s theatre group, even writing to him to encourage him to take The Master and Margarita-I’m-not-a-pizza to Gabon. Unfortunately Mr McBurney had been too busy. But watching him now, bopping and grooving among the stalagmites with Mr Herzog, she felt she could forgive him.

At the Turkish shop

The ankle twisted in a semi-circle to the left and then to the right and then to the left again. Perfect swivels, level and fluent, as if, Diane thought, the ankle itself had been manufactured specifically for that purpose. It made her think of car engines, the old sort that were smothered in thick grease, the sort her dad tinkered with at weekends when she’d been his little princess. He used to like getting stuck in, that’s what he’d say, and she used to repeat the phrase to other people, mainly adults when they came looking for him of a Sunday. Dad’s getting stuck in to the car, she’d say, and they’d smile at her, all patronising, as if she didn’t understand what he was really up to.

Following the girl and her mother into the shop, Diane picked out the least green bunch of bananas and then, passing behind boxes of pears and apples and oranges, stopped and stared at herself in a mirror that was angled on to the aubergines. Against the plump purple vegetable skin, she looked even older than usual. Perhaps I need to start wearing make-up, she thought, and then felt slightly panicked that, at 47, she didn’t know the slightest thing about face paint. She’d once run a blue liner beneath her lower lashes, but it had made her eyes water so badly she never tried again.

A group of men were blocking the corridor between the fruit and vegetable section and the rest of the shop. They were standing in a circle, around a trolley, talking and laughing loudly. One of them, a younger man with a long black beard, seemed to be the focus of attention. He would say a few words and the others would respond. Diane wished she could understand what they were saying, but she didn’t even recognise their language. It definitely wasn’t Arabic and she didn’t think it was Pashto — a friend of hers spoke that and she’d sometimes heard her talking to her father on the telephone. But right now, they were blocking her path, and she wanted to get to the mushrooms and then to the bread. She stood politely behind one of them and lifted her basket ever so slightly, to signal her intention to pass. But the men didn’t seem to notice. They kept talking. Diane stood patiently, listening to the rhythm of laughter and language, and wondering if any of them had said something about her. She worried that, compared to their wives and daughters, she must seem plain. Ugly, even.

At the checkout, she found herself once again beside the little girl and her mother. They were either Russian or Portuguese, thought Diane. The two languages sounded the same to her. She raised a hand to the little girl, curling her fingers into a shy wave. The little girl smiled a bit and then turned away. Diane felt sorry for her: she was plump, but in ten years’ time she would be obese like her mother. At least I’ve got my figure, thought Diane, and she pushed one hand into the pocket of her jeans and began rubbing her fingers against her hip-bone. At least I’m not fat, she thought. She looked at the mother and wondered if she’d been abused as a child, or whether she was with a man who was cruel to her. Pity came to Diane easily. She smiled at the little girl again, but she was actually thinking how ugly the child looked in her tight pink clothes that emphasised the flab covering her five year-old body.

She followed the pair out of the shop. The mother lit up immediately. The little girl reached for her other hand. Diane watched them, and then followed them as they walked up the High Street. She was going that way anyway, but she slowed her steps so as to slot in behind them. The little girl had taken one of the shopping bags to allow her mother to continue smoking. Diane, a few steps behind, didn’t do what she normally would have done — step away from the trail of smoke — but instead, held her head a little higher and swallowed it as it came in odd shapes towards her.

When they reached the crossroads, a man standing beside a silver people-carrier called to the little girl. She let go of her mother’s hand and ran towards him, her free arm stretched out, ready for a hug. When the mother reached the car, the man kissed her and patted her on the arm. She took one last drag on her cigarette then, looking at her daughter, dropped it on to the pavement. The little girl smiled and stepped forward, planting her right foot firmly on top of the burning tobacco. Diane watched as she swivelled her ankle again, to the left, to the right, to the left and to the right, while the mother heaved herself into the car.

sibling

There’s a pig on my breast. Those were her words. My sister. She called me this morning — I’d just woken up — to tell me that a small pink piglet with fine blonde hair was suckling from her right nipple. He’s doing it now, she shouted, right now. She held the phone to her breast. Can you hear it? Can you hear it? But all I could hear was her. No, I shouted. Isn’t it adorable? she said, returning the phone to her face. That sucking sound is just like a real baby’s. And he feels just like Josie did, she said, that’s the weird thing. Sucks with the same rhythm, the same pressure. Dear little Josie. And then she dropped the phone. Sorry! she shouted. Hold on, I’m just… a few seconds of muffling and then she came back to me, tucking the phone between her cheek and her shoulder. I was just changing him over, she said. Do you want to try listening again? It’ll be easier now he’s got more to drink.

Is Greg there? I asked. What does he think? He’s gone, she said. He’d gone by the time I woke up. He always leaves early on Wednesdays. They have a regional meeting in Northampton at nine, God knows why. Have you told him? I asked. Have you called him to let him know? I tried just now, she said, but he wasn’t picking up. And the kids? I asked. Have the kids been in? Not yet, she said, but I can hear them in the kitchen. Once he’s had his fill, I’ll get dressed and join them. Where will you put him? I asked. I’ll leave him here! she said, suddenly indignant. He’ll sleep. And will you tell the kids? I will if they ask, she said, but you have to be careful with kids. Terrible jealousy. Don’t you remember when we had Billy? We had to give Miff a present so she wouldn’t attack him in the cot. It was only slightly better with Josie, but not much. So I thought I’d go out later, once they’ve gone to school, and get them each a gift from him. From the pig? I asked. Who else? she replied. And we need to think of a name. That’s why I called you. You’re so good at names.

Christ Almighty! It was hard to believe I was actually having this conversation. I hung up. I got out of bed, pulled on my dressing-gown, went downstairs, fed the cats. Then I made some tea and grilled a piece of bread. After that, I made coffee. Then I called her back. Suzy, is that you? Of course it’s me, she said, and why did you hang up? Is the pig still there? I asked. Of course it’s still here. He’s tiny. He’s not going to run off, is he? Not when I’m feeding him anyway. She was angry with me. I wanted to cry. I don’t understand, I said. Why are you telling me about a pig? Where did you get it? I read about it, she said, in a travel book with my reading group. ‘Motherless pigs in West Papua suckle at a human breast.’ That’s what the author wrote. And sometimes, piglets and babies are brought up together as siblings. They sleep together, even sharing the same cot. She paused. Actually, I think they call it a noken not a cot. Obviously they don’t have cots there, she added and let out a rather cruel laugh. It was all in the book and I’ve not been able to get it out of my head. When did you read it? I asked. We finished it last week, she said. I got piggy last night. He’s from a litter in the village. His mother had too many to feed and one of the women in my group had mentioned it during the reading. He belonged to her next door neighbour, some sort of smallholder who does it as a hobby. She’d joked about the idea when the subject first came up at the group, and everyone laughed. We’re all women, you know. But later on, when I got home, I found myself thinking about it in more detail. What it would be like to feel its tongue licking the areola, whether it would bite like babies do, whether it would look at me like the kids all did, that adoring desperate dependent look. I wanted to know just like I wanted to know what ecstasy would be like fifteen years ago, or whenever it was. And anyway, if women in West Papua can do it, why can’t we? What’s wrong with breastfeeding a piglet, as long as it’s clean? So I made an offer. I said we’d kill it and cook it. Bill — he’s the man I got it from — said that was fine. Looking at the old sow he said, ‘Sometimes we have to be cruel to be kind’, and handed me the little piglet. Oh for God’s sake, you and your village friends make me sick, I said. I hung up again.

She called back. You don’t understand, she said. I’m not some perve, you know. We will kill him and we will cook him. But we need to fatten him up first. So do let me know if you come up with a name, won’t you. 

leaving Reading

It was wet, and dark. Passengers crowded at the end of the platform, hugging the wall of MDF as though it offered psychological protection from the cold. Julia arrived later than most, pulling her suitcase on wheels behind her, wishing it were a small dog and immediately regretting that: once, she would have wished for a husband. Not any more. Now, she tried to think only of what she did have — her job, her friends, her brother, her flat in Kilburn. She stood among the other passengers and stared down the tracks. She was meeting old friends from school. The first time in twenty-eight years. She hoped desperately they weren’t all married. With kids. She’d been such a success back then. What had gone wrong? She’d dressed to look younger. A man-made leopard-skin coat with three-quarter length sleeves. She liked her wrists, still so slim and translucent. She wore a beret on her head. It was red. Her nails and lips were also coloured scarlet. She’d been to the gym in the afternoon to put some colour in her cheeks too. She felt more optimistic than usual. She felt attractive and less single than she often did. She would have fun. And while she was running through the evening ahead — what she would say, the questions she would ask — her thoughts were interrupted by a tall man with threads of coloured cotton woven together around his wrist and reminding her of Prince Harry. Worldly, she thought. Well-travelled. He was also wearing a beanie. I think they’re called beanies, she said to herself without quite noticing that her concentration had dropped. Have you got a mirror I could borrow? I’ll only be a minute, he said. And then he had to repeat it because Julia wasn’t all there. A mirror? Do you have a mirror I could borrow? His attention made her feel special. He’d chosen her, among all these people. She was the one he’d turned to. Yes, she said too loudly. Yes, of course I do. She unzipped the top of her suitcase and bent over it, thrusting one of her hands deep down inside it, her long fingers searching for her compact like a vet trying to find the legs of an unborn calf in its mother’s womb she thought. The young man stood tall and still. He let his eyes wander to the back of Julia’s head and down her long back in the fake fur. He guessed she was turning fifty. Here it is, said Julia, returning to verticle. Her smile was far too keen for such a short exchange, he thought, and took the mirror from her, avoiding any eye contact. Julia blinked, trying to remember what it meant to bat your eyelids. The man pulled off the lid of his eyeliner pencil between his tidy whitened teeth and began running the kohl around his eyes. Julia wanted to compliment him. He was older than she’d first thought, possibly in his early thirties. Not too young then. And he spoke so nicely. He reminded her of her own brother who’d gone to public school. She was relieved. When he’d first approached she’d worried he might insult her, or want to take advantage of her class and her wealth. But when she heard him speaking, she felt at ease. She wanted to say something before he finished but she couldn’t find the right sentence. I like your hat, she said, it accentuates your jaw line. She looked up to him. But the young man took no notice. He pushed the pencil back into its lid, closed the compact and handed it back to her. He smiled, but said nothing. All set then, said Julia now desperate not to let him go. But again, he said nothing. He turned and began walking down the platform. The train was pulling in now, and the other passengers had also started moving. She tried to pull herself together, tried not to worry that he hadn’t paid her any proper attention. She worried it was proof of her age, proof you’re passed it she muttered, but tried to comfort herself that he was young and driven only by ego. She’d let herself imagine taking him to her bed. She only acknowledged that now he was gone. She began following his path down the platform, hoping he might not go all the way to the end. But she was already overwhelmed with self-loathing, and now she knew she hated him. Men are all the same, she said to herself. They’re all the same. Her thoughts tore at her. She had been in such good spirits earlier; now, she wanted only to return to Kilburn, to run a bath, and to go to bed. She’d been formed by the films about women like her and she was happy to follow the script. The train pulled out. The young man stood by the doors, where he could admire his face in the window. He pulled at his beanie repeatedly, tucking it under his earlobes so that it formed an outline around his face like a nun’s habit. His eyes were beautiful. Dark blue suited him. He turned his head slightly to the left, then to the right, delighting in his youth.